Monday, March 31, 2008

Terezin and The Vision Thing

The Jewish Week 4/00

With another Bush now running for President, it s time once again for us to discuss "the vision thing." In truth, the Jewish community has never ceased talking about it, long after George the Elder suffered electoral demise after scoffing that ineffable and elusive quality we call "vision."

So what is vision, anyway?

It s that which allowed a Herzl to look at the squalor of Jewish life in Europe and see modern Maccabees building up a Jewish state; or Moses to see broken slaves and imagine a people proud and free. Jews were quixotic long before Quixote ever flailed against his first windmill. Without the most audacious imagination, we could never have survived in Exile. Yet vision is so lacking in Jewish life today.

Is it simply that we have been hammered down for so long that we no longer can bring ourselves to envision the light at the end of the tunnel? Or is that that we ve become so pessimistic that, even when we do see the light, we automatically assume that its source must be an oncoming train?

Part of the problem might be that things are too good. Because we live in a time of such extreme affluence, with a secure Jewish state in one pocket and a Papal apology in the other, we ve lost the ability to imagine the future getting any better. All we can do is suppose the opposite, a cataclysm that any card-carrying Jew feels must be inevitable when times are good. We feel like we re being set up by God for one of those Satanic Joban deals. I call it the "P tu P tu" theory of Jewish life. When things are good, all we can see is the evil eye lurking behind the bend. Every policeman becomes a Cossack, every crucifix a potential dagger, every extended hand a cynical ploy to catch us off guard.

Time and time again we ve been told that the specter of anti-Semitism will no longer motivate Jews to greater involvement, yet we continue to return to the Holocaust as our primary rallying cry. Sometimes I look at all the attention being paid to these dark shadows of our past and wish to cry out "Never Again!" as in, "Never again will I allow myself to say Gevalt in public and allow the my message to be succumb to such despair."

Then I went to Terezin, and I understood the true nature of vision.

Recently I was part of a group of thirty-plus rabbis, representing the full geographical and denominational spectrum of North American Jewry, who traveled to Prague in a trip coordinated by the North American Boards of Rabbis (NABOR). We journeyed there to fulfill a vision -- several visions, actually. We went to accept a genuine offer of reconciliation from Church and government leaders. We also went to demonstrate an authentic model for unity amidst diversity. Rabbis from the group offered a class to the Prague Jewish community the first ever in Eastern Europe taught by rabbis of three different denominations. And we went to pay respects to the victims of Terezin, the infamous concentration camp located an hour s drive from the Czech capital.

At the end of a long and emotional tour of the camp, the guide brought us to a site only recently discovered, a small synagogue hidden in the basement of a bakery. It was an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.

On the walls are Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, two of which absolutely floored me. One says, "Know before whom you stand," a verse found in synagogues everywhere, but one that took on a whole new meaning in that place; for on the other side of that wall stood the S.S. guards. They knew in their hearts that the One before whom they really stood was God, a sovereign whose very existence they certainly had every reason to doubt. In spite of it all, they believed.
And with belief comes vision. On the front wall of the synagogue is inscribed a verse from the Amida, "May our eyes be able to envision Your return to Zion in mercy."

Never again will I be able to recite the Amida without thinking of this holy place.

"Hazon" in Hebrew means "vision" and that word is embedded in the inscribed verse. Note that the prayer doesn t ask that the people themselves be whisked to Zion. The Jews of Terezin were not so quixotic as to imagine that they themselves would ever see the spectacular sunrise over Jerusalem. They didn t pray for their own return to Zion but for God s. Hidden away for a moment of sanity amidst the madness, these heroes had the audacity to pray that God and the Jewish people survive the Holocaust, even though they knew that they themselves most likely would not. They not only saw the light at the end of the darkest tunnel in human history, they shined it toward a distant future that no sane person could possibly have imagined, a future that certainly would not include them.

We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn t matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls. It suddenly didn t matter that there was no Mechitza separating the men from the woman or whether the language was gender-neutral. Nothing mattered but that we were Jews, praying together, the living fulfillment of their vision.

Then I read aloud two selections from that classic collection of children s poetry written in Terezin, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," and I felt like a pilgrim on the steps of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, reciting psalms. The poems were all about the joy of being alive.

If these residents of hell could find the vision to see butterflies and pray for God s renewal, how dare we allow ourselves to become mired in cynicism and negativity! The words of the prophets were written on these subterranean walls:

"May our eyes be able to envision."

And when I reach that verse of the Amida, never again will I dare to yawn.

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