Before Birthright – there was Deathright? Burial in Zion. Word #12

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Burial קבר

Death is  big business. Especially, as I have learnt this week, in Israel.

 Hundreds of Christian pilgrims on my flight to Tel Aviv on Saturday night, eager Christmas tourists on their way to celebrate the birth of the most famous Jew of all. Somehow I end up sitting next to the somber Jewish family on their way to bury a quite un-famous Jew in Jerusalem. The coffin was in cargo.


We didn’t talk much – I’m not so good at that on planes anyway – but I learned that the elderly deceased was a lawyer, from NJ, father and grandfather, a widower in his late 80’s who had been fragile and ill. They were not really religious, had once belonged to a Reform Temple, and then a Conservative Synagogue, but when the kids grew up only  Mom would still get involved, mostly in the socials. She was  buried in Jerusalem in 2005, and the spot next to hers has been reserved for him. Why Israel? Their son shrugs, it was mom’s idea: they had a rabbi once who convinced them that it was a good investment in their family’s future Jewish education –  his mom used to quote the rabbi: ‘this way, you’ll visit Israel every once in a while – and it’s cheaper than day school.’

wow. Forget birthright – there’s deathright! and it’s been going on for a very long time. 

Death is  big business in Israel. Thousands of coffins are flown in each year, mostly Ultra Orthodox or plain-pious Jews who hold on to the mystical belief that those who are buried in Jerusalem will rise first when the Messiah comes and Resurrection happens. The Mount of Olives is top of the line – an average plot in Israel can go for $2,500 – but a good view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives can go up to $50,000! and there’s a waiting list. Several burial companies are making, well, a killing, reminding customers that the Holy Land is the ultimate destination – for about $20,000 total – not including flights and such for the bereaved. Check out this recent article on the reality – with ads by EL AL!

It all comes from this week’s Torah text, Va’Yechi. Every online buy-and-bury site I’ve visited quotes these verses from Genesis as the source for the tradition. Jacob, on his deathbed in Egypt, instructs his children to bury him in Canaan, with his ancestors.  And so he will be  buried in the first piece of real estate to be purchased in the promised land – Sarah’s burial cave. The funeral procession from Goshen to Hebron takes over 70 days. And then he’s home.  Jacob is the first to ask for this last honor. Joseph will follow suit – his bones will be carried by the fleeing Hebrews for forty years of wandering before ending up in the land he hadn’t seen since he was a teen. The Book of Genesis ends with this image of Joseph’s body inside a coffin – like one of those Egyptian mummies we always stare at at the Met.

It’s been a big deal ever since.  For centuries Jews have come here to die. Or be buried.

And when you pause to think about it for a moment – it’s a curious fact and sort of weird. For so many Jews, in past and in present, Israel is an abstract notion, an idea to dwell on, pray towards, more recently – to fight about and maybe visit – but not settle in. Too complicated. But death is safe.  I haven’t checked the data but I wouldn’t be surprised if nowadays more dead Jews come to settle down in Israel on an average year than live ones. I get the Biblical model, the Messianic fantasy, and even the excuse for future Jewish education – but it’s still a little odd – a weird twist on the Zionist dream. One wonders – is this the best use of so much money? isn’t it better spent on actual Jewish education? on a plot that is closer to the family  in Jersey and not waiting for the Messianic Sci Fi fantasies that will or won’t erupt? must we keep on with this fetish?

I get off the plane, say goodbye to the family picking up the coffin at the cargo section of the airport (who knows what’s waiting for them at the hands of the Ultra Orthodox Hevra Kadisha..) and drive up to Jerusalem to see my parents. It’s the Tenth of Tevet, an ancient fast day that has been re-configured and declared in the 1950’s as the memorial day for all those who died in the Holocaust but have no death date or grave. A Yahrtzeit candle is lit in my parents living room in memory of my father’s mother, Helena Chaya who died in 1945 in Ravensbruck, a German Camp. We don’t exactly know when and we know she wasn’t buried. She was 45 years old.

I watch the flame  flicker and think about the old couple from New Jersey, and about Jacob, and the grandmother I had never met, and about our human longing to belong, to call somewhere home, to yearn for connection with the people and places that we are part of – even when we die and decay into something so much larger than it all.  So much of what we do – the pilgrims for this messiah, the ones who wait for the other one  – isn’t about logic or common sense at all.

In this holy land, where graves become tourist attractions and territorial markers of disputes as much as personal memorials, nothing is as quite as it seems. It may be an expensive and irrational choice – but for people such as ours, with such shaky ground under our feet for so very long- it may just be the closest thing to home.

May all the ones who passed ahead, in burial spots marked and unmarked, be remembered and honored and live on through our stories, and our words..

Shabbat Shalom.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Saying God is Great isn’t Always Such a Great Idea. Word #11

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.


GOD  אלהים

“It was God’s will” is a terrible thing to say to the bereaved no matter the intention. Piety is sometimes simply wrong. But that’s what we hear over and over on the news this week, from religious leaders, politicians and pundits, talking to/about the  parents, friends and shocked neighbors in Connecticut.  Does this kind of faithful lingo ultimately help or hurt?  What does this form of soothing do to our souls, to our minds, to our ability to try to heal and fix our world? 


Some things are best left unsaid. Even, sometimes, truths.


The  claims by some to know what is God’s will when bad stuff happens are pure heresy and very bad taste. Stephen Prothero, one of my favorite writers on religion wrote  on this yesterday: “Much better to say there is no God or, as Abraham Lincoln did, “The Almighty has his own purposes,” than to flatter ourselves with knowing what those purposes are.”


What I’m left with, beyond the frustration with this abusive  and violent God language (did I mention “God hates fags” and “God loves guns”?)  is the big messy question of faith: Trying to make sense of the incredible human yearning and at times, capacity, to create comfort in times of crisis, to make meaning of loss, to get up in the morning and find ways to hope and cope and strive for better. Is all that grounded in the thought-out mental leap of faith that everything happens for a reason? Or are we just on auto pilot because the other alternative is too horrid to live with: that chaos rules our lives? 

I am struggling with faith, with the courage to believe or not, to trust that there is possibly a plan in motion and that there’s reason for whatever happens, even when it makes no sense and worse.


But sometimes, often,  it all feels like a mass manipulation.  Like a pious lie. 


The longest night of the year, coming up this Friday, let alone the big question of what will or won’t happen as the Mayan calendar ends only adds to the rumble in our collective belly: The solar systems circle on, but is anything in charge? 


And so I wonder – when did this notion of the “Big Plan”  start? I may be wrong but I think that this week’s Torah text, Va’yigash,describes the first such bold theological assumption in the Bible: Joseph comes out to his brothers as that Hebrew boy they once sold as slave. “But it’s all good, my brothers”, he assures them: “how else could I have saved you now? It is all God’s bigger plan. ” Gen. 45:5  

This may be the first time that God (here referred to as Elhoim), gets full credit by a human for the running of the show.

The brothers are silent with shock:  A reasonable reaction. 


Really, Joseph? Hindsight  is 20/20. 22 years after the pit, this ruler of Egypt has perspective and trusts the Higher Power. But can one hold to this type of faith when deep inside the pits of grief and trauma? Did he, like Job, bless God inside the pit and had faith in the big plan or did he lose it as so many of us do when it hits the fan? 


Perhaps the brothers, in their silence, got it right.

They were not just shocked to see their brother – they didn’t know what to make of his claim that every little plot twist is the work of God.

And even if, let’s say, this IS the Truth – even then: Some truths,  are better, sometimes, left unspoken. Words of faith, spoken at the not so perfect timing,  can hurt instead of heal, close the heart instead of opening it to the possible.  

Even if one is 100% sure that there is a plan and horrors have a reason – saying this at moments that are too raw is rarely helpful. The ability to deal with these big questions is an intimate act, and it deserves the bravest of attentions, quietly, with some healthy distance from the wound.

Faith is not an auto pilot nod. It’s a private work in process. 

“You gotta have faith” Paul Rudd tells me in the back of the cab this morning, “and  also – you need a backup plan.” It’s an ad for a play on Broadway called ‘Grace’ that I hear is awesome but what sticks with me when I get out of the cab on Union Square is this simple not so simple message: Have faith in something bigger than us all, but pull in your own weight.  In other words: Whether there’s a big plan or not, and no matter what happens this Friday – how we each take care of each other, comfort the sad, make each day count more is all about us. And sometimes the humble honest thing is just to hug and not say much, and be grateful for what we’ve got. Maybe that’s what helped Joseph get through his ordeal. Maybe that’s what will help the the good people in Newtown. It isn’t much, and there’s still the big question – but for now, that’s good enough. 

Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Where is just a state of mind. Weekly Word #9

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



Where איפה

A boy goes walking in the hills of olive trees from Hebron to Nablus but then goes missing. His last words, according to an eyewitness are ‘I seek my brothers, do you know where they are?‘ and then young Joseph finds the ones whose blood he shares and they who hate him strip him of his famous coat and throw him in a pit and he becomes a slave and doesn’t say a word.

I trace his fateful steps this week, along the ancient routes where olive trees are ripe again with black fruits, Arab villages and Jewish settlements echo the Biblical names, and some brothers still hate each other to death, slaves to feuds that are older than the hills.

It’s a beautiful walk, the ground wet from recent rain, the skies low with clouds, and I get lost in thoughts  among the olive trees as the sun begins to set. Where am I? climb a ridge and right below me, maybe 50 feet away  –  a mosque, surrounded by an Arabic Village, quiet homes, and kids play soccer, so close.  For a moment I panic, and start rehearsing in my head the little Arabic I know – “where is the road”? and, with a smile, “Forgive me: My Arabic is not so good..”

Just a minute ago I felt safe and quiet walking in the olive grove that is next to the Kibbutz and suddenly the fear pervades me, 50 feet from there to here, theirs or ours, am I safe?

I was. Further down the path in the grove I met this kindly old Palestinian woman, picking olives from one of the trees. She smiles at my broken Arabic and points in the direction of the road. I thank her and she hands me an olive, fresh from the tree. Ma’Salaame, we say to each other in parting – peace upon you.

Later I find out that these trees, technically on the grounds of the nearby kibbutz, belonged to the Arab village that used to be here before 1948 but is now off the map. Who do the olives belong to? Where do the trees belong? Did this woman pick the olives of her family’s field?

The world is raging this week over E-1 and Israel’s plan to build more settlements over territorial disputes in response to the UN vote and it is a diplomatic mess, and here this little grove, a quiet eyewitness of haunting old questions: where are my brothers? what the hell went wrong?

Joseph’s last words as a free boy echo as I find the car and drive away, the stars already out:  Where is the brotherhood? the trust? the hope? where am I in all of this rage? where do I belong?

I pack my bags today to fly to NYC for Chanukah, home away from home away from home, and in my bags I’ve got a bunch of Israeli made dreidels inscribed with “Great Miracle Happened Here”. I’m a little obsessed this year with this toy that carries so much weight and symbolic meaning. No other Jewish object is such a clear indicator of what does it mean to be ‘local’. Where is just a state of mind?  Dreidels sold outside Israel indicate the miracle that happened “There”. I get the historical reference but am tired by the perpetuation of the distancing that leads to little care. Why prolong the distance and highlight what divides us when so much does not?  There is Here – and we are one,  and let’s find ways of solidarity with one another, less fixations of dividing lines, more ways to get along, to try harder to melt away the separations.  Dreidels spin and spin, here and there, but always end up at the same spot… Is that so much to ask?


I also pack a bottle of olive oil, grown, crushed and distilled by a Palestinian farmer not far from the grove where Joseph get lost and I was found. A litle jar of olive oil lit the Temple menora and ignited hearts and hopes for geneartions in the fight against oppression, occupation and the loss of hope. Here we go again, symbols of peace, a single olive, a bottle, a dreidel, answering that age old question ‘where are you my brothers’ with the not so simple answer: here, my brother, here and now. Sit, relax. Eat a latke, dipped in olive oil.


Warmest wishes for a Chanukah of grounded presence, wherever you are, lit by candles, surrounded by friends and family, honoring the privilege of miracles, and freedom and the highest hopes of peace for all, in every holy land.


Shabbat Shalom



Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.