Friday, September 08, 2023

Rabbis Roundtable: The Meaning of the High Holy Days

I joined Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in a wide-ranging discussion about what the holidays mean, the challenges of preparing sermons, the moments that are most meaningful, and more. Below is the link to the entire broadcast.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Why Would You Want to Visit Poland?


Eliyahu haNavi Synagogue, Nabi Daniel Street, Alexandria, Egypt

For the past few months, I have been promoting our synagogue mission to Poland, which took place in July. Every time I announced the mission from the pulpit, people would approach me and pose variations of the same question: Why would you want to visit Poland?

Those who oppose visiting Poland offer a straightforward argument. First, they wonder what is to be gained in visiting concentration camps and reliving the agony and pain of six million martyrs. They also carry a sense of resentment against Poland; many focus on the Poles who betrayed their Jewish neighbors, and at times, participated in the murders of Jews themselves. The blood-stained soil upon which millions of Jews were murdered should be abhorred.

This perspective is not new; its roots go back to the Bible. The Torah issues a command to the King that he "must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” (Deuteronomy 17:16.) The simple reading of this verse implies that God had issued a command (which was previously unrecorded), that the Jews must never return to Egypt.

Multiple commentaries grapple with why there is such a prohibition. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann actually rereads this passage as a curse; that if the King buys too many horses from Egypt, it will lead to the Jews returning there and being enslaved. He bases his interpretation on a verse later on in the book of Deuteronomy (28:68), where the Jews are told that if they violate the Torah they will be cursed: “And the Lord will take you back to Egypt in ships, by the way of which I said to you, ‘You shall never see it again.’ ’’   Returning to Egypt is not a prohibition, it’s a punishment.

Rabbeinu Bachya offers a different rereading. In his view, this prohibition was only in force for the generation that left Egypt. The former slaves and their children were not to return to a land that, at the time, had a corrupt and perverse civilization.

The purpose of this prohibition was to avoid a culture that was the very opposite of the Torah.

But the consensus view is that there is a prohibition against returning to Egypt. (The Talmud Yerushlami (Sukkah 5:1) says that there are actually three prohibitions recorded in the Bible against returning to Egypt.) The Talmud (Sukkah 41b) writes about the Jewish community in Alexandria, which thrived during the first two centuries of the Common Era. In the years 115-117, nearly 200,000 members of the Jewish community

were killed by Roman Emperor Trajan after riots in the Jewish quarter. This catastrophe is seen by the Talmud as a punishment for the sin of settling in Egypt,

A permanent prohibition against living in Egypt requires a broader explanation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees the rationale as having to do with the geopolitics of the ancient world, where Egypt, as a local power, had a significant influence throughout the region. This is clear from the Bible and the Talmud, where various people, from Abraham to Jeremiah, sought refuge in Egypt during times of crisis. Israel could easily become dependent on Egypt for supplies, which would lead to a loss of autonomy. Jews should strive to build their own country, not to return to Egypt.

Yet even Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation depends on which historical era you live in; for example, his explanation would not hold true today.

But the simplest understanding of this prohibition is that one should never return to a place of ugliness and horror where Jews were enslaved, tormented, and murdered for 400 years. Unlike Lot’s wife, we should never look back at what needed to be destroyed. That is why there is a permanent prohibition against returning to Egypt.

Bans on places of persecution do not end with Egypt. Although there is no clear source for it, there is a persistent tradition that after the expulsion in 1492, the Jews of Spain instituted a prohibition against returning there. Similar traditions relate to the cities of Trent and York, where ugly blood libels took place. These later bans were almost certainly inspired by the prohibition against returning to Egypt.

One could conclude that Poland and Germany are today's Egypt; one is a country that perpetrated the Holocaust, and the other is where it took place. For Jews, these countries are places of torment and horror, and should never be returned to.

Before returning to this argument, it should be noted that the prohibition against returning to Egypt was a rule more honored in the breach than in the observance. (The same is true of the tradition against resettling Spain.) Generations of Jews lived in Egypt for over two millennia. Maimonides, who unequivocally asserted in his Mishneh Torah that “it is permissible to live anywhere in the world, except for Egypt,” was living in Alexandria when he wrote those words. Later authors sit and puzzle at this striking contradiction; there's even an invented tradition that Maimonides signed his letters with the confession that he “violates three prohibitions every day” because he lived in Egypt. Despite this prohibition, Jews never gave a second thought about living in Egypt; instead, rabbinic authors came up with multiple interpretations of Halakhah that could explain Jewish practice.

One opinion that is particularly relevant to our discussion is offered by the 13th century rabbi, Yom Tov ben Abraham of Seville. He writes that the only prohibition against living in Egypt is when there is a Jewish state in Israel; in such a case, it is essentially a choice to move from a place of redemption and return to the very symbol of the bitterness of exile. But after the destruction of the Temple, when the entire Jewish experience was one of exile, there was no longer a prohibition against living in Egypt.

By the logic of this argument, once the State of Israel was established, the prohibition against living in Egypt would restart.

This offers a second argument against visiting Poland: Why emphasize a country of exile when we can visit Israel?

Many have said precisely this. Shmuel Rosner wrote in The New York Times (February 14, 2018) that Israel should stop bringing students on Holocaust education trips because they will “contribute to a misperception by many Jews that remembering the Holocaust is the main feature of Judaism...a healthy society cannot be defined by the memory of a tragedy...”. Others have berated the community to stop obsessing over the Holocaust. In 1992, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald warned that “obsessing over the Holocaust is exacting a great price. It is killing America’s Jews." This critique sees Holocaust education as replacing Judaism and Zionism with guilt and death. Rosner concludes that student visits to the concentration camps in Poland should end. And so do the others who ask: Why would you want to visit Poland?

I disagree. On our mission there were quite a few 'reluctant’ participants, people who came because their spouses or friends pressured them to join. Yet on the final night, everyone had changed their mind. There is something profoundly spiritual about visiting Poland.

One of the more fascinating explanations of the prohibition against returning to Egypt comes from the great (Egyptian-educated) kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He writes (Shaar Hamitzvot, Reah,) that everything spiritual that could be accomplished by living in Egypt had already been completed; in the language of Kabbalah, all of the sparks of holiness in Egypt had already been absorbed by the Jewish people. There is no spiritual work left to be done there, and that is why it is prohibited to return there.

But this is not true of Poland. There are sparks of holiness to be found everywhere.

There are lost Jews there. Avi Baumol, the Rabbi of Krakow, told us a remarkable story. A young woman saw him in a store and noticed his kippah. She introduced herself and mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Jewish. Rabbi Baumol explained to her that meant that she too is Jewish, and handed her his card; she was shocked, having never thought that way before. A week later she appeared at Rabbi Baumol’s office and said: “OK, I’m Jewish. Tell me what I need to do now,” and quickly enough, she became a regular member of the community.

There are six million souls there. Jews believe in an “ethics of memory”; this is why we visit graves, recite Kaddish, and tell stories about our grandparents. We have an obligation to make certain that the six million are not forgotten and that their burial places are visited. One of our stops on our trip was Zbylitowska Góra, a mass grave where thousands of people are buried, including the 800 children from the local orphanage. This spot is visited by student groups, and some of them leave behind notes. I found one written to those 800 children, which said: “I will remember you and I will love you.” That is our responsibility as well.

There are Jews from around the world there. In Poland, Jewish groups visit not just death camps, but historic synagogues, schools, and neighborhoods. On Shabbat morning we went for prayers at the Rama Synagogue, which was built 500 years ago; every seat was taken with yeshiva and seminary students. And even in the death camps, these students carry the flag of Israel on their backs, a powerful testament to Jewish survival. Their very presence defiantly declares that “We are here.”

Why would a Jew want to visit Poland? Because the story of redemption is still ongoing, and there are so many sparks of holiness for us to connect to.

Friday, September 01, 2023

The Secret of Jewish Resilience


Thank offering unto the Lord, offering of first fruits, as in Deuteronomy 26:1-11, illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company between 1896 and 1913

Totalitarians don’t like the truth. In the Soviet Union, reality was consistently denied, and bad news was ruthlessly censored. Josef Stalin’s declaration in 1935 that “Life is getting better, comrades! Life is getting merrier!” was turned into a full propaganda campaign, including a hit song. This joyous slogan was coined just a year after a four-year famine that claimed the lives of 8,000,000 people. A year later Stalin would launch the Great Purge, which would claim the lives of over 700,000 people. Life certainly wasn’t getting merrier.


Throughout history, authoritarian regimes from the Pharaohs down to Putin have hidden their failures. Ancient Egyptian records carry no mention of defeats; much the same is true in contemporary China and Russia, where disinformation has been turned into an art form. Bad news is a challenge to the authority of dictators.


The Tanakh is very different. Joshua Berman writes that “the Bible displays a penchant for judging its heroes harshly, and for recording Israel’s failings even more than its successes. No other ancient Near Eastern culture produced a literature so revealing of fault….”


The Tanakh’s willingness to grapple with bad news launches a culture of authenticity and responsibility. Even more astounding is the obligation, found in Deuteronomy (26:5-9), to revisit the worst moments in our history at the most joyous of times. “Parshat HaBikkurim,” or the “The Declaration of the First Fruits,” was a short proclamation read by farmers when bringing their offering of first fruits to the Temple. In it, a short precis of Jewish history is offered:


My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. But the Egyptians mistreated us, afflicted us, and laid hard bondage on us. Then we cried out to the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. And He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey....


While thanking God for the new harvest, a farmer recites a proclamation that tells the Jewish story, starting from the patriarchs. It is a narrative of wandering and slavery, with equal space allotted to the misery of exile and the blessings of redemption.


Parshat HaBikkurim also becomes the central text of the Passover Haggadah, where it is punctuated with additional commentary. The Mishnah states that the Haggadah follows a format that “begins with disgrace and concludes with their glory.” There are two theories in the Talmud about what this phrase means; but Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman offers convincing arguments that the Mishnah is actually referring to the reading of Parshat HaBikkurim at the Seder, which emphasizes the humiliation of slavery before turning to the story of redemption.


The Seder starts with an extended retelling of the years of slavery. This is particularly notable because being a slave was considered a stigma in the ancient world. Yet for Jews, this section was of such importance that the Talmud says that one should recite the story of disgrace and slavery “in a loud voice.” (Sotah 32b)


But why? What exactly is the point of revisiting slavery?


“Beginning with disgrace and concluding with glory” is certainly an effective narrative tool; one truly appreciates freedom after enduring slavery. The Zohar remarks that “one doesn’t understand a sweet taste until they have tasted bitterness.” Starting the narrative in the midst of the agony of slavery is a far more meaningful and dramatic way to tell the story of redemption.


Remembering the disgrace of slavery also keeps one grounded. Maimonides explains that the shared lesson of the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot is that “man ought to remember his worst days in his days of prosperity. He will then offer a great deal of appreciation for God’s gifts, and learn the importance of a modest and humble life.” Success can corrode the soul, and allow people to imagine that they are invulnerable. The memories of slavery are meant to be humbling, a way to present the comfortable and prosperous with a more authentic picture of life.


A third possibility is that recalling the years of slavery can, paradoxically, make us more resilient. Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes that the opposite of being fragile is not being strong; it is being able to adapt to threats and overcome them. He uses the example of Hormesis, which is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. In humans, exposure to small doses of poison increases the body’s ability to cope with larger doses of that poison in the future; similarly, vaccines expose people to a weakened or dead form of a virus that triggers the immune system and readies it to fight off future threats.

On a psychological level, the same thing occurs when retelling family stories. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, and his colleague Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, have found that the most resilient children are those who are deeply familiar with their family's history and are taught an “oscillating narrative”: that the family has had challenges in the past, but then were able to overcome them. Knowing their family history of adversity made the children psychologically stronger.


Resilience is psychological hormesis, where one learns how to transcend their personal challenges by remembering past challenges endured by their parents and grandparents.


Resilience is why we begin the Exodus story with an extended discussion of slavery. The traumas of exile over us an important lesson: We have transcended slavery in the past, and we can do so in the future. As Michael Walzer puts it: “Wherever people know the Bible and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and inspired their resistance.” We retell the story of slavery because it strengthens us, and helps us transcend future challenges.


Parshat HaBikkurim’s narrative about the Exodus from Egypt stands in marked contrast to the ways of ancient Egypt, which exaggerated its victories and hid its defeats. But that is precisely the secret of Jewish resilience to this day; and these former slaves are still going strong, while their masters have long disappeared from the world stage.


Jews continue to draw incredible strength from the Passover Seder. Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union for nine years after he applied for a visa to emigrate to Israel, has spoken often about the meaning the Seder held for him in his years of imprisonment. During endless KGB interrogations, Sharansky would tell himself: “Your history did not begin with your birth or with the birth of the Soviet regime. You are continuing an exodus that began in Egypt. History is with you.”


Sharansky would explain that he first learned about the Seder when he joined the Zionist movement at 24: “As part of my Zionist activities, I began to learn Hebrew in secret, in an underground ulpan. I celebrated the first Passover Seder of my life with my fiancé at the time, Avital (then Natalia), in Moscow. … As we didn’t know Hebrew well enough to read from the Haggadah, our teachers gave each of us a short part to memorize.”


A few years later when Sharansky was in solitary confinement, he continued to celebrate the Seder. As he put it, “Recalling the lines I had learned for my first Seder, I felt that our struggle continued…. I repeated the words of the Haggadah: ‘This year we are slaves, next year free men; this year we are here, and next year in Jerusalem.’... And I found out that this is the great place to …enjoy thinking that….next year we could be free people in Jerusalem.”

Here is the secret of Jewish resilience on full display. Sharansky draws strength from the Seder, which tells a story that “begins with disgrace and concludes with glory.”


The same holds true for all of us. No matter how awful the situation, we must remember that Jews have overcome worse in the past. And at the most difficult of times, we must never forget that tomorrow we could be free again.