(Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1)
To listen to the audio of this sermon, click here.
A sweet new year to everyone.
So, I’ve been a little out of touch – has anything important happened over the past year?
A 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 Amalek. Remember 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 stolpersteine, as 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.
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.