Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Yom HaShoah

This drash was offered after reading from WCT's "Shoah Scroll." It came from the town of Rakovnik, now in the Czech Republic. Written in 1890, it was used continuously until the Shoah. The scroll is on loan to WCT. We will use it and read from it until the Jewish community of Rakovnik is reborn and requests that we return the scroll. Until then, we honor their lives by learning from their Torah.

This week we read from the tenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus - parshat Shemini. Until now, life in the Israelite camp has been about preparing for the priests’ ordination. Sacrifices have been offered, vestments procured, and the whole community has gathered. Aaron, Moses’ brother, has assumed the role of high priest.

Shortly after ordination, though, Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – take their fire pans to the sacrificial altar and offer a strange fire before God. The text offers no details of their sacrifice, except that God had not demanded it of them. As Nadav and Avihu bring their fire pans to the altar, almost instantly a fire shoots forth, consumes them and leaves t
hem dead. A shocking sight, a moment of extreme terror, a horrifying, instant loss of life before the eyes of the entire congregation. Moses tries to offer brief words of comfort, but they feel incomplete, almost incongruous. And amidst it all, Aaron, their father, falls silent.
For centuries we have tried to understand this enigmatic story. We’ve tried to make sense of the fire that Nadav and Avihu offered and the fire that consumed them. Did God intend such a gruesome end to their lives?

And we’ve tried to make sense of Aaron’s silence. What father says nothing? But on the other hand, what is there for a father to say? Moses tries to find reason, but we receive little comfort by his words.

Yom HaShoah does not always correspond with this Torah portion – yet it gives us pause when it does. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the fire that consumed million of lives. When we try to twist our hearts around why, we find our words clumsy and incomplete. And often we find ourselves like Aaron, silent in our grief, wordlessly besieged by conflicting emotions.

And at the same time, we condemn silence in the face of this tragedy. Silence abetted Hitler’s sinister plan. Silence leaves the
murdered forgotten. Silence is the crime that allows genocide to continue in our own day. We come here tonight to break that silence – in the name of memory and in the name of hope.

I believe the Torah’s story is purposefully enigmatic. It requires us to search deeply. It wants us to challenge this awful course of events and learn from them. It wants it to never happen again.

This is why we continue to tell the Torah’s story and this is why we continue to tell the story of the Holocaust. We tell them year after year as a call to action. Telling stories is the best tool we have in developing the awareness and empathy necessary to make a change in our own day. We bear witness. Perhaps one day we can bear change.

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