“It’s the only country where the mother of a soldier has the cell number
of his officer and he’d better beware.
The only country where you ask a girl on your first date where she was
in the army, and find out she was more combative then you.
The only country in which between the happiest day of the year and the
saddest one, you have exactly 60 seconds…”
Ephraim Kishon was an Israeli author, dramatist and screenwriter. He is famous for his brilliant satiric texts. Above you can see excerpts from his work entitled “What a Country!” Here, he’s speaking about the three times a year when Israelis hear a 60 second siren. These sirens are among the best-known memorial events in the world. For Israelis, one particular siren has become a symbolic divider between two events – Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism) and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut (Independence Day). These two events are held on consecutive days – 4th and 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar (this year they fall on 22nd and 23rd of April). Remembrance Day draws to a close between 7–8 p.m. and the official celebration of Israel Independence Day begins. However, many people start to prepare for a big and joyful Independence Day right after the siren that sounds at 11 a.m on Remembrance Day, which is approximately 8 hours before Independence Day begins. That is why Ephraim Kishon tried very gently to show Israelis the problematic issue of having just 60 seconds to switch from the grief of Yom Hazikaron to the joy and pride of Yom Ha’Atzma’ut.
Just as these two modern Israeli events of sadness and joy are juxtaposed, Jewish tradition very often juxtaposes joyfulness and sadness:
– we read Kaddish Yatom (the mourner’s prayer) at the very end of a peaceful and happy Friday night service.
– we break a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony as, among others, a symbol of the loss of the Temple.
– we remember all the oppressions and oppressors of our people throughout history in the middle of the Seder ceremony by reading “Vehi she Amdah” (It is this which has stood). And a few moments later we start to read the Hallel – Psalms 113-118 which express joy and gratefulness to God.
We could continue this list for quite a long time!
This week’s Torah portion is another example of such a juxtaposition. The Torah portion, Acharey Mot, (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) begins with repeating briefly the story of the death of two of Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu. Needless to say, their deaths were always the subject of many disputes and theological discussions throughout the Bible commentaries. By today there is a huge list of possible reasons for the death of these two priests. A lot of them attempt to find Nadav and Avihu’s faults and imperfections so as to justify their death in front of the altar. Whichever explanation you read there are always those who are not satisfied with it so I’d like to look at it from a different perspective. Let’s try to examine the compositional structure of the book of Leviticus. The previous Torah portion – Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) – is mainly a description of the laws of ritual purification. The next Torah portion, Kedoshim, (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) deals a lot with morality and ethics among the Israelites. This structure shows us that in human reality an ideal purity or perfect morality as described in the Metzora and Kedoshim portions often is to be found next to sorrows and tragedies. Sorrows can happen even in the midst of a narrative about the highest level of moral behaviour, and tragedies can happen even in the middle of the Tabernacle – next to God’s dwelling place.
Our natural behaviour is to try to find a justification for such a sorrow or even blame the victim in order to feel better about the issue. However, the Nadav and Avihu story teaches us that however many reasons we can find, there are always people for whom our explanations don’t work. How many talks, articles and theological theories regarding the Holocaust we can find nowadays? Is there one which satisfies everybody? I personally haven’t come across one which totally answered all my questions. From this perspective, the Nadav and Avihu story and the Holocaust are very similar. Usually I have more questions after I read a Holocaust theology or an explanation of Nadav and Avihu’s death than I had before I read it. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to carry on and try to learn something from the experiences we have faced. When we continue reading Torah after the Nadav and Avihu story, very soon we find the Torah’s “Golden rule”: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Anything else in Torah is just a comment on this Golden rule, according to Hillel the Elder (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Therefore, we could argue, even the Nadav and Avihu story is one which should lead us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Today we carry on with our lives. What can we learn from the Holocaust story? Take a look this very powerful video about the siren in Israel.
I think it speaks for itself.
May the memory of all the Holocaust victims, the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism be a blessing for our life and the life of our children!
Student Rabbi Igor Zinkov
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.