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I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the High Holidays of the Modern Jew: A Wexner Yom Shishi Thought

In high school I coined the term "High Holidays of the Modern Jew" as a way of describing the quirks of the calendar that have placed יום השואה והגבורה, יום הזכרון , יום העצמאות, and יום ירושלים all within a span of five weeks during ספירת העמר. (Since then, I'd add יצחק רבין's memorial to this list, though it falls at the other end of the calendar.) I've been thinking about and trying to program and write about them ever since - they always captivated my imagination (and frustration - at how little has been done to ritualize them). Over the years, that's taken different routes, including a יום הזכרון program on Nativ that I still consider one of my best, updated versions of it in following years (it itself being a juiced-up version of a short memorial service Gabe and I wrote for Seminar in '98), and a דבר תורה I gave (though I can't remember most of the specifics) a few שבתות after T and I got engaged in April or '06.

Late last night I realized I had forgotten to send out my "Yom Shishi Thought" to the list of current Wexner Fellows; it was my turn. I started thinking about different options about which I could write (including sharing my take on נדב and אביהו) and decided to take this general direction. Then, this morning, dear friend Jason helped push the frame forward with the דבר תורה at his daughter's - ירדנה חמוטל - baby-naming. I wrote what follows this evening.

(What was to be a Yom Shishi thought seems to work even better as a "Shavua Tov" thought, though that was not the intent. Apologies.)

The פרשה that we read this morning, שמיני, has multiple parallels with the first chapter of the תורה – the story of the creation of the world. Multiple laws here are given as a way of making הבדלות – separations – as is the expressed purpose for numerous steps in the creation story. Additionally, the Rabbis understand the first verse – ויהי ביום השמיני – “And it was on the eighth day” – as referring to the 8th day in the life of the world and Aaron’s multiple blessings as a parallel to God’s repeated statements of טוב on the 3rd and 6th days.

For me, this week marks a different parallel with the creation story – a modern echo of ראש השנה, when Rabbinic Judaism chose to mark the birthday of the world. We enter this week a period I like to call the “High Holidays of the Modern Jew,” four commemorations of historical events that attempt to provide a structure and meaning for contemporary Jewish identity. The timing of Holocaust and Martyrs’ Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the modern State of Israel, Israel’s Independence Day, and the Reunification of Jerusalem Day (which, admittedly, may resonate uncomfortably for some of us due to the less-than-ideal resolution of the victories of the Six Day War which we are still grappling with today) lends an additional historical narrative to our ritualized counting from Passover to Shavuot. The structure of the different days, including the ten day period that begins Monday evening with Yom Hashoah (a modern Yom Kippur, I might suggest), a week removed from the two day solemn-yet-joyous commemoration of the sacrifices and achievements of founding a political entity to call our own (our modern Rosh Hashanah), amplifies other parts of our calendar.

What the High Holidays of the Modern Jews lack – and what I’d suggest is the task of our generation and a much-needed place for immediate exercising of leadership – is a developed liturgy and ritual to call their own. Within years we will no longer have living witnesses to the Holocaust to share their stories with us; a Jewish day of independence should not be defined by barbecue and bonfires alone. It is our task to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors – generation after generation of them – and add our own interpretative layers to the celebrations whose very existence defined the lives of our parents and grandparents. Such a task is difficult, but not unprecedented.

פרשת שמיני records a failed attempt at the creation of contemporary ritual. Nadav and Avihu’s deaths do not give justice to the build up of the legal background to, outline for, and building of a dwelling place for God within the desert. The dominant image of their deaths’ aftermath is Aaron’s silence – paralyzed by his grief and the incomprehensible nature of the tragedy (as generations of Jews have been in the wake of the Holocaust). In a few weeks, however, we will read about the ritual Moses and Aaron instituted to atone for the grave sin of their fallen children and nephews. That ritual eventually became an annual event, and slowly transitioned from a tangible cleaning of a soiled tent into a metaphor for the mistakes we all make in our lives. Stepping forward to create that ritual was risky and scary; it required courage. Millennia later, we have the liturgical beauty and spiritual power of יום כיפור that annually attests to Aaron’s sons’ sacrifice and much more.

This is our task, and our hope. May we find the ways to appropriately bring the peaks and valleys of the modern Jewish experience into the warm and nurturing context of ritualized, mythologized, performative Judaism. May our commemorations of יום השואה והגבורה, this week and for years to come, allow us to properly memorialize the six million Jewish victims of Hitler’s Germany and the civilization that died with them, and may they lay the groundwork for providing moments of reflection and insight into the past and present for us, our children, and our children’s children.

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