Silence and Divine Presence
A special Shabbat Shemini (Eighth), that, in the first Shabbat after the end of the feast of Passover, enters a eighth day and the description of Aaron and his sons' ordination as Kohanim\כהנים (priests), the death of the two sons, Nadab and Abihu, kosher animals, i.e. sanctity, sanctification, holiness, cleanness or impurity.
All Israel also relates to this Shabbat the inauguration of three contemporary events that constitute the major memorials for this State of the Jews and its citizens: on Nissan 27 (04/19), the Shoah and its Heroism Day, then, next Wednesday Iyar 4 (04/25), the Remembrance Day for those who were killed for Israel, followed, on Iyar 5 04/25-26), by the Yom HaAtzma'ut\יום העצמאות - Independence Day of the State of Israel.
I have often tried to propose some seasonal reflections, in these times of hardships and temptation of narrow nationalism. Then, I tried to make a choice in the Jewish tradition showing how it expanded from Abraham till the first destruction the Temple, from Sumer to Egypt, causing God's desire to give the Israelites the Land of Canaan as a "permanent rental or maybe a constant lease". All that remains coherent and spiritually “clean/kosher”, as far as we can measure and intellectually accept this sort of determinism or God's freewill. He could of course have chosen other nations, other races, other tongues.
Not the Northern hemisphere and a tiny piece of land without rich resources, but some gorgeous country with multiplied produces and mixed economical richness. The country has changed many times over the past 4,000 years, but it was wealthier by the time of King Solomon than when some people came back from the exile to Babylon.
In the past 2,000 years, the region was mainly devastated by various conquerors of all sorts of Christian and Muslim beliefs. It hardly developed the way it does at the moment. In the coming days and weeks, the Israeli media and the people will feel profoundly moved by the major catastrophe of the Shoah that substantiated the launching of a project to exterminate the European Jewry and subsequently all the Jews as well as other categories of people: Gypsies, Slavs, gays and lesbians, handicapped and mentally disabled, the communists.
This day, just after Pesach/Passover deeply connects and ingathers the Jews together. "Shoah" comes from a root that is also used in grammar: "shva\שוא = to reduce to silence (suppression of any sound/existence", especially a vowel that allows to detect a consonant. I prefer to speak of “churban\חורבן – destruction (cf. destruction of the Temples, Batei HaMikdash\בתי המקדש; Yid. “khirb’n\חורבן”) ,firstly used by Elie(zer) Wiesel and Manes Sperbes.
The word refers both to the Temple and to the vineyard (Talmud Kilayim 4, 29c). “Holocaust” can allow a proper link with the Torah reading portion and the first offerings presented by Aaron. “Katastropha”, both in Greek and Russian, is very strong etymologically but too vague about the event, its nature and goals.
The reading portion of the week is Vayikra-ויקרא/Leviticus 9:1-11-46. It begins with the new account of the consecration/ ordination (semichah\סמיכה) of Aaron and his two sons; Moses ordered Aaron to offer a calf and a ram, lamb without blemish, in front of the Tent of the Meeting.
Aaron did offer the calf and his sons brought him the blood that he put at the corners of the altar (cf. daily memorial prayer of “Shacharit\שחרית – morning prayer”). He dipped his fingers into the blood. Now, the whole thing – I mean what is the purpose and target of the weekly reading, cleanness, sacrifices, Shoah and Memorial days after Pesach – all that is strictly and absolutely a bloody blood stuff, either in English or Australian style.
It is impossible to kid with such counterpoints that cost so many atrocities. “Dom\דום” as “silence, silent flow of life, soul, energizing forces” and, inhuman offerings, slaughtered beings and grill-dried and fried in a minute to the skin of our teeth or a hair’s breadth if slang could cope with some Auschwitz-Birkenau parallels. And here, we must be very careful, in this country, in any Jewish society. Not only show a spirit of prudence, but also a sense of insightful wisdom. We are overly, excessively far much too much Shoah-overdone. There seems to be no other way at the present. As a survivor, I was brought up with these piles of teeth and hair, shoes in memory.
Yes, our weekly reading, describing Aaron’s offerings of the calf and the ram and his dipping into blood should not lead us to a constant confusion with our victimization through heathen and monotheistic centuries of harsh and steady anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. The extermination camps projected the annihilation of the Jews, but also of others. The Communists immediately murdered the comrades that had rescued and had dared come home.
The reading portion shows that Nadab and Abihu, once anointed as priests, put each a pan, put fire in it and incense and the “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them (vatochal otam\ותוכל אותם); vayamutu lifnei HaShem\וימתו לפני ה'- and they died in the Face of the Lord (=at the instance) (Lev. 10:2). And then, Moses said to Aaron: “This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show myself Holy / bikrovai ekadesh\בקרובי אקדש – and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent/ Vayadom\וידום Aharon (Vay.10:3). Aaron remained silent, in a silence that is “dom\דום” and not “sheket\שקט – quiet silence”.
Why did his sons suddenly perish, speedily, swallowed by the fire they came to offer? Is it for the sake of the merits? Were they in a situation of some “Kiddush HaShem\קידוש ה' –Sanctification of the Name” in which instant death and rush to God is a sign of holiness for the assembled elders and the Israelites? No or maybe yes, because “the Lord had not commanded them to offer this fire, so they offered a “esh zarah\אש זרה – alien fire” (10:1).
R. Y. Leibowitz underscored an ancient tradition that is more than important in our present situation, especially this year, that is a bit “mebulbal\מבולבל – confused”. They were “lo tziwwah\לא ציווה – not commanded”, a special cantillation mark (merchah kefulah\מרכא כפולה) is under the /L/ of lo\לא, suggesting a real command not to perform the offering, but still they could not refrain from doing that. And this is true. We may have in front of us the most impure object but our inner desire to tend to God is so powerful but mistaken that we are overcome and seized by off-beam feelings.
Instead of worshipping God the right way, we behave like the pagans and practice idolatry (Avodah Zarah 5b). This is why freedom from slavery also applies in worshipping, sacrifice of the offerings and of our prayers. This is why it is so difficult to act without any spiritual pressure exercised by the society or for formal reasons of civilities.
As God took them “in His Face – by instance”, these verses maybe suggest other subtleties of our souls and life choices. There are people who are not mature enough to achieve a task or a certain way of living and still they will be given the abilities to get across the intricacy of the challenge. And then bifurcate. God might have called Aaron’s sons to bifurcate abruptly and with love.
For instance, Aaron’s silence shows that he got to his priesthood. He reached the place where a man is in the position of total obedient and silent presence in the Face of God. He went to accomplish the duty that he had accepted, i.e. to be nothing, nil, nigh in order to open the ways of God. This is the Jewish priesthood and way to holiness, wherever the Temple exists or not, for all time, any place (maybe compared to Jesus harsh words: “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:22)).
Some years ago, there was a gastronomic and culinary competition organized in Jerusalem about rare dishes, meals, in particular animals. Some competitors had succeeded in stocking in their freezers, till the day of the tasteful tournament, some species related to ostrich and more paleolithic edible beasts and fowls. They were all kosher. The reading of this week lists all the various animals that were known in ancient days and were considered as kosher. It seems that we have lost a lot of animals in between; certain species disappeared or were of uncertain identity after some centuries. These animals, birds (except fish) also deal with the blood and all the mitzvot that are linked to them. They build a bridge (kosherכשר/gesher\גשר-bridge) of tradition that sustains our life and spirits. Well, kashrut can be reduced to huge pizzas, hamburgers, chicken, lamb skewers…
The diasporas often caused the appearance of other “tradition – massoret\מסורת” styles. Curiously, at a time when the country shows a terrific diversity of culinary backgrounds and traditions, we prefer sandwiches, “take-aways” and “fast foods”.
Animals can be terribly anxious, on guard, as the “gazelles and deer of the fields” in the Song of the Song. Jews have often experienced this feeling that accounted David Ben Gurion on Friday 5th of Iyar 5748/May 14, 1948 when he proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel. “I feel no gaiety in me, only deep anxiety as when I was a mourner at the feast” (B.Gurion, The Peel Report and the Jewish State, p. 86). This “Yiddishe angst\יידישע אנגסט – feeling of anxiety mixed with fear and rejoicing” runs through the Bible. Joy always prevails.
The Jewish Communities are proposed this week to read how they are called to be holy or to sanctify their lives in order to witness that true holiness is indeed their part. For different reasons, the Nissan 27 (i.e. after-Passover) Shoah Memorial Day was established in 1951 and gathers people of different opinions and backgrounds, as the Israeli State, being Jewish in the diasporas or in Eretz Israel.
In the past years, hatred against the Jews, but not only them – say racism and xenophobia - go far beyond rationality, also in our country, Israel. On Monday 27th of Nissan, this is the State of Israel that commemorates the victims of the "Holocaust". Some citizens should be educated to get deeper involved into what and how things happened in a Christened Western and Eastern Europe that hardly can define the Christian fundamentals of the European Community.
At this point, it is quite intriguing to note that no international Orthodox review, magazine, in particular in Russian and dealing with the Russian Orthodox tradition - or that in no way any of the two Russian or any ethnic local orthodox Churches in Israel - can publish a word of compassion or analysis of the matter and the backgrounds of the Shoah. This is mainly due to a confusion between the 60 million killed during World War II in the Soviet Union and the 6 million of Jews; the Jewish number seems and sounds "low" (sic, as I hear it quite often in Israel said by FSoviet Union citizens). Some would even claim that the "Jews are arrogant (sic) by continuously underlining such a number compared with the hords of other victims.
The Orthodox Church is still incapable to draw any sketch of theological and positive pondering and reflection on the Shoah. The "genocide" - the word was created by Rafael Lemkin after the war - is too weak at the present. "Holocaust" means something else in the christened countries, even if they are deeply secularized. Lemkin had stressed that, in the East-European countries, the Shoah could be carried on openly. In Germany and Europe, the legal stand was rather more important and could preserve some Jews for a short while: the West Christian European traditions rely upon the Roman right that could develop in a strict way in the Frankish areas.
On the other hand, the East had no systematic and structured framework that can protect the various ethnicities in presence. This is still the case for the minorites in all the area. Subsequently, there was and still there is no real legal system of protection for the individuals and the groups, in particular for the Jews that have been submitted to incredible violence and violation of all sorts of rights. By the way, the nazis were perfectly aware of the fact and this is why so many Ukrainians, inter alia, were automatically used to kill the Jews: there was a full absence of legacy as Metropolitan Andrii Sheptytsky described the situation with a constant will to alert the faithful and to call them to respect each living soul. He saved a lot of Jews during his Second Word War Synod as stated by his "trudy/Труди". It is thus quite intriguing that the Ukrainian individuals and families did save a lot of Jews in a context that would not have prepared them to such exceptional actions.
On Nissan 27, any citizen of this State has the duty to keep silent… remain in silence for the blessed memory of those who perished only sixty years ago.There is a real spirit of freedom in the State of Israel that is not much noted: while Jewish citizens and supporters of the Memorial Day would not move at all for two minutes of silence, the Arabs (so far they feel "unconcerned") continue to go back and forth and "do not care" and are not stopped to act this way.
The Christians can join this prayer of memory. The Shoah happened, for a part that is too difficult to measure at the present, because of “the teaching of despise”, irrational blood libel accusations, forced conversions and theological contests between Judaism and Christianity. Still this day cannot belong to any Church nor be “seized” by any denomination.
On the other hand, it will take centuries for the Jews and the Christians to get closer to a real and reciprocal dialogue. This cannot be imposed by decrees or rules to the Christians. Eyes must get opened and mouths need to utter things slowly and with compassion. As Jews pathetically need to slowly discover the positive existence of the Christian Creed as well as the living heritage of the Church in this country.
Many Jewish Orthodox movements visit more and more the different Shoah memorial centers and, thus, they may pave the way, with other local groups, to research what means a period of darkness. They also reconnect with Aaron’s silence and divine call.
Av Alexander (Winogradsky-Frenkel)