Sunday, April 23, 2017

Yom HaShoah Remembrance

This evening marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah, officially called Yom HaShoah v'HaGevurah--Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.  Ceremonies are held at synagogues, Jewish schools, Holocaust museums and many throughout the State of Israel.  The day begins with a ceremony at Yad Vashem.

There are many moving, and even haunting, exhibits there, at Yad Vashem.

When you make your way through the museum you are forced to follow a meandering path.  Although you can see to the end of the exhibits, and the windows that look out on Jerusalem's hills, you cannot walk in a direct, straight line.  Instead you must walk back and forth through the many chapters, and episodes, that mark the Holocaust.  The path is obscured.

Years ago I found myself in the exhibit about the Netherlands.  I was transfixed by this story.


 

This is but one episode among millions.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Among Six Million

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day) begins Sunday evening. It is the day set aside to remember the Holocaust.

How does one mark the destruction of much of European Jewry and six million Jewish souls? It is an impossible task. Every effort is but an attempt to comprehend the enormity, to understand the depravity and to give voice to the unfathomable.

And so we build museums. We write books. We grasp at remembrances. All our responses remain inadequate. And so I offer but one story.

Etty Hillesum was born in 1914 to a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family living in Middleburg, Netherlands. She was the oldest of three children. Depression and mental illness plagued her family. Her brothers and mother suffered from these diseases. At the University of Amsterdam Etty studied law, Slavic languages and psychology. She earned a law degree in 1939. She was strongly influenced by Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst from Berlin who became her mentor and then lover. In 1940, after Germany’s invasion of Holland, her studies ended.

Soon the Nazis began rounding up Dutch Jews. The Hillesum family was taken to the transit camp of Westerbork. Here Etty began working for the Jewish Council, the organization charged with deciding their fellow Jews’ fate. Her position gave her some measure of freedom. She was able to travel back and forth to Amsterdam. And yet she steadfastly refused offers of safe haven outside of the camp.

She wrote intensely throughout these excruciating years. She sought to be the “thinking heart” of the camp. She struggled to find a way to understand the horrors she saw with her very own eyes, to accept, and understand, the choices that people made, both the evil and the good. She hoped to maintain a sense of meaningfulness even in the face of death. She filled eight notebooks with her most intimate thoughts. She entrusted them to a friend. In 1981 a selection of her writings was first published. It was entitled An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. The book received popular and critical acclaim.

She writes on July 12, 1942:
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passes before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence.
Some believe she purposely chose to board the train to Auschwitz, knowing full well what fate awaited her. Given her position she could have prevented her own name from appearing on the list of those to be deported. She appeared to believe that she could make no others choice. How could she not accompany her family—even to her own death? How could she not accompany her fellow Jews?

Etty Hillesum and her family were deported in September 1943. No one from her family survived the war.

Her last entry is dated August 24, 1943.
When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green uniformed guards—my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me. I have told you often enough that now words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it to you. One always has the feeling here of being the ears and eyes of a piece of Jewish history, there is also the need sometimes to be a still, small voice. We must keep one another in touch with everything that happens in various outposts of this world, each one contributing his own little piece of stone to the great mosaic that will take shape once the war is over.
Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. She was 29 years old.

May the memory of Etty Hillesum serve as a blessing.

Her story is but one story among six million.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Counting from Freedom

We count many things in our lives. We count our years, often marking them with birthday candles on a cake. We count our money, even though we are not supposed to. We count our friends, even though again we are not supposed to. And now we even count our likes and followers.

We count the days to a vacation. We count the years to retirement. We count the days to the end of school, or even graduation. We mark 17th birthdays with special fanfare. Now a teenager can be more independent. They no longer need parents to drive them all over Long Island. We celebrate 21st birthdays as well because on that day a young adult is free to drink alcohol (legally).

All of these examples share a common theme. We mark our days toward freedom. “Now I am free to order a drink. Now I am free to drive a car.”

In the Jewish tradition we count in the opposite direction. On the second night of Passover we begin counting the Omer. We count for seven weeks. We count until we arrive at the holiday of Shavuot. Although Shavuot is far less widely observed than Passover it marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is the celebration of a detailed list of responsibilities.

To the Jewish mind, freedom is meaningless if not wedded to responsibility. Passover only makes sense when it is connected to Shavuot. The Omer and the counting of the days and weeks serve to remind us that meaning is not discovered in freedom. It is instead found when freedom is pledged to something greater. It is instead when it is married to the mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah.

The Omer reminds us not to say, “Now I am free,” but rather “Now I am blessed with responsibilities.” The tradition sees meaning in duty, in commandments, in work. We move away from freedom. We move towards responsibility.

That is what we look forward to. That is what we count towards.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Doors and Questions

Many people know the joke about Jewish holidays. “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” And while jokes often hint at some truth this joke belies the true meaning of Passover.

The intention of the seder is made crystal clear at its outset. Following the breaking of the middle matzah, we declare: “This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt… Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.”

The early rabbis, who constructed the seder ritual, authored this prayer. Unlike most of our other prayers it is written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew and spoken by the rabbis. They wrote this Ha Lachma Anya prayer in Aramaic so that everyone would understand the seder’s intention. How ironic that we are even more unfamiliar with Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, than with Hebrew. 

The seder is meant to inculcate memory. It is meant to remind us that we were slaves. It is meant to teach us the meaning of our suffering. We recall the feelings of our slavery not to dwell on our pain but so that we can be sure others do not endure such cruelties. How else can we understand the biblical command: “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23)

How else can we understand the opening of our hallmark ritual meal?

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

We remember hunger. We eat matzah to recall this feeling.

Let all who are in need, come and share.

We recall the feelings of desperation. We remember when the world turned its back.

This elaborate ritual meal is about imbibing the feelings of suffering and slavery so that we might open our hearts to others’ pain. We recall the closed doors so that we might open our doors.

And what do we do next? We literally open the door!

Then again, when we open the door for Elijah, the haggadah offers these vengeful words: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.” After centuries of antisemtism and persecution Jews living in medieval times added this reading to the haggadah.

They were understandably afraid to open the door. And so they recalled the fiery vengeance of the prophet Elijah who destroyed the prophets of Baal. Blood libels and Good Friday massacres were commonplace. Their fears were understandable. Their anger becomes palpable in the words of this prayer. It was as if to say, “They are at our doors. They are here to kill us once again.”

But we do not live in medieval times. We also do not of course live in the days of the early rabbis. Today antisemitism grows. Our fears increase. Do we have the courage to open the door? Do we take to heart the intention of the seder? Can we only remember our own pain? “They are at our doors again.” Or do we use this meal to imagine the suffering of others? “Let us open the gates of our nation to the stranger.”

The haggadah leaves this question unanswered. It contains both prayers. It affirms both feelings. In fact it is more about asking questions than offering answers. It wishes to open the conversation. It wants us to ask, and discuss and debate what does the memory of suffering and slavery mean to us today. It wishes us to imagine how we might create a better future.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman advises: “Don’t let the printed word paralyze the imagination. Talk. Discuss the Exodus. You are free.”

Freedom means the luxury to debate questions. It is about the necessity of discussion.

The questions never go away. 

Is the door still opened?

Each age must continue the search for its own answers.