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Drash on Acharei Mot 2024

Cantor Michel Laloum

Temple Beth Israel

Parashat Acharei Mot depicts the very first iteration of a scapegoat.  In this Torah portion, the sins of the people are placed upon the head of a goat who is then sent out to a place called “Azazel” (Lev 16:8). Some also interpret Azazel to be an evil spirit.  Interestingly enough, in modern Hebrew when you tell someone to ‘go to hell’ you actually tell them to go to ‘azazel’!

The concept of ‘Sin’ or more accurately in Rabbinic literature ‘error’ or ‘missing the mark’ implies a degree of personal responsibility in having enacted the ‘sin’.  The expiation of the sin through this scapegoat ritual is the final element in the process of communal repentance during Yom Kippur in the time of the Temple.

This year, as we come out of Pesach which is “zman cheruteynu” (our celebration of freedom and redemption), we are watching the situation in Israel closely and in particular, waiting for the hostages to be rescued. For many of us, there has been great difficulty celebrating freedom and redemption when the hostages, their families and the families of all those who have died in this conflict are in a living hell.

There is no possible argument or justification for the horrors which were perpetrated upon innocent victims on 7 October.

The terrorists murdered innocent, and overwhelmingly young people at the Supernova festival, as well as the residents of the kibbutzim, many of whom were peace activists and humanitarians working to support the residents of Gaza. The attacks have shattered the peacebuilding networks of the south, and as the son of one of the murdered peace activists stated, these murders left the peace movement ‘orphaned’.

As with many wars, young people are paying a very high price. In Israel, the youth are the soldiers fighting to protect Israel from Hamas, with the goal of removing the threat of the future attacks Hamas has promised. In Gaza, a large number of the innocents killed have been children, used as human shields and propaganda tools by Hamas who hide below them in reinforced tunnels built with aid money Hamas redirected to their own coffers.

In Australia and elsewhere in the diaspora, young people, especially those going to university, are daily being confronted with ‘die ins’, pro-Palestinian encampments, lectures being disrupted, guest experts being ‘disinvited’ for being Israeli or for being Jewish and supportive of Israel.  There are boycotts of Jewish venues artists, academics, events, restaurants, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls and vandalised posters bearing the faces of young hostages, not too different from them.  Many of our young people have been brought up in homes with strong ties to Israel, family there, and may have visited with family or on Taglit sponsored trips. Having grown up in a ‘safe’ country like Australia, it must be terrifying to suddenly feel ostracised and for their safety to feel threatened for being Jewish.

The encampment protests have increased pressure on institutions in the US, and to a lesser extent, Australia. Brown University has been lauded by some for agreeing to consider divestment from Israel. In Melbourne and Sydney, there are constant chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and that Israel is a ‘terrorist’ state. At the weekend, protesters at Sydney University hosted a children’s event which included children leading and reciting anti-Israel slogans. It is difficult to understand why this has not been widely condemned by the federal government just weeks after late-night interfaith emergency meetings and calls for ‘social cohesion’ from anyone near a microphone following the attack in Wakeley. Social cohesion includes ensuring Jewish students at schools and universities feel safe, supported and can attend their place of learning without being confronted by hostility. The number of academic staff issuing statements and reciting anti-Israel slogans, including calling for the destruction of Israel, is antithetical to a safe learning environment.

This week, Anna and I went to see a preview of the newly released Golda. Without giving too much away, it was a stark reminder of the parallels and unbelievable pressures that confronted Golda Meir and her cabinet in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Throughout the movie, Golda Meir is depicted as writing down the exact numbers of casualties from each battle. And weeping. She is forced to make impossible choices to save Israel from a concerted effort at annihilation that very nearly succeeded. Time and again, Israel has been confronted with an existential threat and while it survives, it does so at great cost.

We learn in the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world’. (Sanhedrin 37a) The Jewish community, the Jewish world, and Israel takes this Talmudic teaching very much to heart, as did Golda Meir.  Israel’s enemies have attacked time and again have this lesson taken to heart. For them, the value Israel places on protecting life is viewed as a vulnerability to be exploited. Israel cares for each and every soul, we care for each and every hostage, and we care for the remains of every deceased person.  The priority which Israel places on recovering hostages, whether dead or alive, has made hostage taking a priority for terrorist organisations.

As the Seder took us through the desert to come to freedom and redemption, I could only imagine the trauma of families whose loved ones were murdered, brutalised or kidnapped from the desert in October.  Families who sat with empty chairs at their Seders or who could not face a Seder at all this year. I can only imagine that the hope of freedom and redemption promised by God must feel a long way off this year, and the anger at Israel being the scapegoat yet again for a war it did not invite.

This week’s Haftarah is drawn from Amos 9:7-15, and contrasts the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the scattering of the people against Gods promise:
“And I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild desolate cities and inhabit [them], and they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their produce. And I will plant them on their land, and they shall no longer be uprooted from upon their land, that I have given them, said the Adonai your God.”

Parashat Acharei Mot invites us to become aware of our own share in the responsibility for our ‘sins’ and there will soon be a time where Israel looks inward at how their intelligence and defences failed to detect or deflect the massacres on 7 October. Then the rebuilding will begin. There is at least some comfort in the promise in Amos that after a period of desolation and destruction, God promises us the opportunity to recover.

We can only hope and pray that very soon, this war will end. That the hostages will be saved or released, and that Israel and its neighbours will live in peace.  We also hope that for our own community, this will bring a return of the feeling of safety that has been sharply eroded since October.  That no one feels like their property or business could be targeted, that they feel the need to hide their Jewish identity, that Jewish school uniforms can be worn on public transport without fear and universities go back to being bastions of learning with the lawns are reclaimed by sunbaking, frisbee throwing students.

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