Wow! What a week it’s been. Last Saturday, when we sat here for services, none of us would have expected that the next day, Osama Bin Laden would be dead. This week, the only thing we can talk about is the events of last Sunday, and what Osama bin Laden’s death means for us as a country, as a people, as a world.
It always amazes me how on weeks when major events happen, the Torah portion comes alive in a new way. You see in the Torah portion things that you never saw before. These passages were always there, but they now go straight to your heart as never before and reveal their wisdom. What I’d like to do today is simply share with you the connections that I see between this week’s portion and the events of this week, and the insights that the Torah offers us at this moment.
Osama bin Laden’s death is surely one of those moments that we’ll always remember where we were when we heard the news. Let me tell you where I was Sunday night. I was at home. I had just finished writing a eulogy for a man named Sam Tuchten, who was the grandfather of one of my husband’s coworkers. The cantor who was supposed to conduct the ceremony had fallen ill, so I had received a call Sunday morning, asking whether I could officiate at the funeral Monday morning. Sunday late afternoon, I met with the family, and then I went home to write the eulogy. When I finished writing the eulogy, I logged into my email to coordinate further with the bereaved family. My homepage when logging into the internet is CNN, so I saw the headline of Bin Laden's death. I noticed the headline and was surprised by it, but I was so focused on the funeral arrangements that I didn’t focus on it. I logged into my email, coordinated with the family, logged out and fell asleep – exhausted from the day and knowing that I had to officiate first thing in the morning. Only when I got home from the funeral Monday morning was I able to turn on the news and fully absorb what had happened.
I share this with you because the contrast between these two deaths was so striking. Sam Tuchten’s funeral was extraordinary. As funerals go, this one was as good as it gets. Sam had lived until age 94. He was blessed to be married for 70 years in a loving marriage. He had 5 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren. He’d recently had an aliyah at his great-grandson’s bar mitzvah. At the funeral, two of his grandsons spoke about all that their grandfather had taught them and how he had shaped them into the husbands, and fathers that they are. Sam had gone to minyan every day. When he was on dialysis for the last 6 years, he would go to dialysis three mornings a week, and he went to minyan on the other days. Sam wasn’t a saint; I’m sure he made mistakes along the way. Still, I had this feeling at the funeral that having one’s grandchildren say such beautiful things about you is all that one could possibly hope for in life. We should all do so well!
On the same day as Sam Tuchten’s funeral, was buried at sea the demonic mastermind of evil, mass murder, who devised all these attacks and fostered horrific ideology that supported these attacks. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Two men were given the gift of life. One lived it so honorably and humbly, and one so evil – that evil is too gentle a word to describe what he did.
I share this contrast with you because this week’s portion also presents such a stark juxtaposition. The parasha, called Emor (Speak), both begins and ends by talking about death and burial. The portion begins by offering instructions to priests about burying their relatives. In general, the priests who worked in the Temple were supposed to avoid ritual impurity (which was acquired by coming close to a dead body). Nevertheless, God specifies that the priest should make an exception for his closest relatives. In this potential conflict between work and your family, the Torah insists that family comes first. The Torah portion begins with an image that to me seems like Sam Tuchten’s funeral – close family members paying tribute to one another.
The portion concludes with the opposite image. In the end of the portion, a person who blasphemed God was taken into custody. God instructed Moses to take the blasphemer outside the camp, have the community stone him, and tell the people that whoever blasphemes God should be put to death. This image is the polar opposite of the one which began the portion – the priest attending to the funeral of his closest relatives. Here a blasphemer is being stoned to death by the whole community. The last part of the portion struck me as particularly poignant this week because in addition to being a mass murderer, Osama bin Laden was a blasphemer in the deepest sense of the word. Bin Laden said that the murders of innocent people were in God’s name, and he promoted that ideology throughout the world. He was a blasphemer of the highest magnitude.
As the portion begins and ends with these two polar opposite images, the portion also explains what they mean. The portion has one quote which recurs many times. קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם Be holy and don’t desecrate God’s name. The portion says this over and over again at the end of each paragraph. That’s what the Torah of this week boils down to.
I shared with you the beginning and end of the portion and this recurring slogan, but what’s in the middle of the portion? The middle of the portion addresses the cycle of the Jewish holidays.
I thought this too was particularly fitting for this week. I read that for years there’s been a well known joke that a soothsayer tells Osama Bin Laden that he will die on a Jewish holiday. Osama asked: Which one? The soothsayer responded: “Whenever you die, it will be a Jewish holiday.”
It’s fitting that Osama bin Laden did actually die on a Jewish holiday. Surely there could have been no more appropriate holiday for him to die on – than on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Yom Hashoah is when we recall the needless murder of innocent lives and commit ourselves to Never Again – to stand up against the murder of innocent lives and bring murderers to justice. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal center, noted that Sunday’s date was also the same date that Hitler’s death was announced in 1945.
It’s fitting too that Osama didn’t die on Purim, Pesach, or on any jubilant day – but rather on a somber day – of reflection and rededication to the principle of sanctity of human life—precisely the opposite of what Osama stood for.
There’s been a lot of discussion this week about how to react to this news. Are we supposed to be celebratory or somber? Our tradition includes two contradictory answers. One the one hand, the Bible records celebration upon an enemy’s death. In Exodus, Miriam, Moses, and the people sing and dance after the Egyptians are drowned in the Red Sea. In the weekly Torah readings, this reading is coupled with the haftorah from the book of Judges wherein Deborah and Barak sing after Sisera, the Cannanite commander is killed and his armies are defeated. Proverbs 11:10 states: “when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.”
However, a few chapters later, Proverbs says the opposite. Proverbs 24:17 asserts: “Do not rejoice over the fall of your enemies.” The Talmudic rabbis also wrote midrashim (stories) which evince discomfort with rejoicing over the downfall of enemies. In The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, God rebuked the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptian army was caught in the receding waters after the splitting of the Red Sea. God said ‘How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the Sea?’ (Rabbi Jonathan Klein noted this week that God is rebuking the angels in that midrash, not the people for dancing.) This discomfort is symbolized poignantly in the Passover seder by removing drops of wine from our cups when reciting the plagues to commemorate the suffering of the Egyptions.
In noting this debate within the sources and between rabbis this week, I had this feeling of ‘you’re both right.’ On the one hand, the downfall of the wicked is cause for celebration because it makes the world safer in the long-term. We have to be vigilant in eliminating terrorists, and their demise is cause for joy. But that celebration only masks a deeper sadness that terrorists waste their life on this earth by destroying others. So Bin Laden fittingly died on Yom Hashoah; the intense somberness of this week between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (the day of Remembrance of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror) is the mood which is under the celebration.
If you ask the question whether we should celebrate the death of a murderer, then you’re already on the right page. Regardless of how you answer that question, if you ask it, then you already know that evil is real and that life is precious –which is the message of this week’s Torah portion and of the Torah as a whole.
I’ll conclude with a prayer – since these are times for prayers more than for sermons.
May we live in a world where all people follow the principles of decency that Sam Tuchten stood for rather than those that Osama Bin Laden fostered. We pray for the spread of democracy throughout world. May the Pharoahs of the world continue to fall before the courage of those who risk their lives for freedom. May the voices of moderation overpower the voices of extremism; may the voices of peace overpower the voices of terror. May we live to see a time when all people have internalized the words of your Torah: קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם
Be holy and don’t desecrate God’s holy name.
And let us say amen.