From Death to Life ~ Shemini ~ 14 April 2018 / 29 Nisan 5778
April 19 2018

In Canada, we have been pained by the recent deaths of so many young athletes, killed in a road accident in rural Saskatchewan. Many of us recall similar times of national mourning in Israel after a terrorist attack on a home or the bombing of a bus, a cafe or a restaurant. In the Torah, the only narrative portion of the Book of Leviticus tells of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at what had been expected to be a day of great achievement and joy. Such grief. Dust and ashes become our meal, sadness and sorrow our drink.

We are within the days that span from Yom Hashoah through Yom Ha’atzmaut, from Holocaust Memorial Day through Israeli Independence Day. During these days, secular and religious Israelis experience one of the most challenging and intense periods of memory and grief, reflection and celebration. How does one manage such a confluence of emotions?

The key to the contemporary is found in the classical, so let’s start in this Torah portion. Sometimes, in Torah study, we come to certain ideas that are so basic to the Bible and so foundational to faith that if we were to miss the idea, the entire enterprise would not make sense. So pay attention: the mournful awareness of the death of Aaron’s sons is followed by the laws of kashrut and the aspiration to become holy. Death does not leave us in despair; it intensifies a yearning for that which is sacred—life. Jacob Milgrom writes of the rules of purity and impurity: "Impurity is the realm of death, and only life can be its antidote.”

In a few weeks, the Nadav-Avihu tragedy will be reviewed in the Torah portion of Aharei Mot, when the deaths will be linked to   ritual rules detailing the precise practices of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a day that brings together both ritual purity and moral integrity. Our tradition teaches that correctly adhering to the ritual  protocol of the first half of Leviticus creates the capacity to lead lives of interpersonal holiness which we find in the second half. If ritual can be properly accomplished, perhaps ethical relationships can also be lived fully. Mortality and morality are brought together. So shortly after the mitzvot of Yom Kippur we find the commandment: “Observe my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live through them ~

וחיבהם” (Levit. 18.5). Death is not the end of life.

This juxtaposition of death and life is also experienced in our own observance of Yom Kippur. This sacred day, with its awesome holiness and prayerful attunement to “who shall live and who shall die,” is called the White Fast. It culminates with a ritual of rebirth as we hear the final shofar. During Talmudic times, the fast was followed by nighttime dancing when men and women might meet.  Nowadays, we share an energized return to life at the many break-fasts thought our community.

The Jewish spiritual imagination often points to the intimacy of death and life. The Book of Samuel teaches: “The Eternal causes death and gives life; brings down to the grave, and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6). We declare this in the recitation of the Amidah, when we say that God “ממיתומחיה—causes death and gives life,” recognizing the painful reality of mortality and the poignant hope for “the sprouting of redemption.”

The conquest of death by life is part of the brit milah liturgy when we say, “through your blood you shall live.”  The confluence of death and life is experienced in Israel when the Yizkor memorial of Shemini Atzeret is recited during the same service as the the joyful dancing of Simẖat Torah.

Spring in other religious traditions was also a time to note the victory of life over death. In Buddhism and Hinduism, death is linked to reincarnation. In Greek religions, the myth of the phoenix draws attention to rebirth. Christianity speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus. On Pesaẖ, we celebrate the return of our people to life and freedom after slavery and spiritual death. Just as winter gives way to the spring, so death retreats before life. 

The observance of Yom Hashoah occurs one week prior to Israeli Independence celebrations. These two days, relatively new developments on the Jewish calendar, were deliberately sequenced one following the other to convey the message that despite the Holocaust the people of Israel still live.

As Yom Hazikaron edges into Yom Ha’atzmaut, we shall explicitly note the connection between the two days with special prayers and readings. As we transition from darkness to great light, we play a BBC recording from 1945 of survivors in Bergen Belsen singing Hatikvah. They conclude by singing am yisrael hai, the people of Israel live.

The move from death to life is also part of the dyad of Israeli Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). Tuesday evening, we shall mark the traumatic losses of individuals and families who fought secure and sustain the State of Israel. We honour those killed in acts of terror. We will gather together at Beth Tzedec for this bi-lingual moment of memory and grief. After the official program, our shinshinim—all of whom will enter army service in the autumn—will lead us in songs of love and loss.

This day of sadness and sacrifice is directly followed by the joyful celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut. Here, on Thursday night, we shall welcome Cantor Adam Stotland for a special program in celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary, a country that survives and thrives.

The movement from death to life is one of the most profound spiritual messages of the prophet Yehezkel.

The hand of the Eternal came upon me, and God brought me out and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Eternal God, you know.” Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Eternal God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Eternal.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the wind, prophesy, mortal, and say to the wind:  Thus says the Eternal God: Come from the four winds and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Eternal God: I will open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Eternal, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Eternal, have spoken and will act.”

Our people has characteristically met the painful elements of existence directly, seeing them as faith crises, but also as faith opportunities, times to re-envision our hopes and dreams, re-frame our perspective on the world of pain and the God of covenant.

As Israel marks its 70th anniversary, as we again make the transition from death to life, let us take time to mourn and to celebrate, to realize the amazing path that our people has taken

  from the Farhoud riots against Jews in Baghdad to the leadership of the Israeli Defence Forces;

  from the killing fields in Ukraine to the bustling maternity wards of Hadassah and Shaarei Zedek hospitals;

  from the starvation of the labor camps to the exciting Tel Aviv cuisine;

  from the striped clothing of prisoners to the avant garde of Israeli fashion;

  from the trains of the Nazis to the high tech world of Waze;

  from the death camps to the lively neighbourhoods of Haifa.

שירהחדשהשבחוגאולים. The redeemed have sung a new song of life. Let us sing together the Prayer for Israel.