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

 

Yom haZikaron la’Shoah ve’la’Gevurah: The day for remembering the Shoah and for remembering the Bravery.

vati passport 1Tonight we begin Yom HaZikaron la’ Shoah ve’la’Gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה – The day for remembering the Shoah and the Heroism.

Around six million Jews and five million others were targeted by the Nazis and were murdered in the Shoah. LGBTQ people, Travellers (Roma), Communists, the mentally or physically frail, Jehovah’s witnesses, the people who opposed the decrees – they too perished simply for being who they were.

From 1933, as German Jews were stripped of having legal and economic status, till 1945 when Hitler was finally defeated, the Shoah was not one large act but a huge multiplicity of smaller and ongoing acts, and the bravery and heroism we also remember was equally often the actions of individuals whose values led them to refuse to partake or support, or to support hidden Jews, or to resist in numerous quiet ways.

My family have, as have many families like us, threads of stories about what happened to us.  The voices to tell the stories are few – we have had to collect and collate information from many different sources, we have had to research and visit places in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland… to try to find the streets and the buildings, and rarely the cemeteries, where our family members found some rest for a short while before journeying onwards.  Some stories come from memories recounted to us when we were young and the teller was feeling particularly open or vulnerable, some stories are found in legal documents, in letters, in photographs, in lists of names for deportation.   Some stories are embedded in the names given to us at birth, in recipes, in particular family traditions. My family, like the families of many like us in the UK and America, have made deep roots in a very short time in the new places we live in now, others find themselves unable to come back from the violent uprooting they suffered, and so remain consistently rootless.

The pain we memorialise on Yom HaShoah travels down the generations. The silence of survivors doggedly refusing to tell their stories until almost too late, has been more profound and more powerful than speech. The anguish of families torn apart, with most disappeared or murdered, has an effect on the remnant that survives, be it spoken of or be it suppressed. I can still hear my 87 year old father asking – “but have I got any other family in the world besides the family I created? And “I wonder what my father would have thought of me”

The enormity of the Shoah is too much to process. The pain of individuals is too much to bear.

And yet we must continue to tell the story as best we can. We can tell the stories within our families, we can tell the stories of one community, one street, one house, one person. It comes down again and again to the personal stories, the fear and loss of individuals, the pain and terror of one human being.

And we must alongside tell the stories of bravery and heroism. The family with the same name as a Jewish family living in an apartment block who gave their papers to the Jewish family when the Gestapo came to call. The people who warned small children playing out –“don’t go back home, the soldiers are there, find somewhere else to go but don’t go home”. The people who hid Jews in their homes at their own risk, who faced down authorities and refused to accede to their demands, who gave out visas or forged documents to help people escape certain death.

One thing we learn is that fascism starts small, with many small acts of distortion – seeding fake news, calling out truth as if it is fake, skewing and manipulating public opinion, destroying trust in any source of information, acts of violence that are not confronted, racist dog-whistling, gaslighting – the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. This last – coming from the play by Patrick Hamilton “Gas Light” which premiered 1938 – is done not only by individuals but by governments and nation states. Hitler made promises, asserted facts and then later would act as if this had never happened.  The destabilising effect of what you know to be true suddenly apparently being false or non-existent is increasingly apparent once more in the politics of Trump, of Brexit, of the populist parties gaining power in Europe.

Fascism starts with many small acts of distortion. It is neutralised by clarity, transparency and truthfulness.

It is neutralised too by every act being called out for what it is at the level at which it occurs. Every taxi driver ranting on about a Brexit dividend or with a racist agenda, every dinner guest, every work colleague. Politeness is the enemy of honesty on occasion and allows the hatred to flourish as the hater believes their agenda is agreed.

The small acts of heroism alongside and during the Shoah are what gives me faith in the future, gives me a hope for the present, and also directs my own actions. I cannot stand idly by and hear racism, anti-European rhetoric, anti-Muslim spew. I will not stand idly by.  We must have faith in our own perceptions and our own values and not allow the gaslighting. We must be strong in what we know to be right – human dignity for all, support and care – and resources – for the vulnerable, honesty and transparency in our politics.

The word Shoah probably comes from a root meaning to ravage, to destroy, to devastate and is connected to the word used in the ten commandments – la’shav (do not take the name of the Eternal God La’shav) – meaning empty or vain, desolate or ruin.  One of my favourite glosses on this root as it appears in the third commandment is that we must not damage the world in the name of God, not destroy others – who also hold the reflection of God within them – for a misplaced sense of what God must be like.

I love too the modern midrash on the root Shoah which is made up of the three Hebrew letters Shin, Alef Hei.

The letter Shin has a shushing sound. A soothing sound we make to frightened children, the sound when there is nothing to say except “I’m here with you”

The letter Alef is silent; it reminds us of the silence of Aaron in the face of the sudden death of his sons, the shocked inability to respond at all as we freeze in our horror at the reality of what we are facing.

But the letter Hei, often used to designate the name of God, reminds us that at the end of it all, God is still with us. And it too has a soft and gentle sound, the sound of breathing.  At the end of the Shoah- even after all this time since the end, we can still say nothing to remedy or to heal the dislocation and pain we still endure and live with, but God is still with us, and we are still able to breath and to live, and to look forward in the hope of a life of peacefulness and with all the breath we have to fight the forces that would take that peace away.

 

photo of my grandfather’s reisepass with the red J firmly stamped.