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L’Chaim – Embrace Life!

04/05/18 08:24:13


L’Chaim – Embrace life! That’s the Jewish imperative and one our community of survivors has taught us so well in Melbourne. Death may be inevitable, but life is incredible. So many opportunities for giving, learning, enjoying and affirming. This idea informs and clarifies our Parasha this week which opens with a call to the Kohanim (the priests) to separate themselves from contact with the dead. They were not to occupy themselves with a burial or funerals unless it was of a close family member or to ensure the burial of an abandoned body. Fulfilling the last possible act of love to an unknown corpse, is one of the most essential elements of Judaism in training humans to be humane. This mitzvah (“met mitzvah”) is the essence of altruism for there is no payment or recognition from the dead.

However, apart from these exceptions the Kohen is distanced from death. This is emphasised by the repetition of an earlier prohibition given to all people. The Kohen is specifically reminded not to ‘tear out his hair’ or mutilate his body as a sign of his grief. (Lev 21:5). In other words, he could not abandon himself to grief and death.

The Torah highlights that the Jewish priest is different from the priests of many ancient religions. The priest in Egypt was the purveyor of death in a culture that built temples and pyramids to convey the idea that Death was the ultimate victor. The Jewish priest’s role was to emphasise that God is a God of life, passionate about free will and human ability rather than the crushing power of death. In the words of John Donne, the Torah is saying: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”

These sentiments accompanied me on the “March of the Living” a journey I undertook several years ago with a group of some 130 Australian Jewish students and adults through the death camps and killing fields of Poland. In the dreadful silence of the remaining shuls of Poland, we raised our voices. In the exquisite Baroque shul of Tykocin where the walls now say prayers (there are beautiful prayers inscribed on the walls of the shul), we davened Shacharit and we danced. The Jews of Tykocin are no more- they lie buried in mass graves in the quiet and obscenely beautiful forest nearby.

In the forest where we later stood in dumb and numb silence, where even the sound of twigs breaking under foot was an affront we contemplated our losses and the anguish of our people, and we thought of the evil of men and of the seeming victory of Death.

The Jews of Tykocin no longer have a voice and our natural impulse would surely be to tear out our hair and grieve at their brutal deaths…But there was something deeply Jewish in our response to dance and affirm life, to give voice to their shattered voices, to say “We are here, the Nazi machinery of death did not triumph!”

Perhaps this is, as Fackenheim and others have written, one of the imperatives of the Shoah: To live today as Jews, to learn and to pray, to give and to love and to continue to stand firm in the face of our contemporary enemies.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Fri, 15 November 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780