Graves go with wars and many have been already dug this past week. There must be a link between the word ‘grave’ and the concept of gravity – the relentless heaviness that comes with this looming dread of death’s toll, rising hourly with each news flash. TV is on everywhere one goes in Jerusalem, somber tension; conversations are short. Here we don’t hear the sirens – only the constant alerts on the radio. Everyone I know knows someone who is either sitting in a shelter or fighting down south. A Palestinian acquaintance sends me emails written by her friends inside Gaza. They are also getting shorter and shorter. We lit a candle tonight at my parent’s home: a memorial candle for the dead. Starting this evening, the Tenth of Tevet – a fast day, will be remembered – though I don’t think any of us will be fasting, it’s a minor one. The Tenth of Tevet has historical roots that mark the beginning of the siege that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple – 2,600 years ago. But the reason we lit a candle is that in the early 1950’s the Israeli Rabbinate declared this day as the official ‘General Day of Kaddish’ – for all Holocaust victims whose date or place of death are unknown. My father’s mother, Chaya-Helena Lau, of blessed memory, is among them, and on this day my father prays Kaddish in her memory. He knows that she died in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, just one hour north of Berlin, around April 1945 – just before liberation, possibly from starvation. She was born on January 1, 1900. Whenever an elderly relative or friend dies peacefully my mother says ‘at least he died in bed.’ In our family – as in so many others all over the world– a quiet death is considered a privilege. Dying peacefully at home is one thing, dying inside your own home from a rocket or a missile is quite another. How have homes become graves? There is a strange link between homeland and grave yard. Jacob, our grand ancestor, dies this week – and wants to go home. In this week’s Torah tale Va’Yechi, Genesis comes to a close with the death of the last patriarch, in bed, surrounded by all his children and grandchildren. The rites of passage that mark Jacob’s death and burial are outstanding, even by Biblical standards. His body is mummified, Egyptian style: a 40-day process, followed by official mourning for 70 more days. Only then, more than three months after his death, Joseph and his brothers, with Royal entourage, take their father’s body for burial in Canaan, as they swore to him they will. On their way back home, by the banks of the Jordan, they pause for 7 more (!) days of mourning. And only then do they bring Jacob back home to his parents and grandparents. Genesis 50:13 ‘Jacob’s sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought along with the field, for a possession, as a grave yard, from Ephron the Hittite. It’s startling to realize that the only real estate purchase that the three patriarchs made in the Promised Land was a cemetery. The sons of Jacob travel back to the homeland but all that’s theirs there is the graveyard. A homeland is always, also, a graveyard. It comes with the territory. The last image of the Book of Genesis is a coffin. Joseph’s 110-year-old body is laid to rest in Egypt and the first book of five rests with it. Next stop: Exodus. Joseph’s last request is to also be buried back home in Canaan. And, hundreds of years later, his descendent Moses will make sure the old bones are carried out along with the fleeing Hebrews on the night of the Passover. The only ‘real estate’ our ancestors carried on their way from Egypt that serves as home for hundreds of years – a grave…(but also, matza – life, and drums – life’s beat) Tonight, as the candle burns, and sirens continue, and the graves dug and the battle for the Promised Land/s continues, I pause for one silent minute and pray for the peaceful rest of all the buried and those who have no grave. May they rest in peace, and may their loved one remember them lovingly and find consolation and peace, and may we all find ways to rest, and help the rest, and live in peace.
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