Yom Kippur – Yizkor (5776) – The Angel of Death in Ordinary Clothes

25/09/2015 at 09:35 Leave a comment

“The Angel of Death in Ordinary Clothes”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

23 September 2015

Do we not sometimes realize that we have inadvertently come face to face with the angel of death? Sometimes we are minding our own business or involved in our regular everyday activities, when a chill suddenly ripples in our soul – when we – startled — comprehend that we are in the company of a destroyer.

As many of you know, this summer, before my Fellowship with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to share a week in the West Bank, visiting different communities – Ramallah, Nablus/Shechem, Jenin, Bethlehem, and the South Hills of Hebron — and accompanied by Eric Solomon, a rabbinic friend, and our Palestinian guide, Husam Jubran, we met with a variety of people, all coming from a spectrum of conventions and customs – people who are engaged in the arts, in business and activism – to speak about their lives and their prognosis for the future and the possibilities of peace in this formidable region.

Most of the Palestinians were wary, as they spoke their walloping truths, telling me that their associations with Israelis and in fact with Jews was frowned upon – that these encounters were seen as collaborations with the enemy – and that after the latest intifada and wars in Gaza, a complete separation from all things Israel was what was most desired — a psychological wall or barrier is currently being built and cemented in the inner recesses of the minds of the people – sadly both in the minds of the Palestinians and the Israelis, who live in such close proximity, but worlds apart from each other.

As we experience this Day of Atonement, it has been my experience that a willful Othering of the neighbor – of the Israeli, of the Jew, is being stitched out of whole cloth in the Holy Land. In speaking to me, the people that I met were taking a risk – exposing themselves to being shunned and rejected as betrayers, as normalizers – and some of the interactions, as heartfelt as they were, seemed a bit rehearsed – until we arrived in Jenin.

Jenin is a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, with a population of about 40,000. It is known to Palestinians as the martyr’s capital – during the 2nd intifada between 2000-2003, Israel estimated that there were 28 homicide bombers and 31 militant attacks that originated from this area. When Eric and I visited this past June during Ramadan, the streets were empty during the mid-day heat – when walking on the main street, there were posters praising istishhad, martyrdom, and individual pictures of shahidim, or martyrs who killed themselves as they murdered innocent Israeli civilians. Interspersed among these were recruitment posters for Islamic Jihad, an organization whose objective is the destruction of the state of Israel.

On our way to visit the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, we passed through the refugee camp, where the buildings are still riddled with bullet holes from the street fighting, twelve years ago. We were supposed to meet with the Managing Director, Jonathan Stanczak – however he was out of town, so we ended up in an impromptu meeting with the Financial Manager, Omer Kabeya.

Unlike many of the people that we spoke to that week, Mr. Kabeya did not speak English very well, so our guide, Husam, served as our translator. Throughout our trip, we were instructed to not speak Hebrew while traveling in the territories and to not outwardly identify ourselves as Jews in any way. In the Freedom Theatre, whose motto is “Generating Cultural Resistance.” My friend and I asked questions about his life and his thoughts about living in Jenin – and in some broken English and in the sudden hesitancies from the usual verbal fluidity of our guide, after a short while, Mr. Kabeya cheerfully exclaimed that the complete elimination of the Jewish state was his distinct preference. Nowhere else had we heard such an unabashed, blatant wish – Husam, who I liked very much, brushed it off with words about Mr. Kabeya’s lack of sophistication, etc. – however, Mr. Kabeya’s honesty and the unexplored question of where the six million Jews of Israel would go in his fantasy remained an open question, long after we left that place.

I believe that in that moment, I was in the company of a destroyer – one who would have no hesitation to snuff out and escort souls away from this world, in a banal way. At the time, and again this morning as we weep and fast on Yom Kippur, I am reminded of the poetry by TS Eliot, who writes – but though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,/Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,/I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;/I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid.

Mr. Kabeya was an ordinary man – unexceptional, excepting that his cultural signposts, his milieu, his experiences, every day – all encouraged the grim work of an absolute attitude, which brooked no quarter. To me, he was like a spiritual descendant of the German solider unremarkably writing a letter home during World War II about his experiences killing Jews in Belarus – during the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants… Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight.

This is not madness, per se – rather, this is our seeing that for bursts in time, beyond the natural cycles of sickness and mortality, death has the advantage of a lopsided power play in our world – where many are infected with the mundane feeling that there are those who have no place in this world, and deserve to die – and if we are honest with ourselves, we too feel such insidious absoluteness, from time to time.

We breath in the malodorous air breathed out by the angels of death that surround us, and in our darker moments, we echo the frustrations of Job’s wife in her time of travail – bareich Elohim va’mut – curse God and die, already — as we consider these disturbing lines from the poet Isaac Rosenberg, who wrote about his experiences retrieving dead bodies by mule-cart in the trenches during World War I – here is one not long dead;/His dark hearing caught our far wheels,/and the choked soul stretched weak hands/to reach the living word the far wheels said,/the blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,/crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels/swift for the end to break/or the wheels to break,/cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

In the Jewish tradition – the tendencies of the angel of death, the malach hamavet, can be beaten back and restrained – and perhaps most dramatically in the most hidden of all places – the children’s song that ends the Passover seder – Had Gadya, when we sing – v’atah haKadosh Baruch Hu – v’shachat l’malach hamavet. God ultimately vanquishes the Angel of Death. Had Gadya, Had Gadya.

We can get overwhelmed by death – as we hear the pulse of time throb in our ears. As we fill up daily on our share of ominous headlines from all over the world and endless cycles of news, our worst instincts are stoked, as we are overpowered, tragedy after tragedy after tragedy – and in dread, as we see the current spiking of violence in Jerusalem with a creeping gloom. We may feel that a strong response to such injustice is needed – that brute force is necessary to stomp on all of that which seeks our destruction. Surely we can cut through the difficulty — teaming up with the forces for good that eliminate threats from our world, so the casual attitudes of removal and displacement can be blotted out? Surely we can be victorious?

And yet, for us to defeat death would require a much more fine surgical strike than we possess. We would have to have cognitive dissonance to do such work and keep our world intact – and to make any impact, we would have to become as ruthless as the malach hamavet, itself – we would have to live as that common German soldier, shooting babies routinely, in midair. Furthermore, the ancient conception of the Angel of Death is that it is filled with eyes – it is impervious to surprise and can always see us coming from every angle, always ready to shift shape and outwit our best efforts to strike.

So rather than plan an elaborate and risky operation to destroy those who wish to destroy us, that will in turn, leave us exposed and in much danger – how do we confront the attitudes of Mr. Kabeya and the many like him, as we draw our attention to these Yizkor prayers? We can sing our children’s song with glee – we can apply magical realism to our world that one day death will be defeated – and yet we know — there is a tickle in the back of our minds that our days are numbered. We see this in a shiva minyan for one who has past away at an advanced age – the friends and colleagues of the deceased look around tacitly and uneasily, wondering who’s next. And at the funerals of those who have died too young – middle-aged people who are in the prime of their life – their friends take it hard, thinking about their own situation and how long they can avoid a fatal diagnosis, or keep malingering and debilitating issues of aging at bay.

Yom Kippur is not a sovereign remedy against our mortal anxiety – however it does invite us to put into perspective all of the machinations, stratagems, pettiness, bad attitudes, and intrigues that rule our lives – Yom Kippur invites us to dismiss what others may think of us, as we expend our best efforts to make our relationships right, as we too are sometimes unsuccessful in our teshuvah – and resentments and disappointments in our relationships carry over from one year to the next.

We acknowledge and feel the many-eyed forces of destruction always looking at us – and yet, what do we pray for as we stand here today in a charged moment – in this posture in the defiance of death? At this time, I always think of the last words of King David – how filled with vengeance they were, as he violently spits out instructions to his son about how to dispatch his rivals, like a mafia don – v’horad’ta et seivato b’dam Sheol – bring down [Shimi ben Gera’s] gray head to Sheol with blood.

As we rehearse our last words – do we want our last breath to contain a directive to bring more suffering into this world – or to even a score, or settle a rivalry? Are we truly on the turning wheel of collateral damage and cycles of bloodletting, unable to let go – unable to live well, amid uncertainty and mortal danger?

Contrast King David’s last words to the words of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the noted medical writer, who died just a few weeks ago. He knew that he was going to die – and in the last column he knew he was going to write – his final word on life – beyond anything else, he wrote about his connections with Shabbat. In the column, although he did not have such a noteworthy connection to Shabbat in his adult life – he describes growing up – and his local synagogue full of friends and family – and the palpable joy in the services of his youth, and in the meals shared with his family. He writes – and now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Are we content living our days like Omer Kabeya – filled with quiet rage – and hoped for rupture and displacements, that will justify our hurts as we spoil for a fight and dream about revenge, or shall we be in pursuit of contentment, like Oliver Sacks, remembering what gave us joy as we reach again towards that? In our lives, what are we most proud of – what relationships sparkle in the sunlight of this reflective day? How can we meet our needs and address our fears, knowing that our days in this world are limited – as we confront our mortality and as we see the many-eyed angel of death everywhere, out of the corner of our own nervous eye?

How can we be outfitted with courage to joyously sing Had Gadya, all of our days – rejecting the long shadow that death casts over us – how as survivors after our loved ones pass away, we can cultivate a joy that transcends our gripping fear? In our gathering this year, may we withstand the baleful glances, words, or even actions of those who wish us harm – instead, may we set our sights on appreciating this day as we consider our mortality and our words become more precious, and our company becomes more holy – as we strive to live fully, in each moment that we have.

As we celebrate this Yom Kippur, may we seek each other out with the implicit realization that this is a day that all words, study, and melodies cannot mask – as we plead for a commutation of the evil decree, there is no guarantee of what tomorrow may bring – and are we truly just a bundle of acrimony, grudges, baleful attitudes, asphyxiating narratives and displeasure, when we prepare to leave the corridor of this world? Can we not look at our heart and tame it from being hardened as Pharaoh’s heart – as we tenderize, circumcise and subdue it, as we look into the face of the void of our life’s end?

Yom Kippur is known to be a day of celebration – and perhaps doing this difficult work, we can emerge on the other side, grateful for what we have had and incredibly joyful to be, just in this moment, together with our memories, bidding each other acceptance, receiving, love, and peace – decorating our streets not with the posters of those so-called martyrs in Jenin whose death has given them glory and reward, bestowed by the malach hamavet – but rather, we can adorn our public places, with powerful and inviting Torah that chooses life, as we honor the way that we reflect ourselves and our actions back into this world, off of the white kittel that we may be wearing — as we realize that our souls, like the whispering wind, are just gently passing through.

(Kol haOlam Kulo)

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