'A Thousand and One Reasons to Hope': A D’Var Torah on Parshat Emor
16 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 4, 2019
I originally presented a version of this talk at a gathering in the city of Sighet, Maramures County, in Transylvania, Romania. Sighet once had a large and vibrant Jewish community, making up almost half the population of the city. In May 1944, the Jews of Sighet were deported to Auschwitz, where most were gassed on arrival. Elie Wiesel was also born in Sighet. He survived the death camps and insisted that the world never forget.
Jewish tradition has long tried to suppress the sort of “cult of the dead” found in other cultures. Indeed, Parshat Emor emphasizes that the kohanim, the religious functionaries of pre-Rabbinic times, were ritually excluded from involvement with the rituals of death.
There is one momentous exception, however, to this Jewish diffidence about death. That exception is collective tragedy. The horrors that have too often blasted their way into Jewish history have all powerfully and poignantly shaped Jewish religious life, ceremony, and liturgy. Yet there is something remarkable about the Jewish rituals of collective tragedy. They are never left to marinate in their own bitterness. The tradition consistently juxtaposes them against expressions of hope or even redemption.
These juxtapositions are profoundly mysterious. Our expressions of hope do not negate our tragedies. They do not elevate them. Nothing can perfume over the stink of death. We must not fall into the heresy of claiming that tragedy and horror and suffering are somehow redemptive. But Jewish tradition does demand that we attach them, however hard and paradoxical it is, into a larger story of redemption.
In exploring this theme, my talk engaged with Elie Wiesel’s insistence that, even in our despair over the Holocaust, we “must invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.” It also called on important insights from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Czech Christian theologian Tomáš Halík, and the American philosopher Josiah Royce.
Keywords: Tragedy and Redemption, Parshat Emor, Holocaust, "Cult of the Dead," Jewish funerals and burial, Sighet, Transylvania, Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Tomáš Halík, Josiah Royce
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