This past week we observed the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland.
I had a congregant on Long Island who was there when it happened: his name was Bill Ungar, and he was a soldier in a cavalry regiment of the Polish army, which fell quickly as the Nazi troops overwhelmed them. He was injured in the Nazi onslaught, but ultimately survived the war and the camps, made it to America, and was proud to have a successful career in business and raise a bountiful family that is committed to Judaism and to Israel. He passed away a few years back, at age 100, and as a former synagogue president, his funeral was held in the synagogue sanctuary, which was packed full of mourners.
As the first-hand witnesses to that period age and leave us, there are fewer and fewer individuals who can speak from personal experience. But, as with everything in Jewish life, the history of those years – of Nazi aggression and genocide – continues to reside with us, deposited in the collective history of our people.
We have carried our history with us wherever we go, and it is the lens through which we continue to see ourselves, to determine our role in the world, to guide us in our choices. It is our history that returns us to our values, and in particular, the value of justice.
A key clause right up front in Parashat Shofetim is, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” notable because of the repetition of the word tzedeq, justice. Properly translated, it means, “Justice, you shall pursue justice” – holding out justice in front of us to dangle momentarily at the leading edge of the clause, before applying the verb that tells us what to do. It is as if to say, “Justice! Think about that for a moment. Then go out and pursue it.” And the text does not say, as it could have, “Tzedeq ta’aseh.” Do justice. Rather, tirdof is more active. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that what is implied is that we must actively pursue it. Go out and make justice happen.
Through the lens of history, we know that justice must be pursued with vigor and endurance.
It is easy to point to September 1, 1939, as the start of World War II. For the Jews, I think it is difficult to separate the war from the Sho’ah, the destruction of European Jewry. One might just as easily consider January 30, 1933, when Hitler came to power. Or September 15, 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were passed in the Reichstag. Or November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. And so forth.
Over the summer, while spending time with our family in Budapest, Judy and I went to the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Center. Neither of us had been there before, despite the fact that it tells the story of how Judy’s parents, who were both in their teens in Hungarian areas during the war. As is the case with all Holocaust museums, the exhibit was grim. But what was unique for me about this museum is that it tells the story of the persecution and murder of Jews from the Hungarian perspective, which is different from the German perspective that is usually told.
In Hungary, anti-Jewish legislation was passed into law in 1920 under the leadership of Regent Miklos Horthy, the last Navy admiral of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a self-declared anti-Semite. The law, referred to as “numerus clausus” (“closed number” in Latin), drastically limited the number of Hungarian Jews who were allowed to enroll in universities, thereby rolling back the civil liberties granted to Jews in the early 19th century. Thousands of Jews left Hungary. And this was years before anybody had heard of Adolf Hitler. The law was largely repealed in 1928, but a decade later Horthy’s regime was allied with the Nazis, and we all know what came next.
One of the fascinating aspects of the study of history is that we can trace the currents of ideas and cultural phenomena as they turn over and simmer and develop and flow. When we speak of the injustice to Jews wrought by European anti-Semitism, do we go back to Martin Luther? Do we start with St. John Chrysostom in 4th-century Constantinople?
I have read that as people age, time seems to move faster. You know this from your own experience: remember when summer vacation, a mere two months, used to last for what seemed like forever? Remember when, in September, you could not remember the math you’d learned in June? And now, for those of us over a certain age, you feel like you kick up your feet for a moment in July, and the leaves are already falling off the trees.
One theory behind this phenomenon is that the older you are, the more lived experience you have to measure every moment against. It’s as if you are looking through thicker lenses; every current event is filtered through all the relevant things that you remember from your own life. So time seems to move more quickly because each moment is refracted by everything that came before it.
And we the Jews, well, our history stretches back, depending on where you start counting, at least 2,000 years, and maybe 3,000. Our collective lenses are the size of the Herodian stones at the base of the Kotel / the Western Wall in Jerusalem; our people’s shared experience includes centuries of dispersion and oppression, yes, but also learning and thriving and teaching and yearning for freedom. And perhaps that helps with perspective; we survived the Babylonian and Roman destructions; the Spanish Expulsion; the Sho’ah. We’re still here.
It is anathema to the Jews to be ahistorical, because we know that it is only a matter of time before the situation changes once again. Slowly, inexorably, the ancient hatreds come back, with new movements and new methods and new champions. We have no choice but to be masters of history; we forget the past at our own peril.
It is our history that has led us to continue to pursue justice. For we know that wherever people are inclined to draw lines between the “goo”d folks and the “bad” folks, between the “real” Hungarians or Aryans or English or Russians and the people who came from somewhere else, wherever leaders seek to exploit traditional fear and enmity and suspicion, we know that justice is about to be thrown out the window in favor of mob rules.
We know that it is our responsibility, as the Torah exhorts us over and over and over again, to stand up for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our midst; to remember that we were strangers in Egypt; to recall that people, when left to their own devices, are not fundamentally inclined to treat each other justly.
Tzedeq.Justice, says the Torah.
Tzedeq tirdof. You must pursue justice.
Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and then banned Jews from living within sight of that city, we are still here despite the injustice served to us throughout those many centuries.
|עוד לא אבדה תקותנו,||‘Od lo avdah tikvatenu,||Our hope is not yet lost,|
|התקוה הנושנה,||Hatikvah hanoshanah,||The ancient hope,|
|לשוב לארץ אבותינו,||Lashuv le-eretz avoteinu,||To return to the land of our fathers,|
|לעיר בה דוד חנה.||La‘ir bah david hanah.||The city where David encamped.|
Hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope identified in Naftali Herz Imber’s 1878 poem, which later became the national anthem of the State of Israel, was a hope not merely for a return to the city where David camped (as with the original text). I read it also as an ongoing plea for the Jewish soul to find comfort in a society in which the guiding principle is justice, in which there is no fear of hatred, no need for synagogue security guards, no angry mobs.
Imber died an alcoholic pauper in 1909 in New York City after a lifetime of wandering; he knew neither the Holocaust nor of the State of Israel. But we still live out his yearning today; we are still drawn by that ancient hope. We are still seeking tzedeq.
Our greatest challenge is not memory. We have that in spades. Rather, it is how to act on that memory. How to pursue the upright path in the societies in which we live, in the times in which we dwell. How to make sure that tzedeq, that justice remains in front of us at all times.
What will truly make us the masters of history is when we turn our historical lenses onto ourselves, and pursue that which is truly just.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/7/2019.)