Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Setting Precedence

Sometimes, especially in Israel, when we least expect it, we have experiences that move us to the depth of our soul. That happened to me last Shabbat at mincha services in my neighborhood shule. There I and about 150 men got to honor Rav Ben-Yishai, the father of the Fogel family brutally murdered in Itamar. The shiva was over just Shabbat morning. Rav Ben-Yishai came to shule and received an aliya.
During shiva the mourner is not allowed to receive an aliya. This represented his first opportunity since the tragic murder of his children and grandchildren.

When his name was called he proceeded to the shulchan to receive his aliya. The whole community of men rose as one, spontaneously, to pay him homage. And they remained standing until his honor was complete. The silence in the synagogue was deafening. Each man was transfixed in heartfelt solidarity with Rav Ben-Yishai and his family.

Most of those present, indeed most in Israel, knew of Rav Ben-Yishai's eloquent eulogy at the funeral of his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.Many had travelled North for the service. Others read his remarks in the papers or heard it on radio. Rav Ben-Yishai, in the face of this unspeakable tragedy, evidenced great courage. He insisted on praising his G-d and recommitting himself to his faith and his People, the core values of his murdered family.
He, like so many men and women before him, accepted G-d's will even at a time of so great a loss.

Indeed this is essentially our mandate as Jews. We are all of us called upon, in times most dark and painful, to accept the will of the Divine. Mourners in their moment of greatest pain recite a bracha validating the decision of our G-d as just and rightful. At the graveside the grief stricken assembled recite "Zadok Hadin", a prayer in which we proclaim all G-d's deeds as good. While the circumstances of Rav Ben-Yishai's family were more horrific and the tragedy more difficult to accept, he was essentially following the precedent of the heroic men and women of our people who submit their will to the will of their G-d no matter the circumstances.

In this context it becomes difficult to comprehend this week's parsha of Sh'mini, in particular,the story of the tragic deaths of Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu died during the celebration of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the house of G-d built by the Israelites in the wilderness. The Torah tells us their sin was "bringing into the sanctuary and strange fire". The consequence, they died a sudden death. As we might expect, Aharon, their father, was devastated. Yet after Moshe, his brother, offers him brief words of comfort, we are told "Aharon kept silent". In the face of an overwhelming personal tragedy Aharon accepted G-d's will and contained any anger or negative emotion he might have had.
He continued to perform the rituals of the day as he was required.

Tradition teaches that Aharon was greatly praised for his self-control and devotion in the face of his great loss. He received unique blessings from G-d for his faithfulness. His action is lauded as heroic. Yet we might wonder why? What did Aharon do so much more than that which every Jew is required when confronting a personal tragedy. Moreover while Aharon silently accepted G-d's will, men and women throughout our history made blessings and publicly proclaimed G-d's righteousness, a seemingly harder thing to do. If we place Rav Ben-Yishai's response to his huge tragedy next to Aharon's response it would seem Rav Ben-Yishai's was the more noteworthy. On what basis does Aharaon earn all the acclaim for his silence?

And a similar question can be asked about Avraham and the story of the binding of Yitzchak. Anyone familiar with our liturgy knows that over and over we beseech G-d that He have compassion on us in merit of Avraham's great commitment,being willing to sacrifice Yitzchak. Why is Avraham's act so significant. Our history is sadly replete with men and women who not only gave their lives 'al kiddush Hashem',sanctifying G-d name, but surrendered their children to death rather than see them forced to embrace a foreign faith.

The answer to both questions I think is the same. And it leads us to a great truth. Let me couch the answer with this vignette. In my life I have had many non-Jewish friends. Sometimes they ask me about Jewish practices. When I tell them about fasting on Yom Kippur they are astounded. "You mean you fast 25 hours and you don't die?" they ask. They continue "You must be drinking during the fast". They cannot imagine the self-control that even the most minimally observant Jew undertakes. And the same feeling they express with regards to abstaining from eating in non-kosher restaurants. How do you do it? they ask. "How do you pass up opportunities to eat when you are hungry?"

What they do not understand is that we are inculcated into a certain way of life with certain behaviors from the time we are young. What's near impossible for them to imagine,is for the Observant Jew second nature. What we have learned to practice is so much easier than it would be for someone not oriented into that way of life.

Its true what Aharon did in remaining silent to the tragic death of his two eldest sons would not stand out in light of the heroic embracing of the will of the Divine expressed by parents through the generations. Nor even would Avraham's sacrifice of Yitzchak be so unique an expression of devotion in the context of the history of Jewish martyrdom. But Aharon and Avraham were the first. No one prior had ever demonstrated the faithfulness they displayed. True we have done equally great things. But we had their precedent. They set the example and from them we embraced a set of expectations that made accepting G-d judgement and even martyrdom, if not easy, at least doable. Aharon and Avraham had no models. They had to do the unprecedented. We who are schooled from the time of our youth in their stories and the stories of other heroes through our history have not nearly the same challenge.

And whats in this for you and me? Well it seems to me that any strengths we have in terms of personal character traits or in terms of religious practice was made more plausible because we had family members or teachers who set an example and paved the way for our excellence. We did not have to invent our good behavior or conduct, our courage or uncommon devotion.We did not have to be original in caring or compassion, in patience and acceptance. We had orientation, or, at least, we had role models.

It is for us to create the precedence for our children and community.
When we find the wherewith all to be happy in the face of adversity or to maintain faith when things seem bad, when we show kindness even to people different from us or extend ourselves even when its uncomfortable, we make it that much easier for others to do similarly. Our behavior sets the mode. Those who matter to us need only to follow, a much easier path, and one now much more likely to be chosen with us having taken the lead.

We all have virtues learned and integrated because of those who came before us. What have we given those who will follow?

Shabbat Shalom

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