(Yom Kippur 5778)
To listen to the audio of this sermon, click here.
In mid-August one of the most remarkable news stories I’ve ever seen came across the wires. The oldest person in the world – Guinness-certified as the oldest for over a year – died at the ripe old age of 113. He would have turned 114 just two weeks ago, on Sept. 13. His name was Yisrael Kristal, and Yisrael lived in Yisrael. A nice touch, but that’s not what’s most remarkable.
He celebrated his “bar mitzvah plus-100” about a year ago, when he turned 113, which is also not the most remarkable thing, though it would have been if his voice had cracked and in his speech, he’d made a joke about his annoying sister.
In fact, this second bar mitzvah was really his first, because when he turned 13 a hundred years ago, his mother had just died and his father was fighting in the Russian army during World War I. Amazing, but not the most remarkable thing about Yisrael.
Oh, and he was observant and prayed every morning after his 13th birthday. Amazing. But not the most amazing thing.
Oh, and he had sweet tooth and made a living running a candy factory in Haifa. And in his younger years, he owned a candy factory in Lodz – he was the candyman of the Lodz ghetto. Remarkable. His children were killed there – but he lived on.
Here’s what’s most amazing. The world’s oldest man was a survivor of Auschwitz. And when he was liberated, he weighed all of 81 pounds. His wife died there, but he survived, moved to Israel and began a new life. Like a modern-day Job, he started anew and died “old and full of days,” and felt so blessed that he never stopped praying, which, come to think of it, might be just as remarkable as his having survived Auschwitz.
In Deuteronomy, chapter 30, which is always read at this time of year, the Torah of Sinai presents us with a stark choice:
וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ
“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction…. life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…. For the Lord is your life…”
כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ
God is life….
Everything had been laid out for Yisrael Kristal – the good and the bad; he was born three months before the Wright Brothers first flight, so he had seen remarkable progress. But he had also seen the world’s darkest hours – and yet, and yet, he chose life.
He was lucky to live – very lucky, surviving not only Auschwitz, but wars, pogroms and the Lodz ghetto, not to mention all that Yisrael, the state, has endured for the past 70 years.
But he could easily have chosen to die. Yisrael chose life. And not just life – but life with a cherry on top.
What was the secret of his survival? Maybe it was his chosen profession. For Yisrael, life literally was a box of chocolates. And his grandson noted that when Yisrael was 12, during World War One, he was also a booze smuggler. “He used to run barefoot in the snow” for miles every night, smuggling alcohol between the lines of the war.” What a guy! Even when he wasn’t Guinness’s oldest, clearly, he was still the most interesting man in the world.
Is it conceivable that the living hell that was Auschwitz propelled this man to cherish life so much that he became the oldest living human? Could a man who was larger than life have been propelled to fame by a place that was darker than death?
Over these High Holidays, I’ve been sharing what I am calling the Torah of Auschwitz, focusing on how the Holocaust has transformed the Jewish experience. I’ve been calling upon us to stop running away from the Shoah – because we can’t. It is in us. It is part of the fiber of who we are. And it is a key component of what we need to teach the world, an incredibly potent and resonant event for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Seventy-three percent of American Jews believe that remembering the Holocaust is a key to being Jewish, and nothing else even comes close. We need to embrace it, to embrace all of it, and as we do, to forge a new Jewish vision for ourselves and for the world.
I’ve shared three commandments of this Torah of Auschwitz thus far: 1) Remember, because no one should ever be forgotten. 2) Adapt, because from destroyed worlds, new possibilities emerge. And 3) Love Your Neighbor, because all of humanity is one living tapestry.
Keep in mind that I use the term “Torah” with some deliberate irony – it is intended to provoke thought, not to show disrespect. For in the broadest sense, the word means “sacred teaching,” and as a verb it connotes an ongoing, evolving process of discovery. I contend that that process of sacred discovery has been dramatically aroused by the epochal events of 70 years ago.
Today, the Fourth Commandment: Choose Life!
This story of Yisrael Kristal is so perfect because he embodies the two ways we need to choose life: Individually and collectively. We need to embrace life as Yisrael the individual did and also as the people called Yisrael, the Jewish people, and Yisrael, the state, always have.
The Holocaust is filled with remarkable stories of survival, even among those whose survival may have been temporary. On Rosh Hashanah, I briefly mentioned Rywka Lipszyc, a 14-year old Jewish girl, orphaned and living in the Lodz ghetto. From October 1943 to April 1944, she recorded her thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams in her diary. Along with 67,000 other inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, Rywka was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944. Nearly a year later, in June 1945, her diary was found in the ashes of the crematoria by a Soviet army doctor.
Like Anne Frank, Rywka was a simple teenager living a simple teenage life. But Anne Frank wrote from the relative safety of her secret annex in Amsterdam – and although that security was fleeting, it could not compare to the hell that was the Lodz ghetto.
The diary of 112 pages was written between October 1943 and April 1944. It details Rywka’s activities at work and in school; her relationships with her friends and family and events in the ghetto. Despite the devastating conditions she endured, Rywka “worked, studied, participated in literary clubs and cultural activities, wrote poetry, and dreamed of a better future.”
Here’s an entry from Feb. 1944, as she grieved the death of her mother.
“… Once upon a time, when I was five, maybe six…or maybe younger…it was evening and Mommy was sitting around the table and I … I was saying stupid, childish things that hurt Mommie a lot. … Oh even today I’m full of remorse for those words, although I was a child who knew almost nothing … I know what I had and what I lost. Oh, will I ever be a mother?”
Much of the diary dwells on everyday activities – what I call the “nobility of normalcy.” But there are times when her ability to find light in the darkest of nights is absolutely stunning.
In one entry, talks about a book she is currently reading, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” I’m sitting there wondering whether this was escapism for her. Did she imagine herself as young Cosette, another orphan, waiting for her Jean Valjean to come and rescue her?
The next day, March 5, she thinks of her mother and begins to well up. “I can’t write because of my tears,” she exclaims. “Oh, I’m suffocating. I’m choking. My dear God, what will happen to me?” Then she immediately collects herself. “Enough. It’s always the same. I have to do an examination of conscience…to persevere.”
In entry after entry, this remarkable resolve, this true grit, is played out, in the frail body of this fourteen year old. March 7: “I’ve fallen…or rather I’m falling. I have to lift myself up. It’s important.”
On April 11, 1944, she writes:
“Thank you, God, for the spring! Thank you for this mood! I don’t want to write about it, because I don’t want to mess it up, but I’ll write one very significant word: hope!”
That passage is exactly 140 characters long – Maybe the most inspirational Tweet ever.
This was at a time when she was still deeply grieving the loss of both her parents. But warm weather lifted her spirits.
Here’s her final entry, written the very next day:
“At moments like this I want to live so much. There is less sadness, but we’re more aware of our miserable circumstances, our souls are sad and…really one needs a lot of strength not to give up. We look at this wonderful world, this beautiful spring, and at the same time we see ourselves in the ghetto being deprived of everything…. How hard it is! Oh God, how much longer? I think that only when we are liberated will we enjoy a real spring. Oh, I miss this dear spring.”
That’s where it ends.
We know that Rywka survived Lodz and that she also survived Auschwitz. Then she survived the death march to Bergen-Belsen and she even lived to see the liberation. She was too ill to be evacuated, however, and the record of her life ends.
Her final whereabouts remains a mystery, which perhaps is as it should be. Her name last pops up in records of a hospital in Germany.
So who knows? Like the Torah of Sinai’s immortal Prophet Elijah, Rywka may still be among us, hopping from Seder to Seder, looking for her mother. Her diary’s recovery was itself miraculous – her survival would be all the more so.
The survival instinct fills all that live. Last year on Yom Kippur I spoke of how the sweetness of a carrot is generated by its struggle to survive in cold weather. Maybe that same proclivity for sweetness was the key to candy man Yisrael Kristal’s longevity.
No one loved his treats more than my dog Crosby. This year I held him in my arms as he breathed has last breath, having watched him heroically and stoically carry on, despite the cruel cancer that was sapping away all his vigor. As long as he could, he mustered the strength to stand, to wag, to cuddle, to enjoy that last piece of hallah and look deeply into our eyes, until breathing itself became too difficult.
“Kol Haneshama Tehalel Yah!” “All who have breath praise God,” says Psalm 150.
And perhaps our praise of God is manifested simply by breathing, simply by staying alive. No need for a prayer book. Just breathe. That “Choose life” verse in Deuteronomy that I quoted at the outset adds, “Ki Hu Hayyecha.” For God IS your life. Literally, God IS life. God is breath. Breathing IS praying. If you take any prayer or story and substitute the term “Life Force” for “God,” you end up with a much more palatable post-Holocaust theology.
After the Holocaust, many can no longer believe in the same God that our great grandparents believed in. Elie Wiesel in his book “Night” echoes the notion shared by many that God of Sinai died at Auschwitz. But perhaps a different understanding of God was born there. Perhaps God, the life force and the survival instinct are somehow intertwined. If God is the sheer will to live, then Yisrael Kristal, Rywka Lipszyc and Crosby are His prophets.
Post Holocaust theology is too complicated a topic for me to address fully today, but in the Torah of Auschwitz, the survival of Yisrael – not the individual, but Yisrael, the collective, the Jewish people, is a commandment that stands on its own, with or without God. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim called it the 614th commandment: not to give Hitler a posthumous triumph by abandoning Judaism.
By this logic, when we proclaim “Am Yisrael Chai,” it is no longer merely a fun song to dance to at bar mitzvahs – it has become an imperative – a life’s mission, to keep the Jewish people alive. It certainly has been mine.
One of the real highlights of our trip last summer was our encounter with the Jewish community of Budapest. We joined the Frankel Synagogue, one of the city’s most active congregations for a Friday night service, and before that, we spent about a half hour conversing with the rabbi and his wife, an author and educator. The congregation comes from a branch of Judaism unique to central Europe – called Neolog. It’s sort of a fruit salad of Orthodoxy and Conservative. For example: there is separate seating, but the women get the better seats.
We came away from the conversation amazed at the vibrancy of the community – and we came away equally concerned for its future.
Before the Shoah, this was a thriving community – nearly a quarter of Budapest’s population was Jewish. But during the war, of the more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary, nearly 620,000 died or were deported. In Budapest, Jews had a somewhat better chance of survival at first, until the notorious Arrow Cross – those rabid Hungarian nationalists who tried to out-Nazi the Nazis, took over, herded Jews into the ghetto beginning in December 1944, took as many as 20,000 out to the banks of the Danube, shot them and threw their bodies into the river. We saw the memorial that has been set up right by the riverbank, a sculpture depicting the shoes that were left behind. It’s incredibly moving, but equally problematic, because the memorial does not specify that the victims were Jewish.
The current Jewish population is about 100,000, they think – and that number is based on those who have received reparations for the Holocaust. But no one really knows, because the vast majority of Jews are afraid to be identified. They remain in the closet – literally, sometimes, because many still remember that proverbial knock on the door. While physical attacks are rare, anti-Semitism is plainly practiced by the extreme right-wing government and is embedded in the culture. I wrote about the anti-Semitic poster campaign that popped up all over the country when we were there. Vandalism of Jewish gravestones and synagogues is commonplace. I asked the rabbi whether he wears a kippah in public, and he said no. Most Jewish children encounter anti-Semitism in school from a young age. The word “Jewish” is often used as a curse word in the vernacular.
And then, to add to anti-Semitism, there is Jewish illiteracy. After the Nazis were defeated, the country was “liberated” into nearly half a century of communist rule, where anyone living an openly Jewish lifestyle was subject to ridicule and discrimination. After the horrors of Auschwitz, most Hungarian Jews had little place for God in their lives anyway, so while the practice of Judaism wasn’t expressly forbidden, it was for all intents and purposes forgotten.
Yet despite all this, what we saw this summer was remarkable: Jewish life is rising in Budapest like a phoenix from the ashes. Despite impossible odds.
There is thriving summer camp called Szarvas near Budapest, which serves Jewish communities all over Europe. Many campers recall being dropped off and asking their parents why they were being sent to a Jewish camp. At that point, the parents would tell them, while driving off, “By the way, you’re Jewish.”
The Shabbat service at the Frankel synagogue was one of our most cherished moments on the trip. There were a number of young families with kids there – well over a hundred people. The rabbi mentioned that very few Jewish groups visit them, so they were curious to meet their guests from America. I felt really good that we were there, as most Jewish heritage tours of Eastern Europe only visit the dead. We were determined to visit living Jewish communities too. It was another tearful moment. We were there to tell the Jews of Budapest that they are not alone. Like Evan Hansen’s tree in the forest, they had been found. And like those legendary gingko trees that somehow withstood the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, the Jews of Hungary have survived.
And at the end of the service, we did the kiddish and ha-motzi all together, because, we were told, very few of the congregants know how to do Shabbat at home. And there is often no grandparent to ask, because Bubbe and Zayde were murdered by the Nazis or Iron Cross. If this congregation read from a yahrzeit list before the mourner’s kaddish, as we do, the list would have 1,000 names on it every week.
But even more to the point, they don’t do the rituals at home because so many are afraid to. Their Jewish lives are confined to their synagogue, a building so heavily barricaded that you almost expected Jean Valjean to make an appearance there too. The building is not visible from the street.
It is impossible for us to appreciate what they have had to overcome in order to rebuild their Jewish community. It is something that we all take for granted. We need to think about it the next time we are tempted to toss off our priceless Jewish heritage like Grandma Sophie’s closetful of plastic bags from Fairway. I know I’m preaching to the choir. You are here. But please send this sermon around to the 53 percent of American Jews who no longer observe Yom Kippur. Not as a guilt trip. But as a reminder of how fragile is our precious legacy… OK, maybe a bit of a guilt trip too.
The Hiroshima ginkgo are called survivor trees – and how did they manage to overcome the fallout of a nuclear blast? It’s because they have very deep roots. Our roots are unnaturally deep as well. Any other people would have given up after the Shoah. But we saw in Budapest that the Hungarian Jews have not.
These Jews have chosen life. They have chosen to see “Am Yisrael Chai” not as a song, but as a summons. That is the call of the Torah of Auschwitz – Choose life, collectively, because survival IS victory.
After our group went home, I went to the D-Day beaches of Normandy, ironically at the very same time that the whole world turned its attention to another beach just up the Normandy coast (I really wanted to see “Dunkirk” IN Dunkirk, but we couldn’t fit it in). This summer the world heard echoes of Winston Churchill’s defiant, unremitting call to survive, recited by a soldier in the final segment of the film, reminding us why the evacuation at Dunkirk remains the most famous act of victorious defeat in the history of survival:
“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Well, Churchill got the cadence down, but with all due respect, survival is our bailiwick, what Jews know how to do better even than the British.
Hitler is dead and we have survived, but his ideology of racism and hate is not. And because we have been given the gift of survival, we Jews shall fight that darkness and its enablers with all our heart, all our soul and all our might.
Who shall live and who shall die? Well, we all shall die. It’s like the Buddhist coroner who lost his job because, when she was filling out the forms, whenever she came to “cause of death,” she would write, “birth.”
For the Jewish coroner, the cause of death would better be put as “heroic struggle against impossible odds.”
We are all individually mortal, but the Jewish people? We are immortal – like the gingko tree – but only if we do our part.
It is now a commandment for the Jewish people to live, not to spite Hitler, but to teach the world what Hitler did – and to guarantee it doesn’t happen again. It is essential to the future of the world that we survive – in order to tell our story.
Choose life, so that you – and all of humanity – may live.
There’s an old joke about a rabbi, priest and imam who receive a message from God. The message is that God’s had it with humankind’s sins once and for all, and plans to punish them with a flood, leaving no survivors this time.
The priest goes to his people, reports on the oncoming inundation and suggests they take advantage of their last day to carouse and sin. The imam does the same. But the rabbi goes to her people and says, “Jews, we have to learn to live under water.”
For the Jewish people to live, the State of Israel must live too — Israel belongs to all of us and is too important for us to abandon. When you have returned to a home after 2000 years you don’t just walk away from it after just seven decades because you don’t agree with every policy. We must protect Israel from its enemies – and not abandon it to its own extremists.
So how do we ensure the survival of the Jewish people? The Torah of Auschwitz gives us guidance.
One thing that is clear, the Jewish people are going to have reconfigure who exactly we are. Who is a Jew? Who is in and who is out? The goal is to maximize the “in” and minimize the “out,” even if it means blurring some lines. The goal is to be more inclusive.
The blueprint for a new, more inclusive definition of “Who is a Jew” was devised by, of all people, the Nazis. In determining who would be considered a Jew, they said in the Nuremberg Laws that anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents is to be considered Jewish, but having even just one Jewish grandparent would subject them to discrimination. Later at the Wannsee Conference, the Final Solution was made applicable even for many Jews with just one Jewish grandparent – or none, if they were married to a Jew. That same definition was used by the State of Israel as a basis for the Law of Return, declaring that anyone who would have been seen as a Jew by the Nazis should receive the benefit of refuge in the Jewish state, even those with a single Jewish grandparent. I believe that this definition can be a foundation for a form of Jewish citizenship that can unite Jews everywhere and reinvent the fraying relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry and between Jews of differing religious streams, between religious and secular, liberal and conservative and all the other fault lines that are ripping us apart.
It is said that every Jew, past present and future, stood at Sinai. Well, every Jew stood in those gas chambers too, and it didn’t matter whether you were male or female, traditional, liberal or secular, born Jewish, converted to Judaism or married to a Jew. By embracing the Torah of Auschwitz, we can come together, Jews of the broadest possible definition, to proclaim to the world that Auschwitz must never happen again.
So we must constantly recall that “Am Yisrael Chai” is neither a statement nor a song – it is, for us, a commandment.
At the Galicia Museum in Krakow, there is a photo of a stone tablet, similar to tablets that were quite common in synagogues throughout Poland before the war. It says, in Hebrew, the same verse from Psalm 16 that we have above our ark up in the chapel “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid,” I have set God before me always.”
What makes this find so important is that this is the only such pre-war tablet to have survived intact in Polish Galicia.
What makes it so astonishing is that this simple, pure statement of faith and continuity, the only one to have survived intact, the gingko tree and Yisrael Kristol of unbroken decorative stone tablets, a stone tablet that not even the Nazis could destroy – or Moses, for that matter, who shattered the tablets of Sinai at the slightest provocation – this tablet was found at the last remaining synagogue in the pretty, tree-lined Polish countryside town of Oswiecim.
You might know its German name: Auschwitz.
Just one mile from the hell that nearly destroyed the Jewish people and all of human civilization, within walking distance, somehow this reminder of a bygone, simpler era withstood the fallout of the moral nuclear detonation that took place right down the street.
We are all survivors. And maybe God is a survivor too. But after Auschwitz, maybe the God of Psalm 16, the one that we place before us, the ultimate goal that we aim for, IS survival itself, is that life force, the instinct that drives us to breathe and to love and to find hope among the ashes – as exemplified by an innocent, precious girl’s diary found next to the crematorium – the frail girl who lost both parents in Lodz and had little chance of living, but who allowed a gorgeous spring day to intrude on her gloom. Our talent for survival is embodied in that fragile fourteen year old who survived Lodz AND Auschwitz AND the death march AND Bergen Belsen – and, in our dreams, at least, this young Cosette may still be alive today.
She IS our new Elijah. She is the one to visit every Seder, even if she is still under age for the wine. She is the one to make us care about lonely and the forgotten, while she searches for her mother, to bind ourselves to our neighbor in one human tapestry. And she is the one to envision new possibilities emerging out from the very ashes where her diary was found.
Rywka wrote these wise words in her diary, words that I believe will someday become part of our liturgy. But as inspirational as Anne Frank’s assertion ,”In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Rywka wrote:
“I am just a tiny spot, even under a microscope I would be very hard to see – but I can laugh at the whole world because I am a Jew. I am poor and in the ghetto, I do not know what will happen to me tomorrow, and yet I can laugh at the whole world because I have something very strong supporting me – my faith.”
Whether or not she is still alive, Rywka has had the last laugh on her tormentors.
Whether or not she is still alive, she is directing our gaze, with hope, to the future.
Which is exactly what the Holocaust is at long last able to do.
We place life before us always – ever mindful of the gift that is life and the responsibility that survival implies. All the more, for the survival of the Jewish people.
Survival is victory. But only if we earn it, by translating it into a life of service. And if we do, Yisrael Kristal, that 113-year-old modern Methuselah would tell us, that life, in the end, is like a box of chocolates. The Candy Man and Elijah Girl have taught us to thoroughly enjoy every bite, anticipating with mouth watering expectancy whatever will come next.
Because, you never know what you’re gonna get.
But survival sure is sweet.