Emor: Days of Awe and Remembrance
These days are somber days in the State of Israel. This Shabbat is now known in Israel in our Progressive (Reform) Congregations as Shabbat Tekumah, the Shabbat of . . . it’s not so easy to translate. The root this word is kuf-vav-mem, which means, to “stand up”; but in this form it really means, to “stand up for one's self,” to “reestablish one's self.” Perhaps the best translation would be: the “birth of a nation!” This is the Shabbat between Israel's Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Resistance (Yom HaShoah V’HaG’vurah, and Israel's Memorial and Independence Days (Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma-ut).
These are the newest "holy" days in our Jewish calendar, coming in a ten-day cycle reminiscent of the Ten Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim). In fact, the late Rabbi Benjamin Hollander (beloved teacher of Torah at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, in Jerusalem), was the first to explain to me that these days are indeed, the contemporary Days of Awe. We begin a few days after Passover with the Memorial Day for the Holocaust and Resistance. The setting of this date was a fascinating negotiation. With the establishment of the State of Israel came the setting of certain national holidays. The date, 5 Iyar 5708 (May 15, 1948), was the day of the Declaration of the State of Israel. That became our independence day.
Then the question arose in determining the national Memorial Day. Here, a difficult decision was taken. It was decided to set Memorial Day on the twenty-four hours before Independence Day, linking the days in the deepest way. "They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy," says Psalm 126:5. Our founding fathers (not too many mothers) wanted the fulfillment of independence celebrated in the context of the cost of this independence.
Remembrance of the Holocaust and Resistance Day was a different story. With the establishment of the state and the arrival of the thousands of refugees and survivors, these same founding fathers wanted to emphasize the fight for resistance during the Holocaust. This too, was very much tied to the Zionist ethos of Jewish sovereignty and self-defense. The partisans who made it to Palestine, and later Israel, wanted to commemorate the defiant and super-human fight against the Nazis that began on the day before Erev Pesach (seder night) in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Against all odds, with practically no ammunition, with an ironclad will to survive or die with a fight, a handful of resistance fighters took on the Nazi army for close to three weeks! They knew that there was no chance that they could "win." But they knew something bigger; by starting the rebellion on seder night they were sending a message to the Jewish People forever. They put up a good fight, but were no match for the monstrous warring capacities of the Nazi war machine. Those survivors of the rebellion wanted Holocaust Remembrance Day to be during Passover. Other forces prevailed, and wisely so. Holocaust Remembrance Day was inaugurated in 1951, three days after Passover, on 27 Nisan. The day for resistance was later added. A week after Israel’s Remembrance of the Holocaust and Resistance Day is our Memorial Day, and eight days later, our Independence Day. While this confluence of events can’t be accidental, I can’t find any “official” explanation for it. It is very powerful, that eight days after the Memorial Day for the Holocaust, we celebrate the birth of the Modern State of Israel, signifying the “covenant” with our Land and its history.
How fitting that this Shabbat Tekumah falls on Parashat Emor, the parashah that gives us a full rendering of our biblical festivals and holy days. First, we open with the Shabbat itself, then, based on the cycles of the Land of Israel’s agriculture, we move from spring through fall, from Pesach through Sukkot. This is the foundation, rooted deeply in the Land of Israel; the Land serving as a great metaphor of the beauty and bounty of Creation, and the redemptive promise of spring. This listing of holy days is the basic list of the holidays we celebrate today, but they have been embellished by generations of events and interpretations. This simple description feels very distant from the holidays we know and love.
A great method to teach about the Jewish holidays is describe them as an archeological tel; a mound of layers of earth that tells the story of each generation and each civilization; so too our holidays. What begin as basic agricultural celebrations become associated with historic events, with heavy doses of Jewish values, piled with more interpretations added by subsequent generations. Dig a little deeper into Passover and discover the layers of meaning!
Emor includes the description of the seven weeks of counting between Passover and the atzeret, a nondescript day that the Rabbis of the Rabbinic period, hundreds of years later, designate as Shavuot. Shavuot has agrarian roots with the successful offering of the wheat harvest; our basic form of sustenance. As bread is the basic sustenance for our bodies, Torah is the basic sustenance for our souls. Generations later, our early Reformers, designated this day as Confirmation Day for our young adults. This was a noble attempt to override the bar mitzvah ceremony, which was limited to boys and deemed out of sync with human development. That Reform innovation did not prove sustainable, as we have totally embraced both bar mitzvah, and now, bat mitzvah.
These life ritual celebrations and commemorations must reflect our national and ideological biographies. These modern “Ten Days of Awe” are very powerful in Israel. I urge you to come and experience the sirens going off and a nation that pretty much comes to a standstill. To watch our national highways come to a full stop for three minutes on Memorial Day is very sobering. On the evening before both Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, all forms of entertainment are closed; no movies, no theatres, even restaurants shut down. Cable television services are closed or devote airtime to the lessons of these days. We close in on ourselves to mourn and reflect.
Memorial Day for our fallen soldiers, and more recently, victims of terror, is heart wrenching. So many promising young people whose lives were cut short are so painful to recall. The transition from this day to the celebratory Independence Day is very hard, particularly hard on bereaved families. The official nationally televised ceremony at Mount Herzl captures this transition with a combination of defense forces marching in formation and the traditional lighting of twelve torches signifying the twelve tribes of Israel (and lots of great folk dancing and pyrotechnics thrown in). There is a serious effort each year to have these twelve torchbearers reflect the diversity and promise of Israel. Last year, for the first time our very own Rabbi Richard Hirsch, founding Director of the Religious Action Center, former executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, served as a “lighter” in his capacity at the World Zionist Organization. That was a great moment!
It is easy to be cynical, sentimental, or over militaristic on these heavy days in our Israeli calendar; particularly on Memorial Day and Independence Day. I choose to be deeply humbled and grateful that we actually have these days in our Jewish lives. We will mourn the lives lost, we will not forget the fallen, and we will commit ourselves to a brighter future for the Jewish people. Chag HaAtzma-ut Sameach!
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1976, helping to build a pluralistic, progressive, and egalitarian Jewish Israel.