Tetzaveh: Avnei Zikaron, the stones of remembrance are all around us

The list of what the High Priest should wear when carrying out his duties is long and detailed. The Hoshen (a breastplate); The Ephod, a kind of tunic made with gold, blue, purple and scarlet, fine twisted linen threads. It would have two onyx stones, each engraved with six of the names of the tribes of Israel, and they would be embedded in a gold setting on the shoulders of the garment;  A gold frontlet to be worn on the forehead, with the inscription “Kodesh l’Adonai” (Holy to God); A fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen trousers. The Hoshen was fixed by chains to the shoulders of the ephod and carefully connected, the urim and tumim were placed within it, and twelve different precious stones arranged in four rows of three, one for each of the tribes of Israel.

The clothing was fringed, with pomegranates and golden bells around the hem of the robe so that it would make a sound when the High Priest walked in the sanctuary, and people would be able to hear him.

If all this sounds a little familiar, it is because we dress our scrolls in similar fashion. Tunics of rich materials, beautifully embroidered; crowns and bells – called rimonim, pomegranates, that tinkle when we carry it;  a breastplate – hoshen.

Several times we are told that the High Priest’s clothes are for honour and beauty – kavod v’tiferet. And we have taken from this the idea of adorning our synagogues and Sifrei torah for the same purpose – hiddur mitzvah – beautifying a mitzvah -being the principle behind the decoration of our ritual objects, about the three statutory meals on Shabbat, about creating an aesthetic in our lives that not only glorifies God but makes us more aware of the beauty of our world.

There is much of the language of the text that we don’t really understand:  – what exactly is an ephod? Why did the priest wear a gold engraved plate on his forehead? Why would having bells and pomegranates on the hem of his robe mean that he would not die? What really were the urim and the tumim? Where they objects of divination? How were they used and how does that fit into the ritual system being designed here?   There are so many opaque words and unanswerable questions in this text, but this year one particular expression caught my attention:

וְשַׂמְתָּ֞ אֶת־שְׁתֵּ֣י הָֽאֲבָנִ֗ים עַ֚ל כִּתְפֹ֣ת הָֽאֵפֹ֔ד אַבְנֵ֥י זִכָּרֹ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְנָשָׂא֩ אַֽהֲרֹ֨ן אֶת־שְׁמוֹתָ֜ם לִפְנֵ֧י יְהוָֹ֛ה עַל־שְׁתֵּ֥י כְתֵפָ֖יו לְזִכָּרֹֽן:

You shall place the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, remembrance-stones for the children of Israel. Aaron shall carry their names before God on his two shoulders as a remembrance.  Exodus 28:12

וְנָשָׂ֣א אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן אֶת־שְׁמ֨וֹת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בְּחֹ֧שֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּ֛ט עַל־לִבּ֖וֹ בְּבֹא֣וֹ אֶל־הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ לְזִכָּרֹ֥ן לִפְנֵֽי־יְהוָֹ֖ה תָּמִֽיד:

And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes in to the holy place, for a memorial before the Eternal continually. (28:29)

It was, at first, the two engraved stones on the shoulders of the ephod – “avnei zikaron” – “stones of remembrance” that I noticed – avnei zikaron.  I have recently returned from Lausanne, where with my brother and sister we dedicated a new stone on the grave of my grandfather, who had died there from damages he had originally acquired in Dachau. Having eventually got to a clinic in Switzerland, stateless and without access to any of his assets, he had died and been buried by the community there. My grandmother had arranged a stone to mark the grave, my father had had it repaired, but on a recent visit we saw that his grave was essentially unmarked – the composite the stone had been made from had not held the letters of his name.  Here, to all intents and purposes, lay the body of an unknown man.

We arranged a stone to go onto his grave, and while the stone on a grave is usually called in Hebrew a “matzevah”, from the standing stone marking the grave of the matriarch Rachel, this felt more like an even zikaron, a stone to provoke memory. We felt it was important to not only mark the grave and give our grandfather back his name, but to create something that would cause an onlooker to think about him and to learn something of his essence. So we added  his title – Landgerichstrat – County Court Judge. And we added the name of my grandmother buried in Lugano, of my father buried in Bradford, and the name of his aunt Helene who died in Theresienstadt.  We added the dates of their lives, their relationship to my grandfather and the places where they were born and died. And at the foot of the stone is the acronym found on so many Jewish graves – taf nun tzaddi beit hei – t’hi nishmato tzrurah bitzrur ha’hayim – may their souls be bound up on the threads of life.

Seventy years after his death, we, his descendants whom he never knew and could not even have imagined, found great meaning in creating for him an even zikaron – a memorial stone that not only gave him back his name, but in some way brought him back into the fabric of life. It gave him a measure of dignity; it recorded that here lay a man who loved and was loved, who had had learning and held a respected career, whose family had become scattered – and worse – because of forces we can still not really understand.

So much memory was encapsulated in the engraving.  Four names and their relationship to the man lying there.  A status in society; six towns in four different countries. We stood around that snowy grave under a winter sun and told family stories, traced the journey that had led this man whose family had been in the Lower Saxony area for hundreds of years, to a lonely grave far from those who had loved him. We remembered our father whose yahrzeit, like that of his father, fell that week and how, through him, we had come to know and root ourselves in a world that no longer really exists, yet continues in memory, in some artefacts, and in words.

I have consecrated many gravestones in cemeteries in several countries on different continents, as well as memorial plaques in libraries and synagogues – of family, friends and congregants. But I never understood as I understood then the power of a stone that records and remembers when all else seems to have passed into history, the power of avnei zikaron.

There is a strong idea in Judaism that a person is not forgotten as long as their name is remembered.  This is why the museum dedicated to the Shoah in Israel is called Yad v’Shem – a name taken from Isaiah (56:5) which reads “To them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name (Yad v’Shem) better than sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” –  and is designed to hold memory, to be a place which records and names all those who have no descendants to memorialise them, no one to speak their name and tell their story.    Talmud says that when we teach what we have learned from someone else, we do so b’shem omro-  in their name – and Talmud tells us the lips of deceased teachers move in the grave when we do so – they are continuing to teach and so still attached to life.  We name our children for dead relatives; we blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven – (quite literally in the case of torah scribes who test their pens by writing the name of Amalek on some parchment and crossing it out).  The book of Proverbs tells us that “the memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked rots away (shall be forgotten.)”  Again and again, remembering someone’s name is seen as synonymous with keeping them from the ultimate oblivion of death;

The stones on the breastplate of the High Priest that kept the twelve tribes of Israel before the gaze of God also had the effect of reminding the priest that his service to God was in the name of and on behalf of every single Israelite.  And the Midrash tells us that they were avnei zikaron not only in order that God would remember, but that the Priests would remember.

The Stolpersteine project is another way to keep alive those whose memory was almost entirely obliterated. The artist Gunter Demnig began a project in 1992 to remember the victims of National Socialism, by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavements of their last address of choice. The ordinary cobblestones on the pavements outside their homes are replaced, putting in their place stones with a plaque that bears a simple inscription – the name, date of birth and the date and place of death, if known of each individual. One stone per person. The stones are positioned outside the houses of Jews, Roma, Sinti and others who were murdered by the Nazi regime.  Stolpersteine, stumbling stones, can be found in Germany, Austria, France, Hungary the Netherlands, Belgium the Czech republic, Norway, Italy, the Ukraine, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Finland  and more recently Spain….  What began as a mainly artistic endeavour has turned into a powerful aid for people to create memory, to bring back to life in some way those who disappeared, murdered, their bodies unburied and desecrated. It is a measure of the power of this project that to get one installed will take well over a year, so long is the waiting list of those who wish to commemorate family.

The original meaning of the word stolpersteine used to be “an obstacle”, something that prevented you getting to your goal; but that has changed, the focus is drawn to the immediate now rather than on the horizon. They are designed to provoke thought, to make us see the world around us a little differently for a moment, as the people who once walked those streets until taken away and murdered, come to focus and live for us for a short while. So now one stumbles over the stone in the pavement and stops, reads, thinks of the individuals and the families who lived in the house or apartment adjacent. Tragically they are also the focus of those who do not want to be reminded, do not want to accept any role in remembering. We  know that in December last year twenty of them, which commemorated members of two Italian Jewish families – the Di Consiglio family and the Di Castro family – were hacked out and stolen in Rome, others have been defaced or vandalised.

We are told that the High Priest Aaron wore bells on his clothing so that he didn’t die. It is not really clear how death was prevented, but what is clear is that the people could hear him moving around in that sacred space.  People being aware of him somehow kept him from death.  It is our memories and the stories we tell of those we love that keep them living in some very real way. Their bodies may die but the memory lives on strongly. And the best way we can keep their memory in public attention is to inscribe it on a stone – their names, relevant dates, reminders of the person they were, reminders that they had lived a life, had been bound up in the threads of a fabric in which we too are bound up.

The Avnei Zikaron in the clothing of the High Priest were there primarily to remind both God and human beings of the importance of our history together, of the relationship to each other that has given meaning to both parties.   Stones of memory mean that as long as we will not forget each other we won’t completely die, and that when we die we will not be completely forgotten. And that matters.

The acronym “taf nun tzaddi beit hei” is found on Jewish graves the world over, and refers to the idea that the life being recorded here is not completely ended, but its threads are connected to the continuing future – be it through descendants or stories, be it through the impact the person had on others, their teachings, their behaviour, their actions. After we had recited the psalms, sung the El Malei Rachamim, spoken the words of Kaddish Yatom the mourners kaddish, after we had shared memories and stories of a man we never knew except through his impact on our father, and stories and memories of our father, our grandmother, and the elderly woman murdered in Theresienstadt after 80 years of life in a quiet village tending the family synagogue and the family shop, we bent down and placed on my grandfather’s grave some small stones, one for each of us, one for our parents, and one for each of our children. And then one for the soon to be born baby of the next generation of our family.  Stones put down on sacred space as avnei zikaron, for life goes on.

sermon at lev chadash February 2019

 

Nitzavim: we are our own matzevah, sign of a covenant that we cannot fully understand

Just before the famous opening words of parashat Nitzavim, we see Moses speaking “el col Yisrael” – to all Israel, reminding them that they had seen everything that God had done to Pharaoh and to the people in Egypt, had seen the great trials, signs and wonders, but that God had not given them a heart to know, eyes to see, nor ears to hear until right now.

He then goes into a strange excursus, telling them that “I led you for forty years in the wilderness, your clothes did not grow old nor did your shoes wear out, you have not eaten bread nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that “I am the Eternal your God”.

He speaks of the two kings of the Amorites, Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, of how they battled against the Israelites but were defeated, their land given to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. And so he tells them to observe the words of this covenant and do them, in order that they be successful in all they will do.

So ends the sidra before, and the division is both dramatically powerful and problematically distracting.  Nitzavim begins “You (pl) are standing this day ALL OF YOU, before the Eternal your God – your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers all, a man (sing) of Israel. Your children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. For your passing over into the covenant of the Eternal your God, and its conditions, which the eternal your God is making with you today, in order to establish you today for himself for a people, and he will be for you a God, as he said to you, and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. ”

The image of everyone being present in order to enter into a covenant with God, where all the people would become God’s people and God would have a particular relationship of covenantal obligation with them is hugely appealing. It is made the more so when we see the list of people who will become part of this unbreakable relationship of covenant –from the highest status men of office through to each individual (man), then children, women, strangers who have become part of the group in some way, and finally the most menial labourers often invisible to the rest of society. Leaving aside the androcentric society of bible for a moment, we see a real equality in the covenant – it doesn’t matter your gender or your status, whether you are Israelite or resident stranger, your position as regards the covenant with God is the same.

So lovely is this thought that it is easy to not notice other nudges in the text. The elision of Moses and God is deeply problematic to me – not only does he tell the people that this is a moment of revelation which had been hidden for the previous forty years because God had not given them the abilities to perceive what most of their lives had been about, he also doesn’t seem to be quoting God so much as claiming God’s role.  While the presence of the people, all of the people, is accentuated in this text, so that Moses tells them that not only those present that day but also those who were not present that day (understood in tradition to be both all the future descendants of the people present, and also all who would enter the covenant via conversion to Judaism), the presence of God is harder to ascertain. Moses seems to stand in for God at the introduction of this covenant. And after the fearsome predictions of what would happen in both this and future generations when the people will forsake God and in turn be forsaken, along with the land, we are told “the secret/ hidden things belong to the Eternal our God, but what is revealed belongs to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this torah/teaching”

There is a play about hidden and revealed going on in this text, made explicit at the beginning and end of the chapter, and this makes all the more dangerous the signing up to a covenant which cannot be fully understood.

As if to underline this play of hiding/revealing in the context of a treaty or covenant, the text nudges us to two other biblical narratives, neither of which comforts us.

Firstly is the phrase “atem nitzavim”  coming from the Hebrew root yod tzadi beit, it is in the niphal (reflexive) form meaning not so much standing as “you are setting yourselves up” or “taking one’s stand”.  It is a curious phrase, and it causes us to think of other uses of the root – more often found as the noun form of ‘matzevah”. The first time we meet the word is after the dream of the ladder when the young Jacob realises that he has met God, he rises early in the morning, takes the stone he had put under his head the night before, sets it up as a pillar (matzevah) and pours oil over it in a religious ritual, vowing “If God will be with me, will keep me on this way that I go, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I will be able to return to my father’s house in peace, THEN will the Eternal be my God, and this stone, that I have set up as a pillar (matzevah) will be the house of God….”(Gen 28:18-22)

Later, when Jacob is about to return to his homeland and has to negotiate his leaving with his father in law Laban, Laban tells him  “And now come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be for a witness between me and you.’ So Jacob takes a stone and raises it for a matzevah (Gen 31:44,45)

The original use of the word matzevah seems to be not just an upstanding stone to mark a place, but a physical marker of a covenant that is being made.

Moses uses the word differently though – “Atem Nitzavim” may legitimately be translated as: “You are standing”, but it has echoes of more than physically being on one’s feet – it means “you are setting yourselves up as a matzevah, you are physically yourselves the sign of the covenant that is being made between yourselves and God”

The second nudge is the phrase translated as “from hewers of wood to drawers of water”.  Besides the fact that there is little difference at the very bottom of the social scale being a hewer of wood or a drawer of water it is referring to those who  are using brute strength to service the society which will barely notice their efforts (though it will most certainly notice if they stop).

The phrase is not common – apart from here it appears in the Book of Joshua (chapter 9) which recounts a covenant that is not what it seems.  Once again the Amorite Kings  Sihon of Heshbon, and  Og king of Bashan are referenced, this time their defeat has led other inhabitants (the Hivites or Gibeonites both appear in this role) to dress in worn out clothing, with worn shoes and stale bread and patched wine skins (more resonances to the passage here in Deuteronomy) and pose as being travellers from a distant land who have heard of the acts of God done in Egypt and who have come to this land in order to meet these people of God and to make a treaty so as to live together with them in peace.  The Israelites are flattered, they take the food and wine that are offered, and critically they do not “take counsel from the Eternal”. After three days of covenant making/celebrating,  Joshua and the Israelites find that the people were not who they had said they were, but were long term inhabitants of the land and were now protected from the oncoming Israelites by treaty. In response to their having lied, and to their protected status, Joshua  acknowledged that they would live, but he curses them – they are to be bondmen to the Israelites, in particular “there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.’

There are too many echoes in this tale from the Book of Joshua.  As we are told there is “no before and no after in torah” one has to read each story in the light of the other.  So when Moses alludes to the covenant being made on the edge of the land, the covenant between God and the people, he is warning them both that covenants can be made without full knowledge, that some things may only come to light later, that ultimately we take things on trust and sometimes that trust is misplaced.

Sometimes too the upshot of not knowing something can be of real disbenefit, sometimes we can live with it sometimes it is hard to live with.

But we are ourselves the matzevah, we have set ourselves up for this covenant and we are the physical signs of its existence. We are so intertwined – our lives, our very selves are part of the covenant – that we can never free ourselves of it. We are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the people who keep society going with tasks that are not honoured but are honourable.  We are also the people who take a leap in the dark with God, who retain trust even when there is no obvious reason to do so.

Nowadays we use the word matzevah to mean a tomb stone, the marker of a body that rests in the earth having finished its tasks in life.  It provides solidity, certainty, finality.  But I do like the idea of the matzevah that is the living human being, the one that is uncertain, ongoing, working in the dark to some extent, living in hope.  As we enter the Days of Awe, the days of risk, of trying to make ourselves our best selves, the days when we wonder what God thinks of us, being a living matzevah, a living sign of the covenant between us and God must surely be a powerful sign and reminder we have trusted God all these years, and we hope to have reason to trust as we journey into the future.

image the stone said to be Lot’s wife in Sdom from wikimedia