This week has again opened with the losses of our soldiers. One of my sons didn’t have two classes today. He didn’t have math because his math teacher’s son had been seriously injured over the weekend. He didn’t have his class on the creative arts because that teacher’s son had been killed. As most readers of this site know, Jews have an event called a shiva after a death. People are welcomed into the homes of those who are mourning. For up to a week after a death, we talk about those who have passed. It is almost like the final skip of a rock across a lake. A life’s last waves ripple across the surface just as it is sinking.
Today’s, shiva events are large events. There are marquee tents set up outside houses and the families sit and talk for days and days. People bring them food. Whole communities come to honor those who have been lost defending our people.
Over the last week, I’ve been driving past one shiva several times a day. I haven’t gone to that shiva – a shiva for the older brother of another of my son’s classmates. I went to an earlier shiva, one poorly attended. In the aftermath of the slaughter, there were so many shivas that – sadly – many were poorly attended. There were 1,400 dead in one day. Other members of that young man’s unit were there. The story was simple: they’d all rushed into a house to save a family. They didn’t all leave.
Normally, when I attend a shiva I ask one question: “What one thing, one characteristic, one message would you like to share from the life of the deceased?” I want to find that one wave I can amplify.
I can’t ask that question at these events. These young men and women didn’t have a chance to live a life. For the most part, they were just starting to live a life. Few of them aspired to fighting. The shiva I drive past every day? That young man wanted to be a photographer. The one I attended? He didn’t know what he wanted to do – he just wanted to go to university and work it out.
These are not people whose lives can be summed up in martyrdom. And while their characters might have begun to form, they had so much more to offer. These dead join others like them. For thousands of years our people have suffered such violence at the hands of our enemies. We still say prayers for the Jews slaughtered from Lisbon to Mainz. We remember our deaths under Roman attack. We remember the farhood of Iraq and the pogroms of Ukraine. We remember our deaths by Babylonian and Egyptian hands.
Through our every action we try, desperately, to fill in what has been lost. Jews do not share a religion – we have many different beliefs. We do not share an ethnicity – we come from many cultures. What we share is a history – a history defined by the act of filling in for what has been lost.
Our history starts with Avram. Avram was one of three brothers. His brother Haran died in front of their father Terach’s eyes. In the very next verse, Avram marries Terach’s daughter (his half-sister) while Nachor (the third brother) married Haran’s daughter. Although unacceptable under Jewish law and disgusting to modern eyes, they were trying to fill in the gaps. Terach had a lost a son and so Avram ensured that his daughter would not marry out – with her legacy given to another family. Nachor did the same with Haran’s daughter. They were circling the wagons. A few verses later, Avram left his father’s house. Then, he not only took Sarai with him – he took Lot, Haran’s son. He expected that the young man would inherit from him.
In many cases in the Torah, the exemplary attributes of a person are laid out with their first independent actions, right near the beginning of their Torah career. Moshe protects the weak. Yitzchak (Isaac) ponders deeply after prayer (he didn’t really choose to be sacrificed). Yaacov (Jacob) struggles to break out of his reality. Miriam hopes for the future. Rivka (Rebecca) really helps travelers.
Avram’s first action was to fill in the gaps left by his brother’s death. I didn’t see it until this very Shabbat, but this characteristic defines so much of who he is.
Avram engages in a crazy war to rescue Lot – to rescue the legacy of Haran. He calls Lot his brother – recognizing him as the continuation of Haran’s legacy. One of Avraham’s last actions was to send Eliezer to find Yitzchak a wife from the descendants of Terach and Haran. His very last action was to send those sons not descended entirely from Terach away. He wouldn’t let them compete with the lost legacy he was filling in for – even then.
When G-d says, “I took you out of Ur Kasdim to inherit this land” Avram seems to falter in his belief. The family left right after Haran died. I believe G-d is saying he took Haran so that Terach would leave Ur Kasdim. But their first action was not departure. First, Avram married Sarai. Avram would build his entire life around filling the hole Haran’s death left. Avram didn’t just leave Ur Kasdim, Avram became the man he was because of Haran’s death. His relationship with Sarai, the most impactful marriage in human history, was established on that same foundation.
From his first appearance to his last, Avram is trying to preserve the legacy of his father and his brother. Avram’s focus on the legacy of Terach helps us understand why the story of Avraham opens with “These are the generation of Terach.” It helps us understand why – for three generations – marriages always return to the descendants of Terach.
Avraham’s focus on the legacy of his father and his brother also helps us understand the power of the Akeidah – the sacrifice of Isaac. Not only is Avraham being asked to sacrifice his beloved son, he is being asked to sacrifice his only pure contribution to the legacy of his father. He is being asked to overcome his own moral foundation. Of course, G-d does not take Yitzchak. The Akeidah was a means through which Avraham could develop his Fear of G-d – his acceptance that the relationship with G-d is even more important than what we believe is right.
Of course, our people struggle with our relationship with the Almighty. We always have. We are not defined by our relationship with G-d or our submission to Him. No, it is Avram’s dedication to carrying forward those who have been lost that is most deeply woven into our people today. Avram literally means “Exalted – Father.” Avram exalted his father. But Avram does not remain Avram for his entire life. G-d renames him Avraham. The verse reads “thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.” (Bereshit 17:5).
The passage continues, “I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.”
We are a people of an everlasting covenant. We remain connected to our G-d, our land, and our traditions after more than 3,000 years. We can be a people of everlasting covenant precisely because we are dedicated to filling in the gaps.
In other words, we can be the people of Avraham – the father of nations – because we are the people of Avram – the exalter of those who came before.
As I drive past those shivas. As I see people sitting and learning and listening, I see them all taking on a little bit of that responsibility. They aren’t just bringing food and comfort. They are each making their little contribution to filling in the gaps. These young men and women will never live their lives – and so we must live them in their stead.
I live in Modiin, a middle-class city a little smaller than Davenport, Iowa. No terrorists came to us on Oct 7th. Nonetheless, we lost too many, too soon.
Take the time to learn about just one person who passed away. Take the time to make something of theirs your own. Embrace that which has sustained our people through so many tragedies. Embrace that which has brought life to those we have lost.
עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵֽינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל
May He who makes peace in His high heavens bring peace upon us and upon all of Israel.
p.s. if you want to understand why I focus on my own people and not those in Gaza, read Mourning, Martyrdom and Murder. My Gaza War page has significantly more analysis of the situation (including purely secular analysis).