Friday, January 31, 2020

The Darkness of Auschwitz

We begin with the eighth plague of locusts. This is followed by the penultimate plague of darkness.

I wonder. What is so terrible about locusts? I discovered. It was not just a few locusts that found their way into a basement or through a crack in the window. Instead it was a swarm. A locust swarm, can measure over one square kilometer and can contain 50 million insects. These locusts can eat as much as 100,000 tons of vegetation in one day. Oy gevalt!

Following this devastation Egypt is covered with darkness.

It was no ordinary darkness. It was not a nighttime sky illuminated by the moon and stars. Instead it was pitch black. People could not even see their own hands when held in front of their eyes.

Some commentators suggest that the darkness should be likened to a psychological melancholy. How else do we explain that the Egyptians did not even light candles? It was instead darkness that even artificial illumination could not dispel. Imagine the fear. Shrouded in darkness the Egyptians remembered the plagues. They were alone with the incessant hum of millions upon millions of devouring locusts. Before their eyes, they could only see images of devastated fields, and ruined cities. They could see nothing but their losses.

We too are living in the shadow of such devastation. Similar images shroud our memories.

This week we marked the seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This place was created for one purpose alone. To devastate—the Jewish people. To murder—Jews in particular.

The Holocaust devoured millions. And so we likewise inhabit the ninth plague’s darkness. We close our eyes and see only destruction. We hear millions of names, children and elderly, men and women, devout and atheists, artists and laborers. All of those taken from their homes, uprooted from the countries of their birth and murdered for one reason alone. They were Jews.

The Holocaust darkens our view.

Auschwitz continues to command our attention. In fact, the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, argues that Auschwitz offers a commanding voice, akin to Mount Sinai. He posits a 614th commandment, a singular mitzvah added to the tradition’s 613. We must survive. We must persevere. We must be steadfast in our faith. We must not lose hope in God. We have a sacred obligation to survive as Jews.

This commanding presence sometimes darkens our view of the world. We are forever suspect of world powers, of others, most especially their intentions and designs. We see a potential Holocaust around every turn. We must be forever on guard. We think, we must look out for ourselves first and foremost. This view is understandable given this history—only seventy five years in the past. This view seems more apropos given the rise in antisemitic attacks.

Then again, I am haunted by the words of other philosophers, most notably Richard Rubenstein, who argued that after Auschwitz anything is possible. We turn the pages of our newspapers, flipping from one atrocity to another. We have become inured to suffering and devastation. Within our very own country, there is devastation. Along our borders there is suffering, and pain. We turn away.

The United States Holocaust Museum continues its tracking of genocides. It catalogs a litany of countries, and situations, where genocides might emerge. How can this still be possible? Auschwitz was of course unique, but the likes of it should never again happen to us or to any people. And yet it has. In Cambodia. In Rwanda. In Bosnia-Herzegovina. And now, once again, in Myanmar.

We continue fumbling through the darkness.

We are hardened to the suffering of others. We are ever attuned to the threats facing us. Is it possible to find a way forward? Can we find our way through this ninth plague without inviting an even more devastating final plague?

Not every act of hatred is a potential Holocaust. And yet the world forgets the lessons of Auschwitz. Not every recognition of other people’s suffering is a betrayal of the Holocaust’s memory. And yet antisemitism has once again become murderous.

Perhaps where the Egyptians failed, we can succeed. We must recognize that we still live in the shadows of this plague. We must acknowledge that this darkness still colors our view.

Then we might find one candle to illuminate a path forward.

Friday, January 24, 2020

How Can We Hear What Might Help Us?

God summons Moses and tells him of the plan to free the Israelites from slavery and lead them to the Promised Land, but “when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6)

The Hebrew for “spirits crushed” is kotzer ruach. The word ruach can in fact mean spirit, wind or breath. Kotzer comes from the Hebrew meaning shortened or stunted. And so the medieval commentator, Rashi (eleventh century), suggests that the Israelites did not listen. Why? Because they experienced “shortness of breath.” They were tired and could not catch their breath. The physical toll of years of servitude had made the Israelites so tired they could not even hear when Moses tells them they will soon go free. This makes sense. Sometimes it is impossible to listen to others, or even to hear wonderful news, when one is tired.

Physical health influences the mind. Exhaustion colors our mood. Good news, and bad news, is lost on those who are utterly tired. They cannot hear because they only want to rest. Is this why the plagues were necessary? They were not so much about punishing the Egyptians. Instead their purpose was to awaken the Israelites to God’s majesty and power. Such is Rashi’s understanding of this phrase.

Another commentator, Ramban (thirteenth century), suggests that this phrase should be read as “shortness of spirit.” He argues that the Israelites were impatient. They did not listen to Moses and could not hear God’s promises because they were impatient. This too is a truism. When people are impatient, thinking about whatever else they might have on their agendas they fail to pay attention to the important words standing right before their eyes.

How many times have we said to ourselves, “I wish he would hurry up and finish talking. I am already late for my dinner date.” We might then miss some important news. How many times do we skim over our emails and text messages while waiting impatiently at a red light only to discover we missed the important bit of news at the end of the email chain?

Impatience and exhaustion interfere with true listening.

I prefer however to read this phrase as “their spirits were stunted.” Why? Because their suffering made them unable to hear anything but their own pain. When we are experiencing pain, we are unable to pay attention to other people’s tzuris or sometimes, are even unable to hear good news. The words can be about our very own redemption and we still cannot hear them. Moses offered the Israelites words that foretold their own salvation and yet they could not see beyond their own pain.

It is not that they were stubborn and would not listen but instead that they could not hear. Their suffering and pain obscured their hearing.

The question still confronts us. How can we see beyond our own tzuris, and our pains, and hear the words that might offer our own salvation? It should not require miracles, or plagues visited upon others, to open our eyes to wonders and ears to saving words.

Perhaps it is as simple as hearing our own breath. Perhaps it is as obvious as opening our spirit to God’s plan. All we need to do is lengthen our spirits and expand our hearing.

Someone could indeed be standing right before us and offering us words of salvation and redemption.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Our Story is Not Just About Us

I am thinking of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle that continues to this day.

This week the Torah reminds me that the redemption from slavery began when God takes note of the Israelites’ suffering. 400 years of slavery comes to an end when the pain is finally noticed.

“God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2)

Maya Angelou, the great contemporary American poet, stirs my heart with the words:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
I return to the Torah. It reminds and cajoles. Perhaps all it takes is for us to take note of the suffering and pain.

“God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

When will we follow God’s example? When will we begin to take notice?

We too can say:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Take note. Rise up.

Our march from slavery to freedom is not just about us.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

How to Fight Antisemitism and How to Not

I marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in Sunday's Solidarity March because we face unprecedented times.  Most of us have never experienced this level of antisemitism and most especially the violence that has accompanied recent attacks.  We are struggling to make sense of this increase in antisemitic hate and violence.  And so I would like to offer some advice and guidance for how we might approach these times and how we might fortify our souls. 

1.  We must fight antisemitism wherever, and whenever, it appears.  We must expose it.  We must label it as hate.  We must never be deterred.  Support the many Jewish organizations that help to lead this fight, in particular but not exclusively the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

2. We must not pretend that antisemites only target other Jews.  We must never say things like ultra-Orthodox Jews, like those in Monsey, were targeted because they separate themselves from the larger, American society.  Just because someone visibly identifies as a Jew and just because we have the luxury of taking our kippah off does not mean we should give ourselves the permission of separating ourselves from other Jews.  We are one people whether we acknowledge this or not.  Antisemites make no distinction between Jews.  We should not, we must not, as well. 

3. We must not allow the fight against antisemitism to divide us.   We must stop seeing this struggle through our partisan lenses.  Stop saying it’s all because of this person or that, this leader or that politician. There is plenty of blame to go around.  There is plenty of fault to be found with Democratic leaders and Republican politicians.  Can we at the very least get on the same team in our fight against antisemitism?  Do you think antisemites care who you voted for or who you voted against?  Again, we are one people and we are in this together, Reform and Orthodox, Republican and Democrat, synagogue going and synagogue denying.  Fight the tendency to see each and every antisemitic incident as proof of your political leanings and ask yourself instead, what more can I do to protect the Jewish people, my people?  Let’s stop fighting with each other and start banding together to fight antisemites. 

4. We must not be afraid.  We must not allow rising antisemitism, and in particular these recent violent attacks, to make us constantly afraid.  Of course we should be cautious, but fear and caution and very different things.  The latter is about making reasoned and judicious decisions (by the way, we have an expert security company at the synagogue who looks out for our safety and well-being).  The former is about emotions.  If everything is guided by the emotions of fear then we will never do anything new again.  We will never talk to a new person or make a new friend or venture to a new destination.  Yes, the world is a dangerous place, but it is also a wonderful place.  And seeing that wonder, amidst all these terrors, is a matter of belief and something that you can train yourself to feel.  I refuse to allow my soul to live behind closed gates and doors.  The Jewish people have survived, and outlasted, far worse than our current travails.  Of course, it’s hard to gain this historical perspective, or any perspective for that matter, when you are in the midst of a fight but Jewish history should remind us that while antisemites have often been arrayed against us, we have always persevered.  Have faith!

5. We must not allow antisemitism to define us.  We are Jewish not because of the names they call us or what they say about us, but because we belong to an extraordinary tradition that affirms life and provides meaning to our days.  Our rabbis remind us that it is a commandment to rejoice.  It is a mitzvah to dance with a bride and groom, for example.  So important is this communal obligation that it even takes precedence over the demands of mourning.  Rejoice!  Shout God’s praises.  Our tradition also offers blessings for lightning and thunder.  Imagine that.  That which conjures fear the rabbis said we should instead find there the inspiration to offer praise and thanks.  There are many other examples I could offer that might further illustrate this point, but let’s always recall that we are Jewish because of the meaning and beauty Judaism offers us rather than how we might respond to those who hate us. 

Stay strong.  Remain focused.  Have faith.     
  
This week we conclude the reading of the book of Genesis.  Most of the time we look at this book in the discrete units comprising the weekly portions.  If we look at this first book of the Torah in its entirety we find instead a remarkable teaching.  The book begins with two brothers, Cain and Abel.  Cain of course kills Abel.  We then follow the tensions between brothers Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau.  In each successive tale the brothers come closer to repairing their fractured relations but never fully realize repair and reconciliation.  And then finally, at the conclusion of this book, Joseph and his brothers are fully reconciled.  Only a few weeks ago Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him.  Now they forgive each other, are reconciled, and live the remainder of their days in peace.

We must always have hope.  That is our tradition’s most important teaching.  It was true then.  It is also true now.    

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

I Walked in the March Against Antisemitism to Reclaim Our Home

Don George, the preeminent travel writer, offers an insightful observation in The Way of Wanderlust: “Becoming vulnerable requires concentration, devotion, and a leap of faith–the ability to abandon yourself to a forbiddingly foreign place and say, in effect, ‘Here I am; do with me what you will.’ It’s the first step on the pilgrim’s path.”

American Jews have awakened to feelings of abandonment. Our home has become a foreign place. Antisemitism is no longer something that happens over there or something that occurred back then. It is here. It is now.

We debate the causes. It is because American leaders resort to language which demonizes minorities. We argue about the reasons. It is because university professors label our devotions colonial oppressions. We blame politicians–at least those who stand in opposition to our partisan commitments. We say it is because they are unwilling to stand with us or to fight alongside us. We debate with our fellow Jews–often even more vociferously–about their vote, telling them it is all because of who they voted for or who they plan to vote against. We hear, it is because of those Jews not our kind of Jews.

Jews are being murdered when they gather to sing Shabbat prayers. Jews are attacked when they come together to celebrate Hanukkah. Jews are killed when they go shopping for kosher chickens. Where? Here. In America.

What once felt like a welcoming home no longer makes us feel at home.

And so, on Sunday, I joined with my wife and daughter, and twenty-five thousand others and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge....

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Fake News and Real News

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father that a wild beast killed him. But Joseph soon manages to turn their evil act into good. He becomes ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. His intelligence and prescience, in particular his ability to interpret dreams, help him prepare Egypt for the impending famine. The Egyptians spend seven years storing food and when the famine arrives they have plenty to spare.

His brothers are forced to come to Egypt in search of food. Joseph gives them enough to eat and even more to take back home. He does not reveal his identity. He implements a careful plot in which he frames his brothers and accuses them of stealing to see if they will once again sell their brother Benjamin into slavery. They do not. Joseph reveals his identity. Amid tears, he stammers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?”

The brothers are dumbfounded. The revelation that their brother Joseph who they sold into slavery is now a powerful ruler stuns them. Joseph forgives his brothers and they are reconciled. He instructs them to go back to their father, Jacob, and tell him that he is still alive. Joseph wants the entire family to live together in Egypt. “The brothers went up from Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. And they told him, ‘Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’ His heart stopped, for he did not believe them.” (Genesis 45)

Jacob’s heart stops when first hearing the news. The news nearly kills him. Some translations suggest it should instead read, “His heart went numb.” The Torah’s intention is definitive. The news is impossible for Jacob to comprehend. To believe it would mean that his other sons lied to him so many years ago.

At that time, when Jacob first heard their tale about Joseph’s fate, namely that he was killed by wild beasts, Jacob nearly dies. He says, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol (the place of the dead).” Now Jacob dies once again after hearing the shattering news. His son is alive.

His sons lied.

The Rabbis comment: “This is the fate of a liar; even when telling the truth, a liar is not believed. (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 30)

I wonder. Can habitual liars ever be believed?

We live in an age when we are unable to even agree upon the facts. Each side of the political divide adheres to a different set of truths. They accuse the other of telling lies. Our hearts grow increasingly numb to truth. We remain trapped in between, unable to discuss, and even debate, solutions to the many problems, and dilemmas, we face because we are unable to agree on the underlying truths upon which any discussion, and reasoned debate, must begin. Instead we spend our time, and our energy, arguing about what is fake and what is real. Our debates spin around who is lying and who is telling the truth.

How can we navigate ourselves, and our nation, back to truth?

I continue to weep for Jacob. He endured so many years mourning for his beloved son. After discovering that Joseph lives, he must endure the knowledge that his other sons are liars. And yet, after some time, “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.” And he speaks:

“Enough!

My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” (Genesis 45)

Truth endures.