on the occasion of a bat mitzvah and a young military death, a prayer for mindfulness and action **

    In the midst of the Viet Nam War, the great folk-singer/writer Steve Goodman wrote: “Tonight there’s 50,000 gone in that unhappy land, and 50,000 Heart ‘n Souls being played with just one hand.” Today, here and around the world, there are still too many empty spaces in the lives of young people… too many un-drunk welcome-home beers, too many lives reduced to a photo on a t-shirt, too many unshared stories, and too many unmaterialized adulthoods.

    In memory of the lost and for the ones we might yet save, let us pray:

As we celebrate the flourishing of some young people in our community, let us be ever aware of our many youth with no such opportunities for learning, support, and affirmation… or even the chance to grow up.

Keep us mindful: when young people suffer injustice or die in violence — whether in wars, declared or otherwise, or in seemingly endless street violence — it is the elders who have failed.

In honor of the many who do not thrive or survive, let us redouble our prayers for justice and peace.
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for the family of Trayvon Martin, all mourners, and toward justice for all
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During all the years that Israel was in the wilderness, on the eve of every ninth of Av, Moses sent a herald throughout the camp to proclaim, “Go out and dig graves, go out and dig graves!” and the people went out and dug graves, in which they spent the night. In the morning, the herald went and announced, “Let those who are alive separate from the dead!” The living then stood up and found themselves some fifteen thousand short [NOTE: One-fortieth of the adults died each year — see parashat Shelach-Lecha for narrative explanation]….In the last of the forty years, they did the same….finally when they saw that not one of them had died, they said: It appears that the Holy One has removed the harsh decree from over us. The declared that day a festival. Continue reading

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u] and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that [YHVH] has wrought.” Continue reading

Students of Torah know that the text rarely spends time describing the emotional state of its characters. In fact, this is the only Torah portion that shares details of mourning for a woman. Abraham’s tears for his wife here are quite unexpected, and in order to understand their power, we have to understand their context.

Thought I usually resent any broad generalizations that all men behave in a certain manner, it does seem clear that when they suffer a death, a strong majority of men are less comfortable expressing their feelings and more comfortable springing into action. We are good at making the arrangements, at picking people up at the airport. We show our love less by heartfelt expression than by demonstrable deeds. Continue reading

…and Abraham came to eulogize [lis’pod] Sarah and to bewail her [v’liv’kotah*]. (Stone**)

…mourn for Sarah and bewail her. (Plaut/JPS and TWC**)

…to mourn Sarah and to keen for her. (Alter**)

…set about to lament for Sara and to weep over her. (Fox*) Continue reading