Friday, April 12, 2013

Dipped in blood, but flying free: Thoughts on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha-Atzma'ut and Parashat Metzora

Jewish holidays feel different in Israel.  Maybe it’s because outside of Israel, celebrating a Jewish holiday is a somewhat counter-cultural activity, while in Israel, Jewish holidays are mainstream and celebrated by the entire society.   Or maybe it’s because so many Jewish holidays celebrate events that took place in Israel.  And some holidays are celebrated completely differently in Israel from how they are celebrated outside of Israel.

Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, falls every year on the day before Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha-Atzma’ut.   Israel’s independence day bears some resemblance to Independence Day in the United States.  It’s a day for parades and barbecues, a day for celebrating and not necessarily for reflecting deeply on the meaning of the holiday.

But Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel’s memorial day, bears almost no resemblance to the American Memorial Day that we will observe in May, that is for most Americans simply a day off to have a barbecue and go to the beach or go shopping.

The most outstanding observance of Yom Ha-Zikaron in Israel is that twice during the day -- at 8pm the previous evening, and then at 11am in the morning -- sirens sound throughout Israel, for an entire minute.  People stop whatever they are doing and stand still, in memory.  Traffic stops, and people get out of their cars, and stand by their cars.   One year I was on an Israeli city bus on Yom HaZikaron at the time of the siren.  The bus stopped, everyone stood up and stepped into the aisle.  Cultural events stop.  Busy marketplaces, restaurants, workplaces come to a complete standstill for an entire minute. The entire nation transformed into monuments and memorial stones, for just a minute.  

(See this video to get a sense of what it's like: (actually filmed on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when there is an identical siren):

To know that the entire country is united in memory is extraordinarily powerful, and all the more striking for those, certainly the majority in Israel, who are thinking during those minutes
of very specific people they knew:  parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, and other relatives and friends who fell in Israel’s wars or were murdered in acts of terror.

The decision that was made to place Yom HaZikaron on the calendar each year on the day immediately preceding Israel’s independence day was an effort by Israel’s founders to remind everyone that freedom, independence, and security come at a cost.

Visitors to Israel for the first time are often alarmed to see just how many soldiers are walking around and carrying weapons.   But everyone across the Israeli political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, knows that it is only because of the existence and strength of the Israeli military that they manage to live in any sense of security and freedom.  This sense is all the more heightened by the fact that each year, exactly one week before Yom HaZikaron, is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, just as the Shoah, the Holocaust, happened in such close proximity to Israel’s independence.  Only three short and full years separated 1945 and the end of the Holocaust, from 1948 and Israel’s independence.

Jews are fortunate to live in conditions of freedom; such conditions are new and unfortunately unusual for us as a people.  These truths are not lost on Israelis.

Some of us may have known personally people who have been killed in America’s wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.  For many of us, though, these have been far-away conflicts whose impact on our day-to-day lives can’t really be felt.  In Israel, however, conflicts are not far away, and their impact on day-to-day life is abundantly clear.  This, too, probably contributes to why Yom HaZikaron in Israel feels so different from the American Memorial Day.

Most years, on a shabbat in close proximity to Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom Ha-Zikaron, Jewish communities around the world read the torah portions of Tazria and Metzora, from the middle of the book of Leviticus.  These portions are not usually regarded as among the most exciting torah portions of the year.  They focus on issues of purity and impurity, with an emphasis on a skin disorder called tzara’at, often translated as ‘leprosy’ but clearly different from the disease we call ‘leprosy.’

The beginning of the torah portion of Metzora describes a ritual that people were supposed to undergo, back in the time of the temple, when they had recovered from this disease called
tzara’at.  The torah tells us that they were supposed to take two birds, together with various other substances like cedar wood and crimson thread, and bring them to the Temple, where a priest would slaughter one of the birds.  Then they would perform a remarkably powerful but troubling ritual that would involve taking the other bird, the live bird, and dipping it in the blood of the slaughtered bird, and then letting it fly away.

I don’t think I can think of a more powerful symbol for a narrow escape from danger and death.
it’s as if the person who recovered from illness is saying,  “I could easily have been like the slaughtered bird.  This disease could so easily have killed me.  And yet even though I have been dipped in blood, I have been allowed to fly free.”  Such a gesture reminds the person who recovered to express gratitude to God, who is responsible for his or her recovery.

It seems to me that this also reflects how many Jews feel after the Shoah which truly nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire Jewish people.  It’s also how most Israelis feel, knowing that they, too, have survived when others have not.  (If non-Israeli Jews don’t feel this sense of survival as palpably as Israeli Jews do, it’s only because we have the luxury of a few more years of distance between our own lives and the dangers that have threatened us.)    This feeling makes the celebration of Israel’s triumphs all the more intense, while it also compounds the anxiety felt by those who love Israel when it is in danger.  

As Israel reaches a new milestone anniversary, we pray that the coming year will be a year of blessing for all its inhabitants, a year of achievement, and above all, a year that brings the dream of peace ever closer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Don't forget your tambourine"

"Don't forget your tambourine"

One of the most unusual musical theater productions ever staged was a children's opera called Brundibar.  It was written by a Czech-Jewish writer and composer named Hans Krasa, in the early 1940's.  What is extraordinary is the place where he wrote it - which was in the Terezin concentration camp  (sometimes called by its German name, Theresinstadt).  There, tens of thousands of Czech Jews were interred, kept in abominable conditions, subjected to harsh labor, and in most cases, soon deported to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered. So this is not the optimal circumstances for staging a children's opera.

And yet, this opera was staged 55 times in Terezin, with musicians and a cast of children from the camp.  (It should be noted that such a thing would only have been possible at Terezin, which was set up by the Nazis as a camp to which they could welcome western observers.  Conditions were certainly better than they were for most Jews under the Nazis, though it remained a terribly brutal place.)  

Imagine inmates in a concentration camp staging a musical theater production. And doing it more than 50 times.  When we talk about the Holocaust of European Jewry, or other terrible tragedies for Jews and for various peoples throughout the centuries, we sometimes discuss different varieties of resistance.  One variety of resistance is physical resistance, actually taking up arms against the oppressors.  But we also refer to  'spiritual resistance,' in which victims of oppression fight not with arms, but by making an effort to retain the semblance of normal life
even at horrific times.  Spiritual resistance can be potentially as important as physical resistance.  Think of the terrifying experience of a child interred at Terezin. The mere act of rehearsing for a pla could have given that child at least some semblance of the normal activities of a school-age child, some degree of stability, and pride, and enthusiasm, and hope.

The storyof Brundibar is pretty simple.  Two poor children don't have enough money to purchase milk for their sick mother, and a cruel organ grinder named Brundibar bullies them and takes advantage of their situation.  However, the children, wtih the help of the neighborhood animals, exact their revenge, and justice prevails.  It was a kind of thinly veiled parable of Nazism – thinly veiled enough that the Nazis permitted the performances to take place.  It gave the children – and their parents and the other adults in the audience – some inspiration to believe that ultimately in their situation too, justice would prevail.

Sadly, of the hundreds of child actors who participated in the concentration camp productions of Brundibar, most were deported to Auschwitz, where most of them were killed –
as was the composer, Hans Krasa.  But the musical is still performed today, and it is one of many examples around the world of how music – and art, and drama, and poetry and literature – are absolute necessities for communities that are going through times of great difficulty – just as they are absolute necessities for communities that are going through times of great joy.
Whereas Terezin was probably the only concentration camp where there were theater productions, songs were sung in every concentration camp.  It was a way to retain sanity, to express in the language of the soul the feelings, thoughts and prayers of an intolerable time.

Each year, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, takes place just a few days after Passover ends, in part to highlight the connections between Passover and the Holocaust – especially that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on the first day of Passover 1943.

The story of Brundibar, and other examples of artistic expression at those terrible times, reminds me of another point in Jewish history when music helped people to express the deepest feelings of their hearts.

According to tradition, it was on the 7th day of Pesach (this year, April 1) when the Israelites reached the Red Sea on their journey out of Egypt.  They heard the chariots and horses o the Egyptians pursuing them, they saw the sea before them, and they were plunged into utter despair.  They even exclaimed to Moses, in perhaps the first recorded example of stereotypical Jewish gallows humor, that God must have brought them to die in the desert because the cemeteries in Egypt were overcrowded.  That was the only reasonable explanation why we would have fled from slavery like this only to die here in the wilderness.  (See Exodus 14:11)

But the sea opens up for the Israelites, they cross through on dry land, and then the sea then closes again, drowning their Egyptian pursuers.  The Israelites are truly truly safe and free, finally.  And how do they respond?  By singing a song of celebration:  The ‘shirat ha-yam,’ the song at the sea.

For me, the most interesting part of the song at the sea (Exodus 15) is how the role of Miriam, Moses’s sister, is described.  We read:  “Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, took her tambourine in her hand, and she led all the women after her with tambourines and dancing.
And she led them in singing:  “Give praise to God, for God is great, plunging horse and rider into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20-21(

The first thing which is surprising is that Miriam is called Miriam ha-neviah,  “Miriam the prophet,” which is peculiar because usually someone who is called a ‘prophet’ actually talks to God, and receives messages from God, and we have no record of this happening to Miriam.  But the second difficulty is even more striking:  Where did all these tambourines come from!?   Remember that the people have to leave Egypt so quickly they don’t even have time for their bread to rise.  Can’t you imagine Miriam and family all getting ready to leave Egypt, carrying only what they happen to have in their hands at the moment, and Miriam says, “No!  I can’t leave without my musical instruments!”

The 16th century scholar Moshe Alshikh interprets this verse to answer both of these questions.  He says that, in fact, Miriam’s act of prophecy was precisely that she had the wisdom to take her tambourine with her, And to encourage the other women to do likewise, telling them that in their future, they would experience times of great joy, and times of great sadness and would have a fundamental need for musical instruments to help them to get through those times, just as they have a fundamental need for food and clothing and shelter.

Artistic expression is at the core of our synagogue community.  Whether through the ancient and contemporary music that adorns our worship services, or the stunning visual art (including our stained glass project) that one encounters when one enters our sanctuary, or the transcendent literature that constitutes the Bible, we experience Judaism through the lens of art and music.  May the long tradition of Jewish artistic expression help us to find strength at the most difficult times, and help us to amplify our times of joy.