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

 

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.