Zachor – זכור- Remember

Zachor – זכור– Remember

Note: I wrote this before President Trump’s address at the United States Museum of the Holocaust on the occasion of Yom haShoah, in which he referred to both anti-Semitism and the six-million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. While I assume his words were specifically crafted to compensate for the fact that he didn’t mention either of those on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they do not. Neither does his speech repair the damage done by the President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. Below, please find the sermon on delivered this past Friday evening, April 21st.


Sunday evening begins Yom haShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. International Holocaust Memorial Day has already past. The international commemoration was established by the United Nations in 2005 using the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yom haShoah was established in 1951 coinciding with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. As Yael Shahar wrote in Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, “The choice of date was an attempt to focus on those who fought against the Nazis, rather than on those who never had that chance… Israel’s version of Holocaust memorial day was not a commemoration, but a denial of memory.”

Not a denial of history, a denial of memory. It was an attempt to take the focus away from the majority who did NOT survive the Holocaust and place it rather on the foundations of the new Jewish state’s strength and determination to become a new kind of survivor: Jews who survived because they fought, not by chance. Israel’s Yom haShoah is as much about the present as it is about the past. It was established only three years after Israel was founded and only seven years after the war in Europe ended. At that time, in 1951, new Israelis who had emigrated from Europe out of the ashes of the camps were the living reality of the commemoration and the memory. Their children were the inheritors of the memories and were living it out speaking Hebrew in the new state of Israel. The memory of the Holocaust did not need to be recognized in those early days of Israel. It was walking down the street.

In some ways, the Holocaust is still walking down the street in Israel, certainly on Yom haShoah. Israel is the only country in the world that nationally acknowledges Yom haShoah. On that day, air raid sirens sound at noon throughout the country and everyone stops whatever they are doing – literally – and stand silently. People stand in the street. Cars, buses, and trucks stop and everyone gets out. The last time I was in Israel for Yom haShoah I even saw surfers stop surfing and sit on their boards. Of course, Israel conducts more solemn ceremonies on Yom haShoah, but the simplicity and the enormity of all Israelis standing silently is the deepest and most profound articulation of the memory and the history of the Holocaust in the world. Given how many genocides have been carried out or attempted since the Holocaust,  it is clear that the world would be better off to acknowledge not merely the history of the Holocaust and not even to honor the memories of our Jewish six million and the five to six million other persons who were murdered but rather to acknowledge what the Holocaust says about the animal that lies deep within the marrow of humanity, ready to blindly and viciously pounce and tear apart victims for minimal or no reason.

And that, my friends, is what is so ominous about the statement that came from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the comments made by President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. The statement from the White House did not have any mention of the six million murdered Jews, anti-Semitism or the Jewish community. It remains to be seen if the White House will issue a statement on Yom haShoah as well and whether or not the wording of that statement will be any different. The Press Secretary was inexcusably inept and insulting when he, apparently spontaneously, contrasted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical gassing of Syrians with Hitler’s use of gas. Hitler, he said, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and later tried to clarify his words by adding, “”He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.” Were the six-million not people, his own people? Even if most of them were not Germans, they were conquered people under German authority. In later statements, Spicer did say that he apologized, but he apologized for a bad reference, not for or to anyone he insulted. He apologized for an “inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison”. He also said he made “mistakes” and that was “wrong”. He asked for people’s forgiveness. First of all, Judaism emphasizes apology much more than forgiveness and a person cannot apologize to a “bad and insensitive reference”. A person apologizes to other people. A Press Secretary does that. A President does that, too. Here’s what we got from the White House: another spokesperson, Hope Hicks, who told CNN that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Not even close to an apology. Not even close to mentioning our six million.

The only eye witnesses to the Holocaust are quite old now and will soon die, taking their memories and the truth with them. We are all, Jew and non-Jew, responsible, to carry out the one imperative that is the Holocaust’s legacy, “zachor/זכור/remember”. When those with such significant bully pulpits as the President of the United States and his Press Secretary blithely fail to mention the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust or clumsily and unintelligently prostitute their memories and the significance of how technology finally caught up with anti-Semitism, insulting the Jews who were murdered and those who survived, our task of zachor becomes that much more difficult. The incline of the mountain of memory and responsibility steepens when careless words give ignorance deeper roots.

The Quarrel

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Last night I showed what I think is one of the most important films about the Holocaust to my Introduction to Judaism students. The Film is called “The Quarrel”. The setting is Montreal a few years after World War II and it involves a chance meeting between two former yeshiva students both of whom thought the other was murdered in the Holocaust. One of the men, Hersh Rasseyner, has become a rabbi and now lives in Montreal teaching in a yeshiva he founded. Most of his students are also survivors. The other, Chaim Kovler, is a secularist Jew, a Yiddish writer and is Montreal on a reading tour. Because it is Rosh haShanah, the two take the opportunity to spend the day talking and arguing with one another, picking up right where they left off before the war. Their argument is their prayer. Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together, releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions

Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and Life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged, traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions and the impact of the other’s. Many times during their “quarrel” they were brought to the brink of tearing their long-lost relationship apart. Somehow, they are able to maintain their basic respect for one another as human beings and as Jews.

I told my students that Judaism, post-Holocaust Judaism, now lives squarely in the middle between the two perspectives of these study partners and their responses to the Holocaust, one a deepened commitment to traditional, Jewish observance and the other a secular-human brand of Judaism whose horizons have no limits. That tension is what animates Judaism in the post-Holocaust era and both extremities are essential to fueling that animation.

At this time in history, when the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust are reaching the ends of their lives, it is incumbent on those of us who will become the survivors-of-the-survivors to keep this centuries-old philosophical tension alive. This will not be easy for us because we have become so dichotomized and we too often live in completely different worlds. Still, I truly believe that it is this dissonance, the disharmony of this “quarrel” and so many others like it within Judaism, that has kept us alive as a people. We really cannot afford to disengage from these quarrels. In a strange and beautiful way, the ability to so struggle is our gift to humanity. These wrestling matches, which have always been a vital part of Jewish life, are the paths to change, the paths to betterment, the paths to justice, the paths to respect and equity, the paths to peace. There’s even a term for such a struggle in Judaism, it is called a Machloket l’Sheym Shamayim, מחלקת לשם שמים, a “dispute for the sake of heaven”!

This Yom haShoah, this Holocaust Memorial Day and during the Shabbat that precedes it, may we dedicate ourselves to honor both the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust by becoming survivors ourselves. In their memories, and for the future, let us quarrel – for the preservation of Judaism and Jewishness, for the sake of humanity and the potential for a “heaven” that can be created among us, and for the sake of wholeness and peace.

Let’s Not Make Fun of Suffering at Our Seders

Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of innovative products introduced to enhance our seders (sedarim/סדרים) in order to keep the kids alert and interested (adults, too!). Unfortunately, too many of these gadgets use the Ten Plagues as the butt of their joking and mindlessness. All those things you can buy to have “fun” with the plagues – little finger puppets and toy frogs and locusts you can throw around (the latest is green colored, frog-shaped ice in your water!) – takes the Jewish soul in a dangerous direction. Look at this brilliant Talmudic story-about-the-story (which we’ve included in our Friday evening siddur as a prelude to Mi Chamocha) and see if you can juxtapose it with all those frivolous games and toys and somehow make it fit. Think about whether or not you’re ready to make fun of the killing of the first born after reading this:
“At the very moment when the Egyptian armies were perishing in the sea, the ministering angels were about to sing to God in jubilation. God silenced them and said, ‘My creatures are drowning; how can you sing?!'”(Sanhedrin 39b)
To which I added:
When we sing our people’s ancient song of freedom, let us pray for a day when one people’s freedom will not depend upon another people’s defeat.
The seder is a great celebration, quintessential to who we are as Jews, filled with great ceremony, beauty, and purpose. My ancient colleagues created the seder in order to imprint the Exodus from Egypt, and the resulting mission of our people to free the enslaved, on our hearts. It was never the rabbis intent to have a component of the seder be poking fun at the Egyptians and their suffering like some warped, ceremonial version of “America’s Funniest Videos”. There’s plenty to be festive and joyous about at the seder without doing it at the expense of others.
When we recall the Ten Plagues at our seders and reduce our joy by taking ten drops of juice or wine from our cups, I hope many of us will be talking about the contemporary, humanly-manifested plagues from which the world suffers today: the innocent victims of war and violence (and, while we’re at it, let’s ask ourselves why we tolerate “conventional weapons” and only get upset when empowered criminals and despots use gas?), the innocent species and the innocent earth itself that have become “collateral damage” to human progress, the demotion of healthcare to a “product” instead of an “inalienable right” (the Declaration of Independence refers to it as “life”!), the categorizing of some of us as “illegal” rather than “brave-souls-seeking-a-better-life-and-safety-for-themselves-and-their-families” (precisely like our ancestors who preceded us in this country), our self-imposed impotence about the growing gap between those who have so much and those who have so little, our blase attitude about the oxymoronic reality of the “working poor”, the trafficking of our fellow humans which is very much a modern slavery, and so much more. Throwing around little plastic locusts becomes incongruent at a gathering that considers the seder to be both a wonderful and upbeat celebration of our freedom and simultaneously a recognition of the responsibilities that freedom brings.
Have a ziesen Pesach, a Passover filled with joy, hope, family, friends and a purpose!

“Ya Can’t Make This Stuff Up!”

Let’s start with this. Here’s a quote and a great explanation from this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the beginning of the book of Leviticus:

Vayikra 4:22.

אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל־מִצְוֹת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵֽעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵֽׁם:

וכי יעלה על דעתך שיהא נשיא, מנהיגם של ישראל, חוטא? אלא, אומר רבי יוסף חיים מבגדאד–ראשי התיבות של “אשר נשיא יחטא” הם אותיות “אני”: כשהנשיא מתגאה, חס-ושלום, ואומר בלבבו “אני ואפסי עוד”, אז הוא בא לידי עבירות גדולות וחמורות.

When a ruler sinned, and did something through ignorance against any of the commandments of Adonai his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty…”

Jewish tradition looks at these words VERY carefully, as should we. The very first word of this verse אשר, which means “when” in this sentence, is immediately noteworthy to the rabbis. In referring to the consequences for ANY other category of sinner and sinning, even A PRIEST, the Torah uses the word אם, meaning “if”. The Zohar, the great text of Kabbalah, our mystical tradition, says that the reason our text uses אשר/when instead of אם/with is because for a ruler…

“…surely HE HAS SINNED, for his heart is swelled with pride because all the people follow him and are under his charge. Hence, it says, “When a ruler has sinned,” namely in transgressing a negative precept and sinning against one of them. It, therefore, does not say of him ‘and if’, because this matter OF HIS SINNING is not in doubt.”

The anticipatory nature the rabbis assigned to the sinning of those in power is further underscored in the Zohar when Rabbi Yehuda comments that even though ALL the people were offered the possibility of donating semi-precious stones for the breastplate of the High Priest in the Tabernacle, the Torah specifically says, “And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the efod, and for the breastplate” (Shemot 35:27). Rabbi Yehuda imagines a proclamation from God that explains why: “Though this donation is open for everyone, let these stones be brought by the rulers”. What is the reason for this? THE STONES are placed on the priest’s heart, so the Holy Oneness, blessed be God, said, ‘Let the rulers, whose heart is proud, come and bring these stones that are on the priest’s heart, and their heart’s pride will be atoned for’…” Ya can’t make this up, people!

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad points out that the acrostic of אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא, “when a ruler sins” is the Hebrew word, ani/אני – meaning “I/me” in English. Therefore, Rabbi Yosef Chaim explains, if a prince becomes arrogant, and says to himself “me and nothing besides me” he arrives, heaven forbid!, at a state of the commission of sins of major proportions. In other words, it’s not a matter of if the ruler will become arrogant, self-serving and/or narcissistic, he already has. To assume otherwise is not the ruler’s fault, it is the fault of his subjects. It’s not his problem it’s ours. Ya can’t make this stuff up folks!

An analysis by Rabbi Shimon haSofer of an earlier verse in this week’s portion underscores this point.

Vayikra 4:3. If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty…

Rabbi Shimon explains, “Each generation gets the leaders most appropriate for it. Therefore, if the High Priest sins, it is an indication that the people are themselves in a low state of spirituality, and that can be the cause of the priest’s sins.” Ya can’t make this up either.

Another commentator on the same verse, Rabbi Yaakov of Lita, noticing that this verse uses two words for sins chata’im/חטאים and ashamot/אשמות, says that if the leader of the people permits himself to do small sins – chata’im/חטאים, then the people will allow themselves to do ashamot/אשמות  – even greater ones. That is to say that the people look to their leaders as role models and when the leaders act or even speak sinfully or rudely, the people will do likewise but in an even more unfettered manner.

Now, chata’im/חטאים are considered inadvertent “missings of the mark”, that is we assume the person was “aiming” to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing. Ashamot/אשמות, on the other hand, are sins of guilt, in which a person knows that s/he is guilty of a wrongdoing. And, because s/he knows, s/he can express remorse and atone. But of course, if the leader doesn’t apologize and repent, neither will the people. And, no, ya can’t make that up.

Finally, in our Torah portion, as it is several other times in the book of Leviticus, the Torah distinguishes between the sacrifice brought by a poor person and the sacrifice brought by an affluent person (to the Tabernacle)… The Talmud asks: “What if a rich man brings the same sacrifice as is required of the poor man. Has he fulfilled his obligations?” The answer is that he has not, and, according to one view, it is considered as though he is מביא חולין לעזרה – bringing an unconsecrated offering to the Temple and thereby profaning the name of God. Rabbi Yaakov D’lllescas comments: “In every instance of fulfilling a Mitzvah, he who can do much, but does little, profanes the name of God.” Ya can’t make it up folks! The rich are supposed to have a completely different category of taxation than do the poor. And if they succeed in fooling the IRS and somehow end up paying less…or nothing, they’re not smart – they’ve profaned the name of God.

I’ll bet you can’t guess to whom all this refers? Turns out this week’s Torah portion, if it’s not a biblical version of a Congressional hearing, it’s at least a list of the allegations that lead to a hearing. And who’s making the allegations? The Voice-of-Everything! The Universe itself is screaming out for transparency – for one, straight-up, true narrative.

The Torah’s attitude and the rabbis’ attitude toward the powerful and the wealthy may seem a bit cynical, but it’s from real-life experience, theirs and ours. Did you ever wonder why the Torah, and specifically the book of Leviticus which contains the great bulk of our commandments in its verses, is so obsessed with the articulation of law to limit people’s behavior? Because a person doesn’t need to look very far beyond his or her own nose (or look in the mirror) to see that people can’t be trusted to be good or kind or benevolent or thoughtful or magnanimous or inclusive or embracing or respectful. There are stop signs for that. There are speed limits for that. There are seat belts for that. And there’s the Torah and all its commentaries for that. And my responsibility as a progressive Jewish American is to bring that wisdom to laps of my elected officials and stand there until they pay attention.