TEARS OF RELIEF

For the longest time, a set of faux dog tags bearing the names of Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman hung behind my office chair in my New Jersey Synagogue. The fate of those three Israeli soldiers, who fell into the hands of the enemy during the 1982 War in Lebanon were unknown and the three soldiers were therefore listed as missing in action. While I do not recall whatever happened to those dog tags, they came to mind this past week, when it was announced that Israel had secured the remains of Sergeant Zachary Baumel.

I pray that there much needed closure for the family. I hope that three much needed messages will continue to live on, long after Zachary’s remains have been laid to rest at Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, last week.

We Jews do not forget. It’s part of our collective DNA. Next week, countless Jewish families throughout the world, will be sitting down to special dinner accompanied by Haggadahs, to recall an event that occurred over three millennia ago. Those who include traditional daily prayer as part of their spiritual diet, are reminded of that event twice each day. It is our ancestors being taken out of Egypt.  I cannot help but feel that as Jews, we remember people and events – perhaps not as many as we ought to – but more than many other nations. As Jews, we not only remember foes, but we remember friends as well. Last Thursday evening in Jerusalem, thousands came to remember, as Zachary Baumel finally received a proper burial service, in accordance with Jewish law.
The next time you are in search for a topic for dinner conversation, you may wish to remind guests seated around the table that in Judaism, we believe that there is sanctity to the human body. That’s why we have a Chevra Kaddisha; that’s why the Jewish community will do anything and everything in its power so that that every Jew receives a Jewish burial. Bodies of the deceased are to be accorded dignity and respect. Does according dignity and respect to the human body, also apply to wanton murderers and terrorists who prey upon the innocent? Are the bodies of murderers and terrorists to be accorded the same dignity and respect as their victims? Is the Jewish view of a human body absolute, or does that view allow for exceptions, when it comes to those who willfully desecrate human bodies?  One thing is for sure. The 37-year-old remains of Zachary Baumel were accorded dignity and respect, as they were laid to rest at Mount Herzl, the same cemetery when Jonathan Netanyahu, the hero  of the raid at Entebbe, lies buried.

Even though not all Israelites left Egypt under Moshe’s leadership, independent of the fact that any number of Israelites known as the mixed multitude “took it on the lamb” with our ancestors, as they charted their course for the wilderness, we of later generations have adopted “no Jew left behind” as our credo. This credo is very much ingrained in each and every soldier of the Israel Defense Forces. As a people, we do not differentiate between the living and the dead. Given the choice, members of the Baumel family would have done anything to have received Zachary back alive. Nevertheless, they left no stone unturned at receiving him back as earthly remains.
Come Pesach, the message of true liberation must not be defined as mere commemoration. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder and digest what “Jews do not forget” truly means. If our history is beyond compare, shouldn’t our collective memory be beyond compare as well?  For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder with renewed appetite toward dignity and respect toward our fellow Jew. If our tradition mandates that we  accord honor to the dead, how much more so ought we to accord honor  to the living. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” must take on real meaning, so that no Jew is overlooked or left behind and we set an extra seat for someone who might not have been invited to a Pesach Seder.

Toward the beginning of the Seder, as we participate in “karpas,” may the salt water remind us of the tears of relief shed by the Baumel family last week.

MORE THAN WE CAN POSSIBLY BELIEVE

I attended a Baptist memorial service last Friday. For me, it was a most positive experience — one that I recommend to other rabbis and other Jews, as well. Having listened as objectively as possible to the minister, from a Baptist perspective I cannot help but feel that he is deserving of a big Yasher Koach for doing an excellent job.

More importantly, however, from a Jewish perspective, attending a Christian service afforded me the opportunity to realize what I, as a rabbi (and, by extension, what I as a Jew) simply do not believe in. For it is only after realizing what I as a Jew do not believe that I can better understand and appreciate — as well as put in a clearer perspective — what I do believe, as well as what makes us Jews so very different.

The minister focused on death. He made a point of correctly pointing out that we will never again find ourselves in the unenviable position of bidding that most difficult and heart wrenching final farewell (“difficult and heart wrenching” are my words…always the rabbi!). Typically, a Jewish memorial service focuses on life. Rather than bidding farewell to the deceased, we are apt to spend time on saying “hello” by introducing or at least reminding those assembled of the good, decent and, hopefully, even remarkable aspects of the deceased’s character via anecdotes about the deceased’s life. I have no idea who coined the phrase “celebration of life” to serve as a euphemism for a funeral service, but, when you stop to think about it, that’s precisely what we Jews have been doing for the longest time as we recall the positive and uplifting, even though the hearts of so many in attendance seem to be pulling in the opposite direction.

As Jews, we seem to be very uncomfortable whenever we are reminded that the deceased is now in a better place. We shouldn’t be. That’s precisely what Judaism teaches — but in no way dwells upon. As “heavenly” as death may be for the deceased, from time immemorial we Jews have adopted the attitude of “what’s your hurry?” In fact, this is exactly what went through my mind as I listened to the minister remind us that our dearly departed is now “whole again” and free from any aches, pains and disabilities that had set in over the years.

Yet I had another thought in mind, as well: Provided we are blessed with mental acuity until the very end of our lives, the longer we are here in this world the greater the opportunity we have of continuing to become a better individual. Accordingly, Jews can’t help but feel that death “got in the way”.

I’ve lost count of how many times Jesus was invoked by the minister, which, when all is said and done, is quite proper as well as theologically correct from a Baptist perspective. The thing is, each time I heard the minister mention Jesus I realized that our admittance into heaven as Jews rests primarily in our belief not in any savior but in ourselves. Our ultimate reward is solely dependent on our ability to stay true to the mitzvot which, if done correctly, will result in our becoming better selves. Judaism maintains that the greater one’s self-improvement becomes, the greater the likelihood of clear sailing into heaven.

At the risk of sounding smug, I’ve never been concerned about having to provide an answer to the question “Did you believe in HaShem?” What does concern me — more than you can ever know — is finding out whether HaShem believed in me!

As Jews, we are all too quick to dismiss such words when we hear them coming from a minister. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that there is absolutely nothing any minister can possible teach us as Jews. Perhaps not. One thing is for certain, though: Listening to a minister conduct a memorial service can clarify our Judaism for us more than we can possibly believe.