Why I light two memorial candles today – and one birthday candle too.

Why I light two memorial candles today

Amichai Lau-Lavie

Today is voting day in the USA. An important privilege to change and improve the course of life for so many.

But today is also a loaded day for the Jewish people – and also -for my family. I want to share with you how it all, somehow, fits into one narrative about the responsibility and the ability to honor legacies and change our world – for good.

On November 4, 1995  – the 11th of Hesvhan – I was standing on a roof high above Jerusalem and heard a call, a summons, a command to tell a story – the oldest story that demanded a new end.

That night I began the journey that would lead me to become a storyteller,  and eventually, to take on the mantle of the rabbinate, in the name of hope, with the goal of radical change, of a better story.

It was the terrible night that claimed the life of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin – a fallen fighter in the war for peace.

The Jerusalem streets were rivers of flames. Memorial candles were lit in every street corner, altars rose in Zion Square, crammed with flowers and photos, handwritten notes with words like ‘sorry’ and ‘shalom.’ The shock was felt like smoke, mythic, unreal, larger than life, completely new and yet terribly familiar. Was that what sacrifices smelled like?

On my dining table, a memorial candle was still, barely, burning. I had lit it 25 hours ago, in honor of the memory of my Grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lau. On this date, back in 1942, he was gassed to death in Treblinka, along with one of his sons, a boy of 10 named Shmuel, and many of his congregation. Eye witnesses survived to tell of how the rabbi led the congregation to their deaths with a Torah scroll in his arms, chanting the Kaddish. My father and his brother survived to continue their father’s rabbinic dynasty and build the state of Israel.

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lau, Circa 1925

That year,  I had chosen, for the first time, and for a few different reasons, to light my own memorial candle – take on my own way of honoring my past, and commit to a way all my own of continuing the legacy and picking up the thread.

And now the light of that one candle was reflected in the thousands down below –  gloom and violence and dread flickering and fragile, like a horror story that’s come back to haunt us, desperate for a twist, another turn.

It reminded me of yet another horror story. I was studying in a Yeshiva that year, focusing on the Biblical Binding of Yitzchak.  I was making up my own spins on what could have happened –  Midrashic musings about the ways in which the boy may have chosen to refuse his binding father, run away from this testing cruel God, away from knife and mount and legacy, living a new vision for himself, and for us all.

But Now Yitzchak lay dead. Bound and killed by someone who had heard a call, like Abraham, to kill in the name of some sacred voice: A sacrifice for the sake of the Promised Land.

Was Rabin’s assassination the sequel to the Binding of Yitzchak? 

Only this time no angelic intervention and no ram. No happy end. Just a crumpled song for peace, stained by Yitzchak’s blood.


Somehow all of it made sense together: Rabin and my Grandfather and Genesis: Stories of violence in the name of higher callings, disregard for human life in the service of this or other ism that defies all that is sacred.

I understood that night that not only was this modern murder a continuous commentary on Genesis but that this story – Torah –  is real in ways that I never imagined – a saga unfinished and not a sealed scroll; a living myth and mystery-in-making, ever-evolving, just like us. 

And just like us – in constant need of healing, change,dramatic measures that will turn the tides from the patterns of pain and destruction to a new direction that embraces love and life. 

Rabin’s killer quoted scriptures and claimed God’s calling – and that is his right and educated commentary, even if evil, illegal and wrong. But if one voice can claim the ownership of the sacred story with such fatal conclusions – then so can other voices that favor change, pursue peace, celebrate life in all its messy flavors.

And that’s the call I heard that night, the summons -to take on the stories, to continue where my ancestors had labored to make sense of our sacred legacies in life and death –  to fight for justice, dignity, equality for all.

I got that night how stories matter.

If our stories are indeed alive, these reservoirs of values, engines of our faith and source of action in this world, then it’s the stories that we tell that require the healing – which ones we choose to share, why and how we choose to pass them on.

There are those, like Rabin’s killer, who choose to tell our stories favoring literal readings that stick to the vocabularies of either/or –  fear based, parochial and patriarchal.  There are so many for whom the stories are unknown, closed books, obscure and daunting.

But to change the way we live our tales with values that reflect our love of life more people need to know that our stories are alive and real and waiting for brave new tellings.

How else will we change the story of this fight between the children of Abraham? How else will we bring peace?


So here we are, 19 years later.

The peace that Rabin fought for is still so far away. So many have died in the name of sacred stories.


But many more of us are attuned to the power of these stories and our role in telling them in ways that heal, resonate and renovate and pay attention to the many colors and voices and options that celebrate the full and messy hopeful diversity of life.

The saga continues.

I heard the call, became a storyteller, and now have taken on the role or rabbi. My ancestral legacy continued, the flame lit on. 

And there is so much left for so many of us to do in the service of the sacred – of a better, safer world. 

Today I pause to light two candles, to the memories of all whose legacies in life and death have given me a role, a voice, an inspiration, a story to continue telling – with changes, for good.

I light a candle for the memory of my grandfather, and his son, and wife, and congregation with the grief and promise that I’ll do what I can do never forget and to always fight for less hatred and more love in the world. And I light a second one, for the memory of Yitzchak Rabin, along with all of Abraham’s children who had fallen on the battlefield for peace  – with the relentless hope for courage, progress, dignity and joy to all.

The story is ours to change, for good.

That’s where voting comes in.

And also, this morning, just as I finish writing this, good news came in – my niece Hedva, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lau’s great grand daughter, just gave birth to a healthy baby boy – in Brooklyn! The chain continues. Mazal tov.

Let the memories be blessings.

May these flames of hope grow stronger and the light live on.



A Psychopathic Patriarch and Lindelof’s Twitter twist: Unscrolled 4

Unscrolling: This year I’m reading the weekly Torah portion through the eyes of 54 creative wrestlers in Reboot’s new book Unscrolled. My year long journey will be blogged weekly as commentary on their commentary, quoting quotes, plucking pearls from this pool of biblically inspired juices for a more inspired now.


The line between faith and insanity is sometimes as sharp as knife.
Anne Reidy, the stenographer who stepped calmly  up to the microphone in the Senate this past week to denounce the politicians for not obeying God (and something about masons) was dragged out and sent for evaluation. Clearly, a person taking advantage of access to power and chooses, like a prophet, to call out their version of God’s truth to the masses is a psychopath. Or at least ‘slightly off’.
Or is she?
Reidy isn’t the first to publicly blur lines between  pious and psychopath. Our Patriarch Abraham got there first.
Damon Lindelof  thinks so, anyway. In Unscrolled, chapter 4, he takes on the MegaMythic Binding of Isaac,   sending  Abe to the psych ward,  diagnosed for ‘Cycloid Pscyosis’,  interrogated repeatedly in the aftermath of his attempt to kill his son. Is he crazy – or what?
Abraham is often seen as the ‘knight of faith’ for his will to obey God’s demands, including child sacrifice. But his is a small step and big leap from faith to fundamentalism. For all of us who want to be connected to spiritual truths but worried about ethics and not foaming in the mouth – he’s a very problematic role model.
Which is maybe why this mega myth  is at the core of our cannon.
This is a crazy story about the crazy state of mind called faith. Damon messes with our minds here as he likes to do so well and suspends our disbelief:  If Abraham is really crazy – what does that say about the faith tradition that reveres him and annually relives his legacy  of religiously inspired violence?  What does this say about us?
Maybe the whole point of repeating the story of this Psychotic Abraham is to serve as a warning sign, a telling tale of caution: watch out for when religious fervor turns to force,  respect, suspect, and resist it.  Notice this voice Inside ourselves and all around us. Sometimes we miss the signs until its too late and gets out of hand.
Reidy didn’t hurt anyone. But there are so many examples of people fueled by faith who take the lives of countless others.
That’s what happened in Tel Aviv, 15 years ago, this week. Yitzchak Rabin was shot by a zealot who said that God told him to do so, for the sake of the Land of Israel. Psychopath? Not legally. Yigal Amir is serving life sentence in top priority Israeli prison.
President Clinton talked about the Binding of Yitzchak at the funeral in Jerusalem, the only leader to quote Torah and link the myth of sacrifice and binding to the price paid by this latter day Isaac, and still paid today by so many people. In the so called name of God.
I want to believe that the story of the Binding is an allegory for our inner ability to give up what’s precious for a better and more deeply connected sense of being in the world. I don’t want to endorse a saga that celebrates a parent’s ability to sacrifice a child. Not even as allegory. It’s crazy and unhealthy. Enough is enough.
Can we be unbound from the Binding?  Can we retell it differently and embrace a bit less crazy in our lives of faith?
(If Damon was still on twitter I’d hope he rt this homage but he  and I guess that’s his way of sacrificing something precious for a greater good? )
Crazy for some. Sacred for others. Go figure. In peace.

The Altars of the Slain Defy Location: The Weekly Word/Lech Lecha

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.


3. Altar מזבח/Lech Lecha

Driving through Jerusalem last night with out of town guests I point out landmarks: Here I lived and loved, this is where the bomb went off, see the hidden shrine. For natives and tourists and pilgrims alike some spots are holier than others, some attractions more popular or less. All of Jerusalem is one big sacred site, dotted by plaques and monuments, and in the middle of it all is the holy mount, and on its summit, shining gold, is the ancient altar, covered by layers of faith.  Noah, they say, built an altar here, Abraham almost offered his son.
This week’s Torah text,  Lech Lecha, is full of altars. Abraham, leaving his family’s estate in Mesopotamia to  what will become the Hebraic homeland, pauses on his journey  to mark milestones  – again and again, he builds on altar. Altars are slaughter sites – stone structures where sacrifices are offered to the local deity, food shared and smoke rising – a vertical connection between heaven and earth: the nameless spot becomes a known location: You are here now.
Two altars are on my mind this week, both connected not by space but by time.
This coming Saturday night marks the 70th anniversary of my Grandfather’s murder. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau was gassed to death in Treblinka – that terrible altar of so many sacrifices, along with one of his sons, and his entire congregation. He was the last rabbi of the town, and according to survivors he led his flock to death holding a Torah scroll and chanting the S’hma and Kaddish. This coming Saturday night our extended family will gather in B’nei Brak to welcome a new Torah scroll into my uncle’s Yeshiva.
17 years ago my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was also on Saturday night and in my home in Jerusalem I lit a candle. That was the night on which Yitzchak Rabin was murdered, in the Tel Aviv square now named for him. Spontaneous altars rose all over the country, countless candles lit.
A Rally will take place in Rabin Square this Saturday night – we will vow to never again tolerate this hostile violence. I hope to be able to attend both of these events.
Abraham’s altars lit the fires and the smoke still rises, connecting heaven and earth, private and public, past and present; candles will be lit by that fire and memories ignited: we are here – still here – always, and now.  These altars are not about location – they, like memories, exist beyond.
זכרונם לברכה
shabbat Shalom

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