April 15, 2024
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Sounds of Silence and Silent Sounds

No good deed goes unpunished, or be careful what you wish for. These seem to be the messages of this morning’s parsha, in which the name of Moshe is not mentioned, the only time in the entire Torah after his introduction in Parshas Shemos. The most well-known of the explanations for this is that of the Zohar, the Rosh, and the Ba’al HaTurim, that the absence of his name is due to Moshe’s declaration as part of his defense of the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf, that if the Jews are not to be forgiven, then he should be erased, “mecheni na m’sifricha asher kasavta,” from the book that Hashem has written. Consequently, even though the Jews are ultimately forgiven, Moshe’s words have an effect, and in this minor way, his name is indeed erased.

The effect seems punitive, as if to warn Moshe to take greater care in his declarations and to impose a cost for his rash threat. However, it is more likely that the opposite is true. Moshe’s readiness to sacrifice his legacy on behalf of the Jewish people is a gesture that must be memorialized. Therefore, even though ultimately it was not necessary, some aspect of his “threat” is put into effect and his name is noticeably omitted. In fact, three times in our parsha Moshe’s name is replaced with the unusual phrasing of “v’atah,” each serving as a tribute to the readiness of a great leader to allow himself to be erased so that his people could survive. One suggestion is that it is specifically in the context of the shemen zayis, the olive oil, that makes its contribution through burning up and being consumed that Moshe’s gesture is most fittingly remembered.

This thought came to mind this past week during a significant moment on the Bergen County Unity Mission to Israel, which I had the honor of joining together with Rabbis Fridman, Rothwachs and Strauchler, and Rebbetzins Krohn and Goldberg, and almost 130 members of the Teaneck community.

I was given the privilege of introducing an address to the group by Rav Chaim Wolfson, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Yerucham. By rights, all I should have said about the yeshiva was that it is a wonderful Torah institution, making magnificent contributions to the education of young Torah scholars and to the settlement of the Land of Israel in the modern era.

Tragically, I was forced to speak about a very different distinction of the yeshiva of Yerucham. For it is this yeshiva that has lost the greatest number of its students and alumni in the current awful war. Nine of its extraordinary graduates have given their lives in defense of the Jewish people. These men ranged in age from 19 to 39, two of whom had six children each and could have chosen to be exempted from serving. Scholars, teachers, artists, men of peace: they all had so much to give; and yet now we must speak of how they are gone.

Throughout our trip, great loss was constantly juxtaposed with the symbols of life. At the military base of Shura, where fallen soldiers are identified and prepared for burial, we heard of how the facilities were forced to accommodate many times the capacity they had ever planned for on that horrific day, and we sat in mournful silence in the room designated for families of chayalim to come to say their final words of goodbye. Meanwhile, we discovered that next door, a building is being utilized as the world’s largest aron kodesh, housing hundreds of Sifrei Torah to be repaired and sent out to the bases, literally “Etz chayim hee lamachazikim ba.” (It is a tree of life for those who grasp it.

We heard from living heroes memorializing heroes no longer living, such as Jen Airley, who spoke of her son Binyamin, HY”D, who fell in battle, leaving behind a legacy of inspiration and faith embodied in his indomitable mother.

We visited the kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, about which you will hear much more. There, civilians gave their lives on October 7 in defense of a community that uniquely brings together religious and nonreligious families, a community now seeking to come back home, unbowed by its terrible losses and trauma.

Every day, we spent time in the presence of our precious chayalim, our glorious warriors. Some of that time, heart-wrenchingly, we stood by their graves on Har Herzl. Other times, we were privileged to participate in joyous events with the soldiers, such as barbecues and concerts designed as expressions of inadequate gratitude and chizuk from those who would themselves emerge uplifted.

Throughout the week, Israel was continuing to be attacked and condemned by the international community who cannot tell the difference between those who must defend themselves in order to survive and those who desire only destruction.

The morality of the world has not advanced since the days of the Holocaust. The speeches of today are no wiser, no more just than the silence of yesterday. Just as Moshe’s omission in Parshas Tetzaveh should not be confused with absence, the words of the “moral authorities” of today—in Brazil, the United Nations, or in elite universities—should not be confused with substance, integrity and courage. Just as Moshe’s erasure speaks volumes, their words make noise while saying nothing.

Meanwhile, the people of Israel have always had their heroes. Some of them speak loudly, some quietly. Some lead through teaching, some through giving; some through modeling behavior; some through sacrifice; some through continued service. And all of them, always, choose life.


Rabbi Daniel Feldman is the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Saadya.

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