Thursday, April 23, 2020

No Eulogies for the Holocaust

When preparing for funerals I often share with families that it is impossible to adequately capture a person’s spirit and character in a few, well-chosen words, sentences and paragraphs. Eulogies are imperfect. Although important, they are inadequate representations of people’s lives. No life can be perfectly summarized. No life can be encapsulated in poetry or prose.

I recall this sentiment at this moment as I reflect on the memories of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. For very few, if any, was a eulogy recited. No prayers were chanted. In fact, we recall them en masse and as a single memory. “The six million!” we intone. Their individuality, their unique character traits, the large things around which their lives turned and the small things that only their families and friends knew, and perhaps loved, are forgotten. Such sentiments have never been recorded in even the briefest of eulogies.

“I remember when Sarah…. I recall when Jacob…” are words that were never said or heard. When we offer the words of eulogies, we convey that the lives we remember are valued. They signify that the lives of our family members and friends continue to have meaning. We recall what was unique about each of their individual lives.

And this is what the Nazis robbed us of as well. The six million were stripped of their humanity in life and in death. We cannot even remember them as we should. We cannot even eulogize them as they deserve. Their individuality was destroyed.

Primo Levi, one of the most eloquent of survivors, penned many words in order to give expression to these sentiments. His seminal work first written in Italian in 1959, If This Is a Man and translated into English with the inaccurate title of Survival in Auschwitz, struggles to convey the dehumanization of the camps. He writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom…. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”

I do not know if this is possible…six million times over. And even if it is possible, there is not enough days, and months, and years, to remember each of these individual lives.

Soon after his liberation from Auschwitz, in 1946, Levi writes a poem. He entitles it “Shema.”
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces: 
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter. 
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
We continue to avert our faces. And we remain unable to write the words that might offer remembrances of our murdered six million. We question. Has this become our new prayer? Must this become our new Shema?

We have come to realize. We cannot intone enough prayers to sanctify each of their lives. We cannot recount their individual names.

Perhaps we must begin with one. And then two. Some might have the strength to read more. We must count, and recall, as many names as each of us can carry.

“I commend these words to you.”

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Swimming in Hope

In her recent article, “What I Miss Most is Swimming,” Bonnie Tsui writes:
There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now, in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most. But even though public pools are closed and we are limited in the wild places where we can swim, thinking about immersion in our favorite watering holes is still a balm. As the writer Heather Hansman pointed out to me recently, there is value in those places even (and especially) when we’re not in them — it’s what Wallace Stegner called “the geography of hope.”
I have been thinking about how we create such a geography of hope when we are trapped inside. (And when I cannot even swim in the chlorinated pools of our local gyms or locate the soothing balm of the ocean’s waves.). And so, I do what I often do, and lean on the ancient rabbis who even though they lived thousands of years ago, remain my teachers and guides.

Living at a time when their beloved Temple was destroyed and they were exiled from the holy city of Jerusalem, they fashioned prayers that touched on these geographies and instilled hope in the hearts of countless generations of Jews. To this day we conclude our Passover Seders, as we did only last week, with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” It is difficult to imagine that for centuries, nay millennia, we said these words even though returning to Jerusalem was a distant, and impossible, dream.

And I would add, that we have now returned to Jerusalem, and rebuilt and revitalized the land of Israel, we too often take for granted.

At every wedding ceremony, we sing the words of the Sheva Brachot and say, “O God, may there always be heard in the cities of Israel and in the streets of Jerusalem: the sounds of joy and happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play.” And then a glass is broken in remembrance of that now distant and remote sadness of Jerusalem’s destruction and we shout “Mazel tov.” We then adjourn for the dancing and celebration.

Even though these rabbinic imaginings seemed the most remote of possibilities, a geography of hope was created through their words and prayers. They transported us there even though we remained here. We may not have been dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, but we were still dancing. And in that swirling hora hope was instilled again and again.

I remind myself. If the rabbis could sustain this hope for millennia, then I can for a few weeks, or months, or even years. The memories of past horas sustain me. The promise of future dances rekindles my faith. “Next year!”

My teachers and guides did so not only by composing prayers that we lean on to this very day, but also by declaring that our homes are our temples. The home is called a “mikdash maat—small sanctuary.” It is here where we can find holiness. Our dining room tables, or kitchen tables, or even our living room couches where we watch Netflix together, can become the altar upon which we elevate our lives. Just as the ancients once did with the sacrifices, they offered in Jerusalem’s Temple we turn to our homes and its tables.

It is here that we can recite blessings. It is here where we can bless our children. It is here that we can laugh, and sing, with family members—even if they join us by FaceTime and Zoom. We need not travel to an ocean or river or lake. We need not pilgrimage to a mountain top or wilderness park or even a holy city.

It can be found here and not there. It always can be found here.

This is why this week’s Torah portion offers a religious discipline for the most mundane, and of course necessary, human acts. It offers a list of permitted and forbidden foods to eat, namely the laws of keeping kosher. We must eat. Either we can eat like animals because we must, and we are hungry, or we can pause and give thanks before savoring the meal. And one way that Judaism suggests a meal is consecrated is by saying “yes” to some foods and “no” to others. Why? “For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11)

Our tables provide all the holiness we require.

Our home is the only place to which we need travel. It is exactly the geography of hope for which we long. It is the destination which will sustain us through the coming weeks.

One day soon we will dance in the waters of hope.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Embracing the Seder's Order

According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Kohelet was written by King Solomon when he was an older man. It offers a melancholy appraisal of life, suggesting that we are fated to bounce back and forth between highs and lows. Solomon laments:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: a time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; a time for slaying and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up; a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing; a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding; a time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace. (Kohelet 3)
Kohelet offers a painfully true insight. It is a wisdom that Solomon’s age affords him. His years have taught him difficult lessons. Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not, we will at some point be confronted with all emotions, with laughing and weeping, dancing and wailing. We will have opportunities to mourn and rejoice. I have never, until now, and until these days, believed one of the phrases Solomon offers. “There is a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces.” I refused to heed his wisdom.

I have long believed, and forever taught, that Judaism is about wrapping our arms around each other. We are commanded to do so at the best of times, when we for example grab our friends and swirl about in a hora or at the worst of times, when we offer hugs of consolation. These days however demand something far different of us. For the sake of life, we must now shun embraces. And I hate the fact that Solomon was right.

This evening begins Passover and its customary seder. I would usually be running up and down the stairs, carrying additional chairs for the many guests who would soon walk through our doors and who I would welcome with embraces, with hugs and kisses. I would be adding leaves to the dining room table to make extra room at our dining room table. We would soon squeeze into our dining room, shoulder to shoulder, so that all could fit around the table.

This Passover, this familiar ritual, this usual order appears upended.

The word seder means order. This is because there is of course a time-tested order to how we perform the rituals of Passover evening. We have four cups of wine. We always conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The word for prayerbook as well, siddur, is likewise about ordering prayers. It is about structuring events. That’s how we do things. There is a prescribed prayer to recite when beginning our morning prayers. We say the Shema in the morning and the evening. There are words we lean on when concluding a wedding ceremony.

A religious life seeks to place order, to layer meaning, on our lives, to lift even higher our most joyous moments, and to hold us steady when we feel as if we are falling. It offers order to a disordered world. When life most especially seems upended, and most fragile, we lean on the wisdom of our forebears. We cling to the words of our rituals.

This year we will gather for Passover in small groups. We will convene our extended family members through FaceTime and Zoom and we will ask as we always do, the required four questions, but we also ask a new question. How can we find a semblance of order when the world appears so disordered? How do we order our lives today?

The tradition offers a ready-made answer. Cling ever more tightly to the words of our tradition. Embrace time-honored rituals. They will provide us with, if nothing else, a sense of order. They will steady us when the world appears teetering. It may require extra measures of strength to perform these rituals when surrounded by smaller numbers, but we must summon those resources in order to rebalance our lives and grant us needed doses of order.

One day (may it be very soon!) we will look back at this spring, and we may then very well call it the lost spring of 2020, but perhaps as well we will recall that Judaism counsels that pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, takes precedence over all other commandments. Perhaps this year’s Passover will help us rediscover this important lesson.

Perhaps this spring will help to highlight not some new, and profound, insight but Judaism’s greatest teaching of all. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every human being is deserving of life. And then, this revolutionary idea that every human life is sacred will become the universal truth Judaism always thought it should be. 

Kohelet is typically read on the fall holiday of Sukkot when the summer is a distant memory and not in the spring when summer is as it appears to be this year, looking toward an approaching season of uncertainty. And yet certainties are already emerging.

Life is sacred. Health is precious. And we have to fight to preserve these.

Perhaps this all the order we require this Passover.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A New Torah Will Be Written

The Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Hasidic movement in eighteenth century Ukraine, approached the world in a unique way. Once, there was a terrible disease outbreak in Mezibush. Men, women and children were falling ill to this rampant disease. It spread like wildfire throughout the community. At its worst, there was not a single home in which there was not at least one ill family member. Out of desperation, and great faith in the Baal Shem Tov’s healing powers, the community leaders turned to their rabbi and asked him to pray on their behalf. They begged him to pray that the plague might vanish from their midst.

The Baal Shem Tov responded that their fate was instead in their hands. It was up to them to vanquish this disease. His prayers could not replace their prayers. His actions could not substitute for their actions. And so, the Baal Shem Tov instructed them that the solution to their travails was that the entire community, that each and every member, participate in the mitzvah of writing a new Torah scroll.

The people immediately took it upon themselves to begin writing this Torah. And, miraculously, as soon as the Torah scroll was written, and as soon as every single person, from the youngest to the oldest, from the richest to the poorest, from the most educated to the least, from the most devout to the least, the community began to heal, and the outbreak began to ebb. Thereafter, this holy Torah gained a special place in the Ark and was forever referred to as the “miracle worker.”

Although the Baal Shem Tov and his followers apparently (and I would add, mistakenly) believed that prayer and the writing of a Torah scroll, were the only cures needed to eradicate the disease outbreak, this story made me contemplate our present circumstances. I wonder. What will be the new Torah that emerges from our present extraordinarily painful times? We may not realize it, because we are in the thick of it, but we are now writing a new Torah.

We are learning how to remain a community while being apart. We are mastering how to remain close to family members while not standing in their physical presence. I may not very much like Zoom; I may not feel it is a worthy substitute for standing by each and every one of those I love and care for, but it will have to do. This will have to be my Torah—for now.

And what will remain of this new Torah?

What will we have learned when we emerge from this crisis? Let no one say, that we will not one day emerge, scarred to be sure, but stronger, nonetheless. Will we cherish community even more? Will we rejoice at the opportunity to go out for dinner with friends? I am counting on it. Will we relish in the natural world and once again discover awe in its beauty and splendor? Will we no longer take for granted the simple pleasure of opening the front door and breathing in the fresh air? I am betting on it.

Will we cherish life even more? We better. Will we come to realize how fragile life truly is and how precious it is not just for ourselves but for everyone—in the entire world? Again, we better.

Will these days, and the difficult and painful weeks that lie ahead, leave an impression that will make us stronger and better. I truly hope so. This indeed is my prayer.

This is the new Torah I look forward to reading. This is the Torah I am confident we will soon read—one day, very soon.