It seemed that they all had nicknames: Bini, Shmulik, Gabi — but, I supposed, that was to be expected from boys of 18, 19 or even 20. What was not to be expected was having to read them from their grave stones.
This past week, we visited the military cemetery on Har Herzl in the hills of Jerusalem. I could go on simply describing the beauty of this place, its awe-inspiring atmosphere and its pure sanctity. But that is not why we made our visit. We felt it important to prepare for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Ordinarily, I might not have felt the need to prepare for such a moving day, but as a new immigrant, I was haunted by the thought (guilt?) of why I now merited to live in this place of holiness by merely taking a ten-hour flight from Newark Liberty Airport, while those who rested here, who wanted so much to continue life here, these thousands who had so many more years to live here, eighteen and nineteen year olds with nicknames who gave their lives for the dream of living here…well, they are no longer living.
How could we go through our daily activities without remembering who made it possible for us to make Aliya and live in this blessed land? Those heroes who allowed us to simply take that flight and live in this country deserved a few hours of our time. Just so we could say thanks. And just so that we don’t forget. Hence, our visit to Har Herzl.
But allow me to expand my explanation by recalling events of 42 years ago.
My first year in the Rabbinate was spent in Cincinnati during a time that the Church was preparing for a major conversionary effort called “Key ’73”. These early efforts were focused upon college campuses and a number of students from the University of Cincinnati requested that I meet with a certain individual who was spreading the “gospel” of Jews for Jesus around campus, claiming that no one-not even Rabbis- could disprove his statements. I agreed to meet with the individual, and a number of students from both sides, in my office. The representative argued that one can be a true Jew only by accepting the Christian Messiah. He based his argument on the fact that G-d needed sacrificial blood, death, punishment, to atone for sins and today, with no sacrifices, G-d’s forgiveness could be attained only by accepting the “sacrifice” of their Messiah. I rejected his claims on a number of grounds and when I quoted a verse from Psalms (78; 38) to disprove his theory that G-d forgives only through blood or destruction he mumbled something and left.
It was, perhaps, a trivial, unimportant event yet I remember it well because the very approach I disproved I had heard from my others who attempted to explain the inexplicable: the divine reasons for the Holocaust. Many claimed that the Holocaust was necessary in order to establish the State of Israel and I vehemently argued that G-d does not need the destruction of one-third of His people in order to keep His covenant with us. Furthermore, despite what some individuals-even political leaders-might believe, our right to this land is not predicated upon the fact that 6,000,000 perished from 1939-1945 but upon the promise made to Abraham in 1948 BCE which established this land as the homeland for the Israelite nation, something it remained throughout biblical times and for hundreds of years after that, until we were forcibly removed
But if that is so, if G-d needs no such spilt blood, then why am I standing in a military cemetery gazing at the graves of thousands of young men and women, only some of over 23,000, who had to shed their blood so that I could live here?
So I turn to the biblical text seeking an answer to the question.
We in Israel will be reading the Torah portion of Acharei Mot (and Kedoshim) this coming Shabbat while those in the Diaspora will be reading the previous portion of Metzora (and Tazria). Many commentators point out that there is a fascinating connection between these two parashot (portions). The very puzzling ritual of purification from tzara’at affliction found in the parasha of Metzora, they say, can be better understood when comparing it to the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement found in the parasha of Achaei Mot. Just as two goats were chosen for the Yom Kippur ritual, so were two birds chosen for the purification ritual; just as one goat was randomly selected to be slaughtered, so was one bird; just as one goat was sent out into the wilderness, so one bird was sent out to fly freely into the field; and just as the blood of the slaughtered was used to purify the sanctuary so too the blood of the slaughtered bird was apparently used to purify the leper.
The parallels are striking!
But Rabbi Yonatan Grossman suggests that the similarities fade away with closer analysis of the two rituals. The slaughtered goat is a sin offering, the slaughtered bird is not a sacrifice at all; the goat that is freed is eventually killed, while the bird flies off to freedom; the goat’s blood is sprinkled on the holy objects, the bird’s blood is not sprinkled upon the leper but is placed in a basin into which the live bird is dipped. The Yom Kippur ritual is one of purification and forgiveness but the ritual of the leper is neither. It is rather, Rabbi Grossman contends, a symbolic process of the leper’s return-not to G-d but to society, to community. It is a rebirth of sorts allowing the once banished victim to start over and begin life anew. The outcast is back in camp as a full member of his people, ready to begin life again, resurrected and prepared to contribute after having been seen as dead (Numbers 12;12). And while the white garments of the Yom Kippur ritual are representative of purity and atonement, the white blemishes of the leper represent death. And whereas red blood is generally representative of sin and death, the blood of the leper is, as the Torah states, representative of life (Leviticus 17; 11) . It is mixed with mayim chayim, “living” water and the “tzipor hachaya”, the living bird is dipped into this mixture. And it is only at this point that the bird is set free.
Which brings me to the point.
The Yom Kippur goat carries “the sins of the Israelites” into the wilderness where he meets his end. The bird, however, carries with him the blood, the lifeblood of his fellow fowl who died so that he could be free. And the freed bird wears that blood with pride carrying the burden of memory and responsibility as he begins his new life with the knowledge of what sacrifices were made so that he could be free.
G-d does not demand death in order to redeem us but the Jewish nation is immersed in lifeblood spilled for them and bequeathed to them by their brothers, their sisters, their sons and daughters, the fathers and mothers-those with the nicknames and those without. And, as I stood in the cemetery, ready to start a new life, joining those who were also reborn in this land, I understood more clearly what my responsibility now is.
And to make sure others do.
And to lay the groundwork for a future in this land.
And, having been sanctified by the blood of my brothers, I”m also charged to remember the words of the national poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote the final lines of his poem “Im Yesh Et Nafshecha Lada’at”
ובמותם ציוו לנו את החיים – החיים עד העולם
And in their death they commanded us to live – to live eternally.