Friday, September 29, 2017

The Torah of Auschwitz: High Holiday Sermons 5778 by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

The Torah of Auschwitz
High Holidays 5778
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Temple Beth El, Stamford CT
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             Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Audio



Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Audio



Kol Nidre Audio



Yom Kippur Day Audio




Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5778

An Arm and A Name


              A sweet new year to everyone. 

So, I’ve been a little out of touch – has anything important happened over the past year?

lot has happened, of course.  About four million births took place in the US and about 2.6 million deaths.  All of them came into this life alone and will depart it alone.   And in between, more and more people are choosing to live alone.  Meanwhile, suicide rates continue on their extended climb, and alarmingly so among teenagers, with the teenage rate being traceable to increases in their reliance on social media and smart phones.  Suicide rates aside, there has been a startling increase in teen depression over the past couple of years.  In 1980 about 20 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely.  By 2010, that number had doubled

This year’s best picture Oscar was won by a movie about two lonely people who choose career over marriage in Los Angeles – and then a minute later it was really won by a film showing three stages in the life of an isolated gay African American growing up in Miami. 

The Grammy winner for best song was Adele’s “Hello,” about how hard it is to reestablish relationships after a breakup.  In one song on the same album, “Million Years Ago,” she bemoans the loneliness of her stardom.  “Around the streets where I grew up,” Adele sings, “They can’t look me in the eye/ It’s like they’re scared of me.” 

And the Tony winner for best new musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” keeps returning to this haunting image:

When you're falling in a forest and there's nobody around
Do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?

Adele is crying “hello from the other side” and Evan Hansen is “waving through a window.”  If only Adele could see Evan waving or Evan could hear Adele singing, everything would be great!

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

So a lot’s happened this year – and I do not mean to shortchange the front pages - but beneath the surface; on the back pages, there is an undercurrent of isolation that seems to be to be the bigger story.  A feeling of being lost and forgotten, of falling in a forest and not being found.  Of people living parallel lives, walking the streets while staring at their phones with their heads down.

Joseph Soloveitchik, in his classic 1965 essay, "The Lonely Man of Faith," wrote about Abraham, the hero of today’s Torah portion, that “he felt an intense loneliness and could not find solace in the silent companionship of God, whose image was reflected in the boundless stretches of the cosmos. Only when he met God on earth, as Father, Brother and Friend— not only along the uncharted astral routes—did he feel redeemed.”

In other words, the moment monotheism began was the moment human beings took their gaze out of the clouds, whether real or virtual, and fixed them on the plight of other human beings created in God's image, standing next to them right here on earth.  And so it was for Abraham, whose tests of faith mostly involved finding other people – and rescuing them from war, from family squabbles and ultimately from his own dangling knife.

Sartre said, “Hell is other people.”  Abraham seems to have been saying, “No. God is.”  God is other people.  By this logic, then, as a congregation we are not so much in the business of linking people to God as in the business of binding people to people, and of recognizing those who are waving through our window and welcoming them in.

Abraham Joshua Heschel coined the expression, “God in Search of Man.”  And in fact, the entire Bible – and all of Jewish theology - can be summed up with the single refrain from “Dear Evan Hansen,” “You will be found.”






              In the spring of 1945, a Red Army doctor was rummaging around the ruins of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  She bent down and discovered a diary among the ashes.  After the war, she took it with her to her home in remote Siberia, stashed it away, and it remained with her until her death in 1983.  Her son took her possessions to his apartment in Moscow, where the diary stayed with him until he died in 1992 and then it remained with his wife after that.   Their daughter, who had emigrated to San Francisco, found the diary during a 1995 visit.  She immediately understood its significance and brought it back with her to the States, where, after a long and convoluted process, in 2015, exactly 70 years after it was discovered, the astonishing diary of fourteen-year-old Riwka Lypszyc was published in English translation.

Riwka’s long-lost diary was found – and with its publication, her name was redeemed from oblivion.

As many of you know, this past July, nearly two dozen from our TBE family journeyed to central Europe, to retrace the steps of our ancestors through that stories and infamous terrain.  The trip left an indelible impact on all of us, and we learned about Rivka there, at a Jewish heritage museum in Krakow.

My sermons this year will pull together some thoughts that have been swirling within me – about the expanding and changing role of the Holocaust in our lives and why now, more than ever, we must embrace that dark episode of our past.

Let me be clear.  There was nothing good about the Holocaust.  What happened at Auschwitz was THE lowest point in human history.   But the Holocaust has completely transformed what it means to be a Jew – and that transformation is continuing to evolve as the Shoah refuses to recede into history.  Everything that is Jewish must now pass through the Holocaust filter.

The time has come for us to begin to look at the Holocaust in a new way – as a necessary component of Jewish identity and culture, rather than a source of constant guilt and victimization.   Its overwhelming power has only deepened with the passing of the decades.  Its popularity has increased dramatically, its lessons have never been more relevant, and its stories never more resonant.  We can fight it or we can embrace it, but what we can't do is ignore it.  It is, like it or not, our story.  It is part of who we are. 

Everything is now being interpreted anew through the prism of the Holocaust, including Judaism itself, which is being reimagined before our eyes. The Torah of Sinai now has a companion text, a Jewish “New Testament,” as it were: I call it the Torah of Auschwitz.

Here's an example of how our old narratives and laws are gaining new meaning when passed through the Holocaust prism.

“Remember” “ZACHOR,” has always been a commandment – from the Torah of Sinai.   Zachor – et asher aasah lecha AmalekRemember what Amalek did to you in the wilderness, attacking the meek and innocent.  Never forget to blot their memory out, the Torah says, paradoxically.

For many centuries, Zachor has been interpreted as a call for vigilance in the face of evil.  It still is.  It has also been the rallying cry of victimhood – a justification to avenge the murders of our brethren.

But in light of Auschwitz, this command is being reinterpreted, not as a call to punish the villains, but rather to remember the victims – and to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness, from anywhere and anyone, go unheeded.

Zachor, to remember, has come to mean to make sure that every single human being is found, those who are dead and those who are living.  Those whose scratch marks can still be seen on the walls of the gas chambers – as devastating a sight as there is on earth – and those simply waving hello from the other side.

We read in Isaiah (56:5): "To them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever" (Isaiah 56:5).

             Now in the Hebrew, you might be able to pick out a familiar phrase:
  וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי, יָד וָשֵׁם--טוֹב, מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת:  שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן-לוֹ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵת

            The great memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem, “Yad Vashem,” “a memorial and a name,” got its name from that verse.

In this passage, Isaiah proposes establishing a national depository to memorialize Jewish victims who have no one to carry their name after death.  The original passage refers specifically to eunuchs, who despite being childless would still achieve a measure of immortality with the Lord.  No one would be forgotten.  Not just those unable to have children, but also strangers.  Isaiah also includes the “nochri,” the righteous gentile, in this promise of everlasting remembrance. 

Yad V’Shem means: a memorial and a name.  But in fact, the word for memorial, Yad, literally means an arm.  An arm and a name.  The image is of someone lending a hand, helping someone who has fallen.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” that Tony winning musical, which dwells on the topic of teen depression and suicide, also features an arm and name.  Without giving too much away, the title character is a high school student whose profound social anxieties cause him to live a very isolated and lonely life, to the point where, when he falls from a tree and breaks his arm, he has to wait for an unbearably long time writhing on the ground before anyone hears his cry.  No one hears him.   It’s as if he doesn’t exist.

“Dear Evan Hansen” constantly returns to that place and that image of the unheeded human, all alone, fallen in the forest – and, while the musical is morally complicated, one clear message is that no one deserves to be forgotten – no one - not the dead and not the living – deserves to disappear.  And the plot is propelled by an arm and a name, a name inscribed on the cast covering his arm.

Names are the currency of memory and and memory is the stepping stone to immortality. To have a name is to be unique, to be loved, to belong and to be connected.  The book of Proverbs states that while most things in life are transitory, a good name lasts forever.

In the Holocaust, Jews and other victims were denied their names, and therefore their uniqueness.  Well before they were sent like sheep to the slaughter, the victims were stripped of their human dignity.  Their names were replaced by numbers.  Their shoes, jewelry and clothing were ripped from them. Even their hair was shorn.

Hear these words from Livia Bitton Jackson, who was deported to Auschwitz from Hungary in 1944.  She speaks of how it was her long golden locks that saved her from death during the selection.  But then, after she was clipped like an animal, she says:

…The haircut has a startling effect on every woman's appearance. Individuals become a mass of bodies. Height, stoutness, or slimness: There is no distinguishing factor—it is the absence of hair which transformed individual women into like bodies. Age and other personal differences melt away. Facial expressions disappear. Instead, a blank, senseless stare emerges on a thousand faces of one naked, unappealing body. In a matter of minutes even the physical aspect of our numbers seems reduced—there is less of a substance to our dimensions. We become a monolithic mass. Inconsequential.”

At Auschwitz, you can see the piles of hair. After 70 years, these inert strands have lost all life, all color, all individuality. Before the Russians liberated Auschwitz in early 1945, the Nazis got rid of most of the hair that they had been storing. Only seven tons remained, a tiny fraction of what had been shorn from the heads of Jews.  The rest had been sold to German companies that transformed the hair into mattresses and felt.  Something to think about when checking into that quaint B and B next time you are in Bavaria.

So that is what the commandment “Zachor” now means, as filtered through the Torah of Auschwitz.  We’ve got to remember and to cherish the uniqueness and sanctity of every human being, of every strand of hair, of every single name.

And that is why Nazis hate us – then and now.  We refuse to forfeit the distinctiveness of each human being.  We refuse to degrade anyone’s sanctity, body and soul.  In fact, the Hebrew word for soul, neshama, has the word shem – name – right at its heart.  We are, after all, Semites – descendants of Noah’s son Shem.  And the hater of Jews is, by definition, an anti-Shemite – the denier of names.  One who defiles God is one who perpetrates what is called a “hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of the Name.  And one who dies the holiest of deaths, as a martyr, dies, “Al Kiddush hashem,” in an act of ultimate sanctification of the Name.  

When we say Kaddish, after Auschwitz, we are praying not only to restore the sanctity of God’s name, but also to affirm the infinite value of each human life.  In recalling any human being as someone who was unique and loved, we are redeeming them.  When we say the second blessing in the Amidah, praising God for reviving the dead, the Torah of Auschwitz is not praising anyone, but calling upon us all to redeem them.

Each of us has a name, proclaims Zelda the poet in the poem we read moments ago – and our group saw those names.  In camps like Maidanek and Plaszow, the Nazis used dislodged gravestones to pave roads, a way of erasing Jewish names from history.  We saw those stones and we redeemed them from oblivion.

In Krakow after the war, the few Jews who managed to return began to literally piece their world together, by gathering overturned gravestones and assembling them into memorial wall in the back of the cemetery.  We saw that wall, and those names, and we redeemed them from oblivion.

In Krakow, we saw names everywhere.  In 1939, over 60,000 Jews lived in that city, and the large Tempel synagogue would have been filled today, on Rosh Hashanah.  Every pew.  But only 2,000 Jews from Krakow survived the war, and most of them left the country.  By 1968, there were no Jews left.

A small community has grown since then and now there are about 1,000.  Several synagogues have been restored, Jewish style restaurants cater to tourists, complete with klezmer music.  

We sat in the Tempel synagogue and danced with an Israeli group we happened to meet there.  Then, like two Jewish ships passing in the night, we went our way and they went theirs.  As we left, and got up from the pews, I asked members of our group to think for a moment about the people who used to sit in those same seats, all of whom are gone.

“No one deserves to be forgotten,” they sing in “Dear Evan Hansen,” “no one deserves to fade away; No one should come and go and have no one know he was ever even here; No one deserves to disappear.”

In the Torah of Auschwitz, every person must be found.

It’s interesting that in Charlottesville the white supremacist haters shouted, “Jew will not replace us.” But in Krakow, we did replace them.  We replaced the Nazis, who during the war used the Tempel Synagogue as an ammunition storage area.  So yeah, we replaced them.  And we will spread the clarion call that in our country, there is no place for the kind of hatred that they espouse.

On one level, the neo-Nazi chant in Charlottesville spoke to one demented group’s fear of being left behind.  Of being forgotten.

But White Supremacists do not deserve our pity; for the cry “Jew will not replace us” also speaks of a ravenous desire to intimidate, isolate and destroy those who are different.  That is what the Nazis did in the 1930s and 40s.  That is what their cowardly heirs still want to do – and what in fact happened to the Jewish community of Charlottesville last month.  Those who were in synagogue on that fateful Shabbat were terrified in a manner unprecedented for Jews in this country.  They had to escape their synagogue through the back door, as white supremacists carrying semi-automatic rifles streamed past their sanctuary, calling out "Oy, gevalt," in mocking Brooklyn accents.  There is no place for white supremacy in America.

Notably, Isaiah included the stranger in the Yad Vashem passage.  Isaiah’s motto – our motto - is not Jew will not replace us.”  It is, instead, to paraphrase Evan Hansen, “Jew will be found.”  And non-Jew will be too.

Even when the dark comes crashing through

When you need a friend to carry you
When you're broken on the ground
You will be found

             Our group rode through the forests of Poland – with the omnipresent birch trees - Birkenau means birch, in fact - where Jews fell like trees, shot by SS commandos or gassed at Belzec, Treblinka and Maidanek. When a Jew falls in the forest and no one is around – do they make a sound?

Yes, because we remember them.


We drove through the storybook mountains of Slovakia, with gorgeous sunflower fields- and I thought of Simon Wiesenthal’s story when he was a prisoner in one of the camps.

One day, he and his work detail were sent to clean medical waste at an army hospital for wounded German soldiers. He writes:

"Our column suddenly came to a halt at a crossroads. I could see nothing that might be holding us up but I noticed on the left of the street there was a military cemetery . . . and on each grave there was planted a sunflower . . . I stared spellbound . . . Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb."

We saw the sunflowers, imagined the Jews who once lived in the neighboring shtetls, and we remembered them.

In Prague, we saw the priceless Jewish artifacts that the Nazis collected in order to show the world the people that they had totally destroyed.  We saw those ornaments and scrolls, and we remembered the people who once proudly marched around the sanctuary with them.  One synagogue there, the Pinkas synagogue, contains a list of all the names of those from Bohemia and Moravia who were killed.  It covers the walls of several rooms. 77,297 Jewish victims. 

Victims who were found.

In Berlin, there are memorial plates in the ground for those who were deported – stumble stones, they are called, because when you stumble over them you HAVE to notice – and everywhere you go there are reminders of who once lived in that place. As of last January, there are 56,000 stolpersteineas they are called, throughout Germany. 

In Leviticus 19:14, the Torah of Sinai says that we should not place a stumbling block before the blind.  But the Torah of Auschwitz says, “Yes, you should place these stumble stones everywhere a victim lived, in order to remove blinders from the eyes of those who try to forget their suffering.”  

The Torah of Auschwitz states, You SHOULD place a stumbling block before the morally blind.

In the leafy neighborhood where Einstein lived, called the Bavarian Quarter there are signs on every street showing how the Nazis systematically denied the Jews any semblance of dignity, before denying them life itself.  Before they were killed, Jews were systematically robbed of even the smallest dignities of daily life, like working in their professions, buying newspapers, buying fresh milk, owning pets.  This testimony from 1943 appears on one sign:

"We used to have a canary. When we learned of the law prohibiting Jews to keep pets, my husband simply could not part with the bird. (...) Maybe someone informed on him, because one day my husband was called in for questioning by the Gestapo. (...) After many weeks of agony I received a note from the police that, for the fee of 3 Reichsmark, I should pick up my husband's urn." 

As we walked through that neighborhood, we happened upon a ceremony where German elementary school children were standing in the courtyard of a destroyed synagogue and dedicating individual bricks to memorialize Jewish children who once lived there, or who shared their first name.  Brick by brick, they were building a memorial.   A memorial with names – their own Yad Vashem.  This ceremony was not staged for the tourists.  We just happened upon it.  We stumbled upon it.




It moved me to tears.

This was the anti-Charlottesville.  These children were proclaiming, "Jew(s) will NOT be forgotten!  We will replace hate with love!"  And they were proclaiming this - in the heart of Berlin!

No one deserves to be forgotten.  No one deserves to disappear.

As Jews, we believe that when you’ve fallen in a forest and there’s no one around, you will be found.  We love forests.  The Hasidim would dance and sing there.  Hey, even our trees have names.  Just ask the JNF what happens with all those certificates we give out at Bar Mitzvahs.  On second thought, don’t ask.

The orphans of Warsaw were found - by Janus Korczac.  We visited the orphanage where this great hero nurtured and protected those who were most vulnerable.  On the 5th of August, 1942, Korczac and his 200 children were rounded up and sent walking to the Umschlagplatz, where the trains would take them from the ghetto to the camps and certain death.  Many living in the ghetto remembered the haunting silent procession of Korczac’s kids from one side of the ghetto to the other, “carrying blankets, walking hand in hand led by Dr Korczac, a stooped aging man.”




Korczac was considered a national treasure by the Poles for his pioneering work on child rearing, so although he was a Jew, whose original name was Henryk Goldszmit, he was offered a chance to escape deportation.  He chose to remain with “his” children, as he comforted them right to the very end.  Because of that, an act so noble as to be beyond the capacity of even Abraham – who nearly killed HIS child – neither Korczac nor those children will ever be forgotten. 

The heroism in the Torah of Auschwitz dwarfs anything we have ever read in the Bible.  On that level, at least, the heroism of the Holocaust is the true Greatest Story Ever Told.

Even at Auschwitz, the names are not forgotten.  Our congregants Sue and Art Greenwald left our group for a short time to find the names of close relatives in a room where such records are stored.  They were found, and those names were uttered as we recited memorial prayers in front of the crematoria.

Our tradition is all about the triumph of names over numbers.  The second book of our Torah is called “Shmot,” “names.” Yes, there is also a book of Numbers, but the original Hebrew name for that book is not Numbers, it’s “Bamidbar,” “In the Wilderness,” and the census held at the beginning of the book is specifically seen as a one-time thing.  Jewish tradition frowns on counting people – but it cherishes individuality and uniqueness, precisely what the Nazis tried to destroy.

No one will ever be forgotten.  No one will ever disappear.

So let us remember them. Let us invite them into our lives, today, right now.   Let us take a moment to recall the names of those who perished 7 decades ago.  Please take out the insert in your announcement packets with the list of names.  Everyone has a different list. There are nearly 15,000 different names on the pages in this room, 10,000 of them children.  So now, take your page. And when I give the signal, please read aloud the names on your list. You can read them – or better yet, chant them, to any melody that moves you.  This will be our prayer. This will be our offering of hope; our dialogue of memory.  So we rise and call their names now – out loud - so that they will resonate in the highest heavens.    http://www.yadvashem.org/downloads#pot  - 

In the Torah of Auschwitz, this is what prayer looks like.

And now, one more task.  Now silently, let us pray for all those who are here among us, for those in this room and not in this room, for teenagers, especially for teenagers, for those struggling with addiction, disability, simple bad luck, or loss, for those who have seen relationships shattered or are having trouble creating them.  For the Evan Hansens among us and for those whose names are unknown.  Let us think of their names or envision their faces, in a moment of silent prayer.

That passage from Isaiah, where he talks about the forgotten, the stranger, the victim who seem hopelessly alone, ends with this:

 וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי, וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי--עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי:  כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים.

             “Even them I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
        
            An assignment for next week – take these Holocaust victims’ names home, go onto the Yad Vashem website and find out something about them.  Then resolve to do one thing this year to repair the world in a manner consistent with the passions, the concerns or the life’s work of that person. Or maybe something related to that person’s name.   And if you let me know what you find, I’ll share some of the stories behind the names next week; for will we bring THEM to our holy mountain – and our house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples. 


            And so, the Torah of Auschwitz has given us its first commandment: Zachor.  Remember.  But not in the way the Torah of Sinai would have us remember.  Not to remember to avenge what our enemies did to us, but to remember those who suffered – and who still do - those who are alone, those stripped of their dignity and their uniqueness, those who have no one else to remember them – whether in Auschwitz or on the streets of Miami or in Evan Hansen’s forest or Adele’s front yard – or whether they be Riwka Lypszyc, Janus Korczac’s orphans or the names we have read today.

            They will be remembered.  

            And they will be found.  Amen.

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Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778
The People of the Rope-a-Dope

Today’s journey begins with a man named Artur Berlinger, born in Wurtzberg, Germany in 1889.  He and his wife had two daughters, and after Kristallnacht in 1938, he was able send his kids to safety to England on the Kindertransport, while he and his wife were deported to Dachau and eventually to Terezin.

Artur was a man of many talents, a Judaic scholar, musician, painter, calligrapher.  He was a visionary.  In Terezin, he was able to put all of those talents to work.  In 1943, after miraculously being taken off a transport to Auschwitz at the very last minute, he discovered a small room with a vaulted ceiling in the secluded yard of a prisoner house, where he created a secret prayer room, decorating the walls and ceiling with stars, candles and calligraphy, including one of the most visionary lines from our daily liturgy, “V’techenzena aynaynu b’shuvcha l’tziyon berachamim,” “Let our eyes envision God’s merciful return to Zion.” 




The prisoners’ eyes could envision no such thing.  They knew what lay ahead for them.  But somehow, led by this single, heroic individual, they were able to convert their living hell into an oasis of hope.  With the SS lurking just outside, inside this secret synagogue their world was transformed.

On September 28, 1944, Berlinger was transported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.  His daughter Rosie, who moved from England to America and now lives in Detroit, says this secret synagogue, which was not discovered until the 1990s, shows that her father never lost his faith in God.  I don’t know whether Artur eventually lost faith in God; I can only say for sure that no one who visits this place will ever lose faith in Artur.  Whenever I come to that prayer in the Amidah, I think of him and others weeping for salvation in that holy space, people who dreamed of a future that they knew they would never see.  We are not merely their witnesses – we are the fulfillment of their dream. 

Today, I want to discuss how the experiences of the Holocaust can help us to confront a world where everything has been turned on its head, everything we thought was true turns out not to be; when “new normals” become the norm.  The Torah of Auschwitz tells us never to stop dreaming of the destination, even as our inner GPS seems to be eternally recalculating the route. If they could adapt themselves to the most inhuman conditions ever fashioned back in that secret synagogue, we can adapt today to our frightening world of exponentially accelerating change.

But first, let’s step back and look at the place of the Holocaust in our culture.

On November 3, history will happen.

No, that day’s not the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, laying the legal and moral framework for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  That’s November 2. 

No, not the 70th anniversary of the passage of the UN partition plan, which granted international legitimacy to the founding of a Jewish state – along with an Arab state.  No, that’s November 29.

November 3 might even be more significant; for that date will mark the release…of a video game.  Not just any video game: “Call of Duty: WW2” – the long awaited next installment of the “Call of Duty” series that has, since its initial release in 2011, sold 30 million units worldwide. And this one will depict the Holocaust.  In this game, the player controls an American soldier fighting in the European theater. In addition to shooting Nazi soldiers, players will also be exposed to racism towards Jews and African-Americans within their platoon.

          "We absolutely show atrocities," the game's senior creator Bret Robbins said to Mashable. "It's an unfortunate part of the history, but you can't tell an authentic, truthful story without going there."

And since I know you were wondering, “Call of Duty: WWII” will also feature a mode that turns the Nazi soldiers into zombies.  Nazis, and zombies too! It’s a gamer’s dream!

And a rabbi’s nightmare.

“Call of Duty” is not alone in bringing the Holocaust into the mainstream of popular culture.  Other games like “Wolfenstein” are filled with Holocaust imagery and are top sellers. And if you are more into old fashioned board games, this year’s hit is called “Secret Hitler,” which simulates the rise of fascism.  It’s sold out two runs and has been a top seller on Amazon.  Hitler is a hit!

Now I could stand up here and say it’s in bad taste to depict the Holocaust as a video game – or a board game… or a comic book, like “Maus” for that matter.  But tell me, are there 30 million people in this world who have any idea what Balfour Day is?  There may not be thirty in this room!  But for millions and millions of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, the Holocaust continues to have an enormous impact on our culture.  We should embrace that.

Back in the ‘70s, Elie Wiesel disparaged the TV series “Holocaust” – he called it “untrue and offensive.” But that series, as pedestrian as it as was, accomplished two very important things: 1) it helped to launch the career of Meryl Streep; and 2) when it was shown in West Germany, it changed everything.  It was seen by 20 million people, half the population of the country, and after the programs aired, panels of experts helped explain what happened, as thousands of shocked and outraged Germans called in.  “Did we do THAT?”  This led to massive reforms in the German educational system, and as our group saw first-hand this summer, that has made all the difference. 

So while I’m not a great fan of video games, millions of people who otherwise may not learn about the Shoah will now bear witness, hopefully with some accuracy, to the greatest crime ever perpetrated on humanity – and hopefully they will convert that gamer’s rush into a renewed commitment never to let such hatred prevail again.

November 3rd, then, will be a big deal. And the Holocaust, which was always a big deal, is getting bigger all the time.  Bigger, more important, more resonant, more terrifying, and more a part of our Jewish self-image than ever before. It has changed everything and it is forcing us to adapt.

The 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry told us lots of interesting things about ourselves.  But what stood out above anything else was the response to the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” 

Nineteen percent said, “Observing Jewish law.” 

Twenty eight percent said, “being part of a Jewish community.”

Forty two percent said, “having a good sense of humor.”

Just forty three percent said, “caring about Israel.”

Fifty six percent said, “working for justice and equality,” and sixty nine percent said, “leading an ethical and moral life.”

But leading the way, was “remembering the Holocaust,” at seventy three percent.

You can’t get three quarters of American Jews to agree on anything – except for that.  Not whether to fast on Yom Kippur, light Hanukkah candles or what to put on a bagel.  If there is a core to our self-image as Jews, a common story, that teaching is far more likely to come from Auschwitz than from Sinai.

We may not be comfortable with that fact, but we cannot deny it.

Want to hear something even more amazing?

Ask Israeli Jews the same question.  Well, Pew did.  And we know that Israeli Jews and American Jews don’t agree on much these days.  And when you ask, “what is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish?” there are lots of differences.  Just nine percent of Israeli Jews say, “having a sense of humor.”  Really.

But for Israeli Jews, just as for American Jews, the Holocaust ranks by far the highest.  Sixty five percent – twenty points higher than the second choice, living an ethical life. 

Holocaust tourism is booming, and not just for Jews.  In 2014, Auschwitz took in a million and a half tourists, and a 40 percent increase from that was reported a few months into the next year.  This July, we got there early in the morning, and by the time we left the museum a couple of hours later, there were long lines.  Krakow was booming with Holocaust tourism too.  Evidently, there’s no business like Shoah business. 

I want you to know, that for most of my life, I felt that the Holocaust took up far too much of our Jewish bandwidth.  I felt it smothered our joy and infused us with guilt and resentment and victimhood.  It posed questions that were unanswerable.  It eclipsed centuries of Jewish achievement and it brought out the worst in us.  It gave us an excuse to hate – and it gave our children the excuse to opt out of being Jewish altogether. Who would want to be part of such a Debbie-Downer people?

As a rabbi and a writer, I‘ve spent the better part of my career trying to reframe Judaism in positive terms, or, I was afraid, it would wither on the vine.

In the 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught that in order to do Teshuvah, you have to be happy. We shouldn’t get down on ourselves; we should be able to look at the future with optimism and hope, even as we probe the bleakest, black holes of our lives during this season of repentance. 

So here is my conundrum – our conundrum.  We crave to live lives of joy, love, acceptance, community, hope and faith.

But as Jews, when we look out there at the cultural landscape or dig deep within ourselves, what do we see?

Everywhere we turn, being Jewish and the Holocaust have become virtually synonymous.

In school, our kids are expected to be Holocaust experts, BFFs with Anne Frank. 

Turn on PBS, and you get Black History Month; Puerto Rican Heritage Month, Gay Pride Month, Polish Heritage Month -  and for the Jews?  Holocaust Remembrance Month (which has recently been changed to Jewish American Heritage Month).

The Holocaust is on the news almost every day.  It has been brought into so many political arguments that a new rule was created, Godwin's Law , stating that if a discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.  

Everywhere you turn, it’s all Holocaust all the time.  While we are looking for positive reasons to be Jewish, all we get is Auschwitz! Auschwitz! Auschwitz!  We’ve become the Jan Brady of world religions.

It’s been seventy years. Isn’t it time to move on? To get over it?

No – it’s not. 

And this is the discovery I’ve made:  In fact, it is time – to embrace it.

It is time to embrace AuschwitzNot to get over it.  Not to become desensitized to what took place.  On the contrary.  It’s time to fully assimilate its lessons into our souls; to recognize that in fact it is not only part of our story, it frames our story; it IS our story – and our greatest responsibility and honor –  is to bear witness and to share that story. 

It is our sadness and it is also the foundation of our hope.  It is our fragility but also a source of vitality.  It is a story that is utterly shattering – but among the embers, there are sparks of hope. It is all this – and it is ours. 

I was coming to this conclusion long before this summer.  But during the trip the message became clearer to me by the day, and every day since we returned. 

So, following yesterday’s lesson on remembering – Zachor – today let’s discuss the second life-affirming lesson of what I am calling our Torah of Auschwitz. 

In the Torah of Sinai, Leviticus 18:5, states "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” 

From this the rabbis derived the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, which states that almost any Jewish law can be circumvented if it will save a life.  Cases given in the Talmud include, Sabbath violations such as rescuing a child from the sea, breaking down a door about to close on an infant and extinguishing a fire to save a life.  In the Mishna we read (B Yoma 83a) that someone seized with a “life threatening” hunger can break the fast on Yom Kippur, and in 1848, during a cholera epidemic, Rabbi Israel Salanter ordered his community to disregard the fast in order to preserve their health.  Famously, he ate in front them.  So from the start, Judaism has always been so flexible as to have a built in GPS that allows for instant recalculation of religious obligations during times of disruption. 

But here’s where the Torah of Auschwitz takes over and takes Pikuach Nefesh to the next level.

The last stop on our trip this summer was the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, home of the 1936 Games, that grotesque pageant of Nazi propaganda punctured by Jesse Owens’ heroics.  At the stadium, it was positively chilling for us to sit just behind the Fuhrer’s box as close as John Wilkes Booth was to Lincoln.   The architecture of this magnificent structure screams of the power of brute force and the exaltation of the fair haired Aryan body. 

And our guide, Dennis, who was not Jewish, said, “You know, Hitler had it all wrong.”

He explained.  The Nazis’ ideology was based on social Darwinism, which asserted the survival of the fittest.  Hitler assumed that meant the strongest, and he tried to pervert the Olympic movement to use these games as a showcase for his racial theories of Aryan physical superiority. 

“But that’s not what Darwin was talking about at all,” Dennis said, repeating something that I figure he learned in the German educational system, sometime after Meryl Streep’s TV miniseries. “Darwin was talking about adaptation.” 

In asserting this, Darwin echoed the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”  Our superheroes never win through brute force.  They win with courage and persistence, ingenuity and compassion.  We took pride in Wonder Woman Gal Gadot this summer, whose motto was, “Only love can save this world.” 

Those species destined to survive are not the ones who are most macho.  Not the ones who can run the fastest or jump the highest.  The species that survive are the ones who can adjust on the fly, the ones who are pliable, the ones who can recalculate, who can figure out how best to take lemons and make them delicious.

The Hebrew word for change is built right into the name of this holiday, Shanah.  Rosh Hashanah means “the beginning of change.” To be Jewish is, at its very essence, to be able not merely to manage change, but to flourish amidst the chaos.  That’s the key to surviving a 4,000-year history of expulsions, deportations and pogroms and it’s what we can teach the world.

At Sinai, we became the People of the Book.

At Auschwitz, we became the People of the Rope-a-dope.






And so, on July 13, 2017, 22 pilgrims from Temple Beth El stood and posed for a photo under in Hitler’s stadium and under those desecrated Olympic rings.  We snapped photos of his enormous bell engraved with his damn swastikas.

But we were there.  And he was not.  His box was empty.

At times of great stress, Jews have always been able to adapt, and never more so than during and following the Holocaust.  And we have much expertise to share with the world.

Many of us have grappled with the meaning of the Holocaust, this existential earthquake that changed everything.  But for the most part, for the past seventy years we’ve limped along, dazed, pretending things haven’t changed. It’s comforting, but so much of our tradition has become hollow and meaningless to the younger generation – which was to be expected, following the most disruptive event of all time.

But now, 70 years later, something is happening. Something new is emerging.

You know, it fits a pattern.  Every time an enormous disruption has happened in the Jewish world, about seven decades later the dust begins to settle and the Jewish people enter periods of astounding creativity.

       The paradigm for this was the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, resulting in utter devastation in Jerusalem and the exile of a significant amount of the population.  In 520, following the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 538, the sacrificial cult resumed in what was to become the Second Temple, whose construction was completed in 515, almost exactly 70 years after the original temple was destroyed.  But Judaism underwent tremendous transformation during that generation, including, according to many scholars, the coalescing and editing of biblical sources into a written canon.  

            Psalm 121 enshrined that moment of return in saying, "When we returned to Zion, we were as if in a dream."  Centuries later, the Talmud expanded on that verse with the story of Honi the Circle Drawer, who, while contemplating that verse, wondering how it is possible for 70 years to be "like a dream."  He then slept for 70 years and when he awoke, this happened:

     One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi then further asked him: "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied: "I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.

              In other words, Honi has learned that it takes time for the seeds of renewal to take root following a disruption.  In Jewish history, 70 years seems to be the magic number.  

                  Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and 70 years later, revolutionary Kabbalistic works were being composed in Safed.   

   The year 1648 was a dark one for Eastern European Jewry, as the Cossacks led by Khmelnitsky killed upwards of 100,000 Jews in Poland.  Almost exactly 70 years later, the Baal Shem Tov introduced the Hasidic movement to Polish Jewry.  In early Hasidic literature, his followers themselves draw a line from 1648 to their teacher’s career, claiming that he “awakened the people Israel from their long coma and brought them renewed joy in the nearness of God.” (Yitzchak Buxbaum, "The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov" p.15)

   When you study the folklore of the early Hasidic masters, you see that the Cossack massacres were still very real to them.  Those tales are filled with the pathos of illness and poverty and loss – but they took that sadness, and, as Abraham Joshua Heschel explained, turned it into song.  Only after 70 years could they do that.  Otherwise, to sing and dance would have been to dance on someone’s fresh grave.  They were considered radicals by the Jewish establishment, but their ability to innovate in the face of profound disruption is what enabled their form of Judaism to become the norm in all the modern Jewish movements.

When it comes to disruptive innovation in Jewish history, there is no greater example than what happened after the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE; a generation later, the great works of the rabbis began to take shape, the Mishna and the Talmud.  

It was in at that time that one of the most remarkable evenings in Jewish history took place.

Every Passover at our Seders, toward the beginning of the long section that many of us skip – er – abridge – there is a section describing five rabbis in B’nai Brak.  You know, the one that includes Rabbi Yossi, whom your great Aunt Sadie insists on calling Jose.  They stayed up all night before their students came to tell them it was time for the morning Sh'ma.

What was going on at this time? It was a calamity that was unprecedented; on this fateful Passover, the emperor Hadrian was planning to build a temple to Jupiter on that very spot where the destroyed Jewish temple still lay smoldering, in ruins.  So these five rabbis in Bnai Brak sat up all night reinventing the observance of Passover. Some of them could still recall the power of the sacrifices that were held at the temple when it stood.  They needed to do something or the memory of those great Passovers would fade away, and along with it, so would the Jewish people.  So they threw together this ceremony with a little plate with a bone, bitter herbs and an egg, with some wine and matzah on the side.  (See here for a more complete discussion of this example and of Jewish disruptive innovation in general - also read Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's work on Paradigm Shifts in Jewish history and Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg on Jewish history's "Third Era.")

Just a makeshift, temporary solution.  Their students weren’t even in the room with them.  No wives.  No kids.  Not even Aunt Sadie.  They thought they were just applying a quick, insufficient, lousy band aid over a deep, deep wound.

But here we are, two thousand years later, and that stopgap solution of five B’nai Brak rabbis has become the most powerful and meaningful ritual in all of Jewish history, one that still has great power even among Jews who have long since stopped doing anything else Jewishly.  And the Seder has been reinvented again and again – with over 4,000 different Haggadahs published, one to fit any occasion.

That’s how Jews adapted after surviving the second most horrific catastrophe in our history.

And so, 70 years after THE MOST disruptive event, the Holocaust – is… now. 

We need to be like those rabbis in Bnai Brak.

As Albert Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” 

The classic example of the consequences of not adapting to disruption in the business world is Kodak, which was as synonymous with photography as Kleenex is to tissues.  But Kodak’s Moment ended when it turned down digital photography and placed all their bets on film.  Bad choice.

Our nation and world right now are in the midst of a period of great political and economic upheaval, which places us in great danger.  Disruption rules everywhere, in business, medicine and communications, in our climate and in our politics and in technology.  Some adapt and thrive.  Some don’t and die.

Extremism flourishes in such an environment of chaos, and democracy can be challenged to the limits. Our group learned about that as we stood outside the Reichstag.

But from destroyed worlds, new possibilities emerge.  It took the rabbis decades to reinvent Passover.  After Auschwitz, it took the Jewish people only three years to return our people to our ancient home in Zion and establish the State of Israel.  But still, we are at a crossroads.

The Maggid of Dubno (Jacob ben Wolf Kranz) in the 18th century was once asked how he always came up with perfect tales for every occasion. He replied, with a story:

"Once I was walking in the forest, and saw tree after tree with a target drawn on it, and at the center of each target an arrow. I then came upon a little boy with a bow in his hand. "Are you the one who shot all these arrows?", I asked. "Yes!" he replied. "Then how did you always hit the center of the target?" I asked. "Simple", said the boy, "first I shoot the arrow, then I draw the target."

The Hebrew word for “sin” literally means “to miss the mark” as one would with a bow and arrow.  No wonder we keep missing!  The target keeps moving.  Over the last 70 years, so much has changed that at times it seems like we aren’t even aiming for the right tree. 

And so the time has come to do what our GPS does all the time - recalculate.

The Torah of Sinai says, Judaism has to be flexible enough to save individual lives.  That’s Pikuach Nefesh.

The Torah of Auschwitz, which reflects Jewish historical experience with a Darwinian twist, says that Judaism must be flexible enough to save ITSELF – while remaining true to its core values.

Over the past generation, our congregation has done a remarkable job of staying ahead of the curve in so many areas, including musical and liturgical innovation, education and particularly on inclusiveness.  But these curves keep coming faster and faster, like a drive in North Stamford at night.   In the blink of an eye, echoing the changes within Conservative Judaism, we have completely redrawn the map regarding the role of women in Jewish life and the embrace of the LGBT community, altering 2,000 years of practice, and for good reason.

And now, have embraced with vigor move toward a broader acceptance of interfaith families, which within Conservative Judaism has suddenly morphed into a move by some notable rabbis to perform intermarriages.  My purpose here isn’t to go into a full-scale analysis or make any dramatic announcements.  For now, let me say that while it is not something I can do, I am listening closely to the conversations that are happening, abut most of all I’m encouraged that more and more interfaith couples – and other non-traditional families – are finding a true home here, knowing that they and their spouses will be welcomed and loved unconditionally. We know that we need to stay ahead of this curve too.

And as we speak we face a profound crisis in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, a relationship that will need to be redefined.  

On so many fronts, we are steering the ship through turbulent waters.  The Torah of Auschwitz calls on us to navigate using the stars on the ceiling of that synagogue in Terezin, never losing sight of our destination, never losing confidence, never losing hope.

In Judaism and in the world at large, the pace of change has never been so dramatic as it is now. But the answer isn't to pretend it isn't happening.  The answer is to adapt.

One of our congregants, Carl Shapiro, was in the South a few weeks ago, in Oxford, Mississippi on business.  He saw that a Holocaust survivor, a Jew named Marion Blumenthal Lazan was scheduled speak at a chapel on the campus of the University of Mississippi, and he was curious to see what type of crowd she would draw.

Let me add that the Jewish population at Ole Miss is so tiny that if you go on the International Hillel website it is listed at zero percent of the overall student body.  Hey, there are only 13 synagogues in the whole state.

Well, the place was packed. Hundreds were in the room. People were standing three-deep on the sides and they were sitting in center aisle.  And even though the acoustics were not great, there was no problem hearing her since everyone was so captivated and moved by what she had to tell.

Also, outside there was only one campus police car parked and no protesters or hecklers in sight.

This was just after Charlottesville, mind you.

It blew Carl away, and the photo I saw blew me away. 

And I bet a good number of those students will be playing “Call of Duty WW2” on November 3rd.

From this we learn three important lessons, and with that I will conclude:

One – we have become the storytellers of the Shoah, the Hasidic masters of a new Jewish narrative, one that is captivating the world more than ever before.  Marian Blumenthal Lazan and other survivors are leaving the stage of history.  We need to learn how to tell their story, our story, with love and conviction.  We need to embrace it with bursting pride at the incomprehensible acts of heroism and faith that we have witnessed.  We need to celebrate who we are – and that is who we are. 

Two, we need to bring our message everywhere. Even – especially – to places like Ole Miss, whose school colors, after all, are both blue and red.  The Torah of Auschwitz transcends all political boundaries; and Americans need to hear our story right now every bit as much as Germans do - maybe even more.

And finally, three, the Shoah Narrative includes a moral message that we have long championed: not brute force, not blood and soil; but adaptation; that is the true survival of the fittest.  We float like we-never-saw-another -butterfly, and we sting like a bee.
  
There is no greater task that we have as post Holocaust Jews than to teach the human race how to live with hope and dignity, like those heroes of the secret synagogue of Terezin -  how to rise above the raging torrent – and how to survive with grace and love.

Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, stronger, higher… No!  Not by might, nor by speed, but by My resilient, creative and visionary spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 


For while some might be able to long jump 29 feet and pole vault to the sky, our eyes can see much farther – v’techezenah aynaynu b’shuvcha l’tziyon b’rachamim… Even from a dusty Terezin chamber, our eyes can see clear through - to Jerusalem!









Kol Nidre 5778 
From Kosher to Kesher


In a few moments, when we continue the service, we’ll come to a poem with imagery that I find among the most evocative of the entire High Holidays liturgy, based on a verse from Jeremiah (18:6).  It describes us as clay in the hands of a divine potter, and then the medieval poet expands on the theme to compare God with various artisans. One image that is particularly striking compares us to a tapestry, with God as the weaver.  Ki Hinay KaYirah b’Yad ha Rokem –“As cloth in the hand of the weaver, who drapes and twists it at will, so are we in Your hand, righteous God.”

I was thinking of this image, when I heard a lovely and popular Israeli song sung this year at Israel’s national Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem.  Its title is “Rikma Enoshit Echat” “One Human Tapestry,” and the translated lyrics go like this:


       When I'm gone,
Something inside you,
Something inside you,
Will die with me, will die with me.

When you're gone,
Something inside me,
Something inside me,
Will die with you, will die with you.

For we all are, yes, we all are,
We all one human tapestry,
and if one of us fades away, something within each of us dies

But something of him remains in us.





Throughout these High Holidays I’ve been speaking about how the Holocaust, the most disruptive event in all of human history, has forced us to look at everything with fresh eyes. 

So back to our song.  The beauty of the Hebrew here is that there is a double meaning for the word Rikma, which is translated best into English as “tapestry” or “embroidery” – but in fact also is a word for human tissue.

When anyone dies, a part of us as died – and not just spiritually but physically.  We are all part of the same body. 

In fact there is no real place where I end and you begin.  There is no dividing line.  We are all joined at the hip, as it were.  The air we breathe is shared, not just with other humans but with all of creation, and we and the plants are engaged in act of mutual and reciprocal CPR as we barter Oxygen for Co2.   Every time I touch a doorknob my body is welcoming in millions of your germs.  Every time I sneeze, part of me is paying a visit to your immune system.

Think of the historical  progression here in describing how human lives interconnect.  A century ago, people were talking about a melting pot.  It’s a great image.  But in a melting pot, all individuality is lost.  So to enhance that, back in the ‘80s Mario Cuomo and David Dinkins called New York a “magnificent mosaic,” thereby preserving the cultural diversity, but what’s holding a mosaic together, except a little glue?  The tiles are otherwise disconnected, like many neighborhoods in New York.

But a Rikma, an embroidery, maintains the uniqueness of each thread, each strand, while at the same time validating that we are inextricably intertwined, body and soul.

Martin Luther King write in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

At the museum in Auschwitz, the shocking and ineffable photos of the intertwined bodies of the victims – hundreds, even thousands of them (at peak efficiency, they gassed up to 3,000 at a time in Birkenau) these images give us a completely new way to understand that network of mutuality.  In those photos, it is nearly impossible to detect where one body begins and another ends.  And there is nothing to indicate which victim was from Germany, from Hungary or from Slovakia.  There is very little determine who was a Hasidic, Reform or secular Jew; Jewish or just Jew-ish, or not Jewish altogether.

After Auschwitz, Rikma Enoshit Echat one human tissue, leads ultimately to that searing image of interconnection.  We go beyond the network of mutuality, the melting pot or fabulous mosaic, or even the woven tapestry of our liturgy and we see Rikma in its most literal sense.  We are one human body.

Now the Nazis were great at drawing lines separating people – with their racist theories going into minute detail as to what constitutes an Aryan or a Jew.  We see that in other photos at Auschwitz that depict the selection of Hungarian Jews just off the train.  Two perfectly straight lines.  One headed to slave labor, the other headed directly to death. 

They obsessively categorized things and people, until people became things.  They defined a Jew as anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents, or someone married to a Jew.  It had nothing to do with belief.  A Jew who converted to Christianity was still a Jew, even if he became a bishop. 

A prime goal of authoritarian regimes is to forge order out of chaos.  That’s not inherently evil.  Religions do the same thing.  We need order in our lives.  Two of our key rituals are even called “Order” (Seder) and “Separation” (Havdalah). Jerusalem is considered holier than other cities and Shabbat is on a higher spiritual plane other days.  Yom Kippur, called the Sabbath of Sabbaths,  is the peak moment of holiness for the year.  Drawing lines and making distinctions in order to forge order has characterized Judaism over the centuries, but not to hoist one group over another, rather so that all of us to rise to greater degrees of godliness.  A life of holiness is available to everyone.  

A rabbinic text specifically states that the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come.  No distinctions are drawn where it matters most.  The rabbis lived in hard times – they could have easily fallen into the parochialism that is so prevalent in our world today.  But they rejected that.

But now, following the Shoah, we've reached a different place in the evolution of Judaism and human civilization.  I believe we have entered a world of connection rather than separation and distinction.

We are moving, in a sense from Kosher to Kesher.  These nearly identical Hebrew words, indicate the old ways and the new. Kashrut is, like the rest of the laws of holiness, built on distinction, on drawing lines. Kesher is the Hebrew word for connection, calling on us to dissolve those distinctions.

The Kosher laws remain a worthy concept (and I'm a huge proponent of them), as does holiness in general, but holiness is not an end in itself – living a holy life is just the first step, leading to what’s most important, which is tapping into that inescapable network of mutuality rather than separating one being from another.  The ultimate goal of the Torah of Sinai, after all, is that we love our neighbor as ourselves, not that we eat pastrami at the Second Avenue Deli.

We are not leaving Kosher behind, but now we need to look at it through the prism of Kesher; because in the end, we are all one human tissue, as we were at Auschwitz.

When you die, something dies inside of me. Separation is an illusion.  What unites us is that, when the blinders are taken off, we are in fact One.  Not just all Jews, but all of humankind – forever linked, woven tightly into this human tapestry. 

When the screams were heard by the Sonderkommandos waiting outside the gas chambers (these were Jews who had to do this horrible work in order to live another day), well, here’s how one described it, in a testimony from the Shoah Foundation archive:

In the beginning [pause]… I was there. After they close the door I could hear the three thousand people, voices, cry and screaming...And you could hear [sings] Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu…[Pause]  they were calling God! Nothing happened, Never nothing happened and these voices still in my ears. But, other transports was coming, I was hiding again. I was getting TOO FAR AWAY not to hear those voices calling God. I never went back again. But! If a soldier or German or SS was finding me hiding he could shoot. But! I could not stand those voices.”

Three thousand voices became One Voice.  Scores of languages became One Tongue.

So not only are we One Human Tissue – but ultimately we are speaking as One Human Voice.

We often ask, where was God at Auschwitz?  If anywhere, then right there, in the cries of the martyrs.  They cried out for God – and the silence of the divine response will perplex and enrage people for the rest of time.  But the last word of the prayer that they cried, the last word of the Shema, that was their call to us: The last word on their lips was “Ehad.”  One.

The Torah of Sinai says “God is One,” with the ineffable name pronounced by the High Priest on Yom Kippur Day, awaiting the expiation of Israel's sin.

The Torah of Auschwitz says, simply, “We are One," with that word being the final, ineffable cry of battered bodies and intertwined souls; and still we await the expiation of God's sin.

With that final letter, the daled trailing off into silence, opening the door – the delet - to eternity, as the doors to the chambers were pried open and the bodies heaped in piles.  We are “Rikma Enoshit Echat,”one human tapestry,” but embroidered by whom?  It is far easier to believe that God was an expert embroiderer at the beginning of time, than to believe in a God who stitched together this living hell.

When the Torah of Auschwitz cries “Echad,” it is far less concerned about the embroiderer than the tapestry itself.  It is not dwelling on God’s essence,  but rather on oneness of humankind; and when we speak of our being “one,” we’re not  merely speaking of a virtual oneness, a cyber community, a soulful connection,  but a physical connection too, body AND soul; spirit and sinew, Rikma Enoshit Echat, sharing our very real and very fragile earth, the same heating air, the same rising oceans, the same parched soil.

And we are all connected inextricably.

And so, you may ask, if we are all One, what of all the horrible people who murdered us or who ignored the crime. How could we be one with them? For that matter, how can we be one with our personal rival, with those who troll us on the internet or bully us, or vote differently? Or our ex?  How can we be one with the Other?

And to a point, you would have a point.  Those who harm others need to be brought to justice, but not because they are any less human.  To render them subhuman or to enact bloodthirsty vengeance would be to act like them.

But there’s another reason to include our enemies in this tapestry.  

Back in the Torah of Sinai, it says we should love and embrace the stranger – care for the stranger – help the stranger.  It says so in some form or another thirty six times.  And why?  The constant refrain – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

We know what it is like to be enslaved, to be persecuted, to be killed simply because of our different background or beliefs.  We experienced it in Egypt.

Well, we experienced it at Auschwitz too, and because of that, we should love the stranger all the more.  We suffered more there.  The Torah of Auschwitz has bolstered that pronouncement from Sinai.

But there is a difference.  Both Torahs instruct us to love the stranger because we were persecuted, because we were strangers there.  But only the Torah of Auschwitz tells us to love the stranger for precisely the opposite reason – because the stranger loved us.

In Egypt, no one helped us, save for a cameo appearance by Pharaoh’s daughter by the river, when the baby Moses came floating by.  That was a big deal - But that was it.

The commentators go out of their way to say that all the people of Egypt were willing co-conspirators in Pharaoh’s genocide.  In Exodus chapter one, Pharaoh enlists the entire population, saying “Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land."

And so (in verse 13) it states, “The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor.”  Not just Pharaoh – all the people.  The medieval commentator Ramban suggests that since the original decree of forced labor hadn’t done the trick, it was then decreed that all Egyptians had the power to seize an Israelite to do any work they needed done. Everyone in Egypt who needed work done.  Mow the lawn?  Get Yossi to do it.   

There is not one instance of an Egyptian harboring an Israelite fugitive.  For the rabbis, this narrative justifies the collective punishment of the ten plagues and the despoiling of the country by the freed slaves.  But neither in the Torah or traditional commentaries is there anyone who helps; there is no underground railroad in Pittom or Rameses, no Oskar Schindler to save his thousands (1,200 plus their descendants) or Raul Wallenberg to save his tens of thousands.

The Holocaust was different from Egypt, or anything in the Bible.  As of  January, 2016, Yad Vashem has honored 26,120 Righteous Among the Nations from 51 countries.  

So the Torah of Auschwitz states, “Love the stranger, because not only do you know how it feels to be a stranger who is hated, but you also know how it feels to be a stranger who is loved - by someone who was a stranger to you.”  It says, “Don’t merely love your neighbor as yourself, cultivate kindness in yourself and accept grace from others.  Love your neighbor, because you have been loved BY your neighbor.

Enter, Mirosława Gruszczyńska (GRUSHgen-ska) a righteous gentile whom we met in Krakow. Her family saved a teenage Jewish girl fleeing the destruction of the ghetto.  She told her story in a manner that was so mesmerizing because it was so matter of fact. There was a knock at the door to her apartment and her mother answered – and they let someone in.

A knock.  A plea. A response. 

God?  Are you listening?  That’s how you do it!  That’s how you answer a prayer.

Or maybe, just maybe, Mirosława was God’s answer to the prayer of young Jewish girl.




Mirosława’s aunt approached her mother Helena with the question of whether the family would be able to temporarily shelter a Jewish girl.  The family said yes, and Anna Allerhand came into their lives, but when she stayed with the Przebindowskas (Prej-bin-DOW-skas) she went by ‘Marysia.” They initially thought the hiding would last for just a few days; it turned out to be a couple of years.  When Anna arrived, she expressed her gratitude immediately that the Przebindowskas (Prej-bin-DOW-skas) had agreed to help her.  Mirosława recalls that the Anna immediately ran up and hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks.  They quickly became close friends (see the full story here).

When Anna became very sick the family was able to nurse her back to health, and by that time there was no distinguishing her from the rest of the family.  She was family - and the love was mutual.  The Polish family couldn’t imagine sending the Jewish girl back out into the dangerous world where surely she’d be caught by the Nazis and sent to the camps.  

When we asked if she ever thought twice about insisting for Anna to stay, Mirosława said she never for a moment regretted her decision.  She said that she had to do it because it was the right thing to do. 

Anna is still alive, living in Israel, and she and Mirosława continue to stay in touch.

Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil.  Mirosława is an example of the banality of good.  On the surface, there is nothing particularly heroic about her.  There was nothing particularly herculean about what she did. 

She just instinctively understood that we are Rikma Enoshit Echat – a single human tissue. -

And our group responded by giving her a standing ovation, and wondering whether we would have been so heroic.

For UConn and NBA star Ray Allen, his first visit to Auschwitz put him in touch with a similar hero.

For Allen, the Holocaust was about how human beings — real, normal people like you and me — treat each other.   In a deeply moving essay published several weeks ago, he wrote about a family that hid Jews under the floor board in a Polish farmhouse, which when they were found out, resulted in most of the Polish family being shot by the SS.

He writes, “When the Skoczylas (SCOTCH-less) family was risking their own lives to hide people they barely knew, they weren’t doing it because they practiced the same religion or were the same race. They did it because they were decent, courageous human beings. They were the same as those people crouched in a hole. And they knew that those people didn’t deserve what was being done to them.  I asked myself a really tough question: Would I have done the same?

Many people bemoan the fact that more gentiles, in Poland and Hungary especially, didn’t do more to save Jews.  There is some validity to that, but I am amazed that anyone would risk their lives to help a people whom, since early childhood, they had been taught to despise, whom, they had been taught for many centuries, had killed their god.

But something was able to cut through the centuries of prejudice, something innate and good, and it led thousands of people to acts of incomprehensible risk and selflessness.  

Take the “Zookeeper’s Wife,” a film many of us saw this year – and our group made it a point to see the Warsaw Zoo, which was just across the river from the ghetto.  In it, Antonina Zabinski, the hero, states, simply, “I don't understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.” 

The banality of goodness.

Ray Allen writes that this about the Jews of the Shoah:

“The people of these Jewish communities were pushed to the absolute limit of their human instincts. They just wanted to survive. And from that, the tales of brotherhood and camaraderie are so awe-inspiring. It was a reminder of what the human spirit is capable of — both for good and evil.

I read these ineffably heroic stories and shudder in embarrassment when someone calls me courageous for going to Mill River Park to support Dreamers who face deportation from the country they’ve always called home.  Or when I invite a couple of Choate students from the visionary Abaarso School in Somaliland because the travel ban might prevent them from ever going home, for fear of never being able to return here to study and improve the lot of their people.  You can call me many things, but please don’t call me courageous for doing THAT.  Incidentally, the girl who visited us, Muna, just began her studies at Babson College this past month.

              Compared to people like Miroslawa and Antonina, I’m a coward.  If I were truly courageous, I would do much, much more - and I would ask you to do much, much more too.

It's like the way I instruct mourners not to thank those who come to visit them during shiva.  Of course gratitude is natural.  But when I visit your shiva, I’m not doing it out of pity or professional obligation. Neither is your neighbor.  When we come to comfort you, we’re binding our own wounds.  Which makes it all the more painful on me when I mess up and drop the ball in your moment of need.  Because we are all woven into the same human tapestry – if you scrape, I bleed.  If you mourn, we all mourn. 

In Berlin a new home for interfaith fellowship is being built.  It’s called the  House of One,” and we passed it on our way back from the Berlin Wall. One beautiful construction, one that brings a synagogue, a church, and a mosque together under one roof. The three separate sections will be linked by a communal room in the center of the building. I couldn’t stop thinking that that building belongs in Jerusalem. 

But no, it’s in Berlin, the city where nearly every synagogue window was smashed 79 years ago, and where a wall was built during the Cold War that literally divided the world. Berlin is the place where Jews are flocking, especially now, when so many other countries seem to be succumbing to the worst nativist and nationalist impulses.  Since Brexit, there has been a stunning migration back from England to Germany by a number of Jewish families who had fled the Germany in the ‘30s.  They are now returning to Germany, though rising parliamentary status of  far right party in this week's German elections offers a note of caution.

And so, what does it mean to be one human tapestry?

When a police officer in Houston drowns in his car while trying to save others, a little of me has died.

When three Israelis are killed in a shooting attack in the settlement of Har Adar, near Jerusalem, as happened this week, a little of me has died.

And on the other hand, my spirits are lifted when, during Hurricane Harvey, a woman who has gone into labor is helped to safety by her neighbors who formed a human chain.

Or when the workers of a Mexican bakery in Houston, unable to get home because of the flooding,  spend two days baking bread nonstop to deliver to those in need.

Or when a guy at a Lowes in Orlando gives up his claim to the last generator on the shelves before Hurricane Irma to a woman – a total stranger - who needs it to provide oxygen for her father.

Or the many evacuation centers in Houston that accepted pets during the flood, saving the lives of countless innocent animal after tens of  thousands had died in Katrina. We are one tapestry with animals too.

Or the hundreds of volunteers who immediately showed up at emergency centers in Mexico City and the many aid groups trying to get into Puerto Rico to help now in that dire emergency.  How we grieve for the people there!

Or the synagogue north of Houston earlier this year, that responded when a local mosque was destroyed by arson, gave the Muslim congregation the keys to their building so they could have services there while rebuilding. I have no doubt that we would have done the same thing here.  We can't merely protest against attacks directed against our group.  We must be equally vocal in protesting against attacks on the Other.  (This week Haaretz reported that in Israel and the territories, since 2009, 53 mosques and churches have been vandalized, and there have been only nine indictments filed.  That should concern us.)

After the Shoah, a new generation is asking, now more than ever, why be Jewish.  It no longer suffices to respond to that query, “so that the Jewish people will survive.”  A religion whose sole purpose is simply to perpetuate itself is already bankrupt.  And this new generation has already rejected the arbitrary divisions between groups that marked the old thinking.  In fact we have a purpose, and it is to love.  It is to promote dignity and mutual responsibility, and to cultivate kindness.  It is to channel lives of holiness into lives of utter interdependence – to channel Kosher into Kesher.

So here’s my answer to a new generation.

Why be Jewish? 

Because we build bridges between peoples.  We connect the dots of humanity.  We are the glue in the mosaic.  We are the strand, the thread that holds together the tapestry, the ligament that will reassemble the dry bones.  That has always been our role, but never more than now.

In Europe this summer, our group experienced the borderless EU nations and contrasted that free flow to the shifting, confusing national and ethnic boundaries of these countries, and the sharp lines of hate and suspicion they have for former occupiers and for one another.

And amidst all of this, the Jewish story played out, as we meandered from country to country, never having to show our passports once, seeing how our wandering ancestors accomplished so much and changed the world for the better in so many ways.

So why be Jewish?

Because our work is not yet done. In what Thomas Friedman calls a world of walls and webs, we not only choose webs, we are the weavers.  It is our task to break down the artificial boundaries that drive people apart, and to weave people together.  And it is through living a life of holiness, an authentic Jewish life, that we can light the way.  

Some call us internationalists as if that is a badge of shame.  But caring about all of humanity is our greatest glory.  Call us what you will: “Holy Schleppers” or  “Kvetchers without Borders.”  Especially since Auschwitz, that is our calling. 

Ray Allen writes, “The Holocaust was about how human beings — real, normal people like you and me — treat each other.”

He’s right.  The Torah of Auschwitz begins and ends with human interconnection.  It’s about human beings who perpetrated horrible evil and humans who showed an astounding capacity for good.  It was the darkest time in human history, but we all know that it is during the darkest nights that the stars shine most brightly, and never before or since have so many acted so courageously.  It is said that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year.  So perhaps will that dark night of seven decades ago will usher in a time when those supernovas of compassion will create a reverse eclipse and brighten the midnight sky.

The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to get beyond parochialism and nativism and reach out to what is common in all of humanity, for what we share is so much greater than what divides us. For there were no such distinctions in the gas chambers.

The Torah of Auschwitz is far less about the identity of the weaver than about the tapestry that is constantly being woven.

If there is a God following Auschwitz, it is the God of Kesher – the God of interconnection.

It's the God of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was open on all four sides.

And the God of Isaac and Rebecca, who loved both of their sons, as different as they were.

And the God of Jacob and Esau, who reconciled with the one to whom he was joined in the womb, as one single human tissue.

And it is the God of Moses, who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves.

Love the stranger – because the stranger loved you in Krakow, and at the Warsaw Zoo, even though none did in Egypt.

Love the stranger, because we are one human tissue, Rikma Enoshit Echat, each of us a single strand in a vast, lovely tableau. 

Cultivate kindness in yourself and and accept grace from others. 

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  That is the essence of the Torah of Auschwitz. 

And that garment is being woven - by us.                                                                                        




Yom Kippur Day 5778 
The Candy Man and Elijah Girl

In mid-August one of the most remarkable news stories I’ve ever seen came across the wires.  The oldest person in the world – Guinness-certified as the oldest for over a year - died at the ripe old age of 113.  He would have turned 114 just two weeks ago, on Sept. 13.  His name was Yisrael Kristal, and Yisrael lived in Yisrael.  A nice touch, but that’s not what’s most remarkable. 




He celebrated his “bar mitzvah plus-100” about a year ago, when he turned 113, which is also not the most remarkable thing, though it would have been if his voice had cracked and in his speech, he’d made a joke about his annoying sister. 

In fact, this second bar mitzvah was really his first, because when he turned 13 a hundred years ago, his mother had just died and his father was fighting in the Russian army during World War 1.  Amazing, but not the most remarkable thing about Yisrael. 

Oh, and he was observant and prayed every morning after his 13th birthday.  Amazing. But not the most amazing thing. 

Oh, and he had sweet tooth and made a living running a candy factory in Haifa.  And in his younger years, he owned a candy factory in Lodz – he was the candyman of the Lodz ghetto.  Remarkable.  His children were killed there – but he lived on.

Here’s what’s most amazing.  The world’s oldest man was a survivor of Auschwitz.  And when he was liberated, he weighed all of 81 pounds.  His wife died there, but he survived, moved to Israel and began a new life.  Like a modern-day Job, he started anew and died “old and full of days,” and felt so blessed that he never stopped praying, which, come to think of it, might be just as remarkable as his having survived Auschwitz.

In Deuteronomy, chapter 30, which is always read at this time of year, the Torah of Sinai presents us with a stark choice:


וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.

“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction…. life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…. For the Lord is your life…”   כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ

              God is life....

Everything had been laid out for Yisrael Kristal – the good and the bad; he was born three months before the Wright Brothers first flight, so he had seen remarkable progress.  But he had also seen the world’s darkest hours – and yet, and yet, he chose life. 

He was lucky to live – very lucky, surviving not only Auschwitz, but wars, pogroms and the Lodz ghetto, not to mention all that Yisrael, the state, has endured for the past 70 years.

But he could easily have chosen to die.  Yisrael chose life.  And not just life – but life with a cherry on top.         

What was the secret of his survival?  Maybe it was his chosen profession.  For Yisrael, life literally was a box of chocolates.  And his grandson noted that when Yisrael was 12, during World War One, he was also a booze smuggler. “He used to run barefoot in the snow” for miles every night, smuggling alcohol between the lines of the war.”  What a guy!  Even when he wasn’t Guinness's oldest, clearly, he was still the most interesting man in the world. 

Is it conceivable that the living hell that was Auschwitz propelled this man to cherish life so much that he became the oldest living human?  Could a man who was larger than life have been propelled to fame by a place that was darker than death?

Over these High Holidays, I’ve been sharing what I am calling the Torah of Auschwitz, focusing on how the Holocaust has transformed the Jewish experience.  I’ve been calling upon us to stop running away from the Shoah – because we can’t.  It is in us.  It is part of the fiber of who we are.  And it is a key component of what we need to teach the world, an incredibly potent and resonant event for Jews and non-Jews alike.  

Seventy-three percent of American Jews believe that remembering the Holocaust is a key to being Jewish, and nothing else even comes close.  We need to embrace it, to embrace all of it, and as we do, to forge a new Jewish vision for ourselves and for the world.

I’ve shared three commandments of this Torah of Auschwitz thus far: 1) Remember, because no one should ever be forgotten.  2) Adapt, because from destroyed worlds, new possibilities emerge.  And 3) Love Your Neighbor, because all of humanity is one living tapestry.

Keep in mind that I use the term "Torah" with some deliberate irony - it is intended to provoke thought, not to show disrespect.  For in the broadest sense, the word means "sacred teaching," and as a verb it connotes an ongoing, evolving process of discovery.  I contend that that process of sacred discovery has been dramatically aroused by the epochal events of 70 years ago.

Today, the Fourth Commandment: Choose Life!

This story of Yisrael Kristal is so perfect because he embodies the two ways we need to choose life: Individually and collectively.  We need to embrace life as Yisrael the individual did and also as the people called Yisrael, the Jewish people, and Yisrael, the state, always have.

The Holocaust is filled with remarkable stories of survival, even among those whose survival may have been temporary.  On Rosh Hashanah, I briefly mentioned Rywka Lipszyc, a 14-year old Jewish girl, orphaned and living in the Lodz ghetto. From October 1943 to April 1944, she recorded her thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams in her diary.  Along with 67,000 other inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, Rywka was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944.  Nearly a year later, in June 1945, her diary was found in the ashes of the crematoria by a Soviet army doctor (read more about Rywka and her diary here).

Like Anne Frank, Rywka was a simple teenager living a simple teenage life. But Anne Frank wrote from the relative safety of her secret annex in Amsterdam – and although that security was fleeting, it could not compare to the hell that was the Lodz ghetto (read about other children's diaries to have survived the Holocaust).

The diary of 112 pages was written between October 1943 and April 1944.  It details Rywka’s activities at work and in school; her relationships with her friends and family and events in the ghetto. Despite the devastating conditions she endured, Rywka “worked, studied, participated in literary clubs and cultural activities, wrote poetry, and dreamed of a better future."



Here’s an entry from Feb. 1944, as she grieved the death of her mother.

“…Once upon a time, when I was five, maybe six…or maybe younger…it was evening and Mommy was sitting around the table and I….I was saying stupid, childish things that hurt Mommie a lot.  …Oh even today I’m full of remorse for those words, although I was a child who knew almost nothing….”  I know what I had and what I lost. Oh, will I ever be a mother?”

Much of the diary dwells on everyday activities – what I call the “nobility of normalcy.”  But there are times when her ability to find light in the darkest of nights is absolutely stunning. 

In one entry, talks about a book she is currently reading, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”   I’m sitting there wondering whether this was escapism for her.  Did she imagine herself as young Cosette, another orphan, waiting for her Jean Valjean to come and rescue her?

The next day, March 5, she thinks of her mother and begins to well up. “I can’t write because of my tears,” she exclaims. “Oh, I’m suffocating.  I’m choking. My dear God, what will happen to me?”  Then she immediately collects herself.  “Enough.  It’s always the same.  I have to do an examination of conscience…to persevere.”

In entry after entry, this remarkable resolve, this true grit, is played out, in the frail body of this fourteen year old.  March 7: “I’ve fallen…or rather I’m falling.  I have to lift myself up.  It's important.”

On April 11, 1944, she writes:

“Thank you, God, for the spring!  Thank you for this mood!  I don’t want to write about it, because I don’t want to mess it up, but I’ll write one very significant word: hope!” 

That passage is exactly 140 characters long - Maybe the most inspirational Tweet ever.  

This was at a time when she was still deeply grieving the loss of both her parents. But warm weather lifted her spirits.

Here's her final entry, written the very next day:

“At moments like this I want to live so much.  There is less sadness, but we’re more aware of our miserable circumstances, our souls are sad and…really one needs a lot of strength not to give up.  We look at this wonderful world, this beautiful spring, and at the same time we see ourselves in the ghetto being deprived of everything…. How hard it is! Oh God, how much longer?  I think that only when we are liberated will we enjoy a real spring. Oh, I miss this dear spring.”

That’s where it ends.

We know that Rywka survived Lodz and that she also survived Auschwitz.  Then she survived the death march to Bergen-Belsen and she even lived to see the liberation.  She was too ill to be evacuated, however, and the record of her life ends.

Her final whereabouts remains a mystery, which perhaps is as it should be.  Her name last pops up in records of a hospital in Germany.

So who knows?  Like the Torah of Sinai’s immortal Prophet Elijah, Rywka may still be among us, hopping from Seder to Seder, looking for her mother.  Her diary’s recovery was itself miraculous – her survival would be all the more so.

The survival instinct fills all that live.  Last year on Yom Kippur I spoke of how the sweetness of a carrot is generated by its struggle to survive in cold weather.  Maybe that same proclivity for sweetness was the key to candy man Yisrael Kristal’s longevity. 

No one loved his treats more than my dog Crosby. This year I held him in my arms as he breathed has last breath, having watched him heroically and stoically carry on, despite the cruel cancer that was sapping away all his vigor.  As long as he could, he mustered the strength to stand, to wag, to cuddle, to enjoy that last piece of hallah and look deeply into our eyes, until breathing itself became too difficult.

“Kol Haneshama Tehalel Yah!”  All who have breath praise God,” says Psalm 150.

And perhaps our praise of God is manifested simply by breathing, simply by staying alive.  No need for a prayer book.  Just breathe.  That “Choose life” verse in Deuteronomy that I quoted at the outset adds, “Ki Hu Hayyecha.”  For God IS your life.  Literally, God IS life.  God is breath.   Breathing IS praying.  If you take any prayer or story and substitute the term “Life Force” for “God,” you end up with a much more palatable post-Holocaust theology.

After the Holocaust, many can no longer believe in the same God that our great grandparents believed in.  Elie Wiesel in his book “Night” echoes the notion shared by many that God of Sinai died at Auschwitz.  But perhaps a different understanding of God was born there.  Perhaps God, the life force and the survival instinct are somehow intertwined. If God is the sheer will to live, then Yisrael Kristal, Rywka Lipszyc and Crosby are His prophets.




Post Holocaust theology is too complicated a topic for me to address fully today, but in the Torah of Auschwitz, the survival of Yisrael – not the individual, but Yisrael, the collective, the Jewish people, is a commandment that stands on its own, with or without God.  The philosopher Emil Fackenheim called it the 614th commandment: not to give Hitler a posthumous triumph by abandoning Judaism. (see more on Fackenheim, Yitz Greenberg and Holocaust theology here).

By this logic, when we proclaim “Am Yisrael Chai,” it is no longer merely a fun song to dance to at bar mitzvahs – it has become an imperative – a life’s mission, to keep the Jewish people alive.  It certainly has been mine.

One of the real highlights of our trip last summer was our encounter with the Jewish community of Budapest.  We joined the Frankel Synagogue, one of the city’s most active congregations for a Friday night service, and before that, we spent about a half hour conversing with the rabbi and his wife, an author and educator.  The congregation comes from a branch of Judaism unique to central Europe – called Neolog.  It’s sort of a fruit salad of Orthodoxy and Conservative.  For example: there is separate seating, but the women get the better seats.  

We came away from the conversation amazed at the vibrancy of the community – and we came away equally concerned for its future.

Before the Shoah, this was a thriving community - nearly a quarter of Budapest’s population was Jewish.  But during the war, of the more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary, nearly 620,000 died or were deported.  In Budapest, Jews had a somewhat better chance of survival at first, until the notorious Arrow Cross – those rabid Hungarian nationalists who tried to out-Nazi the Nazis, took over, herded Jews into the ghetto beginning in December 1944, took as many as 20,000 out to the banks of the Danube, shot them and threw their bodies into the river.  We saw the memorial that has been set up right by the riverbank, a sculpture depicting the shoes that were left behind.  It’s incredibly moving, but equally problematic, because the memorial does not specify that the victims were Jewish.




The current Jewish population is about 100,000, they think – and that number is based on those who have received reparations for the Holocaust.  But no one really knows, because the vast majority of Jews are afraid to be identified.  They remain in the closet - literally, sometimes, because many still remember that proverbial knock on the door.  While physical attacks are rare, anti-Semitism is plainly practiced by the extreme right-wing government and is embedded in the culture.  I wrote about the anti-Semitic poster campaign that popped up all over the country when we were there.  Vandalism of Jewish gravestones and synagogues is commonplace.  I asked the rabbi whether he wears a kippah in public, and he said no.  Most Jewish children encounter anti-Semitism in school from a young age.  The word “Jewish” is often used as a curse word in the vernacular.

And then, to add to anti-Semitism, there is Jewish illiteracy.  After the Nazis were defeated, the country was “liberated” into nearly half a century of communist rule, where anyone living an openly Jewish lifestyle was subject to ridicule and discrimination.  After the horrors of Auschwitz, most Hungarian Jews had little place for God in their lives anyway, so while the practice of Judaism wasn’t expressly forbidden, it was for all intents and purposes forgotten.

Yet despite all this, what we saw this summer was remarkable:  Jewish life is rising in Budapest like a phoenix from the ashes.  Despite impossible odds.

There is thriving summer camp called Szarvas near Budapest, which serves Jewish communities all over Europe.  Many campers recall being dropped off and asking their parents why they were being sent to a Jewish camp. At that point, the parents would tell them, while driving off, "By the way, you're Jewish."

The Shabbat service at the Frankel synagogue was one of our most cherished moments on the trip.  There were a number of young families with kids there – well over a hundred people.  The rabbi mentioned that very few Jewish groups visit them, so they were curious to meet their guests from America.   I felt really good that we were there, as most Jewish heritage tours of Eastern Europe only visit the dead. We were determined to visit living Jewish communities too.  It was another tearful moment.  We were there to tell the Jews of Budapest that they are not alone.  Like Evan Hansen’s tree in the forest, they had been found.  And like those legendary gingko trees that somehow withstood the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, the Jews of Hungary have survived. 

And at the end of the service, we did the kiddish and ha-motzi all together, because, we were told, very few of the congregants know how to do Shabbat at home.  And there is often no grandparent to ask, because Bubbe and Zayde were murdered by the Nazis or Iron Cross.  If this congregation read from a yahrzeit list before the mourner’s kaddish, as we do, the list would have 1,000 names on it every week.

But even more to the point, they don’t do the rituals at home because so many are afraid to.  Their Jewish lives are confined to their synagogue, a building so heavily barricaded that you almost expected Jean Valjean to make an appearance there too.  The building is not visible from the street.

It is impossible for us to appreciate what they have had to overcome in order to rebuild their Jewish community.  It is something that we all take for granted.  We need to think about it the next time we are tempted to toss off our priceless Jewish heritage like Grandma Sophie’s closetful of plastic bags from Fairway.  I know I'm preaching to the choir.   You are here.   But please send this sermon around to the 53 percent of American Jews who no longer observe Yom Kippur.  Not as a guilt trip.  But as a reminder of how fragile is our precious legacy... OK, maybe a bit of a guilt trip too.

The Hiroshima ginkgo are called survivor trees – and how did they manage to overcome the fallout of a nuclear blast?  It’s because they have  very deep roots.  Our roots are unnaturally deep as well.  Any other people would have given up after the Shoah.  But we saw in Budapest that the Hungarian Jews have not.

These Jews have chosen life. They have chosen to see “Am Yisrael Chai” not as a song, but as a summons.  That is the call of the Torah of Auschwitz – Choose life, collectively, because survival IS victory.   

After our group went home, I went to the D-Day beaches of Normandy, ironically at the very same time that the whole world turned its attention to another beach just up the Normandy coast (I really wanted to see “Dunkirk” IN Dunkirk, but we couldn’t fit it in).  This summer the world heard echoes of Winston Churchill’s defiant, unremitting call to survive, recited by a soldier in the final segment of the film, reminding us why the evacuation at Dunkirk remains the most famous act of victorious defeat in the history of survival:

“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Well, Churchill got the cadence down, but with all due respect, survival is our bailiwick, what Jews know how to do better even than the British. 

Hitler is dead and we have survived, but his ideology of racism and hate is not.  And because we have been given the gift of survival, we Jews shall fight that darkness and its enablers with all our heart, all our soul and all our might. 

Who shall live and who shall die?  Well, we all shall die.  It’s like the Buddhist coroner who lost his job because, when she was filling out the forms, whenever she came to “cause of death,” she would write, “birth.” 

For the Jewish coroner, the cause of death would better be put as “heroic struggle against impossible odds.”

We are all individually mortal, but the Jewish people?  We are immortal like the gingko tree – but only if we do our part. 

It is now a commandment for the Jewish people to live, not to spite Hitler, but to teach the world what Hitler did – and to guarantee it doesn’t happen again.  It is essential to the future of the world that we survive – in order to tell our story.

Choose life, so that you – and all of humanity – may live.

There’s an old joke about a rabbi, priest and imam who receive a message from God. The message is that God’s had it with humankind's sins once and for all, and plans to punish them with a flood, leaving no survivors this time.

The priest goes to his people, reports on the oncoming inundation and suggests they take advantage of their last day to carouse and sin. The imam does the same. But the rabbi goes to her people and says, "Jews, we have to learn to live under water."

For the Jewish people to live, the State of Israel must live too -- Israel belongs to all of us and is too important for us to abandon.   When you have returned to a home after 2000 years you don’t just walk away from it after just seven decades because you don't agree with every policy.   We must protect Israel from its enemies - and not abandon it to its own extremists.

So how do we ensure the survival of the Jewish people?  The Torah of Auschwitz gives us guidance.

One thing that is clear, the Jewish people are going to have reconfigure who exactly we are.  Who is a Jew?  Who is in and who is out?  The goal is to maximize the “in” and minimize the “out,” even if it means blurring some lines. The goal is to be more inclusive.

The blueprint for a new, more inclusive definition of “Who is a Jew” was devised by, of all people, the Nazis.  In determining who would be considered a Jew, they said in the Nuremberg Laws that anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents is to be considered Jewish, but having even just one Jewish grandparent would subject them to discrimination.  Later at the Wannsee Conference, the Final Solution was made applicable even for many Jews with just one Jewish grandparent – or none, if they were married to a Jew.   That same definition was used by the State of Israel as a basis for the Law of Return, declaring that anyone who would have been seen as a Jew by the Nazis should receive the benefit of refuge in the Jewish state, even those with a single Jewish grandparent. I believe that this definition can be a foundation for a form of Jewish citizenship that can unite Jews everywhere and reinvent the fraying relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry and between Jews of differing religious streams, between religious and secular, liberal and conservative and all the other fault lines that are ripping us apart.

It is said that every Jew, past present and future, stood at Sinai.  Well, every Jew stood in those gas chambers too, and it didn’t matter whether you were male or female, traditional, liberal or secular, born Jewish, converted to Judaism or married to a Jew.  By embracing the Torah of Auschwitz, we can come together, Jews of the broadest possible definition, to proclaim to the world that Auschwitz must never happen again.  

So we must constantly recall that “Am Yisrael Chai” is neither a statement nor a song – it is, for us, a commandment.

At the Galicia Museum in Krakow, there is a photo of a stone tablet, similar to tablets that were quite common in synagogues throughout Poland before the war.   It says, in Hebrew, the same verse from Psalm 16 that we have above our ark up in the chapel “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid,” I have set God before me always.”





What makes this find so important is that this is the only such pre-war tablet to have survived intact in Polish Galicia (p.26, Galicia Jewish Museum book)

What makes it so astonishing is that this simple, pure statement of faith and continuity, the only one to have survived intact, the gingko tree and Yisrael Kristol of unbroken decorative stone tablets, a stone tablet that not even the Nazis could destroy – or Moses, for that matter, who shattered the tablets of Sinai at the slightest provocation – this tablet was found at the last remaining synagogue in the pretty, tree-lined Polish countryside town of Oswiecim.  

You might know its German name: Auschwitz.

Just one mile from the hell that nearly destroyed the Jewish people and all of human civilization, within walking distance, somehow this reminder of a bygone, simpler era withstood the fallout of the moral nuclear detonation that took place right down the street.

We are all survivors.  And maybe God is a survivor too.  But after Auschwitz, maybe the God of Psalm 16, the one that we place before us, the ultimate goal that we aim for, IS survival itself, is that life force, the instinct that drives us to breathe and to love and to find hope among the ashes – as exemplified by an innocent, precious girl’s diary found next to the crematorium – the frail girl who lost both parents in Lodz and had little chance of living, but who allowed a gorgeous spring day to intrude on her gloom.  Our talent for survival is embodied in that fragile fourteen year old who survived Lodz AND Auschwitz AND the death march AND Bergen Belsen – and, in our dreams, at least, this young Cosette may still be alive today. 

She IS our new Elijah.  She is the one to visit every Seder, even if she is still under age for the wine.  She is the one to make us care about lonely and the forgotten, while she searches for her mother, to bind ourselves to our neighbor in one human tapestry. And she is the one to envision new possibilities emerging out from the very ashes where her diary was found.

Rywka wrote these wise words in her diary, words that I believe will someday become part of our liturgy - every but as inspirational as Anne Frank's assertion ,"In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."  Rywka wrote:

"I am just a tiny spot, even under a microscope I would be very hard to see – but I can laugh at the whole world because I am a Jew. I am poor and in the ghetto, I do not know what will happen to me tomorrow, and yet I can laugh at the whole world because I have something very strong supporting me – my faith."

Whether or not she is still alive, Rywka has had the last laugh on her tormentors.  

Whether or not she is still alive, she is directing our gaze, with hope, to the future.

Which is exactly what the Holocaust is at long last able to do.

We place life before us always – ever mindful of the gift that is life and the responsibility that survival implies.  All the more, for the survival of the Jewish people.

Survival is victory.  But only if we earn it, by translating it into a life of service.  And if we do, Yisrael Kristal, that 113-year-old modern Methuselah would tell us, that life, in the end, is like a box of chocolates.  The Candy Man and Elijah Girl have taught us to thoroughly enjoy every bite, anticipating with mouth watering expectancy whatever will come next.  

Because, you never know what you’re gonna get.  

But survival sure is sweet.







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