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"Counting to Infinity", by Moshe Rosenberg  
 
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Sep 10, 2006 -- Ancient Jewish practice forbids counting the living by head, but says nothing about counting the dead.

When it comes to calculating the members of a prayer quorum of ten, we use verses that have ten words. The most popular verses: Save your people; bless your inheritance; guide, elevate them forever, and Land of wheat, and barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, land of olive and date-honey. In Biblical times soldiers would submit pottery shards or half shekels to be counted in their stead.

But how do you begin to count the soldiers who died in Lebanon these last two months? Or the civilians killed by rockets in the cities of the north? What verses would you use? What objects would suffice? Ehud Olmert would have us count with a verse from the joyous book of Esther claiming that, thanks to their sacrifice, there is a new reality in Southern Lebanon. But Olmert’s opponents from the right and the left would use a verse from the scroll of Eikha, lamenting the stated goals unachieved, and the hostages unrescued. In place of shards of pottery we have shards of lives and fragments of dreams. With each death notice came the compact bio: Would have completed his army service in two weeks; was planning his post-army trip; was entering this university or that technical college or returning to this business or that Yeshiva. Instead of half shekels there are businesses foundering under the burdens of deserted towns or absent managers. And all over Israel mothers are reinventing the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies,
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die.
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine.
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
Trying to remember why life must go on, I finger on my bookshelf the attempts of others to count their dead--Atzeret Le-Yehiel, a collection of essays on the holiday of Shavuot compiled in memory of Yehiel Weitzman, who was killed in 1982 in Operation Peace for the Galilee. The Sanctity of Life, and Risking Ones Life, a collection of studies in memory of Amir Yekutiel, killed in 1989 in a military training accident. Shall I make room on my shelf for ten dozen more examples of blood and sinew reduced to ink and paper?

The thought occurs: maybe in Judaism the idea isn’t to count our dead, but to make our dead count. Maybe the family of thirteen year-old Coby Mandell, gruesomely murdered in a cave near Tekoa in 2001, had the right idea when they established the Coby Mandell Foundation to help children traumatized by terror. And perhaps Dr. Stephen Flatow was onto something when he started the Alisa Flatow Foundation named for his daughter, victim of a vicious bombing in Jerusalem. These, and so many others, are instances of the bereft investing their loved ones lives with meaning posthumously, and enabling their pure souls to give and inspire, even from the grave. Our enemies hold up their dead suicide bombers as examples for others to follow, insuring that just as their lives were snuffed out in violence, so too will no ray of meaning filter through to illuminate their memories. Better to start a project for life.

A heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Olmert government to see to it that the deaths of 160 soldiers and civilians are invested with lasting meaning. Though we do not sit in the chambers of diplomacy, we are not absolved from that same charge: 160 kedoshim--160 initiatives for life. Let each name be kept alive through words of thanks from grateful beneficiaries of the charity that bears it. Let each family see its tears of mourning mingle with tears of gratitude blessing their loved one. Let Jews and people of conscience around the world pool resources to guarantee that these 160 names never be forgotten. Jewish tradition explains that the living may not be counted because each individual is an infinity; let the lasting legacy of each of these souls be infinite, as well.

They parted with their lives to protect a Land of wheat, and barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, a land of olives and date-honey. In their merit may God Save His people; bless his inheritance; guide, and elevate them forever.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg is Director of Public Affairs for the Rabbinical Council of America.

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