Shabbat Hagadol 5759

 

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hagadol – the ‘big' or the ‘great' Shabbat. This name was given to it because it was the time when the Children of Israel were getting ready to leave Egypt.  In four days we shall be sitting at the Seder table, celebrating the Night of the Passover and the beginning of the Feast of the Exodus from Egypt. As you know, this is the year of Jubilee of the creation of the State of Israel.  I remember so well Shabbat Hagadol of that year.  The U.N. had voted the creation of two states, one Arab, one Jewish.  The Arabs refused to accept the creation of a Jewish state, and so they started what was called ‘the troubles' by the British.  Boy, the British had their way of understating problems.  The Arabs were killing Jews, pillaging Jewish property, setting fields and shops on fire, placing car bombs in Jerusalem that destroyed the newspaper building, the Palestine Post, and even more devastating – the destruction of a number of buildings in the center of town, on Ben-Yehuda Street.  The ‘troubles' when on from November 30th to March.   Now it was time to get ready for Pesakh, and Jerusalem was under siege, and there was certainly not enough wheat to make matza.  How will we celebrate the "Festival of Freedom" in the first year of the renewed freedom of the Jewish nation since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, two thousand years earlier.

Shabbat Hagadol came, and a number of the soldiers in our front came off duty and went to the synagogue.  We had a synagogue in my neighborhood that was an old wooden building pre-fabricated before the second World War, in Europe.  The building had pine trees all around it – about three trees deep.   We called it, "the forest," because there were very few trees in Israel, J.N.F. had not planted quite enough yet to have forests.  Going to services in our synagogue was a little like

stepping into a painting of a "shteytle.."   The inside the synagogue smelled of the wood, the pine needles, the old books, and the elderly Jews that sat in synagogue and prayed and studied every morning and every evening.  There were a number of very distinguished scholars who lived in our neighborhood, and they would eventually teach a lesson about the portion of the week or the coming holiday or whatever was the ‘issue of the day.'
I remember it so well, that Shabbat morning service.  We prayed the service, we read from the Torah, the Haftara was chanted.  Then S.Y. Agnon, who years later received the Nobel prize for literature, read a poem he had written a few days earlier.  I don't recall ever seeing that poem in print.  Maybe he chose to do away with it – he was more of a novelist than a poet.  But that day he read a poem, about preparing for Pesakh through generations.  Miriam preparing in Egypt;   Deborah preparing before the battle with Sisra, before David was king; a widow of Jerusalem preparing for Jeremiah the prophet, during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians; Rabbi Akiva's wife, Rakhel, preparing the last Seder meal of free Jews before the fall of Beitar, when the Romans killed Bar Kokhba and devastated the land, robbing it even of its identity – calling it Philistia, rather than Judea; a marrano woman preparing a "secret seder" to keep the holiday in the days of the Spanish Inquisition; a young mother, starving in a ghetto in Poland, preparing to have a seder with dried crumbs of bread kept back from starving mouths for weeks, to make three matzot for the seder; and now, in Jerusalem, under siege again, young soldiers carry arms, proud to be the current generation of all the generations that came before them... There was a great Torah scholar, by the name of Meltzer, who read a long commentary on the verse from Malachi, "Not by strength and not by might but by my spirit, says the Lord..."   He said that we must not think for even a moment that God is telling us not to fight the enemy.  That is not what the verse said, he assured us.  The verse tells us that the soldiers who trust in themselves and their might, and are not doing God's bidding, living by His teachings – shall not succeed in their efforts.  He blessed the soldiers and told them that there was going to be a miracle.  We shall have our state, and they will celebrate a Festival of Freedom like no other...

We were in battle in the days after that Shabbat, and many of the young men who prayed with us that Shabbat did not survive.  But the nation did, and a year later the enemy was off our land, the front was far from our back yard, and we celebrated a miracle of survival and of faith.  Each Shabbat was a ‘big' Shabbat in free Jerusalem.   This Shabbat I am in Jerusalem again, for Shabbat Hagadol, to bid farewell to my dear mother, who shall find her eternal rest in the same cemetery that has been sacred since the days of king David...  I shall pray for the peace of Jerusalem, I shall pray for my friends, who redeemed the honor of Israel fifty years ago, and the generations that kept faith with God's covenant.  And I shall return to you, to Lakeland, to celebrate Pesakh in four more days.

 

Akharey Mot, '97

This week’s Torah portion is found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 16 to 18:30. The portion contains the verses that are read on Yom Kippur afternoons, concerning the purity of the family and proper family relationships. However, the first words of the portion read, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord, and died; And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat." [Lev. 16:1-2]

There is a very important lesson in this first subject that the Torah deals with: you may recall that the two sons of Aaron died because they brought a "strange fire" to the altar. When they perished Moshe forbade his brother and his remaining sons to mourn -- they had to stay in the Tabernacle and continue to function as priests. They had to live with their loss and learn to get over it -- before they took time out to think about it and draw lessons from what happened. What do we learn from this?

A story is told of the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. It seems that he came to Jerusalem, placed the Roman eagle above the entrance to the Temple, and walked through the entire temple, including the Holy of Holies. He was wearing his sword at his side, and as he walked through the Holy of Holies it began to drip blood -- the blood of those innocent victims who were killed by Pilate for no reason. Yet Pontius Pilate walked out of the Temple without harm and continued to rule over the Jews and torture them.

The sages asked, "why did God have no pity upon Aaron's sons, and upon their father, when he took their lives for a "small infraction" -- while on the murderer Pilate, who was reputed to have crucified three thousand Jews on the road from Ceasaria to Jerusalem, He did not place even a little blemish?" They answered and said, "it is because Aaron's sons should have known better! Pilate was a killer -- it was his nature, his character, his essence of being. He was going to be punished through the eyes of history -- in what we call "Olam Haba -- the world to come." Aaron's sons were kohanim -- priests. They should have maintained the holiness of the place and lived by God's teachings, by mitzvot.

One asks, how did Aaron and his sons cope with their loss? How does one live on after the death of one's dear children, or one's siblings? Why did God do this to them? How could they continue to believe in Him, to serve Him? Obviously, they did not ask such questions. Obviously, they did not allow themselves to ask such questions. Life goes on -- and the dead cannot be brought back. If we lose faith as a result of their death then the death becomes even more damaging. Moshe told his brother, "give it some time" and life went on.

As soon as this Shabbat of Akharey-Mot is over, we shall begin to commemorate the martyrs of the Sho'ah -- the Holocaust. Yom Hasho'ah is an internationally recognized day of remembrance for the victims of the most heinous crime ever committed by men. Many people refuse to recognize the existence of God -- because of the Holocaust. They state categorically that "if there ever was a God, he died in Auschwitz." They continue to query the "justice" of a God that allows innocent children, as well as men and women, to be swept away from life into a vortex of death and oblivion at the hands of human butchers whose image and manners are similar to that of the victims.

What is the "image of God" in which man was created? Is it that of the martyrs or is it that of the perpetrators? If it is the first, how could the perpetrators look their victims in the eye? If it is the latter -- how can we continue to support the image of these horrible men and women who gave a new meaning to bestiality?

When the Second World War was over, when the camps were opened and exposed for all to see, the world recoiled in absolute and total horror. Soldiers who had fought battle after battle, who had seen their buddies killed by their sides and who suffered privations brought about by battlefield conditions stood speechless at the sight of the few remaining victims. The film news media came in and reported tom the world, and people chose to forget what they had seen as soon as they could. It is not as if the crime did not occur -- it is not as if it was not properly documented -- it is just that we needed time to put it into perspective. It was only in the fullness of time that we have began to examine the event and its ramification. It is only "akharey-Mot" -- after the death was a historical fact -- that we can begin to examine the cause and effect. It is only in the second generation that we can draw lessons from what happened and determine that we shall never again allow it to happen. We shall always be on guard from now on, we shall mingle a little sadness into every joyful celebration, we shall feel a void even when we are most complete -- we shall not forget.

However, we shall not fall victims to the sad memory. We shall not become perpetual mourners. We shall refuse to accept a life of morbid sadness and regrets. We shall not mark our lives by the deaths of another epoch. We shall live, we shall continue to grow, to learn, to create, and to celebrate life. We shall also continue to believe in God -- even as the martyrs believed. They knew that God had not neglected them, nor did he leave them. He was with them in their suffering, and He delivered their souls out of their suffering unto a world where death itself was vanquished. He shall, in His mercy, comfort us and heal our spirit -- and he shall give us the wisdom to make this world into a better place for the coming generations -- a place where holocausts cannot happen ever again.

Amen

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