Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Several years ago I returned from a mission to Poland and Israel. At the time, our group was left with one inescapable conclusion: Jewish History is a rollercoaster of horror and happiness. In Poland we saw piles of human hair and cans of zyklon-b pellets. In Israel we saw smiling schoolchildren and maternity wards . In Poland we saw cattle cars. In Israel we saw proud soldiers. In Poland we saw gas chambers. In Israel we saw new construction. Up close, Jewish History becomes an emotionally turbulent experience.
The Israeli calendar is even more chaotic. The day before Independence Day is Memorial Day. Unlike the United States, in Israel Memorial Day is quite melancholy. Everyone attends a memorial, and the entire country stops when the siren rings. When I asked our security guard, Amit, to say a few words about Memorial Day, he choked up with tears; he had served in a combat unit, and had lost friends in battle.
And then, immediately after this comes absolute celebration. As if by the flick of switch, the entire country is transformed into a one big block party, with revelers roaming the streets and families barbequing in the park. In a uniquely Jewish fashion, we insist on commemorating tragedy immediately before celebrating independence. (Much like the Passover Seder includes mention of both slavery and freedom).
This Jewish need to combine bitter and the sweet memories together is what lies at the heart of an authentic Jewish historiography. Jewish history consists of both exile and redemption. We don’t view exile as meaningless historical time, something we’d prefer to forget. On the contrary, exile is carefully remembered. And this is the paradox of Jewish History: it sees exile and redemption, seeming polar opposites, as deeply connected experiences. And like all good paradoxes, it is meant to be a question that keeps asking questions.
This paradox teaches multiple lessons. It underlines the fact that Israel (and the Jewish people) continue to survive and thrive, despite our challenges. It reminds us that the manifold miracles of contemporary Israel, such as blooming deserts, the return to the Western Wall, and cutting edge medical research are expensive miracles; over 20,000 soldiers paid with their lives for these achievements. And it teaches us that we must continue to claim the moral high ground, unlike our tormentors.
At the end of Memorial Day, I was at a ceremony in which the Israeli flag, flying at half mast, was raised to full height. At that moment, I understood I was experiencing all of Jewish history in two minutes. Jewish history lives at the intersection of exile and redemption, the point of transition between half mast and full glory. It may seem an absurd way to look at history; but wasn’t it also absurd for this small, persecuted people to persist in living on?
Happy 72nd, Israel!
Thursday, April 23, 2020
Hatikvah and True Heroism 2020
Hatikvah is an unlikely national anthem.
Naftali Hertz Imber, who wrote Hatikvah, was born in 1856 in the Ukraine. He was considered to be an Iluy, a young genius. Stories abound about Naftali as a prodigy, and at age 10 besting his rabbi in a discussion.
He was also impulsive and difficult. He would mock his father and fight with him.
As a young man he left town, and remained a wanderer all of his life.
At age 22 he was living in Jassy, Romania, tutoring the family of Baron Waldberg, when he wrote a draft of a poem with 9 stanzas that he would call “tikvatenu”. The poem was inspired by the founding of the Jewish settlement Petach Tikvah, which was one of the first modern Jewish settlement in the land of Israel - (and by the way, on land bought by a Gibraltar born Jew, Hayyim Amzallak - only citizens of England could buy land in the Ottoman Empire).
From Jassy he continued to wander. In Constantinople he made acquaintance with Alice and Lawrence Oliphant who would become his sponsors, and he would be their tutor, advisor and personal secretary.T he Oliphants were Scottish Gentry and Christian Zionists, but quite eccentric with a hint of the scandalous. But they took Imber to Palestine; he would later say that without the Oliphants there would be no Hatikvah.
When he was there he went to visit the settlement of Rishon LeTzion. It was there in 1882 that he presented his poem to others, and taught “tikvatenu” to the residents.
Imber would then go to London and finally onto the United States.
He had admirers and detractors. He was able to get sponsorship from major philanthropists like Judge Meyer Sulzbacher in the United States. He had detractors like Eliezer Ben Yehuda the father of modern Hebrew, who accused Imber of being a Christian missionary. And there were those who were both admirers and detractors. Israel Zangwill, the author and playright, translated Hatikvah into English. But at the same time he created a character in his book, Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) based on Imber, called Melchizedek Pincus. This character was a plagiarist, a drinker, a gossip, and a shnorer. And so was Imber.
The beginnings of the tune of Hatikvah are also rather humble. Learned musicologists have tried to find the sources of the tune in Sephardic and Ashkenazic liturgical tunes, in classical music and even Hispano-Arabic folk tunes.
But the history is actually quite clear. Samuel Cohen, one of the settlers in Rishon LeZion, tells how he introduced the tune:
“In my home country [Maramureş county, today in northwest Rumania], we used to sing in the choir the Rumanian song ‘ Carul cu Boi’ (The ox driven cart). When I arrived at Rishon le-Tziyyon fifty years ago  I saw that ‘Hatikvah’ was not sung…. I was the first one to start singing ‘Hatikvah’ with this foreign melody that I knew, the same one that is sung today in all the Jewish communities.”
And if you go on YouTube and look for the song Carul Cu Boi you will immediately recognize the tune!
And even after Hatikvah caught on, it was far from clear that it would be Israel's national anthem.
Theodore Herzl despised Imber. He actually held several contests for a composition of Israel's national anthem. None of them succeeded.
Ironically, it was Herzl who helped Hatikvah become Israel's national anthem.
In 1903 when Herzl advanced the Uganda plan at the Zionist Congress, it was met with sharp opposition. His opponents, in defiance, sang Hatikvah as a way saying they would not go anywhere but the land of Zion and Jerusalem. And that cemented Hatikvah’s status as the Jewish national anthem.
Now this anthem with an unusual author and strange history has become sacred, a song of the Jewish heart.
Menachem Begin described the last moments of his father Zeev's life by saying:
"My father was the secretary of the Brisk [now Brest-Litovsk] Jewish community,..He walked to his death at the head of 500 Jews. They all sang 'Hatikva' and Ani ma'amin... “
Side by side with Ani Maamin, Hatikvah became a song of Jewish faith.
It was sung by survivors of the Holocaust when they were liberated.
It was sung by the maapilim, those who ran the British blockade to enter Palestine.
It was sung, accompanied by the Israeli Philharmonic, at Israel's Declaration of Independence.
This unlikely, unusual song has become a sacred anthem.
When Imber died in 1909, he was given a hero’s funeral; the New York Times reported that 10,000 people attended. After the State of Israel was established, Imber was disinterred from The Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens and buried in the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem.
This unlikely man found his place in Jewish history and into Jewish hearts.
Hatikvah’s story teaches us profound lessons about inspiration and heroism.
First is that inspiration comes in unlikely places.
There are five minor books in the Tanakh that are grouped together as the five Megillot. It is unclear what exactly connects these five books.
I'd like to offer a theory as to what connects these five books: the concept of unlikely inspiration.
You have the book of Kohelet, which is filled with skepticism and cynicism. These emotions seem contrary to religious inspiration. And yet they are turned to a greater appreciation of the importance of a spiritual life.
The Book of Shir Hashirim, which on the surface is filled with love poems, and deeply sensual. And yet this love is seen as a way to have a great appreciation of love one has for God.
The Book of Eichah are Kinot, Lamentations, on the destruction of the Temple. The destruction of the first Jewish Commonwealth should have meant the end of the Jewish people. Yet in the aftermath of this destruction, instead of assimilating once they left the homeland, instead of assuming the covenant had been revoked by God's wrath, the people continued to connect to God, and find faith despite destruction.
The lesson these three books teach is that even in unusual times and places, one finds new sources of inspiration.
And it's not just unusual places, but also unusual heroes.
The other Megillot of Esther and Ruth have heroes that live at the margins. One is a convert who comes from a traditional enemy of the Jews, Moab, and the other is a Jew who has become disconnected from the community and entered the Persian King's palace. Yet these characters who stand at the margins become heroes.
One can find inspiration in unusual places and unusual personalities. And certainly Hatikvah is an example of that; a Romanian folk song and a talented scoundrel helped create a sacred anthem that has inspired so many.
And each time we sing Hatikvah we feel the miracle of the State of Israel.
Golda Meir tells about her visit to the White House in September 1970. It was a difficult moment in Israel's history, during the War of Attrition at the Suez canal with Egypt. Golda did not have a relationship with President Nixon, and did not know how he would react.
She tells of the moment when the Hatikva was sung:
“I listened to Hatikvah, and although I made an effort to look perfectly calm, my eyes filled with tears. There I was, the prime minister of the Jewish state, which had come into existence and survived against such odds, standing to attention with the President of the United States while my country was accorded full military honors….. Perhaps other nations take the ceremonies for granted, but we don't yet. In fact it was all a little like a dream…”
This is the dream that we will all be celebrating next week, on Yom Haatzmaut. And with it we will be celebrating an unlikely anthem in Hatikva, and an unlikely hero in Imber.
And is the topic of heroism that I want to talk about today. One of the great lessons for tonight is that a hero is a person that makes a difference. In the classical mold the hero is an epic personality, a singularly talented man who sits alone at the top of society; the hero is the great man who can transform history. But as Elliot Rabin points out in his recent book, The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility, this is not the way of the Tanakh, which demonstrates that there are many heroes, who come from all levels of society. These heroes are perfectly imperfect in their own ways, and even if you don’t notice them, they can transform the world.
Like Ruth, there are many heroes that don't make the front page.
We have been reminded in the last few weeks of what a true hero looks like. These heroes wear scrubs and face masks and very heavy protective gear, they work overtime and expose themselves to danger, all in order to help save lives and keep all of us healthy.
We thank them for their service!
Tuesday, April 14, 2020
It is my custom, for the Yizkor before Yom HaShoah, to talk about the Holocaust.
I do so in part because there are many who say Yizkor for members of their family who were lost during the war, and for members of their family who were survivors of the Holocaust.
And I do so because in the Yizkor before Yom HaShoah, it is everyone’s responsibility to remember the 6 million, even 75 years later.
But why is it so important to remember? We do so for three reasons.
The first is never again: we have a responsibility to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.
This promise is seen as a responsibility of the international community and institutions like the United Nations. Unfortunately, it is often a hollow promise. In Rwanda, Darfur and most recently in Syria, the wholesale massacre of civilians has gone on without any response from the international community.
However, this idea is deeply rooted in Jewish thought. The very story of the Exodus is meant to warn us about the power of tyrants. Indeed Torah goes out of its way to limit the power of kings and limit the institution of slavery. After Egypt, the Torah tells the Jewish people never again; do not let the values of Egypt become your own.
The second reason is never forget. Entire families, even entire villages were destroyed without a single living remnant.
There is an ethical responsibility for us to ensure that the memories of those whose lives were taken away live on. The ritual of Shiva, and prayers of Yizkor and Kaddish, all articulate the same idea: we must continue to remember those whom we love. A loving family and a caring community must remember, and make sure that those who perished did not die in vain.
The third reason, which is more important today than ever, is: we will outlive them.
This line comes from a powerful story related by the Holocaust historian Moshe Prager. When the Nazis entered Lublin, a Commander by the name of Glovoznik took a group of Jewish men into a field, and for his sport, ordered them to dance and sing. The men, improvising on the words of a popular song, came up with the following lyric:
"Mir veln zey iberlebn, Ovinu shebashomayim,” “We will outlive them, our Father in heaven.”
When the Nazi commander recognized that they were singing in defiance, he ordered his men to beat the Jews. The Jews continued to sing anyway.
We will outlive them has been part of the Jewish spirit for the last 75 years.
William Helmreich z”l, who passed away 2 weeks ago, published a book in 1992 entitled: Against all Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America.
Helmreich conducted 170 in depth interviews with survivors, and went through tens of thousands of pages of archives from relief organizations that brought the survivors to America. He tells a remarkable story of people whose lives were shattered, and through the sheer force of will, rebuilt in a new country.
These survivors truly outlived their adversaries.
But how? This capacity for hope is remarkable. Elie Wiesel, in an interview with the New York Times that appeared on June 7, 1987 said this:
"I must confess that, of all the mysteries that characterize the Jewish people, its capacity for hope is the one that strikes me most forcibly. How can we think of the past without foundering in the abyss? How can we recall the victims of fire and sword without drowning in our own tears?"
And yet these survivors found hope after staring into the abyss. And this powerful hope is so much a part of what it means to be a Jew.
In the Haftarah that is read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach, we are told about Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones; these bones are resurrected by God's call. The dry bones represent the Jewish people, who will be brought back to life, even after many years in exile. And the keyword of this entire text is the word רוח, spirit, because the secret to the endurance of the Jewish people is their spirit and soul.
It is this spirit of endless hope that propelled the survivors. Helmreich, at the end of the book, lists 10 traits of survivors that allowed them to rebuild. They include a sense of community and a search for meaning, as well as courage, optimism, tenacity, and flexibility. These survivors had a sense of destiny, that whatever might happen, they would be able to overcome.
Helmreich quotes from the memoir of Luba Bat, who tells about a group of young women being marched to the gas chamber and Auschwitz. As these young women are walking to their deaths, they break out in the singing of Hatikvah, the Zionist national anthem. In the last moments of their life, they sang a song whose name literally means hope, and expressed hope for a better future for all of us.
Such is the spirit of those who hold on to hope even when everything seems hopeless. Such is the spirit of a people who can say Mir veln zey iberlebn, we will outlive them.
Today we find ourselves facing a challenge of our own. The coronavirus which took William Helmreich's life threatens us all.
But it is in the stories of these survivors that we can find hope 75 years later. Helmreich ends his book with the following words:
The story of the survivors is one of courage and strength, of people who are living proof of the indomitable will of human beings to survive and of their tremendous capacity for hope. It is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.
Let me repeat those words: It is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.
This is our lesson as we say Yizkor. We come today to remember those who continued to hold on to hope in the most hopeless times.
May we be inspired by their legacies each and every day.
Tuesday, April 07, 2020
This is a terrible time to celebrate Pesach. A holiday when we tell the joyous story of liberation at intergenerational gatherings has arrived at a time when we hide from each other and listen to news accounts of grief, suffering and economic devastation. Under ordinary circumstances, this would not be a time for laughter and joy; but the calendar says Wednesday night is the 15th of Nissan, and it is time to celebrate.
This jarring change of mood is familiar to anyone who observes shiva during Shabbat or before a holiday. The Talmud explains that we cancel the traditional mourning period of shiva in the face of a holiday, because one must push aside personal grief to make room for the communal celebration of the holiday; and the mourner needs to celebrate as well. The mourners are expected to make the emotional shift from grief to joy in the course of an afternoon.
This is not always possible. Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Isserles allows one to cry on Shabbat if it offers the person emotional relief; this helps the grief stricken to better enjoy Shabbat. But the ideal remains complete emotional control. In his Halakhic Man, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik relates an anecdote about the Gaon of Vilna, who was informed about the passing of his brother on Shabbat. The Gaon continued the rest of the day without any show of emotion, but at the conclusion of Shabbat immediately burst into tears. He was simply holding his emotions in check.
This type of emotional self-control seems out of place in a culture which values self-expression, and sees emotional expressions as cathartic. But that is what halakha expects of us as the holiday of Pesach arrives. The commandment to rejoice on the holiday remains the same this year, whatever our own emotional state might be.
In many ways, joy is actually more important this year. In good times, we get on a hedonic treadmill, and pursue big dreams while ignoring smaller blessings. But in times of crisis, you appreciate all the things you couldn’t live without. Each year we sing the Dayenu song, saying that each step in the Exodus was worthy in its own to be the cause of celebration; each step was dayenu, enough of a blessing. But this is the year to embrace the idea of dayenu in our own lives.
Dayenu to have friends, even if we can only reach them by phone.
Dayenu to have food, even if there is a long wait to enter a supermarket.
Dayenu to be blessed to have a healthcare system with incredible heroes on the front lines.
Dayenu to be blessed with a community with multiple volunteers rushing out to help others.
There is so much we take for granted in other years; this year is the time to appreciate overlooked blessings.
Joy is particularly important in times of crisis. In one of his books, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a comment critical of the Roberto Benigni film “Life is Beautiful”. While he said that he appreciated how important humor is to keeping one’s sanity, he disagreed with the film's thesis that humor can keep you alive. A survivor spoke to Sacks to correct him on this point. Sacks writes:
“You are wrong,” …(he) said to me, and then, he told me his story. He and another prisoner in Auschwitz had become friends. They reached the conclusion that unless they were able to laugh, they would eventually lose the will to live. So they made an agreement. Each of them would look out, every day, for something about which they could laugh. Each night they would share their findings and laugh together. “A sense of humor,” said the survivor, looking me in the eyes, “kept me alive.”
Sacks concludes by writing: “I cannot say I understand such courage, but I found it awe-inspiring.”
Sometimes joy is the foundation of courage. At times of crisis, we must find a way to celebrate, and inspire ourselves to hold on to our love for life; we must continue to sing, so we can reconnect to passions we have forgotten behind a mountain of worries.
That is why this year rejoicing on Pesach is critical in the battle against the coronavirus. Yes, joy does seem out of place right now; but Pesach was Pesach even in the worst of times. We need to celebrate, we need to sing, even if we are singing alone, because an inspiring Pesach is exactly what we need today.
Monday, April 06, 2020
Friday, April 03, 2020
Each and every year we begin the Pesach Seder with the words:
לשנה הבאה בירושלים
“Next year in Jerusalem”
And what it has meant for nearly 2,000 years is:
Next year will be better.
Even in the best of times, when a wonderful Seder with family, friends, fine food and deep discussion was enjoyed, we said these words. We declared that next year would be better.
Like breaking the glass at the end of the wedding, we reminded ourselves not to be complacent.
We reminded ourselves that the search for redemption requires us to constantly strive to make our lives, our community and our world better. Next year would be better, no matter how good this year was.
And in the worst of times, when Jews huddled quietly to hide from their persecutors, these words, "next year in Jerusalem", gave them comfort and strength. Even in the worst of times we had our faith in God's compassion. Even in the worst of times we knew that redemption was around the corner.
This year, as we gather for the Seder, alone or in very small groups, the words לשנה הבאה בירושלים, next year in Jerusalem, are a great comfort. We are faced with a health and economic crisis, and the thought that a year from now our seders will be back to normal, offers us hope during this difficult time. Yes, next year will be better.
But we must also promise we will not be complacent. This year, as we search for redemption, we must promise to help each other, call each other, and support each other.
We must come together as a community to face our challenges together.
At KJ, we are saying next year in Jerusalem. Next year will be better. Next year the synagogue will be filled with activity and overflowing services.
But until then we will continue to learn together, to pray together, and to help each other
We will face our challenges together and say:
לשנה הבאה בירושלים
Next year in Jerusalem.