Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Shemini Yahrzeit

...and now, something personal, written 2 October 2007:

I returned a few weeks ago from a visit to the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in North Austria and the nearby sites of various “death-by-work” sub-camps where my father had been a prisoner. He would have certainly died there, in Gunzkirchen near Wels, but for the 71st Infantry Division of the US Army who discovered the forest camp where he had been marched in the last days of the war, along with thousands of other prisoners, to be starved to death in wooden barracks, a short walk from Red Cross stores laden with food.

Several people have commented that this emotionally-charged visit must have been difficult for me. It wasn’t. I stayed at a business-class hotel in Linz, overlooking the Danube, and I moved around the various sites, museums and the documentary archives in Vienna, in physical comfort and safety, despite remnants of anti-Semitism that are still obvious in the area. I feel privileged to research, explore and better understand what my father experienced.

Last year at the time of Dad’s Yahrzeit[1], on Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot[2], I felt that that seventh Yahrzeit was a very important milestone; a significant new stage in my life. I asked myself: what is my responsibility? What is my mission? What can I learn from Dad’s life?

Now Dad’s eighth Yahrzeit is approaching, tomorrow. What does this shmenini[3] milestone mean to me?

The day after tomorrow is Shemini Atzeret [the Eighth Day of Assembly]. At the time of the Temple the nation gathered in Jerusalem for Sukkot. Afterwards the nation will not gather again in Jerusalem until Pesach. Shemini Atzeret adds to Sukkot and delays the dispersal briefly. We linger in the sukkah, reluctant to part. We express the same feeling by reciting Yizkor that day. We are reluctant to part with our loved ones…

The eighth day of Pesach is also a shemini milestone. On the seventh day of Pesach the Red Sea split… a miracle so great that the entire Jewish people declared ze Eli (“This is my G-d”). So why do we say that the eighth day of Pesach surpasses the seventh? In Parshat Beshelach[4] it is written that “… Israel saw the mighty hand which the Hashem had wielded against the Egyptians, and the people revered the Hashem[5], and believed in the Hashem,” why is “believed” used? If we actually “saw” the miracle why did we have to also “believe”? But even a miracle doesn’t fully express Hashem’s essence: the promise of a better world to come. We saw the miracle, and we also believed in a better future. This is also why on that day we read a Haphtorah [6]with prophecies of when “a wolf will dwell with a lamb” and “a small child will lead them”. So the eighth day of Pesach is at a higher level than the seventh.

Yet another shemini milestone is Parshat Shemini[7], which is read on the Shabbat[8] immediately after Pesach. Here shemini refers to the eighth day of the consecration of the altar in the temple. During the seven preceding days Moses ministered in the consecration, but on the seventh day Hashem told Moses that his brother Aaron would take over. He was to be the Cohen Hagadol (High Priest). The words ki hayom Hashem nira uleikhem (“for to-day the Lord appears to you”) indicate that despite all the sacrifices and efforts of the inaugural seven days, Hashem’s presence was felt only when Aaron put on the robes of Cohen Hagadol, on the eighth day. The inaugural seven days of consecration refer to the ultimate of human efforts. However, the eighth day refers to a level that transcends human efforts…a greater potential. And “all the people saw and gave praise and fell on their faces.”

And so shevi’i (seven) refers to the complete natural order. (Seven days in a week, seven years to the Shmitta[9] year.) Shemini (eight) refers to a level that transcends the natural order: is not bound by finite constraints. It hints at the better world to come, the ultimate achievement of tikkun olam. This is why the Mashiach[10] is also called the 8th of the princes of men; and why the Temple kinor (violin) had 7 strings, but the kinor in the days of Mashiach will have 8 strings.

And so on my father’s shemini Yahrzeit, I feel able to rejoice in his memory. I feel confident in the future.

I’m proud of his resilience and consequent survival; proud that he emerged from the Shoah, like steel from the hottest fire: a paragon of strength and determination. I’m proud that he rushed from Europe to Eretz Yisrael [11]to defend the rebirth of the nation. He has led us, by his example, to continue to defend the nation and Klal Yisrael[12].

I’m thankful that he chose a safe haven in Australia, a land of freedom in which our family is regaining its strength and numbers, and a land which is amongst Israel’s best friends. I truly believe that I, and my children, can and will make a difference in contributing towards tikkun Olam[13]. We are all privileged to build on his achievements and thankful for the capability to now act in his stead.

[1] Yahrzeit – the Jewish custom of annual commemoration of the death of a parent, sibling or child. The commemoration is in accordance with the lunar calendar, as is the determination of the Jewish festivals.
[2] Sukkot – the feast of the Tabernacles.
[3] Shemini – eighth
[4] Parshat Beshelach – portion of the Torah: Exodus 13:17-17:16
[5] Hashem – “the name” (the Almighty …)
[6] Haphtorah – a reading from the Prophets
[7] Parshat Shemini – portion of the Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47
[8] Shabbat – the sabbath
[9] Shmitta – the sabbatical year (every seven years) when the land lies fallow.
[10] Mashiach – the Messiah
[11] Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel.
[12] Klal Yisrael – refers to the Jewish world globally and all-inclusively.
[13] tikkun Olam – “repairing the world”, refers to doing good deeds and making the world a better place for all.

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