Friday, April 5, 2013

Yom Hashoah, Parashat Shmini and Gun Violence

Yom Hashoah takes place on Sunday evening and Monday.  Our community's commemoration will be held here at Beth El, beginning at 7 PM, with featured speakerThomas Buergenthal of the International Court of Justice.  As darkness rises and the lit memorial candles reflect in our sanctuary windows, the effect is similar to that of the Children's Pavilion at Yad Vashem.  A few flickering dots of light suddenly look like millions of candles. It is an astonishing sight.

A major theme of Yom Hashoah commemorations this year will be the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which occurred 70 years ago this month.  The last surviving major participant in the uprising, Marek Edelman, died four years ago.  This highlights the urgency for all of us to take on the role of living witness.  So I've uploaded, for your convenience,  aHolocaust timeline and detailed responses to five major claims of Holocaust deniers.

This  week's Torah portion contains the shattering story of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died suddenly, tragically and inexplicably in a flash fire, while attempting to make an unauthorized offering. (The Nadav and Avihu incident has been an obsession of mine since my rebellious teenage years). They were literally playing with fire, and as a result they went up in smoke, a scenario not that different from many situations where young people play with their parents' firearms and tragedy ensues.  The Torah tells us that Aaron was in total shock.  Moses speaks to Aaron immediately after the accident and tells him, essentially, that it was no accident, that God had wanted it that way, and that the kids had died for a higher cause (or a punishment).  I think Moses was trying to be comforting, but, as happens with so many of us when we fumble for words at a time like this, it doesn't come out so comforting.  And Aaron's response?  Complete silence.

The text of chapter 10, verse 3, says, "Vayidom Aharon."   "Silence" really doesn't cut it. The Torah doesn't use the word we typically use for silence, shaket ("sheket be'vakasha, hey"). Rambam says that it connotes an abrupt cessation of weeping.  Aaron had been crying uncontrollably but when Moses consoled him, he stopped.  Rashi goes on to say that God rewarded Aaron for his silence by proceeding to address Aaron exclusively and directly in verse 8 - something that is very rarely found in the Torah.  Aaron's silence is seen as a good thing.

That silence has often been compared to the silence of the Jewish people for decades following the Holocaust.  The shock was too great.  Paralysis set in.  We weren't sure whether it was possible to go on.  In some ways, this silence was good and necessary.  No Moses among us would dare attempt to explain the tragedy on theological terms.  No one dared to blame the victim.  It was more than a decade later that the term "Holocaust" even came into existence referencing this genocide.  But now that silence has ended.

When Elie Wiesel wrote his classic book "Night," only then was the silence broken. He wrote it in French in 1958, and then it came out in English first in 1960.   That's fifteen years.  Aaron stayed dumbstruck for only a chapter.  And because Wielsel's book was the first, his book might be the most moving of the many books written about those dark years.  He wrote:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames, which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Wiesel has often spoken about the power of silence - but he was in fact the one who broke the silence. 

Ultimately, silence is not the best response.  Positive, constructive action is.  That's why it is so incredible that the parents of Newtown and Aurora victims have found their voice so soon after those tragedies of fire.  Unlike Aaron, they have spoken swiftly and powerfully.  And the result is that Colorado and Connecticut have adapted strong and sensible new gun laws, on a bipartisan basis. But this is no time to rest on laurels.

We pray that Washington will adopt similar common sense laws.  No...prayer is not enough.  We will act until it happens, so that lives will be saved.  Next week, as the senate reconvenes, a prayer vigil will take place involving clergy from across the country.  Over 4,000 clergy have signed on to a letter calling for meaningful legislation to reduce gun violence.  A group of rabbis (myself included) have produced a book, Peace in our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence, which will be widely distributed to our representatives in Washington next week.

Let us hope that in the future there will be no more Aarons, and no reason for any parent to be struck dumb because of unfathomable - and preventable - grief and loss.

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