Yom haZikaron la’Shoah ve’la’Gevurah: The day for remembering the Shoah and for remembering the Bravery.

vati passport 1Tonight we begin Yom HaZikaron la’ Shoah ve’la’Gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה – The day for remembering the Shoah and the Heroism.

Around six million Jews and five million others were targeted by the Nazis and were murdered in the Shoah. LGBTQ people, Travellers (Roma), Communists, the mentally or physically frail, Jehovah’s witnesses, the people who opposed the decrees – they too perished simply for being who they were.

From 1933, as German Jews were stripped of having legal and economic status, till 1945 when Hitler was finally defeated, the Shoah was not one large act but a huge multiplicity of smaller and ongoing acts, and the bravery and heroism we also remember was equally often the actions of individuals whose values led them to refuse to partake or support, or to support hidden Jews, or to resist in numerous quiet ways.

My family have, as have many families like us, threads of stories about what happened to us.  The voices to tell the stories are few – we have had to collect and collate information from many different sources, we have had to research and visit places in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland… to try to find the streets and the buildings, and rarely the cemeteries, where our family members found some rest for a short while before journeying onwards.  Some stories come from memories recounted to us when we were young and the teller was feeling particularly open or vulnerable, some stories are found in legal documents, in letters, in photographs, in lists of names for deportation.   Some stories are embedded in the names given to us at birth, in recipes, in particular family traditions. My family, like the families of many like us in the UK and America, have made deep roots in a very short time in the new places we live in now, others find themselves unable to come back from the violent uprooting they suffered, and so remain consistently rootless.

The pain we memorialise on Yom HaShoah travels down the generations. The silence of survivors doggedly refusing to tell their stories until almost too late, has been more profound and more powerful than speech. The anguish of families torn apart, with most disappeared or murdered, has an effect on the remnant that survives, be it spoken of or be it suppressed. I can still hear my 87 year old father asking – “but have I got any other family in the world besides the family I created? And “I wonder what my father would have thought of me”

The enormity of the Shoah is too much to process. The pain of individuals is too much to bear.

And yet we must continue to tell the story as best we can. We can tell the stories within our families, we can tell the stories of one community, one street, one house, one person. It comes down again and again to the personal stories, the fear and loss of individuals, the pain and terror of one human being.

And we must alongside tell the stories of bravery and heroism. The family with the same name as a Jewish family living in an apartment block who gave their papers to the Jewish family when the Gestapo came to call. The people who warned small children playing out –“don’t go back home, the soldiers are there, find somewhere else to go but don’t go home”. The people who hid Jews in their homes at their own risk, who faced down authorities and refused to accede to their demands, who gave out visas or forged documents to help people escape certain death.

One thing we learn is that fascism starts small, with many small acts of distortion – seeding fake news, calling out truth as if it is fake, skewing and manipulating public opinion, destroying trust in any source of information, acts of violence that are not confronted, racist dog-whistling, gaslighting – the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. This last – coming from the play by Patrick Hamilton “Gas Light” which premiered 1938 – is done not only by individuals but by governments and nation states. Hitler made promises, asserted facts and then later would act as if this had never happened.  The destabilising effect of what you know to be true suddenly apparently being false or non-existent is increasingly apparent once more in the politics of Trump, of Brexit, of the populist parties gaining power in Europe.

Fascism starts with many small acts of distortion. It is neutralised by clarity, transparency and truthfulness.

It is neutralised too by every act being called out for what it is at the level at which it occurs. Every taxi driver ranting on about a Brexit dividend or with a racist agenda, every dinner guest, every work colleague. Politeness is the enemy of honesty on occasion and allows the hatred to flourish as the hater believes their agenda is agreed.

The small acts of heroism alongside and during the Shoah are what gives me faith in the future, gives me a hope for the present, and also directs my own actions. I cannot stand idly by and hear racism, anti-European rhetoric, anti-Muslim spew. I will not stand idly by.  We must have faith in our own perceptions and our own values and not allow the gaslighting. We must be strong in what we know to be right – human dignity for all, support and care – and resources – for the vulnerable, honesty and transparency in our politics.

The word Shoah probably comes from a root meaning to ravage, to destroy, to devastate and is connected to the word used in the ten commandments – la’shav (do not take the name of the Eternal God La’shav) – meaning empty or vain, desolate or ruin.  One of my favourite glosses on this root as it appears in the third commandment is that we must not damage the world in the name of God, not destroy others – who also hold the reflection of God within them – for a misplaced sense of what God must be like.

I love too the modern midrash on the root Shoah which is made up of the three Hebrew letters Shin, Alef Hei.

The letter Shin has a shushing sound. A soothing sound we make to frightened children, the sound when there is nothing to say except “I’m here with you”

The letter Alef is silent; it reminds us of the silence of Aaron in the face of the sudden death of his sons, the shocked inability to respond at all as we freeze in our horror at the reality of what we are facing.

But the letter Hei, often used to designate the name of God, reminds us that at the end of it all, God is still with us. And it too has a soft and gentle sound, the sound of breathing.  At the end of the Shoah- even after all this time since the end, we can still say nothing to remedy or to heal the dislocation and pain we still endure and live with, but God is still with us, and we are still able to breath and to live, and to look forward in the hope of a life of peacefulness and with all the breath we have to fight the forces that would take that peace away.

 

photo of my grandfather’s reisepass with the red J firmly stamped.

Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”

 

 

 

 

 

Tetzaveh:

The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.

Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.

To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.

This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.

There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.

I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .

Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.

So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.

One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.

Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.

In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.

Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God.  There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.

The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.

The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.

In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.

The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid”  You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.

The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.

Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.

There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.

Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.

My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it,  but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.

When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times.  We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.

(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)

Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.

Parashat Beshallach: lessons to survive national trauma in Holocaust Memorial Week.

Seventy years ago this week, the twin camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, and no-one in the outside world could ignore any longer what had been going on in territory controlled by Nazi Germany.

The western world is ready to recognise some of its collusion with what happened, but 70 years on is anxious to consign much of it to the history books, and looking at modern world events one can truly say that while some of the responsibility for the Shoah being allowed to happen is being accepted, much of it is not, and clearly nothing is being learned from it which might guide our politicians and their constituents to meaningfully help the oppressed peoples in Europe and beyond who are suffering under harsh and racist regimes today.

The Jewish world is still trying to come to terms with the events of the last century, though the pogroms and persecution are often still too recent and too raw for us to deal with yet, and we are stumbling around in the darkness of the early stages of the attempt to find meaning in what has happened to us. Post the Shoah, the trauma that our people endured, we have to assimilate something of value into our tradition and our ritual if we are to continue choosing to be Jews into the next generations. I don’t have any answers to how one deals with the experience, but reading Beshallach can help to point the way maybe, for it records the trauma of being thrust out from Egypt, the plagues which the Jews almost uncomprehendingly witnessed, the way in which the world changed so totally for them, and all security was gone – even the security of slavery. It records too the continued pursuit of them by the Egyptians, even into the inhospitable wilderness, the hopelessness and helplessness and victim positions of all those who had survived.   We read in Beshallach how the children of Israel turned on Moses, how they wished to be back in slavery in Egypt rather than in the wilderness, how they feared for themselves and their future, how they could not yet cope with what had happened to them, and did not know how to find meaning to guide them. What happened in sidra Beshallach is a paradigm for us to use to begin to deal with the Shoah. The first clue is in Moses’ speech to the people–“Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Eternal….for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more for ever”   The removal of fear which comes from the certainty that the persecutors will be disabled and will no longer threaten the victims is a vital beginning to being able to move on from the trauma of the experience.

The second clue must surely be the fact that the children of Israel walked into the midst of the sea upon dry land – as the midrash takes it the sea did not fully part until the first Israelites had taken the risk and jumped in to it, risking at the very least cold and discomfort in the darkness and swirling waters.

The third event of use to us – that there was active and knowledgeable participation by Moses in what ultimately happened to the Egyptian army – God had made their wheels stick so that their passage through the sea was too difficult and they stated very clearly that they wanted to run away from the Israelites and go back to Egypt. It was then given for Moses to choose to stretch out his hand over the waters so that the Egyptians would drown before they could escape.

And finally the fact that the survivors recognised the hand of God in what had happened to them and around them, and “they believed in the Eternal and in Moses God’s servant” – they recognised that God is present in the world, and that his purpose is served through human beings. And they sang a song of praise – they worshipped God wholeheartedly and meaningfully.

Four factors in how the children of Israel dealt with their own pain and their own survival. The removal of the fear of immediate threat, the active choice to survive, the active choice to participate in dealing with the enemy rather than relying on a greater power to sort them out, and the understanding of and communication with Gods presence.

We can take the model and use it – removing the fear and immediate threat of racist oppression by standing out against it where ever it appears, whether directly focussed on Jews or not. Making active choices to survive as Jews, teaching our children, identifying ourselves, playing a part in the Jewish community. Dealing with our enemies directly, facing up to what terrifies us and not expecting them to shelter under the protection of others. And finally through exploring and exposing ourselves with prayer, recognising the place that God has in our lives, and accepting that we have an obligation in God’s scheme of things too.

We can look at what we as a Jewish people are doing post Shoah, and find that much of it fits into the model first offered in sidra Beshallach. We have structures to fight racism and oppression. We have structures to help us make active choices about our Judaism. We have structures to make us a people to be reckoned with, a nation state, and a high profile in diaspora. And we are beginning to develop a ritual and a liturgy to remember the Shoah within our religious identity too. We’re following the pattern, but much remains to be done. We have the structures but we have to really make use of them. We have some prayers but we have to seriously pray them.

Seventy years after the liberation by the Soviets of the Jews who survived Auschwitz, we are just beginning to make a glimmer in the darkness of the pain and the confusion. The generation who physically experienced it are dead or dying and rely on us now to continue their work. We shall not let them down, but will absorb the lessons we can, and be changed as Jews because of what happened to them.

Taf Nun Tzaddi Beit Hey : May the soul of our dear one be bound up in the bundle of life. Thoughts for Kristallnacht 2013

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ImageIn an enormous, overgrown, forested cemetery in Breslau, lies the grave of a woman who died in that town in the Jewish Hospital in 1940. She had come, as far as we can ascertain, to be near her sister whose husband had roots there. Her parents were dead, her brother moved to another part of the country to be near a different border, all three siblings dislocated from their family and home and all three would die far from the comfort and security they were born to.

Lily’s sister and brother in law fled separately to freedom a few weeks before she herself died in March 1940.  The Jews were deported from Breslau in September 1941 and by 1943 only partners of mixed marriages and some children remained of a community that had numbered 20 thousand in 1933, Almost all those deported perished in the Shoah that began 75 years ago this week, with the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938.

Trude, the sister of Lily, escaped to safety in the USA, knowing that her sister was too weak and ill to live much longer, certainly too ill to journey. I can only imagine the last days they were together, the agony of leaving behind a dying sister while knowing that to stay would only mean that both of them would die; and the pain of the woman left in a city she did not know, with relative strangers who nursed her to the end, and who buried her with dignity, marking the plinth of her grave so that one day someone might come back to honour her properly. The grave is at the end of an older line, on a pathway, presumably the easiest place to dig in the bitter winter time for a struggling community. And recently we, her great nephew and neices found it, commissioned a memorial stone, and dedicated it on a cool autumn morning.

The stone reminds the world that here lies Anne Elisabeth Rothschild, Lily’s real name. It gives the dates and places of her birth and death, and the names of her brother and sister. And there follows the acronym found on many Jewish graves:        “ taf nun. tsadi, beit, heh.” (for tehi nishmato/a tzruro/a bitzrur ha’chaim – may their soul be bound in the bundle of life)

The acronym has found its way onto Jewish memorial stones almost  it seems to me as a response to the Christian Requiescat In Pace (Rest in Peace) taken from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass.

The acronym we have comes to our funeral liturgy through the memorial prayer “El Malei Rachamim”, a prayer which was composed in the Ashkenazi Jewish Rite following the time of the Crusades This prayer was written for the many martyrs who died simply because they were Jews, and is referred to specifically as being recited for the souls of those who were murdered in the Chmielnicki revolts of the 17th Century. We read it as a memorial prayer, asking for the souls of the dead to be bound into the bundle of life, an image I find particularly comforting as I imagine each soul to be one of the threads of a tapestry that is still being woven. Each thread remains important, even if it has come to an end – it keeps in place the others around it, adds to the pattern, anchors the ones to come…. It has always seemed to me a richer and more positive image than that of peaceful resting, while containing within it that desire for eternal calm and serenity alongside a sense of history and continuation.

So when looking at its source I came across the full verse in the book of Samuel, I was rather taken aback when I found Abigail saying to King David

And though someone  rise up to pursue you, and to seek your soul, yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Eternal your God; And the souls of your enemies shall God sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.” (1 Sam 25:29)

Such a violent image in the second half of that verse, it takes the idea of being bound up with God in a continuing tapestry of life, of having a stake in the future while rooting the past securely and turns it on its head – now the souls of the ones who seek to destroy others are slung out as from a slingshot, to fall onto barren ground and to perish alone and without hope.

Violent and bleak, and yet I can understand why the authors of that prayer took the verse for their liturgy. I can see that while only using the first half with its warm, comforting and life affirming imagery they would have known that their listeners would also recognised the unsaid words. The people who had callously murdered other human beings simply for their being Jews would also not be forgotten by God, their recompense would not have been the certainty of being part of an ongoing tradition and community as was the lot of the victims, but a dislocated lonely and abandoned future.

As I stood with my brother and sister at the grave of my great aunt Lily, looking at the acronym that I have seen so many times in my rabbinic life, it came into focus in a different way, in the way that it must have first been written.

We mourn our dead, we mourn for the way so many lives were cut short, were filled with pain and anxiety, with separation from loved ones and disparagement and fear. But we honour them and we live lives in which the threads of their existence continue to have meaning and purpose, bringing them with us into the future.  And we remember those who brought about such horrors, and who continue to disturb and disrupt the peace and goodness of the world. And we know that somehow, somewhere, God does not forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two years ago I visited the Rumbula Forest, near Riga in Latvia, where nearly 28 thousand Jews were killed in just two days in November and December 1941, and where a heartbreaking memorial to them is hidden among the trees. Some of my own family, the brothers and sisters of my great-grandfather and their children are buried in the mass graves marked out on the forest floor. Only three people survived the murder that took place here.

The visit was poignant and it was also infuriating. One reason it had taken so long to build anything here as a memorial is that the inscription on the memorial had become an issue when some Riga officials wanted language that would have obscured Latvian complicity. Eventually an agreed inscription meant the memorial could go ahead

HERE, ON NOVEMBER 30 AND DECEMBER 8 OF 1941 THE NAZIS AND THEIR LATVIAN COLLABORATORS SHOT TO DEATH MORE THAN 25,000 JEWS WHO WERE PRISONERS OF THE RIGA GHETTO – CHILDREN, WOMEN, ELDERLY MEN, AND APPROXIMATELY 1000 JEWS WHO HAD BEEN DEPORTED FROM GERMANY. IN THE SUMMER OF 1944 HUNDREDS OF JEWISH MEN FROM THE “RIGA–KEISERWALD” CONCENTRATION CAMP WERE ALSO KILLED HERE.

And the memorial was finally dedicated on November 29, 2002, more than sixty years after the terrible events it bespoke.

Why so long after the event? Because it was supposed to be forgotten. There was no one who wanted to remember what had happened in Riga, and in many many other places just outside villages and towns in Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries. No one wanted to remember, no one wanted to think about it.

Our guide told us something else about why it took such a long time to build a memorial there – the story was not entirely forgotten, but the exact place in the forest had been lost. No one could admit to knowing where it might be. It took the efforts of an interested botanist, who found plants in a particular area of the forest that needed the kind of nutrition only a well blood-soaked soil could provide, to identify the place of the murder of so many innocent people. Once he had found it, the mass grave pits were identified.

Eyewitness accounts are horrific: On this particular day (30 November 1941), the air temperature in Riga was -7.5C at 7:00a.m. and 1.9 degree C at 9:00 RM. On the previous evening, 29 November 1941, there had been an average snowfall of seven centimetres. On 30 November between 7:00 A.M.  and 9:00 p.m. it did not snow.

“The Mass Shootings outside Riga, 30 November and December 1941.                               

The  actual site of execution lay about five miles outside  Riga in  the direction of Duenaburg [Daugavpils], between the highway and  the railroad, both of which connect Riga and Duenaburg. The railroad tracks and the road there run a near-parallel  course, with  the railroad tracks running to the north of the road.  The site lies in the vicinity of the railroad station at Rumbuli; its  terrain  is sandy and slightly hilly, sparsely wooded,  and forms part of the Rumbuli Forest.

In the centre of this site was a densely forested area; this was the location of the actual execution site, with prepared pits designed to accommodate about thirty thousand bodies.  The approaching  columns of Jews coming from Riga along the  highway between  Riga  and Duenaburg had to turn left from  the  highway onto  a dirt track which led up to the small patch of woods.  In the process they were funnelled into a narrow cordon, which  was formed by SS units, a contingent of the Special Task Unit  Riga, and Latvian units.

 The  columns of Jews advancing from Riga, comprising  about  one thousand  persons each, were herded into the cordon,  which  was formed  in  such a way that it narrowed greatly as it  continued into the woods, where the pits lay. The Jews first of all had to deposit their luggage before they entered the copse; permission to carry these articles had only been granted to give the Jews the impression that they were taking part in a resettlement.  As they  progressed, they had to deposit their valuables in  wooden boxes,  and, little by little, their clothing – first overcoats, then suits, dresses, and shoes, down to their under clothes, all placed in distinct piles according to the type of clothing.

 Stripped down to their underclothes, the Jews had to move forward along the narrow path in a steady flow toward the pits, which they entered by a ramp, in single file and in groups often.  Occasionally the flow would come to a standstill when someone tarried at one of the undressing points; or else, if the undressing went faster than expected, or if the columns advanced too quickly from the city, too many Jews would arrive at the pits at once.  In such cases, the supervisors stepped in to ensure a steady and moderate flow, since it was feared that the Jews would grow edgy if they had to linger in the immediate vicinity of the pits….

 In the pits the Jews had to lie flat, side by side, face down. They were killed with a single bullet in the neck, the marksmen standing at close range-at the smaller pits, on the perimeter; at the large pit, inside the pit itself-their semi-automatic pistols set for single fire. To make the best of available space, and particularly of the gaps between bodies, the victims next in line had to lie down on top of those who had been shot immediately before them. The handicapped, the aged, and the young were helped into the pits by the sturdier Jews, laid by them on top of the bodies, and then shot by marksmen who in the large pit actually stood on the dead. In this way the pits gradually filled.” (Gerald Fleming, pp78-79 in Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press 1984)

As I walked around the memorial, which includes stones on which are marked the streets from the ghetto that victims had come from, and stones with the names of some of the victims, I found the names of my grandfather’s cousins, and a stone inscribed with the name of the street in the ghetto which I had visited only an hour or so earlier and from which my great grandmother had emigrated in 1892 to escape a bad marriage and grinding poverty. I called over my sister and cousin and overcome with emotion we stood in silence thinking of those people, named and unnamed, who had died here so horribly, whose story had very nearly been hidden away so that their very existence would have been lost. And then we said the Kaddish prayer.

Looking at the stones inscribed with my maternal family name, it became clear that, while this had begun as a journey to find our roots and see for ourselves the “old country” our family had left, the experience in the forest was also a way of directly encountering what our own past would have been had my great grandmother taken a different route. Going to the forest to see for ourselves was initially part of the search for family, to honour those we had not known, to connect with a community which had once thrived and whose roots were entangled with ours. Yet it was also so much bigger an experience than connecting with a personal past.

We mourned for family we never knew who had died in that strange place in the forest, but this could not only be a personal ache as our visits to other family places had been – our grief and prayers encompassed everyone who had died in that place because of their Jewish heritage.  And even this was not enough to say – the place of the industrial scale process of murder with its belated yet extraordinary memorial prompted us to pray for all victims of genocide. In fact I think it was the story of the large quiet forest and the botanist who identified this site through the nutrient rich soil, and the so-careful wording of the plaque, as well as the long period of time between the event and its public recognition that so powerfully drove us to understand something more about the dirty secrets of genocide wherever it occurs. It is always a dirty secret hiding in full public view, an enormity sitting in plain sight and this is one reason it is perpetuated.

In our siddur is a prayer written for specifically for Yom HaShoah. It includes the lines “we mourn for all that died with them, their goodness and their wisdom which could have saved the world and healed so many wounds. We mourn for the genius and the wit that died, the learning and the laughter that were lost. The world has become a poorer place and our hearts become cold as we think of the splendour that might have been.” (Rabbi Lionel Blue in Forms of Prayer pub Movement for Reform Judaism p388)

This visit might have been a profoundly family moment, a coming face to face with branches of my family tree that had been torn from life and from the future, and it was indeed that, but it was also a profoundly human moment – everyone in such a situation deserves our thoughts, our prayers, our determination never to let anyone have to be in this situation ever, ever again and to do that we have to tell the stories, we have to remember.

While visiting the memorial in the place in the forest so nearly lost forever, I thought of the Chasidic story about remembering:

“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.”  Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, introduction.

And I thought too of Simon Dubnow, the great historian and scholar murdered in the Riga ghetto, who is said to have said “If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear.”

Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we do that, and more, we remember all who have been persecuted for their religion, their politics, their sexuality, their ethnicity. We weep for them all. And more than that, we affirm our commitment to combating such persecutions, such demonising of the other, such monstering of other human beings that hides in plain sight in our own world, in our media and our social networks, in the communities where we live and in our wider human society.

From Wikipedia

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. 27 January is the date, in 1945, when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops.

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