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Life, Death and Holiness

This piece was written in 2002, during the second Intifidah. While the circumstances in question have changed, the teaching that emerged from them remains relevant today.

Tears and hope, fears and resolve, profound sadness and fierce determination – that is the mood in Israel this week. How ironic that this week’s double Torah portion is called “Akharey Mot/Kedoshim”, which translates as “After death — Holiness.”

I stood on the balcony of a relative’s apartment directly overlooking the Moment Café, where just a couple of weeks ago a homicide bomber blew himself up killing 11 Israelis, including a young couple celebrating their impending wedding. Amidst the rubble and devastation, the flowers and candles left by mourners was a defiant and poignant banner that captured like nothing else the grief and resolve of our Jewish family in Israel who face uncertainty and sorrow every single day. The banner proclaimed, “bokhim, bokhim, bokhim, ve-hamshikh ha-lah” – “We cry, we cry, we cry….and then we continue to go on.” After all the deaths, they are still searching for the holiness.

Yet holiness comes in many forms, and often when you least expect it. I arrived in Israel with a group of thirteen rabbis from Southern California representing every stream of Jewish life, at 4 AM last Monday morning, and by mid-morning were gathered at Hadassah Medical Center to begin our rounds of bikur holim – visiting the wounded civilians and soldiers who have put their lives on the line each and every day to insure the Jewish future in our ancient homeland.

Yaakov, the soldier wounded that very morning by gunfire in Bethlehem – shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Yes, I am wounded, but what matters is that I am alive to go on.” Sometimes it is just in continuing to be alive that our ultimate holiness is found.

Sami, a Druze from a village in the north, as his girlfriend (also a soldier) told us how he had saved the lives of a dozen Israeli soldiers in heavy fighting in Jenin – shyly denying that he is any kind of hero “I’m just someone who knows that what must be done, must be done, and I still have faith in the future Jews and Arabs will create together.” Sometimes holiness is found in heroism, courage and faith.

Spontaneous smiles from every bed, as they thanked us profusely for just being there – “Your coming to Israel warms our hearts” we heard over and over again. “Thank you for your courage, for reminding us we are not alone in the world.”

The wonder of Hadassah and Israel – this small island of sanity in the midst of the insanity of terror and war. That very moment in the ICU, they were treating four wounded Palestinian terrorists in the same emergency bay as two Israeli soldiers from the same incident. Sometimes holiness comes when we can see the spark of God even in our enemies.

In the same hospital we stood next to an incredibly brave soldier who had been shot in the face during the fierce fighting in Jenin. He had to force his own fingers down his throat to keep his wind pipe open to be able to breathe until the medics rushed in to save him. Next to him lay a Palestinian from Bethlehem who was being treated for an accident he suffered two days before. That is the reality of Israel today.

This is also the reality of Israel today – in every home, every ring of the phone brings a moment of panic and dread to the pits of every parent’s stomach; where Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance — brought a deep and abiding melancholy as every single citizen contemplated the steep price in young lives that will never see the future.

We joined a ceremony at a high school in Tel Aviv, and watched young children, themselves just months from beginning their own military service, as they read the names of 29 graduates of their school who had died defending Israel’s right to exist.

We listened to the words of sorrow spoken by a young wife at the funeral of her husband who graduated from that same school and was killed in Ramallah only a week before. “I sit and wait, and my heart breaks as it knows you will never again walk through the door.” They had just recently gotten married, and in place of joy, she is wearing the black of mourning.

One Israeli told us – “Every Israeli walks around with a knife in the heart, knowing someone or some family who has suffered a death or tragedy.”

Mariel – 17, says life is not the same as it once was. “I love to go out, to go to the mall, to sit with my friends, but every time I leave my house this past year I am scared – the bus, the café, the clubs, all in a moment can turn to a place of death.”

Then it was Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel Independence Day, and in spite of it all, the country was celebrating 54 years of survival and accomplishment. We were privileged the first night to sit in the VIP section at the Wall in Jerusalem, surrounded by the families of those who have died for Israel, as the President of Israel, Moshe Katzav and Israel’s Chief of Staff spoke of the endurance of the Jewish people through every generation for the past two thousand years of our struggle to regain independence, and Jewish freedom.

And we were privileged to be part of the Independence Day celebration at Mount Herzl, where Avraham Burg, the head of Israel’s Knesset spoke on behalf of the entire country while surrounded by children representing Israelis whose families had come from throughout the world to rebuild a Jewish home in our ancient land. “This year we know how long the road to our dreams truly is,” he said. “And we learn once again that our fate is in our own hands. Yes, we will be victorious, but it is the Shalom after the victory that matters most. That is the vision of Zionism. Perhaps it seems far away and impossible right now, but we will always choose life, our hands will always be open to peace, our democracy will be a model to all the others around us of how we live together as one people even with disagreements and differences. We pray as Jews have always done, for peace and blessings, life and faith in the future.”

It was fitting that the theme of this year’s Independence Day, proclaimed on banners throughout Jerusalem, along every major highway for all to see and remember, were the words, Namshikh li-khiyot et ha-khalom – “We continue to live the dream.”

They live the dream every day. They build the dream with their everyday lives – with the simple acts of having children, going to work, building this Jewish land with faith, and love and passion.

“There is a price to pay for freedom,” wrote a young soldier before he died this month in a letter that he asked his fellow soldiers to give to his fiancée in the event of his death. “And if need be, I am willing to be that price. So don’t despair — you must embrace joy and know that I love you now and forever and will be in your heart always. Every person has a place in the world – a place he chooses and a place chosen for him by life. Now you must always choose life as well.”

I watched these young people with the courage of their youth, and I couldn’t help the tears from flowing. In the end they sang these words as a tender song of hope – “It’s still not just a dream that we will see the last war, and return home surrounded by all our friends. Ani maamin – I still believe.”

Some 250,000 Jews came to Washington in their support of Israel and our people last week, and we 13 rabbis came to ground zero of the Jewish struggle for freedom and peace in Israel itself.

“Where there is no hope, you must invent it,” wrote Camus. Irony was everywhere for us on this trip. In 1923 Hitler planted the seeds of his madness to rid the world of every Jew while sitting with a small group of conspirators at the Hofbrauhous – a beer garden in Munich. 80 years later, we 13 rabbis sat in that very same beer hall saying am yisrael khai – Hitler is long dead but the Jewish people lives.

The next day we stood in the midst of Dachau with Max Manheim, an 83 year old survivor of the camp, surrounded by the memories of torture and death, and once again said Kaddish for the dead, and sang am yisrael khai – the Jewish people lives.

Bokhim, bokhim, bokhim, ve-hamshikh ha-lah. We cry, we cry, we cry, and then we continue to create Jewish life, together.

If our brothers and sisters in Israel can do it. Day after day, week after week, to struggle and live so that Jewish life can grow and thrive – lihiyot am hofshi b’artzaynu – “To be a free people in our own land,” than surely we can stand by their sides, hand in hand and help them continue to live the dream. After death and sometimes in spite of it, holiness can still be found.

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