After Death, We Are Holiness
I have been fortunate to visit Israel 12 times with groups of students and twice as a student myself on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim and then the One Year Program at the Rothberg School at Hebrew University. Each of these visits had me in Israel during this holy period of the year. As I traveled through Israel this past week, with one week left on our Eighth Grade Israel Trip, it is important to note why schools choose to have their yearly trip during this time of year.
In our weekly Torah reading, we read a double parsha this week. The two parshiyot are Acharei Mot (literally After Death) and Kedoshim (Holy Things). Or, as I explain to my students each year, after death there is holiness. That is precisely why we are here right now.
In 2006, I had the privilege to accompany a group of high school students from Miami, Florida on The March of the Living. Together with thousands of others, we marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, arm in arm with a group of Holocaust survivors. The March was our embodiment of Acharei Mot Kedoshim. This idea was further exemplified as we concluded our week in Poland, where every place we visited was a reminder of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews, only to travel to Israel, where Jews and Judaism thrive. We were traveling the path of Acharei Mot Kedoshim.
Tonight, we begin to commemorate Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron and immediately upon its conclusion, Tuesday night, we will celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut. The State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), when David Ben Gurion chose the Tel Aviv Art Museum, the former home of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, to declare Israel’s Independence. Why was this the location chosen? Why not Jerusalem, the heart of Israel? A Tel is an archaeological mound of one civilization built upon another. Aviv means spring. Tel Aviv therefore means, something new built upon something old. Tel Aviv is the Hebrew name for Theodore Herzl’s seminal work Alteneuland, Old New Land. Tel Aviv in many ways is a place of Acharei Mot Kedoshim.
And why was Yom HaZikaron put onto the calendar the day immediately before Yom HaAtzmaut? The answer is Acharei Mot Kedoshim. Because after mourning for those who have fought to protect our right to a free and independent land in Israel, we must immediately rejoice in what we have. We spend a day focusing on death, mourning, and reflection, only to immediately enter into holiness. It was perfectly explained by our tour guide, Tuvia Book on Sunday morning as we walked from Yad Vashem to Har Herzl and heard the story of Tuvia’s friend Alex Singer, as we stood by his grave. Tuvia shared a blog about the experience in Monday’s Times of Israel Blog. From Alex’s grave, we visited the grave of Michael Levin, another lone soldier, who died fighting for the State of Israel. Our students were familiar with Michael’s story, having seen the movie, A Hero in Heaven, back in Memphis.
With Tuvia, we learned about the role that each of us can play in bringing and being holiness after death. We mourn on Yom HaZikaron in order to celebrate our independence. We stop and pause, but we do not dwell. In fact, with Yom HaZikaron, we mandate that our mourning immediately turns to celebration.
Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankel writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” We send our children to Jewish Day School to ensure holiness in the future. While we learn from our past, it is how we use that learning that impacts the future.
We must surround ourselves with opportunities to show ourselves as holy beings. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, in his book Torah Guidelines for Living Like a Mensch, writes “Holiness is not an abstract or mystic idea; it is meant to be a principle which regulates our daily lives.” Greenberg goes on to say we attain holiness by honoring our parents, observing laws and customs, doing acts of kindness, loving our neighbors, and acting justly, among others. Holiness is not something that we do occasionally. It is something that must be embedded in our lives constantly. It is found in our prayers, in our buildings, and in our relationships with those around us. It is in all places at all times. Yet at the same time, none of us are completely there. It is something that we continually strive to achieve, to become a Kehilla Kedosha, a holy community.
It’s not a happy coincidence that our double Parsha falls on the same week as Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. As I told the students in our group at T’fillah on Monday morning, in the words of Rabbi Elliot Pearlson, who led our bus on the 2006 March of the Living, and whom I saw this past Shabbat in a shul in Jerusalem as he took yet another group on the March and to the Holy Land, WE, each of us, are the holiness. As we focus on our past, we become Acharei Mot. When we look to our future, when we heed the call, and when we seek the truth, each one of us, collectively becomes Kedoshim. And that is why Jewish Day Schools bring their students to Israel at this time of year. We teach our students to become holy, to bring light into our world, and to link the past to create a brighter future.