Embracing Life in the Face of Death

Aharei Mot Kedoshim | Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha'atzma'ut By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 17, 2013 / 5773

This past week, we commemorated State of Israel Memorial Day (Yom Hazikkaron) and State of Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzma’ut). The juxtaposition of these two observances is jarring. Living in Israel, one feels how mourning permeates every moment of Yom Hazikkaron: from the piercing siren that sounds around the entire country at 8:00 p.m. to the mournful songs played on Israeli radio; from the Yizkor (memorial service) stickers with the Israeli plant known as dam hamakabim (the blood of the Maccabees) to the throngs of Israeli citizens flooding Mount Herzl Cemetery. At the close of this sobering day, transition ceremonies give way to the festivities of Yom Ha’azma’ut: fireworks decorate the night sky and festive barbeques fill the landscape of every square meter of Israeli parks. Mourning gives way to joy and unbridled celebration. Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen, one of the best known and beloved rabbis of the modern State of Israel, points out how this week’s parashahAharei Mot, is almost always read in the same week as these commemorations. To what extent does the parashah reflect the dramatic opposites witnessed in the calendar?

We know well, the parashah opens, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” The deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, remain inexplicable to this very day. Avidor Hacohen writes,

This week’s parashah has become an allusion to that which we experience in the calendar: such is the fate of this nation of Israel—every new accomplishment of the nation, every joy experienced seems to be inextricably connected to the fall of its children. It is also striking that the Torah reading is not solely occupied with death. Specifically, we read of life in this parashah: “you will observe all of my ordinances and my laws so that you will live through them, I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:5). This verse has become a cornerstone of Judaism; and out of this text we learn that the saving of a life takes precedence over the entire Torah. (Avidor Hacohen, Likrat Shabbat [translated from the Hebrew], 119)

Death and tears have too often been the painful refrain of Jewish history. But as Rav Shmuel Avidor Hacohen reminds us, the opposite side of the pain is life—choosing and embracing life with fervor, zest, and appreciation. The calendar reminds us that we must pause to reflect on these two aspects of the Jewish journey. And more than that, Torah powerfully echoes such a message in this week’s parashah.

Happy 65th birthday to the State of Israel!

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