Monday, May 9, 2011

Yom Hazikaron 5771 - Reciting a Blessing on the Bad

Today, the State of Israel pauses to collectively remember the over 22,800 men, women and children whose lives were lost defending, protecting and living in the State of Israel. As my son told me last night at the community program in our Yishuv, "It's very different here than it is in America." Indeed it is.
I was invited last Friday to speak on Israeli radio (Kol Yisrael, Reshet Moreshet. Click here, and then scroll down to פרפראות לתורה. Then click on the radio button. It should be up for about another week.To be honest, I was quite nervous, mostly about speaking in Hebrew, but thankfully, everything went pretty well.) I'd like to share with you one of the thoughts I mentioned on last week's parshah in memory of the souls of those who died on our behalf.

The Mishnah in Brachot makes a surprising statement:
חיב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה, שנאמר (דברים ו) ואהבת את יי אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך. בכל לבבך, בשני יצריך, ביצר טוב וביצר רע. ובכל נפשך, אפלו הוא נוטל את נפשך.
A man is obligated to bless [God] on the bad, just as he blesses on the good, as it is written, "And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your ability." (Devarim 6) "With all your heart" - [this means] with your two inclinations - your good inclination and your evil inclination. "With all your soul" - even if He takes your life.
Explaining this unusual Mishnah, Rav Ovadia of Barenura writes,
כשמברך דיין האמת על הרעה, חייב לברך בשמחה ובלב טוב ט כשם שמברך בשמחה הטוב והמטיב על הטובה
When he blesses, "The true judge" (on the death of a loved one), he must recite the blessing with joy and a glad heart, just as he blesses with joy [the blessing of] "he who is good and bestows good] on good tidings.
Intellectually, we understand the meaning of the words of the Mishnah. We comprehend that God's actions are good whether we can understand them or not. No matter how difficult or painful, we must acknowledge our inability to comprehend that which we consider "bad", and bless God not only in situations of joy, but in the terrible times as well.
But we're not intellectual people. We're emotional people. We're human. Who in his right mind has the ability to tear kriah over the loss of a beloved family member, and recite the brachah of "Dayan Ha'emet" - that God is the true judge - with the same joy, passion and excitement as if he had just bought a new family sedan? I've presided over many funerals, and at worst the blessing is recited with indifference; at "best", reciting the blessing causes great pain and anguish. Would we expect anything different? Does the Mishanah?
At the same time, perhaps Yom Hazikaron can give us one perspective into the meaning of this cryptic Mishnah.
In Parshat Emor, we read about the commandment of Kiddush Hashem, and the obligation to sanctify God's name. The Torah tells us,
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם:  אֲנִי, ה'. וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֲנִי ה', מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים:  אֲנִי, ה'. (ויקרא כג:לא-לג)
And you shall keep My commandments, and do them: I am the LORD. And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the LORD who hallow you. That brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD. (Vayikra 22:31-33)
While there are a number of possible interpretations to the commandment to sanctify God's name - many of them positive and uplifting - Rashi chooses a rather sobering explanation, writing:

ממשמע שנאמר ולא תחללו, מה תלמוד לומר ונקדשתי, מסור עצמך וקדש שמי. יכול ביחיד, תלמוד לומר בתוך בני ישראל, וכשהוא מוסר עצמו, ימסור עצמו על מנת למות, שכל המוסר עצמו על מנת הנס, אין עושין לו נס  
Since it says, "and you shall not profane," what is the meaning of "and I will be hallowed"? Give yourself over and sanctify my name. I might have thought this [refers only to] an individual; for this reason the verse teaches me, "among the children of Israel". And when he gives himself over, he should give himself over to die, for anyone who gives himself over on the condition of a miracle, a miracle does not occur on his behalf.
Put succinctly, the Torah expects and demands that under certain circumstances, we must be willing and ready to sacrifice our lives for the sake of God. Indeed, during too many times of persecution and suffering, Jews sacrificed their lives rather than abandon the path of God.
This year specifically, we read this parshah on the Shabbat that fell between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. Reading these sobering words of Rashi, I could not help but think of the millions of Jews - men, women and children - whose lives were extinguished for the simple reason that they belonged to God's holy nation. They "gave themselves over" for death, and we will eternally mourn their loss and remember their suffering.
Rashi, writing his commentary, undoubtedly thought of the thousands of Jews whose lives were snuffed out at the hands of vicious Crusaders. He thought of the Jews killed in religious persecution. But it's hard to imagine that he could even fathom the murder of Jews on the magnitude of the Holocaust.

And then I thought about a second, different type of Memorial Day - Israel's Yom Hazikaron. Today, we mourn the over 22,800 Jews whose lives have been taken either in terrorist attacks, or fighting to protect and defend the State and people of Israel. One is too many - and certainly 22,800. But while the fallen soldiers of Israel also "gave themselves over" for death, never expecting a miracle for salvation, their sacrifice differs fundamentally from the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. They died fighting. They perished protecting the first Jewish homeland in over two millennium. Their sacrifice has ensured the safety and security of the Jewish people. I doubt Rashi imagines this sort of Kiddush Hashem either.
And while we spend this solemn day marking these families' sacrifice on behalf of the entire Jewish nation, we offer them a sense of solace as well. They can recite "dayan ha'emet" on their loss, knowing that their sacrifice contributed to the continued growth and prosperity of Am Yisrael.
For that, we can and must give thanks to God.