Friday, February 23, 2024

An Ever-Present Void


Graves at Har Herzl. Israel’s military cemetary.

Moses is not mentioned in Parshat Tetzaveh, the only such instance in the last four books of the Torah. This point, first mentioned by the Baal HaTurim, is a favorite of elementary school teachers looking for fun facts, and pulpit rabbis looking for sermon topics.

On its own, this observation is purely an exercise in poetry; in reality, multiple factors determined the division of Torah readings, and the fact that one short Parsha ended up without Moses’ name is not all that strange.


What does matter is not whether Moses is “missing” from the Parsha, but our perception of it. The fact that this question is constantly repeated says a great deal about the reader; Moses is not mentioned, and it’s noticed.


Even when Moses is gone, he leaves behind an ever-present void.


Many of those who comment on Moses' absence relate it to his date of death, which according to the Talmud (Kiddushin 38a,) was on the seventh of Adar; and most years, Tetzaveh and the seventh of Adar are on the same week. (This year they are a week apart.)


The seventh of Adar is included on a list of fast days compiled by the Baal Halakhot Gedolot, an 8th-century work. While these fasts have long fallen out of practice (Rabbi Yoseph Karo writes they had already been discontinued by the 15th century), the fast of the seventh of Adar continued to be practiced by burial societies (Chevrei Kadisha). They would assemble together for morning services, and recite special selichot prayers about the tasks of a Chevra Kadisha. At night, they would join together for a special meal in honor of their service to the community.


The connection between Chevrei Kadisha and Moses is twofold. First, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave by God Himself. In each burial, the Chevra Kadisha follows in God’s footsteps, and does a true act of kindness. (Because Moses' grave is unknown, the Israeli rabbinate designated the seventh of Adar as the memorial day for soldiers whose burial places are unknown.)


The second reason is that Moses is a role model for Chevrei Kadisha. As the Jews left Egypt, Moses made certain to take with him Joseph's bones for burial in Israel. Even 400 years later, Joseph's bones were not seen as a funerary relic of the distant past; he was seen as family. And this is the very mission that every Chevra Kadisha is tasked with: to ensure that those who are gone are never forgotten, and receive a proper burial.


It is a profoundly holy task. On our missions to Israel, we visited the Shurah Army Base, where the bodies of the 1200 people murdered on October 7th were processed for burial. The scenes that played out there in the first few days of the war were gut-wrenching. Rabbi Benzi Mann, who has been serving at Shurah since October 7th, spoke about how every refrigerated truck in the country, including dairy transports covered with advertisements for chocolate milk and yogurt, were conscripted to transport bodies; to this day he feels uneasy seeing dairy trucks on the highway. When Benzi would open the trucks’ doors, there were so many bodies piled up that blood would come pouring out.


But despite the traumatic circumstances, these incredible reservists worked day and night to ensure the dead got a proper burial, and that their families had a chance to wish their loved ones farewell. The dedicated Chevra Kadisha at Shurah did everything possible to treat the dead, and their families, with love.


Rabbi Mann related a conversation between Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of England, and President Isaac Herzog of Israel. Rabbi Mirvis told President Herzog he had visited Shurah. President Herzog replied that it was an awful place, “the gates of hell”; the very imprint of Hamas’ depraved crimes was on the body of every person murdered.


Rabbi Mirvis responded that on the contrary, Shurah was the “gates of heaven,” and a place of awe; it was a place where holy volunteers had heroically restored dignity to the deceased and their families.


The task of the Chevra Kadisha is to ensure the body is treated with respect. In preparation for burial, they do what is called a taharah where they do what they can to clean the body and purify it, and recite prayers for the soul of the deceased. (In the case of those murdered on October 7th, many of the usual procedures were suspended; murder victims are meant to be buried in their clothes. However, the prayers and the arrangement of the bodies in the coffin remain the same.) Other societies may cremate remains, or toss them away; Tibetans practice a “sky-burial,” in which bodies are placed on the mountaintop to be eaten by vultures. Judaism’s perspective is different and views treating the body with respect as the highest priority.


The Chatam Sofer explains (Teshuvot 2:328) that the taharah procedures are in place to show respect for man, who is created in the “image of God.” Even the dead body continues to carry a reflection of the divine image. The Chatam Sofer reminds us that by offering proper respect for the dead body, one offers respect for the living.


Jewish funerary and mourning rituals are not about closure and putting the death behind us. On the contrary, they are about preserving our connection to those who have passed away. We want to build a bridge from this world to the next, and to continue to keep our loved ones in our hearts.


This is what Avishai Margalit has called “the ethics of memory.” While the philosophical basis of this idea is complex, it is very much a part of the Jewish tradition. The ritual of Shiva and the prayers of Yizkor and Kaddish all articulate the same idea: we must continue to remember those whom we love. We remember because to love someone is to love someone forever; we remember because we could never forgive ourselves for forgetting.


On the last day of our most recent mission, we visited Har Herzl, Israel's military cemetery. Two sections have been designated for this war’s fallen soldiers. We went on a rainy day and it seemed like the stones were crying. All around us were the graves of people in their twenties and thirties, who once had a bright future ahead of them. A young widow, married for just two months, was sitting next to her husband’s grave; he was 23 years old. Our guide Michal spoke about the soldiers she knew in the section, who were friends from her neighborhood and school. Michal is far too young to know such tragedy; but now she does. Like every Israeli, she has gone to shiva after shiva, comforting and bereaved all at once.


On Har Herzl this overwhelming sense of loss, this endless void, is most profound. There is no grief like the grief of losing a young child at the height of their potential.


But at the same time, there is a recognition that within this absence those who have died will be ever-present. Virtually every grave was decorated by the families in tribute to their loved ones. Bottles of scotch, Israeli flags, soccer flags, photographs, letters, and miniature Torah scrolls all embrace the memory of those who are still loved. They are declarations that the fallen will never be forgotten. At every simcha, every Seder, every family get-together, they will be remembered. There may be a gaping void in the mourners’ hearts, but within that void, the memories of their loved ones are ever-present.


The Bible says, “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) These bereaved families have declared that their love is forever, tied to the heart with an eternal bond. Nothing, not even death, can take their love away.


They will always remember their loved ones. And so will we.


May their memory be for a blessing.

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