by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
Over 300 people have lost their lives since March 15 in mosques, churches and synagogues due to terrorists entering onto the property with the goal of killing as many people as possible. These attacks happened on holy days, Friday March 15 at a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, April 21, Easter Sunday at churches in Sri Lanka, and this past Shabbat, April 27, the final day of Pesach, at a synagogue in Poway, California, six months to the day after 11 lives were taken at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A sanctuary is by definition a place of refuge, a place of safety, yet three times in a little over a month, over 300 people across the world have lost their lives in these safe places.
And how do we react? We change our Facebook frame to say that we stand with these communities, we give charity to support those impacted, we heighten our security in our religious institutions and schools. But is that enough? If it were, these instances would stop. If it were, rabbis, priests, imams, and educational leaders could direct their sermons, Divrei Torah and words of wisdom to focus on more positive messages.
Yet here we are. Another week, another message based on a tragedy.
Yesterday, our fourth through seventh graders came together to commemorate Yom HaShoah V’Hagvurah, Memorial Day for the Holocaust and those who resisted. Our ceremony was short but impactful. We began by looking at the Torah readings for this week and for next. In many years, we double up on Torah portions in order to start and complete our cycle of reading from the Torah on Simchat Torah. During a leap year (as we had this year), we have four extra Shabbatot and therefore do not double up. This week we read Acherei Mot (literally, After Death). Next week’s Torah portion is Kedoshim (literally, Holy Things or Holiness). When read together, Acharei Mot Kedoshim, After Death, there is Holiness.
This coming week we will commemorate Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron and immediately upon its conclusion, celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut. The State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), when David Ben Gurion chose the Tel Aviv Art Museum, former home of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, to declare Israel’s Independence. Why was this location chosen? Why not Jerusalem, the heart of Israel? A Tel is an archaeological mound of one civilization built upon another. Aviv means spring. Tel Aviv therefore means, something new built upon something old. The name Tel Aviv is the Hebrew name for Theodore Herzl’s seminal work Alteneuland, Old New Land. Tel Aviv in many ways is a place of Acharei Mot Kedoshim.
And why was Yom HaZikaron put onto the calendar the day immediately before Yom HaAtzmaut? The answer is Acharei Mot Kedoshim, because after mourning for those who have fought to protect our right to a free land in Israel, we must immediately rejoice in what we have. We spend a day focusing on death, on mourning and reflection, only to immediately enter holiness.
As Jews, we spend much of our lives focusing on our past. We must however look forward to the future if we are to become holy. We look to the Shoah to see the holiness that we have become. We mourn on Yom HaZikaron in order to celebrate our independence. We stop and pause, but we do not dwell. In fact, with Yom HaZikaron, we mandate that our mourning immediately turn to celebration.
So, what does it mean to be holy? We use the term קדש, time and time again, but do we truly understand the context of the word? When we drink wine, we say the Kiddush, when someone dies we say the Kaddesh, in our prayers we say the Kedusha, the Holy of Holies called, Kodesh HaKodashim was found in the Holy Temple Beit HaMikdash, and a part of a Jewish wedding is called Kiddushin. But what does that mean? How are all these words connected?
We are told in the opening words of next week’s portion “you shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2). We must surround ourselves with opportunities to show ourselves as holy beings. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, in his book Torah Guidelines for Living Like a Mensch writes, “holiness is not an abstract or mystic idea; it is meant to be a principle which regulates our daily lives.” Greenberg goes on to say we attain holiness by honoring our parents, observing laws and customs, doing acts of kindness, loving our neighbors and acting justly, among others. Holiness is not something that we do occasionally. It is something that must be imbedded in our lives on a constant basis. It is found in our prayers, in our buildings, in our relationships with those around us. It is in all places in all times. Yet at the same time, none of us is completely there yet. It is something that we continually strive to achieve, to become a Kehilla Kedosha, a holy community. As Jewish musician, Dan Nichols sings in his song Kehilla Kedosha, “Each one of us must play a part. Each one of us must heed the call. Each one of us must seek the truth. Each one of us is a part of it all. Each one of us must remember the pain. Each one of us must find the joy. Each one of us, each one of us.”
As we reflect on the past month and a half and look at our places of holiness, where death occurred; as we look at the atrocities of the Shoah and our existence as a Jewish people today; as we remember those who died for our ability to stand proudly, as our eighth graders are right now, on the holy soil of Israel; as we focus on our past, we become Acharei Mot. When we look to our future, when we heed the call, when we seek the truth, each one of us, collectively become Kedoshim.
Wishing you all sanctuary, peace, wholeness and holiness.