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Telling Our Stories

04/06/2015 08:21:00 AM


Telling Our Stories
Rosh Hashana, 1999 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

When the Baal Shem Tov died, his disciples gathered to distribute his worldly possessions. One was given his tfillin, and another, his shtender --his lectern. One his books and another his cup.

At the end of the line, there waited one faithful Hasid. But there was nothing of worldly value left, so he was given the master's stories, and charged with the responsibility of sharing them with the world.

The Hasid was dismayed. He would much rather have received something of tangible value. But he obeyed and set out into the world to share the stories. He didn't starve. But neither did he make much of a living. After all, Jews were poor. And how much could poor Jews give for even the most enchanting of tales?

So when word came to this him that there was a Jewish nobleman in a far off land who was prepared to offer a great fortune for stories of the Baal Shem Tov, he praised God for this blessing, and set off for the nobleman's estate. Arriving erev Shabbos, he was welcomed with great warmth and escorted directly into the magnificent banquet hall. After dinner, the nobleman and his guests turned to Hasid and begged him to grace the evening with a story of the Baal Shem.

At that moment, his mind went blank. Not one story could penetrate the fog. Not one anecdote, not one reminiscence. In all the years of storytelling, this had never happened. Blushing with embarrassment and stammering in fear, he apologized . "No matter!" responded the gracious host, "you are no doubt exhausted from your journey. Perhaps tomorrow you will share your stories with us!"

But the same thing happened at Sabbath lunch and again at supper. Just as he was about to begin one of his favorite stories, his mind went blank.

Embarrassed, frustrated and fearing the nobleman's disappointment, the Hasid decided it best that he steal away. But as he slipped out of the palace that night, he was met at the door by the nobleman. "I beg your forgiveness sir," the startled Hasid pleaded. "I know hundred of tales of the Baal Shem and his miracles, I have recited them for years, but for some reason I can remember none of them."

"Not one?" begged the nobleman, suddenly quite bereft. "Can you remember not one moment of your master's life?" Only one remains with me. Not a story. But a vague memory of a time when I was young and first began to follow the master. I was with him on Shabbat. He was distant and gloomy but would tell none of us what was the matter. As soon as the Sabbath was over, he ordered us into his wagon and we began a long trip. By morning, we entered a town, a town renown for its vicious hatred of Jews. And this was the worst of days to visit, for this was Easter Sunday. We entered the town and found that the entire Jewish quarter was boarded up. No one would open a door to take us in. Finally we found the way into the synagogue's attic.

In this town, there was a Bishop famous for his fierce hatred of the Jews. On Easter, the Bishop would preach to the town, whipping the Christians into a killing frenzy that was let loose on the poor Jews. On that Easter Sunday morning, the master ordered me to go to the Cathedral, of all places, to tell the Bishop that the holy Baal Shem was ready to see him. I protested. I trembled in fear. But the master was adamant, and so I went. The Christians looked at me in wonder as trembling, I ascended the pulpit to deliver the message. When I told the Bishop that the holy Baal Shem was ready to see him, he turned and accompanied me back to the synagogue.

I don't know what happened next. The master and the Bishop spent a hour or so in private conversation. Then the Bishop emerged and returned to his pulpit in the Cathedral. All I know is that there was no riot, no killing that year. The Bishop dispersed the crowd and declared the Jewish community under his personal protection. After that, I heard that he disappeared, and has never been seen again."

At that, the Hasid turned his gaze upon his host who was wept."Thank you,' he stammered. Composing himself, he explained. "I was that Bishop. I was the one who sent the mobs to kill and plunder the Jews of the town. But months before that Easter, I was haunted by strange dreams. I was told that on Easter, a holy stranger would come to release me from my nightmares. It was me you summoned to the Baal Shem.

In that hour, he revealed to me my own secrets -- that I was born a Jew, but was stolen from my mother before I could know. I was raised in the monastery, raised to hate the Jews and spread that hate. But the dreams came, and in them were visions of the hell that awaited me. I pleaded with your master -- was there no way for me to repent these terrible sins? And he showed me my only chance. To study Torah and live as a Jew. To open my doors to the poor and the homeless, and use all my resources supporting the helpless and the abandoned. This I promised to do. But how can I know, I begged him, that my repentance has been accepted? And he told me: When one comes, one who can remember none of his own stories, but tells you your own story. Only then will you know that your repentance is accepted and you are again one with God. Now I am free."

These are the last months, the last High Holidays of the 20th Century. A horrible and miraculous and bewildering century. What shall we tell our children, our grandchildren of this century's events? Like the nobleman, we wait for someone to come and tell us our story. For only in hearing the story, will we be free. What is the story of the century? What memories shall we share?

Perhaps we give them history. There is more history written about Jews in the 20th Century than all the other periods of Jewish experience combined. Enough scholarly articles, monographs, studies, analysis to fill institutes. The Holocaust is the single most researched and studied event in all of Jewish history. There are entire libraries filled entirely with Holocaust scholarship. History we don't lack. But history isn't memory.

History is about the past. History explains how events fit into their time and place. Memory is eternally present. Memories are powerful because they express enduring, unchanging truths. Memories tell us about who we are now. They define our identity. History is impersonal. Memory is intensely personal. Memory shapes us.

We are not looking for history. We are looking for memories. Because Jewish faith is built of memories. The Greeks sought wisdom by pondering the unchanging truths of nature and cosmos -- Aristotle cataloged the plants and animals of Attica, Ptolemy plotted the constellations, Euclid set downs the axioms of mathematics -- we Jews remember. 169 times the Bible commands Zachor -- Remember. In the sacred texts of the Jewish faith, you'll read little about metaphysics, cosmology. Precious little is learned of God and of life from nature or the cosmos. It's all about ancestors. How does God introduce Himself to this people? Look at the Ten Commandments. God doesn't say "I am the Lord God creator of heaven and earth." Or, "I am the Lord God who created you!" God says: I am the Lord God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." We meet God in the collective memory of our people. That's why we don't pray to the God of nature, of stars and sun and moon. We pray, Eloheynu v'elohay avoteynu, our God and the God of our ancestors. Even the Torah reading today -- yom harat ha-olam, the birthday of the world, the Torah reading is not about the creation of the universe, not about the beginning of the nature. It's about Abraham and Sarah About family memories.

The most important ritual in Jewish life is the Passover Seder. What is a Seder for? It is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, a commandment: 'When your child asks, what is all this mean? On that day you will tell your child, ba'avoor zeh asa lee adonai, because of what the Lord God did for me when I went out of Egypt."

Ours is a religion of redemption. The central truth of our faith is defined by the experience of Exodus. The Sea split. And at that moment we grasped the meaning of existence. We believe in a God who cares. A God involved to human history. We are committed to the infinite preciousness of each human life. We maintain a faith in the possibility of redeeming this world -- of perfecting, mending, cleansing the world. All this comes from our memory of the Exodus.

Memory shapes us. And we shape memory. Our ancestors knew that dwelling on slavery, genocide, oppression would turn us into a brutal and bitter and hateful people. Fixated on suffering, on humiliation, on persecution, we remain slaves, we remain in Egypt. The scar does work of the wound. So they told a different story: A story of redemption, of freedom. Of the five items on your Seder plate, only one, only the marror is reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery. And marror isn't even eaten by itself. It is always cooled with the sweetness of haroset. We choose what to remember. And we choose its meaning. This is a choice demanded of each generation.

According to tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. The first is p'ru u'revu -- be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Do you know what the last one is? What's the 613th mitzvah in the Torah? According to the Sefer Hahinuch: Every Jew is commanded to write his or her own Torah; to write the Torah in your own hand. It's not enough to have inherited a Torah from your parents, your grandparents. It's not enough that you received one on your Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You are commanded to write one yourself. Why? Because the collective memory, the identity of this people, must be reshaped and remolded and reacquired by each one of us. It's your Torah, your truth not your father's or your grandfather's that you will teach your children. But be careful. Stories have consequences. What you choose to tell and how you choose to tell will shape the lives, the values, the souls of your children forever.

My child asks me to share memories of the 20th Century. What will I tell her?

At the center of this century stands the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a black hole that swallows and crushes all meaning, all values, all that is life-affirming. Six million Jews, and countless non-Jews, systematically murdered. A million Jewish children. One third of our people. Or as one poet put it, a third of each of us murdered. How do we share memories of the Holocaust without destroying our children?

The farther into the darkness you gaze, the more your realize that there's no way out -- no escape from the assault on meaning, on life.

Had the Jewish people lived on some Pacific island, and a hurricane came about and wipe away six million of us. So we would cry our pain and indignation. But eventually we would be consoled by the Talmud's wisdom olam k'minhago noheg -- the world pursues its natural course. Nature is amoral, blind. And living in its path, one gets hurt. But this was no natural disaster. We who taught the world that human beings carry within them tzelem elohim, the precious image of God, we know that this incredible evil was carried out by human hands.

Had it happened in some remote, uncivilized cultural backwater -- among some primitive tribe -- again we would cry our protest to heaven. But eventually be consoled that such thing happen among the uneducated and unrefined. But we who prize education above all. We who hold learning as the most powerful civilizing influence, we know that this was no cultural backwater. Germany was the center of refined European culture. Germany was the heart of scholarship, philosophy, art, science, music. The land of Goethe, Bach and Schiller.

Had it happened in some single explosion of insane passion -- a mob rising up in insane killing frenzy. We would say that under certain extraordinary conditions, even the best of human beings can lose control. But this was no pogrom, no single moment of passion, no revolt of the mob. This was not insanity. This was among the most rationally conceived, organized, managed and implemented schemes in all of human history. A scheme that drew in every segment of German society. We have uncovered the spec's and bid sheets for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The contract was awarded to I.G.Farben Petrochemical who perfected the insecticide Zyklon B which could kill 2,000 persons in less than 30 minutes for no more than 5 pfenigs each. And then they discovered if they extended their victims agony to a hour, they could use half the gas originally specified and reduce the cut of each Jewish life to 2 1/2 pfenigs.

And if this evil had attracted the attention of the world. Had the world risen up in protest to stop the atrocity, we'd say that Germany was infected, but the rest of humanity confirmed our confidence in basic decency. But the story is now well known. The Church responded with studied indifference. The United States, responding to a powerful wave of nativism, closed its borders. The British closed the borders of Palestine in deference to Arab sensitivities. The Jews of Europe were trapped. The requests to bomb the rail lines and crematoria of Auschwitz were not answered. Roosevelt was afraid of isolationists, and did all he could not to make this look like a Jewish war. So they bombed trains with troops. They bombed trains with munitions. But they wouldn't bomb trains carrying Jews. They hit the synthetic rubber plant just beside Auschwitz, but would not bomb the gas chambers.

And if, after all this, civilized humanity had learned a lesson, and resolved that never again would it allow genocide to scar this world, then we would face the evil of our experience but understand that at least something had been gained by our immeasurable suffering. But in the last fifty years, we have witnessed mass murder in Russian and Communist China, genocide in Cambodia, Biafra, Ethiopia, Ruwanda, ethnic cleansing inYugoslavia.

What can we share with our children? How do you find meaning in this? Everything that Jews believed in betrayed us. Our belief in humanity's decency, in modernity's civilizing effect, in the capacity of education and science and culture and faith to refine human beings, in the wisdom of democratically elected civil authorities -- everything that Jews believed in and trusted betrayed them in the Holocaust. Even faith. The very belief in a God active in human history, a God benevolently protecting his people, our anticipation of the immanent coming of the Messiah -- these too betrayed us, and left us all too passive, convincing too many to stay put when the should have run, and to cooperate when they could have resisted.

With the exception of Rabbi Schulweis's courageous campaign to share the stories of the Christian Rescuers, there is no light for us in the darkness of the Holocaust, just as there was no light, no meaning for our ancestors in the slavery of Egypt. The attempts to draw lessons, to find meaning, to build life on that enormous mountain of death, all end up in anger, bitterness, and emptiness. They end up back at death. But in Judaism, death may not be the last word. Despair, taught Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is the only unforgivable Jewish sin -- Jews never despair. Ours is a faith in redemption. We celebrate Exodus, not slavery.

If there's meaning here, it's not in the horror. It's in the response. At the end of the war Jews should have given up. That's what a normal people would have done. Having seen what eyes should never see, having descended into the darkness, we should have surrendered our ideals and our identity. We should all have done as Madeline Albright's parents did -- concealed our Jewishness from our children. Raised them as Episcopalians, and never spoken again of the grandparents who died in the camps and the ghettos. That's what a normal, a reasonable people would have done. If at the end of the war, Jews turned their voices toward heaven and said: Enough with Covenant, with Torah, with Messiah, with Redemption, with tikkun olam, mending the world -- this world doesn't deserve Jews! -- there would be not a whimper of protest. Not from earth, nor even from heaven. But that's not what happened. Instead, we responded to what philosopher Emil Fackenheim called the 614th commandment: Jews must not hand Hitler a posthumous victory. In the shadow of Hitler, the Jewish people embarked upon the greatest era of building, creating, organizing, the greatest assertion of pride and identity in the history of the Jewish people. Look at what we've created in the last 50 years: All the Jewish schools, synagogues, seminaries, colleges, summer camps. Jewish studies programs in every major American university. The vast structure of Jewish social welfare -- Federation, Family Service, JCC. All the institutions of Israel. Out of death has come life.

After Moses leads Israel through the Red Sea, the Torah concludes, V'yameenu b'Adonai u'v'Moshe avdo. They believed in God and they trusted Moshe. One rabbi of the Talmud commented: Of course they believed, they had just seen the Sea split! Anyone would believe after that! But he is scolded by his colleagues: After 400 years in Egypt, after slavery and humiliation, after witnessing their children thrown into the Nile and sealed into the bricks of Pharaoh's monuments. After genocide and oppression, the fact that they were willing to believe in the possibility of redemption, to trust, to that tomorrow might bring something better, the very fact that they were willing to move forward to freedom was a miracle greater than the Splitting of the Sea!

It's no miracle that God splits the Sea. God created the Sea. But that God could transform the hearts of slaves and give them hope, that's the Bible's greatest miracle. And if that's the miracle, then the fact that you're here today, fifty years after Hitler, with your children and your grandchildren, identified as Jews is the greatest miracle in all of Jewish history. That's the story our children must hear. Faced with a Biblical choice between life and death, blessing and curse, Jews of the 20th Century chose life. Baruch ata Adonai, mechiyay ha-mayteem. Bless is the Lord God, who restores the dead to life.

My Bubby kept 25 pushkes, charity boxes for Israel on her kitchen window sill. Bubby was not political. On her window sill, everyone was deserving. Hadassah, Pioneer Women, ORT, the Orthodox, the anti-Orthodox, the Left, the Right. Everyone got her pennies. And each penny was a seed planted in the holy land of Israel. Whenever she'd thing about Israel, she'd get this dreamy look in her eyes and sigh: Oy Mashiachtzeit! The Messiah has arrived.

We argue with Israel. We suffer with Israel. We wrestle with Israel. We worry over Israel. Too often we take it for granted. My Bubby, who knew the Jewish 20th Century first hand, reminded me of the wonder that is Israel -- the privilege of living in the time Israel. Three times a day for two millennia, Jews prayed: v'tech'ezenah ay'nay'nu l'shuv'cha b'rachameem, Let our eyes behold the return to Zion. And we, of all the generations, we've seen the dream come true.

Bubby was right, it is Mashiachtzeit. Because Bubby knew the Rambam. Maimonides in Hilchot Malachim writes: "Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside. The words of Isaiah, "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid" are to be understood figuratively. Said the rabbis, in Talmud Sanhedrin, The sole difference between the present and the Messianic days is our deliverance from servitude to foreign powers."

What makes this a Messianic time? Listen to one more line from Maimonides: "The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the nations, or be exalted among the people of the world, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel might be free to devote itself to the Torah and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come."

In Maimonides' Messianic dream, Jews have the power to create a place safe for Torah and mitzvot. For in doing mitzvot, in carrying the Torah's teachings into reality, Jews bring God into the world. Anything that increases the domain of mitzvah expands the range of opportunities for the expression of love, for the exercise of compassion, for the pursuit of peace, and is by definition Messianic. By this definition, Bubby was right -- we've reached Mashiachtziet, the time of the Messiah. Not that the world is perfect, far from it. But for the first time, we have the power and freedom to bring our vision of the world into reality. The true miracle of Israel is not the Hebrew Burger King sign we shlep home. Nor the beautiful Israeli soldiers. Nor even the Wall. These are all wondrous. But the true miracle is the Messianic opportunity Israel offers us.

For two thousand years, we've told ourselves and we've told the world that we Jews possess a unique genius for the ethical. For two thousand years, that genius was confined to books, to theory. We've told the world that we are different. Now we have the power to prove it, in the only medium that counts -- real life. This is Maimonides' dream. Let the Torah's ethics, let Jewish compassion shape a modern criminal justice system, a system of national health care, of welfare and education. For centuries we scorned the brutality of the regimes who dominated us. Let's show the world what a Jewish society looks like. The courage to accept this challenge is the real miracle of Israel.

As a kid, I had a giant poster of Moshe Dayan in my bedroom With his jaunty smile, signature eye-patch, and soldier's swagger, this image of the strong, cocky, victorious Jewish warrior gave us great pride, great courage. We proudly told of Israel's victory over its hostile evil neighbors. We needed that story. It helped us heal from generations of shameful weakness and impotence. But not now. Instead, let us tell our children of Yitzchak Rabin -- the soldier turned peacemaker. Let our children be proud of an Israel that makes peace as effectively as it makes war: An Israel that leads the world in healing cancer and growing food in the hungriest corners of the world. We take our kids to visit Massada and talk about Jewish courage in the face of evil Roman power. It's wrong. First, the Zealots of Massada abandoned the rest of the Jewish people, they abandoned the defense of Jerusalem when their leader wasn't made commander of the city. That's how they got to Massada. Second, murder and suicide under those circumstances is not Kiddush Hashem, a righteous act of martyrdom. According to Maimonides, they are a senseless waste of life. And third, we're no longer a weak and desparate band of Zealots hold up on a remote mountaintop against overwhelming evil that surrounds us. Don't take your children to Massada. Take them to a different hillside. Take them to Neve Shalom -- where for more than a generation Jews and Arabs have live together, raised their children together, shared trial and tragedies together in peace and mutual support -- the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael together. That's the story I want my children to hear! Baruch atah Adonai, ha-machazeer shechinato l'tzion. Blessed is God whose Presence has returned to Zion

This Mashiachtzeit isn't limited to Israel. We all shared the terrifying moments a few weeks ago, when a neo-Nazi madman attacked the Jewish community center here in Granada Hills. Early this summer, we read about synagogues burned in Sacramento, and about Jews shot in Chicago as they walked home from shul. We shake with fear. But did you see what happened after the shooting? after the burning?

On Kristallnacht in 1938, as Nazi brownshirt destroyed synagogue, plundered and burned and murdered, the police turned away, the Church turned away, the governments of the world turned away, the world's relief agencies turned away. But minutes after the shooting in Granada Hills, the LAPD and the FBI came to protect the children and apprehend the perpetrator. Paramedics entered the building even before they knew the shooter had left, because lives were at stake.

When I was a little boy, my Zeyde would take me for a walk. Whenever Zeyde saw a uniform -- it didn't matter what kind, a policeman, fireman, mailman, soldier, any uniform -- he would take my hand and pull me across the street. In Zeyde's world, a uniform was bad for the Jews. And here is Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States of America, along with Bernard Parks, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, and flanked by SWAT team officers with their armor and weapons, promising to apprehend the perpetrators of this hate and to protect our freedom. I had tears in my eyes.

Whenever Zeyde and I passed a church, he would pull me to the other side of the street. Because in Zeyde's world, a church was bad for the Jews. In Zeyde's mind, all goyim harbor secret hatred for the Jews.

But this tiny little boy, Benjamin was saved by an Asian-American emergency room physician and an African American surgeon at Holy Cross Hospital. Three days after the synagogues in Sacramento were burned, a community worship service was held. 4500 people came to pray together. People of all faiths and colors, led by clergy of all faiths, Jews, Christians, Moslems pledged to fight hate.

You have to have a sense of history. In all the lands of the Diaspora, no place has made us feel more welcome, more at home, no place has given us the freedom, safety, prosperity that we've found in America. Yes, there is still anti-Semitism. But the fact is that your children and mine will not feel their life decisions limited by it. It will not effect their choice of schools, of careers, of neighborhoods, of friends. It is not a factor in their daily lives.

I'm sure that across the country this yom tov we'll hear sermons invoking images of Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith, of the World Church of the New Order and the Phineas Priesthood and websites filled with hate. We will be warned to be vigilant. Of course we should be vigilant. Of course we'll have tighter security. But that's not the story of America Jewish life. Not the story I want my children to hear. For two thousand years, we've been a people ruled by fear. Fear has twisted us -- twisted our perception, twisted our values, twisted our souls. We fear the anti-Semite lurking just around the corner. We fear the outsider. We fear the betrayal coming in the next breath. Jews are so used to fear, many of us don't know how to live without it. We're addicted to it. So we look for it everywhere.

But that's not our story anymore. We have enormous, unprecedented power in this country -- political power, economic power, cultural power. For the first time in two thousand years, Jewish children can go to sleep unafraid of a knock at the door in the middle of the night.

The real story of American life, is in what Maimonides taught us: Now that we are physically and politically secure, now that we possess unprecedented power, what will we do in this wondrous place? Can we create, here in America, a Jewish communal culture that is so spiritually moving, so morally purposeful, so warm and welcoming and compassionate and joyful, that it answers the deepest needs of our children? Can we offer Jewish children a way to live life with meaning, a way to feel the Presence of God? Can we build synagogues they'll choose to come to, communities they'll choose to support? Is this so hard for us? Or are we so twisted by fear, so emptied out by the generations of persecution, by scarred by the Holocaust, that all we can talk about is slavery, hatred and death?

No more stories of hate. No more recitations of persecution. We have the power, the freedom, the security, we have the chance to write the Torah over in our own hand. A Torah of love. A Torah of hope. This is the Mashiachtzeit of American Jewish life. Baruch ata Adonai, hamevarech et amo yisrael ba'shalom. Blessed is God who blesses the people Israel with peace.

Yonah, Nessa, Rafi, you ask me for my memories of this past century. What do I remember and know of the 20th Century? When the State of Israel was first established, the Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote a prayer: Avinu she'bashamayim, tzur Yisrael v'goalo, barech et mideenat Yisrael, ray-sheet tzmeechat geulataynu. Our father in heaven, rock and redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption. The first flowering of our redemption. This century, out of terrifying death and darkness, we saw the first glimpse of the Messiah's face: The resurrection of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, the reborn land of Israel, and our arrival in America. Don't misunderstand. The world is not perfect. Far, far from it. But never before, in all of Jewish history, have we had the power we now possess to bring healing, compassion, purpose and peace to the world. My generation witnessed the end of Jewish exile. The end of Jewish fear, insecurity, powerlessness and oppression. May yours witness the flowering of our redemption.

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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780