Safe Places and Heartache: We Stand with Aaron as We Remember Israel’s Fallen

Parashat Shmini 5781 / פרשת שְּׁמִינִי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 

Imagine a place where you go to escape the stresses of life, a safe space where you feel protected from the ordinary and extraordinary things that pursue you, that run you down. Perhaps this is the place you call your “happy place,” a place you long to visit, a filling station where your soul takes a refreshing supply of warmth and contentment like God’s breath filling the lungs of the first human beings. If God is a meaningful idea to you, imagine a place where you feel enveloped by God’s loving, calming, protecting embrace.

For nearly two millenium following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, that place of refuge for Jews and the Jewish People was, in fact, Jerusalem. Despite being forbidden during long stretches from entering Jerusalem, never mind living there, Jerusalem remained in our collective imagination our place of refuge. As the Jewish people suffered atrocity after atrocity, their safe space remained a dream. Only in the late 19th century did that dream begin to morph into reality. And though slowly, slowly, young men and women made their way to the land that would become the State of Israel, at that time there was no State. Many of those young men and women, in fact, risked their lives as they sought to create a new reality for the Jewish people connected to the land of Israel. But that land would not yet provide a place of refuge for the Jewish people. Would that a Jewish homeland have been a reality in 1939, when the Nazis were “merely” pushing Jews to emigrate.

From May through June 1939, Cuba, the United States and Canada denied entry to 907 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis, most of whom were trying to flee Nazi Germany. Some six months earlier, on a terrible night we now call Kristallnacht, Jewish stores, synagogues and homes were left in shambles, Jewish life itself was upended, and it had become clear that they had to get out of Germany. We know that all 907 Jewish passengers were sent back to Germany, and we know that 255 of them were among the Six Million who perished in the Shoah.

On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations voted on Resolution 181, adopting a plan to partition British Palesine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. And on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar 5708, in a museum in Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion declared the Establishment of the State of Israel. At that moment, our 2000 year old dream of returning to Zion became a reality. And despite the war that erupted earlier that day on May 14th, and despite all the wars since, the terrorist attacks, the embargos, the attempts at delegitimizing the State, the State of Israel exists as that one place where all Jews can call home. That one place in the world that is a safe place for all Jews.

Now, over time you will come to know that I believe that grave errors, tragic errors, were made in bringing about the State of Israel’s existence and that I am highly critical of its current government. You will also come to know that I adamantly support not only the idea of Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland but I support Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland in the form of the State of Israel. I wrestle mightily with Israel’s history and with the confounding tensions between Israel’s expressed desire to be a fully democratic state with equal protections for all citizens and equitable distribution of resources and the desire for Israel to always be a Jewish homeland. I wrestle mightily partly because Israel is our safe space.

It is no secret that in the birthing of the State of Israel, mistakes were made by the most powerful nations of the world at that time, by the most zealous of Israel’s founders, and by Israel’s neighbors and their powerbrokers. Yet, none of that brings solace to those mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters gave their lives in defense of the State of Israel. And none of that will bring back the loved ones of those murdered by those who would push Israel into the sea. I know some of those mothers and fathers. I know friends of people murdered by terrorists. 

I can’t begin to know the pain and sorrow that hangs thick in the air as Israel observes Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, this coming week. 

This week we read in the Torah about the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, whose lives were cut short as they were making a sacrifice to God in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 10:1-3). Like many of Israel’s fallen soldiers, these were two young men who were novices. Some say they entered the Holy of Holies unbidden by God. Some say they were intoxicated. To Aaron and to their brothers, they were now dead, and they died doing what they thought was right, even if they went about it the wrong way. And the Torah says, “Va-yidom Aharon. Aaron’s was silent.” In creating a society that would play host to the Divine and that would become an example of righteousness for the world, Aaron’s sons were taken from him. Perhaps, he thought, this is the price of creating a safe space for God and my people.

In Israel, on Thursday, at 11 am sirens will blare for two minutes. Traffic will stop. The nation will be silent. They will stand with Aaron in that silence. And then, hours later, they will celebrate their birth, their 73rd year of independence, just as Aaron and his sons resumed their duties with a full, though broken heart.

I want to conclude with the poem, The Silver Platter, written by Natan Alterman in December 1947. He wrote these words in response to this warning by Chaim Weizman, who would become Israel’s first president: The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Alterman

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,

Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement

will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows

And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel.

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