26 Mar 2015

Tsav – Shabbat HaGadol 5775: Bridges to Life

Tsav – Shabbat HaGadol 5775: Bridges to Life

Tragedy lies behind the surface of this week’s parasha. As Aharon and his sons are inducted into the priesthood, the parasha culminates with a command to the newly ordained kohanim not to leave the new Mishkan for seven days. The Hakhamim see this as a preemptive “shiva” or mourning over a sudden and devastating loss.

At the door of the Tent of Meeting you must sit for seven days…’ (8:35)

             Moshe was telling Aharon, “Sit in mourning for seven days before tragedy strikes”.

            After they kept the seven days of mourning, the eighth day arrived and Nadav and Avihu                    went in and were struck down.[1]

Parashat Tzav’s traditionally assigned haftara does not bring a positive cap to the sombre ending. It is a chapter from Jeremiah[2] that speaks of human tragedy in raw form. Many congregations will replace the normal haftara of Tsav with a special haftara this week in honour of Shabbat haGadol, the Shabbat before Pesah. This haftara as well, from the book of Malakhi[3], is peppered with harsh rebuke and tragic scenes. For some reason tragedy introduces the festival of freedom.

This week, Jewish people around the world were devastated by the news of seven children who lost their lives in a house fire in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, New York. These children lived in a community that I served for fifteen years. As I write this I still have not had the courage to hear the eulogies, nor have I found the ability to absorb the magnitude and depth of this terrible calamity. My mind and heart, like many of our brothers and sisters around the world, have been shocked into a still and soulful mourning.

In a sense, our species is the most vulnerable on the planet because of how deeply we love. It is because of the depths of the love and care that we have for others that we are also vulnerable to great pain and sorrow when we lose them. This loss can be so grievous that we find ourselves driven to question its meaning in the hopes that if we understand even a bit of why it happened, we might find a way to accommodate the loss into our lives and heal. But the best way of healing is not to accommodate the tragedy into our individual lives, for the tragedy itself removes us from our connections to the world and its grandeur, and neither our efforts nor those of all of mankind can bring such atrocities into balance. Rather, somehow, we must seek to reconnect our lives, along with the tragedy into the grand design, to step back and be astonished by its splendour and once again become part of it and face the future as bravely as we can.

In loss we find ourselves feeling alone, reduced, and isolated because we have been stripped of connections that help us integrate our lives into this world. Our family and those we love and cherish, who bring us joy and brighten our hearts, are our bridges and life-lines out of the solitude of our own lives and into the complex beauty that is G-d’s creation. When one experiences the loss of even one of these individuals, it is as if an entire world leaves us and a bridge is crushed. The loss of seven of the most precious, is shattering.

There are no words that can initiate the reconstruction of such bridges. There are no explanations, theories, or pontifications that can truly soothe the wounds and mend the fractures. All that can be done in order to begin healing loss of such magnitude is to attempt to bring forth the wholeness of life in the hope that it might envelop those whose bridges have fallen. We do this not with words, but with embrace. In our bonds with each other we give way to what is greater than ourselves. We allow a wholeness to emerge that provides a unique place for every individual within it. In that emergence loss becomes absorbed into the eternal saga of life itself. In that space is where the nation of Israel exists — as it always has, despite its difficult and challenging presence on this earth — and it lives, filled with all the lives of those who have ever been and ever will be part of it. The outpouring of people at the eulogies and funeral of the precious Sassoon children in honour of their lives and in support of their father Gabriel and the surviving family members, along with the prayers, and heartfelt tears of our worldwide family, brings that holy emergence to us all. It brings forth a sacred whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

On Shabbat HaGadol we anticipate Pesah and its lessons of freedom. But Pesah is about more than the celebration of liberty. It is also about the loss of countless people who died under horrific conditions in Egypt, but whose souls departed with the nation and marched forth towards its eternal destiny and found peace.

It is, therefore, in our embrace of each other — our mutual care and support for one another that extends beyond our personal philosophies and attitudes — that we find our greatest strength and comfort. Inherent in our consciousness is the visceral understanding that we must support each other not only with our words, but with our selves.

[1] Vayikra Rabba, 12:2

[2] Chapter 7

[3] Chapter 3