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Israel-Gaza War 5784: Emor – We Too Shall Pass

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, begins with a command to the Cohanim: “Let none defile himself for a dead person among his people.”

The priests are forbidden to come into contact with the dead, with the exception of immediate family members. Why?

The answer is that the Torah is greatly concerned with focusing on life rather than death. The surrounding societies had cults of death; Egypt in particular, which the Jews had just left, was obsessed with death. But Hashem desires life. The priests in particular, as religious leaders and role models, were expected to be life-focused.

From the well-known toast “L’chaim!” (To life!) to the rule that one may break all except three of the commandments (those against idolatry, murder, and forbidden sexual relations) to save life, Judaism prizes life, not as an end in itself, but as a vehicle to bring goodness and holiness into the world.

Yet Judaism does not deny death. There are rituals such as shemira, making sure someone is sitting with the dead person at all times before burial; tahara, preparing the body for burial; shiva, sitting with other mourners and supportive community members; and reciting kaddish, the mourners’ prayer sanctifying G-d’s name. (Yet such prayer affirms life while acknowledging death and loss.)

But there are limits on Jewish death rituals. Burial happens quickly, within 24 hours of death if at all possible. Shiva is interrupted for celebrating Shabbat, and after a week of shiva, mourners must leave their homes and get back to living. Kaddish recital is ended after either 30 days or 11 months, depending on the mourner’s relationship to the deceased family member.

Further on in our Torah portion describes the moadei Adonai, “appointed times of the Lord”: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; and the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot.

Pesach celebrates life, commemorating our birth as a people and redemption from bondage. Shavuot, reenacting the receiving of the commandments at Sinai, continues this life-affirming theme as we are given our mission to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Life without a mission is merely animal survival, the Torah teaches us; as humans, we are called to do and be more.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on the other hand, we come face to face with our own mortality, doing deep spiritual inventory to see where we have failed and resolving to do better with the gift of our lives while there is yet time.

Sukkot combines both these aspects with a joyous celebration of life accompanied by the somber reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), a profound meditation on the transience of life. Judaism balances a focus on living, making our lives meaningful and holy, with the knowledge that we, too, shall pass.

But precisely because we know our time in this realm is temporary, Judaism insists that we do all we can to affirm life and its goodness while we are here. We no longer have the Cohanim but it is still incumbent on us to distance ourselves from death.

Contrast this with Hamas’ exclusive focus on death. What do Hamas leaders say? “We love death like our enemies love life,” said Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. Muhammad Deif, a top Hamas military commander, said of the Israelis, “Today you are fighting divine soldiers, who love death for Allah like you love life.” Hamas official Ghazi Hamad proclaimed, “We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”

Yet neither Haniyeh nor Deif are likely to encounter death. Haniyeh lives in luxury in Doha while war wreaks destruction on those he purports to “lead.” Deif is in Gaza, but in the relative safety of Hamas’ vast tunnel network, a safety that organization denies to civilians.

For thousands of years, Jewish love for life has kept our people strong and vital despite expulsions, pogroms, and hatred. Israel today is a light to the nations, sending search and rescue teams and medical personnel to the scenes of disasters around the world, giving free medical treatment even to their enemies, and sharing drip-irrigation technology with drought-stricken African nations. Both on and since October 7th, Israelis have focused on helping their bereaved and wounded with incredible energy and love. As they fight an existential war, they have gone to great lengths, unmatched in any other war, to protect Gazan civilians abandoned by their self-proclaimed leaders.

The death cult of Hamas is truly a great tragedy for the Palestinians as well as their neighbors. Each human, Judaism teaches, has a unique mission to accomplish in this life. Even if there were not the vast destruction both perpetrated on others and suffered by themselves, the wasted potential of these lives is staggering.

It is now the duty of the Israeli military to remove the sinners of Hamas so they can do no more harm. That is the least that must be done and the most that they can do. But how much better it would be, as Beruriah said, if the sin were removed from the sinner, so that he or she could bring their unique light into the world. Then Reb Natan of Breslov’s prayer would be fulfilled:

“We did not come into this world for fighting or dispute…or for hatred, jealousy, hostility, and bloodshed…We came to the world only to recognize and know You, may You be blessed forever.”

Ken yehi ratzon—May it be Your will. May all wickedness disappear, and may we make the most of the lives we have been given, with meaning, good deeds, and holiness.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.