Torah from Around the World #322

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By: Rabbi Neal Borovitz,

Temple Avodat Shalom

, River Edge, New Jersey, USA

On Thursday May 5th, Jews around the world will stop and remember the six million Jews who perished during the ‘Kingdom of Night’* that we have come to call the Holocaust. While every day is a Yahrzeit for unimaginable numbers who died during the horrors of World War II, Yom HaShoah was chosen as the Day of Commemoration by the Israeli government and world Jewry because it marked the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising the best known moment of Jewish Resistance to the Nazis.

The word Holocaust means “devastation by fire.” Our Torah portion this week is “

Achre Mot

,” which translates into English as, “After the death.” Here in Leviticus 16, God speaks to Aaron, the High Priest, after Aaron’s silent response, six chapters earlier to the “devastating fire” that consumes his sons Nadav and Abihu at the Alter to God. Our Torah portion opens with the words:

“God spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the Presence of God. God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.”(Leviticus 16:1-2)

By simply noting that after the death of his sons, Nadav and Abihu, Aaron and his remaining sons continue performing their ritual responsibilities, most particularly the ritual of atonement proscribed for Yom Kippur, this week’s Torah reading raises the questions:

How could Aaron’s response to his sons’ deaths be silence? Why did the High Priest of Israel continue to perform God’s service without seeking an explanation for the death of his two sons?

Many of the classic commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, have inferred from the reading of chapters 10 and 16 as a continuing narrative, that the sin for which Nadav and Abihu were executed was entering the Holy of Holies without Divine invitation. Others have suggested that the “

Ash Zara

”, the alien fire, is a reference to some form of idolatry. My question to the text in light of the alien fires of Auschwitz is: How could Aaron have remained silent? If Nadav and Abihu committed a sin, why don’t Moses or Aaron or the unnamed voice of the Torah text explain it to us? Moreover, when should our response to death and destruction of those around us be silence and when must our response be action?

The questions become even more compelling this year, as we will read Achre Mot on Yom Ha-Shoah, not only remembering the world’s silence at the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, but also the deafening silence of the contemporary world to the deaths of over 400,000 Syrians; the deaths of countless thousands in Sudan and the scores of Israelis and Palestinians who are victims of terror every month. World Union editing constraints requires that “

Divre Torah

”, for this distribution site be submitted at least one month ahead of publication. Thus, while you are reading this the week of Yom Ha Shoah, I am writing this on the eve of Purim, and on the day of the tragic terror attack in Brussels on March 22nd.

After all this death, how should you and I respond?

For me one response is found in a meditation included in the Yom Ha Shoah service in

Gates of Prayer

, and also in

Mishkan T’filah

, attributed to Ferdinand Isserman, an early 20th century American Reform rabbi, who wrote:

“Pray as if everything depends upon God and act as if everything depends upon you”.

On this Yom Ha Shoah perhaps the choice is not between the silence of Aaron and the activism of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, but rather, in seeking a balance between these two options. After the death of his sons, Aaron, in his silence, agrees to continue to serve God and his community. In the face of the continuing death of so many innocent victims of terrorism, we Jews of the 21st century, must faithfully choose to do the same.

To allow ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah, to silence our prayers and to fracture our faith, is to cede to them victory. Silence that leads us to prayers of affirmation and to remember with love the lives of victims of hate, can be an affirmative action. However, like the Jews of Warsaw in 1943, we must recognize that there are times when serving God means taking action.

As America, Israel, and so many other countries go forth in their struggle against terror and hatred, there will continue to be times when, reluctantly, we will find ourselves sending our children to war. There will also be times when the most powerful and proper response to our enemies will be silence. When, in the words of Rabba bar Abba, we must say:

“God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile and to those who slander me let me give no heed.”

My God grant each of us, and especially the leaders of America, Israel, and all countries fighting terror, the strength and the wisdom to know when each of these opposite responses is the correct one. As we are taught in the book of Kohelet

“For everything there is a season a time for every experience under the sun …a time for war and a time for peace … a time to speak out and a time to be silent …”




Wiesel, Romanian-born writer, professor, political activist, Holocaust
survivor, and Nobel Laureate,

has described
what he experienced during the Holocaust as “The Kingdom of Night.”
His memoir, translated into more than 30 languages, is called

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