In this week's Torah portion, God teaches the Jewish people a way to handle loss and sadness through living in holiness.
I write from Israel, fresh from the experience of the immense sadness that fills this land on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s day of memorial and memory for those who have lost their lives serving their country.
Israel is a small land, and ties of family and community are strong. Every Israeli has been touched by the terrible losses that have been such a painful part of Israel’s history. On Yom Hazikaron, everyone remembers family members, classmates, fellow soldiers, teachers, acquaintances, or close friends who no longer walk this earth. Most of the dead were young, too young. When I attended the somber ceremonies that mark this day in Israel, I saw the grief in the eyes of parents, brothers and sisters. I saw the young soldiers standing at attention, not much older than my own children, and tears came to my eyes.
What is there to say at such moments? What comfort can be offered for those who have lost children so young? Yet as I sat and listened, time and time again, I heard the same message. Speakers urged us, in memory of those who died, to commit ourselves to honoring our fellow human beings, to respecting those who are different from ourselves and to working for peace. They urged us to do this especially for the sake of those who died to give Israel a chance to live in peace. By living with respect for all life, they said, we sanctify their memories, we sanctify their lives and their deaths, and we sanctify our own lives.
The message I heard from these Israeli speakers echoes the themes of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. In the narrative of the Torah, Aaron, the High Priest, has suffered the incomprehensible loss of two of his sons in the middle of their service to their people and to God. Aaron is in shock, and the people are in mourning. The inconceivable has happened, and the entire Jewish people is frozen in grief.
What can be said? What can be done for the people? The names of these Torah portions give the answer: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim —“After death, holiness.” In parshat Acharei Mot, God, the Comforter, speaks to Aaron after the death of his sons and shows him the path of holiness. God teaches Aaron to bring the people back into alignment with God through repentance, sacrifice and prayer.
And in parshat Kedoshim, God teaches the whole Jewish people how to live a life of holiness. God says, “Be holy, for I am Holy! Care for the weak, support the poor, act fairly and compassionately to all of your fellow human beings.” This path of holiness is the way forward for the people, the way to carry their grief and the memories of those who have died for their sake and to transform that grief into the promise of redemption.
When we come together to honor those whose lives have been lost, this ancient message rings in our ears. May the memory of all of those who have died serving our people, in Israel and around the world, spur us to find ways forward for ourselves on the path of holiness.
May we hear them whispering in our ears: “Be holy!” May we give their lives and their deaths new meaning as we together work for mutual respect, honor and peace, for the Jewish people and for all who dwell on earth.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. He is currently on sabbatical in Israel. Email him at: [email protected].