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Parashat Hayyei Sarah

October 30, 2007

By Rabbi David Greenstein

Our Torah reading begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. Abraham comes ‘to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.’ (Gen. 23:2) The order of the verbs in this verse is noteworthy. One might have expected that Abraham’s first reaction would be to cry, while only afterwards would he go about the public act of eulogizing his life partner. Indeed, the next verse says that Abraham ‘arose from before his corpse’ in order to deal with the practical matters of burial, including finding a burial plot that would serve for Sarah and for the family.

The working out of our personal and public roles as mourners and as bereaved family and community is thus an important theme of this story. There is an undeniable private dimension to the experience of loss. But Abraham also understood that by further engaging in the public act of eulogizing Sarah he would be brought to a new outpouring of tears. By conjuring her image and qualities before the assembled listeners he, himself, would come to a deeper appreciation of the person he loved and admired.

But, in addition, we can appreciate the power of unfolding time as it affects this process. Sometimes it is not possible to cry immediately, though the sense of loss is deeply felt. Sometimes the gates of tears need time before they can be safely opened.

We have seen such a process unfold in the years that followed the Shoah. For years the people of Israel were caught in silent, private mourning. In the last generation it has become possible to wail and mourn publicly, ‘to eulogize and weep.’

Our process is not finished. We have now begun to recognize how important it is to rise from our corpses in order to provide them with an honorable burial. I wish to highlight two important efforts that are addressing this issue. They are two inspiring examples of courage, dedication and hope:

More than 1.25 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi Mobile Execution Units as the Nazi forces moved through the Ukraine and Russia from June 1941 until the spring of 1943. Whole communities were corralled with the help of the local villagers. Jews were lined up before huge open pits that they had been forced to dig and then they were shot. Many fell wounded into the pits and were buried alive. This horrible side of the Shoah has not gotten the same attention as the terrible story of the camps. We have wept for them in silence if we have wept at all.

Now the time has come to bring these holy martyrs to a publicly acknowledged burial. A French priest, Father Patrick Desbois, has undertaken the sacred task of finding these unmarked mass graves. He and his team travel to the Ukraine every other month to interview villagers and locate graves. His efforts have begun to garner attention, thanks, in no small measure, to the efforts of the Targum Shlishi Foundation, established by Aryeh and Raquel Rubin. These efforts merit our recognition and support. The stories of the holy martyrdom of these communities and individuals need to be retrieved. Their final burial places need to be found and tended. Perhaps then we can eulogize them and cry over them as they deserve and as we need to do.

Another worthy initiative has been undertaken by Menachem Daum, a filmmaker who has reconnected with the Polish village of his family, Dzialoszyce. The Jewish community of that town was destroyed. Survivors and Jews who succeeded in emigrating to the U.S. and Israel hold bitter memories of their suffering and their loss. The Jewish cemetery in Dzialoszyce has been neglected and vandalized over the years. But Menachem has begun to reach out to the Polish youth of the town. Here, too, a Catholic priest has been active in urging the local population, and especially the youth, to restore the gravestones that were removed from the cemetery and to embark on a restoration of this sacred site.

Abraham needed to purchase his burial plot from Efron the Hittite. His relationship went no further than formulaic declarations of friendship that sealed a commercial transaction. But today we work in partnership with priests and non-Jews who really care and feel committed to helping us fulfill this mitzvah of burial, eulogy and weeping.

We pray that, in the unfolding of time, this mitzvah, properly observed, will lead us, as it did with Abraham, to the next step ‘ toward building a healthy, living future.

For more information about the work of Father Desbois, please contact Targum Shlishi at ‘ www.targumshlishi.org.

For more information about Menachem Daum’s Dzialoszyce project, please contact Menachem at – http://menachemdaum.com.

Rabbi David Greenstein is Rosh Ha-Yeshivah of The Academy for Jewish Religion.