Tag Archives: Shoah

The Masters of History – Shofetim 5779

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.

William Ungar z”l

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.)

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Sermons

Ani Ma’amin / I Believe – Shemini Atzeret 5778

We are in difficult times. Wildfires. Hurricanes. A horrific mass shooting. A president who thrives on insults and can’t distinguish between Nazis and “fine people.”

I’m going to talk today about faith, about commitment to our spiritual tradition, in the context of challenging times. Ani Ma’amin. I believe.

Belief is a funny thing. My sense is that we don’t believe in too much today, do we? We like our distance, our cool, reserved, “let’s wait and see” stance.

How many of us believe so strongly in something that we can actually put ourselves into it bodily? How many of us fully invest ourselves in a cause, for example, that we’re actually out in the streets, marching? How many of us feel so strongly about our tradition that we commit to the actions of the tradition, rather than merely checking the “High Holiday” or “Yizkor” box?

There is really no greater figure on the Jewish bookshelf than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam. He lived in the 12th century, primarily in Egypt, and wrote two major works: the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed. These two works come at Judaism from two different perspectives. The Moreh Nevukhim is written for the skeptic, the one who has not yet bought into the idea of Judaism. It’s written to try to initiate the uninitiated; it presents the meaning of our rituals and customs and texts with an eye to inspiring connection. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the language of the Jews of Egypt of the 12th century.

Spain - Cordoba - statue of the Jewish scholar Maimonides ...

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The Mishneh Torah, on the other hand, is a halakhic guide. Its title means, literally, the second Torah, boldly titled to almost suggest that if you read this book, you would not need to read the original Torah. It’s for the already-convinced, the committed Jew who wants to know how to do Judaism properly. It’s for the one who throws his or her whole body and heart and mind into it. It’s written in beautiful, crisp medieval Hebrew, easily understandable to those who have studied our essential tongue.

Sitting next to each other on the shelf, what might this suggest about the Jews that Rambam knew in 12th-century Cairo? Certainly, the Mishneh Torah suggests that there were some Jews who were committed to halakhah and wanted to know more, wanted to know from a master interpreter of our tradition what exactly makes a sukkah kosher, or what Psalms to recite for Hallel. But the Moreh Nevukhim, The Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that there were many that were not yet ready to believe, not yet ready to commit.

Having just completed the odyssey of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, I must say that I find it extraordinarily ironic that one of the best-known piyyutim (liturgical poems) of those days is “Vekhol Ma’aminim.” It includes a litany of statements about God that “all [of us] believe.” And yet, I know that in the sanctuary on those days, there are many who do not believe – do not buy into fundamental traditional understandings of our tradition, of Jewish theology, of the halakhic system, of mitzvot, and so forth. Many of us do not believe, even some of us who are singing along.

Whenever we say the word “amen,” we are saying, I am in a state of faith with you. I believe.

But tefillah, prayer, is not a portrait of what is; it is a vision of what could be. So it’s certainly possible to be in a state of faith that tefillah helps us along the path to building that vision. And that’s certainly where I am.

I believe in the power of Judaism to change your life. I believe in the richness of wisdom that is found in our ancient texts. I believe in the holy spark that may be found in all people, and in all of God’s creation. I believe in the power of that force that flows around and through us that we refer to as the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, to change us and to change the world.

Maybe that makes me an outlier. But it puts me in good company.

A few years back, Elie Wiesel was featured at a performance at the 92nd St. Y in New York. He told a story about how his mother, who came from a well-known family of Vizhnitzer Hasidim, brought him on one Shabbat in 1943 to the court of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. Elie was 15, and although rumors had reached his home town, Sighet, Romania, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Poland, nobody knew for certain.

Elie Wiesel: 1928-2016

Also there on that Shabbat was a nephew of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a young man who had been in Nazi-occupied Poland, but managed to find his way back Vizhnitz, in the Ukraine. The Hasidim there that Shabbat pressed him for information, but he would not say a thing. He simply could not tell them what he had likely seen: the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen, SS mobile killing squads, rail transports to death camps in cattle cars, and so on. On all these things, the young man was silent. Instead, he only sang. He sang the words of Ani Ma’amin, Maimonides’ fundamental statement of faith in the coming of the mashiah. But embedded in the words, and in the melody, was the message that they needed to maintain faith despite the coming cataclysm:

(You can hear the recording of Elie Wiesel singing this song by clicking here.)

אני מאמין
באמונה שלמה
בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה
עם כל זה אחכה לו
בכל יום שיבוא

Ani ma-amin
Be-emunah shelemah
Bevi-at hamashiah
Ve-af al pi sheyitmahmeah
Im kol zeh ahakeh lo
B
ekhol yom sheyavo

I believe
With perfect faith
In the coming of the mashiah (the anointed one)
And although he tarries
Nonetheless, I wait for him
Every day, that he may come

What did the Jews of Vizhnitz and Elie Wiesel learn that Shabbat? That whatever unspeakable horrors lay in front of them, they would survive. That whatever fate was awaiting them at the hands of their oppressors, that some of them would make it to the other side. That there would be Jews at some future time, Jews who would be on this Earth to greet the arriving mashiah. That even though there are dark times ahead, that they would eventually pass.

There is always hope for the future. Our tradition teaches us to be patient, and to look past the current darkness to the better days ahead. Ani ma’amin. I believe.

To be sure, Elie Wiesel lost his faith; he chronicles that moment in his first book, Night, his account of the Shoah, when he arrives at Auschwitz and is hustled out of the cattle car, and an SS officer points to the flames coming from the crematorium and screams, Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there-that’s where you’re going to be taken. That’s your grave, over there.And in that moment, reports Wiesel, he loses his faith. A God that could have allowed such a thing did not deserve his reverence. His faith, he says, was consumed in those flames.

At some point, later in life, he found Judaism again. But anybody who survived the camps had to struggle with belief. I had a congregant back on Long Island who, late in life, authored an account of her own Shoah story. It was particularly striking to me that, in the book, she conceded that, while she raised a family in Jewish tradition, and her children and grandchildren were believers, she could not find the same belief within herself.

And yet, it is that belief that enabled some to survive. It is that sense of “Ani ma-amin,” I believe, that has given our people hope for millennia, through destruction and exile and Crusades and Inquisition and expulsion and genocide.

I believe that we are here today because of our belief.

Because we will be here forever, if we all just reach a little deeper, if we all just put a little more of ourselves into learning our tradition, into acting on our tradition, in keeping the holy opportunities, the mitzvot of our tradition in front of us. If we let go of some of that cool reserve, if we put ourselves bodily into our rituals and customs bodily, if we pray with fervor, if we reach higher to keep the mitzvot, if we yearn to reach past the perplexity to seek answers, to act on that belief, we will survive whatever challenges we face.

Ani ma-amin. I believe. And I’ll wait, and continue to daven every day, until we get to the other side.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shemini Atzeret, Thursday, 10/12/2017.)

3 Comments

Filed under Festivals, Sermons