(Kol Nidre 5778)
To listen to the audio of this sermon, click here.
In a few moments, when we continue the service, we’ll come to a poem with imagery that I find among the most evocative of the entire High Holidays liturgy, based on a verse from Jeremiah (18:6). It describes us as clay in the hands of a divine potter, and then the medieval poet expands on the theme to compare God with various artisans. One image that is particularly striking compares us to a tapestry, with God as the weaver. Ki Hinay KaYirah b’Yad ha Rokem –“As cloth in the hand of the weaver, who drapes and twists it at will, so are we in Your hand, righteous God.”
I was thinking of this image, when I heard a lovely and popular Israeli song sung this year at Israel’s national Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem. Its title is “Rikma Enoshit Echat” “One Human Tapestry,” and the translated lyrics go like this:
When I’m gone,
Something inside you,
Something inside you,
Will die with me, will die with me.
When you’re gone,
Something inside me,
Something inside me,
Will die with you, will die with you.
For we all are, yes, we all are,
We all one human tapestry,
and if one of us fades away, something within each of us dies
But something of him remains in us.
Throughout these High Holidays I’ve been speaking about how the Holocaust, the most disruptive event in all of human history, has forced us to look at everything with fresh eyes.
So back to our song. The beauty of the Hebrew here is that there is a double meaning for the word Rikma, which is translated best into English as “tapestry” or “embroidery” – but in fact also is a word for human tissue.
When anyone dies, a part of us as died – and not just spiritually but physically. We are all part of the same body.
In fact there is no real place where I end and you begin. There is no dividing line. We are all joined at the hip, as it were. The air we breathe is shared, not just with other humans but with all of creation, and we and the plants are engaged in act of mutual and reciprocal CPR as we barter Oxygen for Co2. Every time I touch a doorknob my body is welcoming in millions of your germs. Every time I sneeze, part of me is paying a visit to your immune system.
Think of the historical progression here in describing how human lives interconnect. A century ago, people were talking about a melting pot. It’s a great image. But in a melting pot, all individuality is lost. So to enhance that, back in the ‘80s Mario Cuomo and David Dinkins called New York a “magnificent mosaic,” thereby preserving the cultural diversity, but what’s holding a mosaic together, except a little glue? The tiles are otherwise disconnected, like many neighborhoods in New York.
But a Rikma, an embroidery, maintains the uniqueness of each thread, each strand, while at the same time validating that we are inextricably intertwined, body and soul.
Martin Luther King write in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
At the museum in Auschwitz, the shocking and ineffable photos of the intertwined bodies of the victims – hundreds, even thousands of them (at peak efficiency, they gassed up to 3,000 at a time in Birkenau) these images give us a completely new way to understand that network of mutuality. In those photos, it is nearly impossible to detect where one body begins and another ends. And there is nothing to indicate which victim was from Germany, from Hungary or from Slovakia. There is very little determine who was a Hasidic, Reform or secular Jew; Jewish or just Jew-ish, or not Jewish altogether.
After Auschwitz, Rikma Enoshit Echat one human tissue, leads ultimately to that searing image of interconnection. We go beyond the network of mutuality, the melting pot or fabulous mosaic, or even the woven tapestry of our liturgy and we see Rikma in its most literal sense. We are one human body.
Now the Nazis were great at drawing lines separating people – with their racist theories going into minute detail as to what constitutes an Aryan or a Jew. We see that in other photos at Auschwitz that depict the selection of Hungarian Jews just off the train. Two perfectly straight lines. One headed to slave labor, the other headed directly to death.
They obsessively categorized things and people, until people became things. They defined a Jew as anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents, or someone married to a Jew. It had nothing to do with belief. A Jew who converted to Christianity was still a Jew, even if he became a bishop.
A prime goal of authoritarian regimes is to forge order out of chaos. That’s not inherently evil. Religions do the same thing. We need order in our lives. Two of our key rituals are even called “Order” (Seder) and “Separation” (Havdalah). Jerusalem is considered holier than other cities and Shabbat is on a higher spiritual plane other days. Yom Kippur, called the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is the peak moment of holiness for the year. Drawing lines and making distinctions in order to forge order has characterized Judaism over the centuries, but not to hoist one group over another, rather so that all of us to rise to greater degrees of godliness. A life of holiness is available to everyone.
A rabbinic text specifically states that the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come. No distinctions are drawn where it matters most. The rabbis lived in hard times – they could have easily fallen into the parochialism that is so prevalent in our world today. But they rejected that.
But now, following the Shoah, we’ve reached a different place in the evolution of Judaism and human civilization. I believe we have entered a world of connection rather than separation and distinction.
We are moving, in a sense from Kosher to Kesher. These nearly identical Hebrew words, indicate the old ways and the new. Kashrut is, like the rest of the laws of holiness, built on distinction, on drawing lines. Kesher is the Hebrew word for connection, calling on us to dissolve those distinctions.
The Kosher laws remain a worthy concept (and I’m a huge proponent of them), as does holiness in general, but holiness is not an end in itself – living a holy life is just the first step, leading to what’s most important, which is tapping into that inescapable network of mutuality rather than separating one being from another. The ultimate goal of the Torah of Sinai, after all, is that we love our neighbor as ourselves, not that we eat pastrami at the Second Avenue Deli.
We are not leaving Kosher behind, but now we need to look at it through the prism of Kesher; because in the end, we are all one human tissue, as we were at Auschwitz.
When you die, something dies inside of me. Separation is an illusion. What unites us is that, when the blinders are taken off, we are in fact One. Not just all Jews, but all of humankind – forever linked, woven tightly into this human tapestry.
When the screams were heard by the Sonderkommandos waiting outside the gas chambers (these were Jews who had to do this horrible work in order to live another day), well, here’s how one described it, in a testimony from the Shoah Foundation archive:
“In the beginning … I was there. After they close the door I could hear the three thousand people, voices, cry and screaming … And you could hear [sings] Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu … they were calling God! Nothing happened, Never nothing happened and these voices still in my ears. But, other transports was coming, I was hiding again. I was getting TOO FAR AWAY not to hear those voices calling God. I never went back again. But! If a soldier or German or SS was finding me hiding he could shoot. But! I could not stand those voices.”
Three thousand voices became One Voice. Scores of languages became One Tongue.
So not only are we One Human Tissue – but ultimately we are speaking as One Human Voice.
We often ask, where was God at Auschwitz? If anywhere, then right there, in the cries of the martyrs. They cried out for God – and the silence of the divine response will perplex and enrage people for the rest of time. But the last word of the prayer that they cried, the last word of the Shema, that was their call to us: The last word on their lips was “Ehad.” One.
The Torah of Sinai says “God is One,” with the ineffable name pronounced by the High Priest on Yom Kippur Day, awaiting the expiation of Israel’s sin.
The Torah of Auschwitz says, simply, “We are One,” with that word being the final, ineffable cry of battered bodies and intertwined souls; and still we await the expiation of God’s sin.
With that final letter, the daled trailing off into silence, opening the door – the delet – to eternity, as the doors to the chambers were pried open and the bodies heaped in piles. We are “Rikma Enoshit Echat,”one human tapestry,” but embroidered by whom? It is far easier to believe that God was an expert embroiderer at the beginning of time, than to believe in a God who stitched together this living hell.
When the Torah of Auschwitz cries “Echad,” it is far less concerned about the embroiderer than the tapestry itself. It is not dwelling on God’s essence, but rather on oneness of humankind; and when we speak of our being “one,” we’re not merely speaking of a virtual oneness, a cyber community, a soulful connection, but a physical connection too, body AND soul; spirit and sinew, Rikma Enoshit Echat, sharing our very real and very fragile earth, the same heating air, the same rising oceans, the same parched soil.
And we are all connected inextricably.
And so, you may ask, if we are all One, what of all the horrible people who murdered us or who ignored the crime. How could we be one with them? For that matter, how can we be one with our personal rival, with those who troll us on the internet or bully us, or vote differently? Or our ex? How can we be one with the Other?
And to a point, you would have a point. Those who harm others need to be brought to justice, but not because they are any less human. To render them subhuman or to enact bloodthirsty vengeance would be to act like them.
But there’s another reason to include our enemies in this tapestry.
Back in the Torah of Sinai, it says we should love and embrace the stranger – care for the stranger – help the stranger. It says so in some form or another thirty six times. And why? The constant refrain – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
We know what it is like to be enslaved, to be persecuted, to be killed simply because of our different background or beliefs. We experienced it in Egypt.
Well, we experienced it at Auschwitz too, and because of that, we should love the stranger all the more. We suffered more there. The Torah of Auschwitz has bolstered that pronouncement from Sinai.
But there is a difference. Both Torahs instruct us to love the stranger because we were persecuted, because we were strangers there. But only the Torah of Auschwitz tells us to love the stranger for precisely the opposite reason – because the stranger loved us.
In Egypt, no one helped us, save for a cameo appearance by Pharaoh’s daughter by the river, when the baby Moses came floating by. That was a big deal – But that was it.
The commentators go out of their way to say that all the people of Egypt were willing co-conspirators in Pharaoh’s genocide. In Exodus chapter one, Pharaoh enlists the entire population, saying “Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.”
And so (in verse 13) it states, “The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor.” Not just Pharaoh – all the people. The medieval commentator Ramban suggests that since the original decree of forced labor hadn’t done the trick, it was then decreed that all Egyptians had the power to seize an Israelite to do any work they needed done. Everyone in Egypt who needed work done. Mow the lawn? Get Yossi to do it.
There is not one instance of an Egyptian harboring an Israelite fugitive. For the rabbis, this narrative justifies the collective punishment of the ten plagues and the despoiling of the country by the freed slaves. But neither in the Torah or traditional commentaries is there anyone who helps; there is no underground railroad in Pittom or Rameses, no Oskar Schindler to save his thousands (1,200 plus their descendants) or Raul Wallenberg to save his tens of thousands.
The Holocaust was different from Egypt, or anything in the Bible. As of January, 2016, Yad Vashem has honored 26,120 Righteous Among the Nations from 51 countries.
So the Torah of Auschwitz states, “Love the stranger, because not only do you know how it feels to be a stranger who is hated, but you also know how it feels to be a stranger who is loved – by someone who was a stranger to you.” It says, “Don’t merely love your neighbor as yourself, cultivate kindness in yourself and accept grace from others. Love your neighbor, because you have been loved BY your neighbor.”
Enter, Mirosława Gruszczyńska (GRUSHgen-ska) a righteous gentile whom we met in Krakow. Her family saved a teenage Jewish girl fleeing the destruction of the ghetto. She told her story in a manner that was so mesmerizing because it was so matter of fact. There was a knock at the door to her apartment and her mother answered – and they let someone in.
A knock. A plea. A response.
God? Are you listening? That’s how you do it! That’s how you answer a prayer.
Or maybe, just maybe, Mirosława was God’s answer to the prayer of young Jewish girl.
Mirosława’s aunt approached her mother Helena with the question of whether the family would be able to temporarily shelter a Jewish girl. The family said yes, and Anna Allerhand came into their lives, but when she stayed with the Przebindowskas (Prej-bin-DOW-skas) she went by ‘Marysia.” They initially thought the hiding would last for just a few days; it turned out to be a couple of years. When Anna arrived, she expressed her gratitude immediately that the Przebindowskas (Prej-bin-DOW-skas) had agreed to help her. Mirosława recalls that the Anna immediately ran up and hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks. They quickly became close friends.
When Anna became very sick the family was able to nurse her back to health, and by that time there was no distinguishing her from the rest of the family. She was family – and the love was mutual. The Polish family couldn’t imagine sending the Jewish girl back out into the dangerous world where surely she’d be caught by the Nazis and sent to the camps.
When we asked if she ever thought twice about insisting for Anna to stay, Mirosława said she never for a moment regretted her decision. She said that she had to do it because it was the right thing to do.
Anna is still alive, living in Israel, and she and Mirosława continue to stay in touch.
Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil. Mirosława is an example of the banality of good. On the surface, there is nothing particularly heroic about her. There was nothing particularly herculean about what she did.
She just instinctively understood that we are Rikma Enoshit Echat – a single human tissue. –
And our group responded by giving her a standing ovation, and wondering whether we would have been so heroic.
For UConn and NBA star Ray Allen, his first visit to Auschwitz put him in touch with a similar hero.
For Allen, the Holocaust was about how human beings — real, normal people like you and me — treat each other. In a deeply moving essay published several weeks ago, he wrote about a family that hid Jews under the floor board in a Polish farmhouse, which when they were found out, resulted in most of the Polish family being shot by the SS.
He writes, “When the Skoczylas (SCOTCH-less) family was risking their own lives to hide people they barely knew, they weren’t doing it because they practiced the same religion or were the same race. They did it because they were decent, courageous human beings. They were the same as those people crouched in a hole. And they knew that those people didn’t deserve what was being done to them. I asked myself a really tough question: Would I have done the same?”
Many people bemoan the fact that more gentiles, in Poland and Hungary especially, didn’t do more to save Jews. There is some validity to that, but I am amazed that anyone would risk their lives to help a people whom, since early childhood, they had been taught to despise, whom, they had been taught for many centuries, had killed their god.
But something was able to cut through the centuries of prejudice, something innate and good, and it led thousands of people to acts of incomprehensible risk and selflessness.
Take the “Zookeeper’s Wife,” a film many of us saw this year – and our group made it a point to see the Warsaw Zoo, which was just across the river from the ghetto. In it, Antonina Zabinski, the hero, states, simply, “I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.”
The banality of goodness.
Ray Allen writes that this about the Jews of the Shoah:
“The people of these Jewish communities were pushed to the absolute limit of their human instincts. They just wanted to survive. And from that, the tales of brotherhood and camaraderie are so awe-inspiring. It was a reminder of what the human spirit is capable of — both for good and evil.”
I read these ineffably heroic stories and shudder in embarrassment when someone calls me courageous for going to Mill River Park to support Dreamers who face deportation from the country they’ve always called home. Or when I invite a couple of Choate students from the visionary Abaarso School in Somaliland because the travel ban might prevent them from ever going home, for fear of never being able to return here to study and improve the lot of their people. You can call me many things, but please don’t call me courageous for doing THAT. Incidentally, the girl who visited us, Muna, just began her studies at Babson College this past month.
Compared to people like Miroslawa and Antonina, I’m a coward. If I were truly courageous, I would do much, much more – and I would ask you to do much, much more too.
It’s like the way I instruct mourners not to thank those who come to visit them during shiva. Of course gratitude is natural. But when I visit your shiva, I’m not doing it out of pity or professional obligation. Neither is your neighbor. When we come to comfort you, we’re binding our own wounds. Which makes it all the more painful on me when I mess up and drop the ball in your moment of need. Because we are all woven into the same human tapestry – if you scrape, I bleed. If you mourn, we all mourn.
In Berlin a new home for interfaith fellowship is being built. It’s called the “House of One,” and we passed it on our way back from the Berlin Wall. One beautiful construction, one that brings a synagogue, a church, and a mosque together under one roof. The three separate sections will be linked by a communal room in the center of the building. I couldn’t stop thinking that that building belongs in Jerusalem.
But no, it’s in Berlin, the city where nearly every synagogue window was smashed 79 years ago, and where a wall was built during the Cold War that literally divided the world. Berlin is the place where Jews are flocking, especially now, when so many other countries seem to be succumbing to the worst nativist and nationalist impulses. Since Brexit, there has been a stunning migration back from England to Germany by a number of Jewish families who had fled the Germany in the ‘30s. They are now returning to Germany, though rising parliamentary status of the far right party in this week’s German elections offers a note of caution.
And so, what does it mean to be one human tapestry?
When a police officer in Houston drowns in his car while trying to save others, a little of me has died.
When three Israelis are killed in a shooting attack in the settlement of Har Adar, near Jerusalem, as happened this week, a little of me has died.
And on the other hand, my spirits are lifted when, during Hurricane Harvey, a woman who has gone into labor is helped to safety by her neighbors who formed a human chain.
Or when the workers of a Mexican bakery in Houston, unable to get home because of the flooding, spend two days baking bread nonstop to deliver to those in need.
Or when a guy at a Lowes in Orlando gives up his claim to the last generator on the shelves before Hurricane Irma to a woman – a total stranger – who needs it to provide oxygen for her father.
Or the many evacuation centers in Houston that accepted pets during the flood, saving the lives of countless innocent animal after tens of thousands had died in Katrina. We are one tapestry with animals too.
Or the hundreds of volunteers who immediately showed up at emergency centers in Mexico City and the many aid groups trying to get into Puerto Rico to help now in that dire emergency. How we grieve for the people there!
Or the synagogue north of Houston earlier this year, that responded when a local mosque was destroyed by arson, gave the Muslim congregation the keys to their building so they could have services there while rebuilding. I have no doubt that we would have done the same thing here. We can’t merely protest against attacks directed against our group. We must be equally vocal in protesting against attacks on the Other. (This week Haaretz reported that in Israel and the territories, since 2009, 53 mosques and churches have been vandalized, and there have been only nine indictments filed. That should concern us.)
After the Shoah, a new generation is asking, now more than ever, why be Jewish. It no longer suffices to respond to that query, “so that the Jewish people will survive.” A religion whose sole purpose is simply to perpetuate itself is already bankrupt. And this new generation has already rejected the arbitrary divisions between groups that marked the old thinking. In fact we have a purpose, and it is to love. It is to promote dignity and mutual responsibility, and to cultivate kindness. It is to channel lives of holiness into lives of utter interdependence – to channel Kosher into Kesher.
So here’s my answer to a new generation.
Why be Jewish?
Because we build bridges between peoples. We connect the dots of humanity. We are the glue in the mosaic. We are the strand, the thread that holds together the tapestry, the ligament that will reassemble the dry bones. That has always been our role, but never more than now.
In Europe this summer, our group experienced the borderless EU nations and contrasted that free flow to the shifting, confusing national and ethnic boundaries of these countries, and the sharp lines of hate and suspicion they have for former occupiers and for one another.
And amidst all of this, the Jewish story played out, as we meandered from country to country, never having to show our passports once, seeing how our wandering ancestors accomplished so much and changed the world for the better in so many ways.
So why be Jewish?
Because our work is not yet done. In what Thomas Friedman calls a world of walls and webs, we not only choose webs, we are the weavers. It is our task to break down the artificial boundaries that drive people apart, and to weave people together. And it is through living a life of holiness, an authentic Jewish life, that we can light the way.
Some call us internationalists as if that is a badge of shame. But caring about all of humanity is our greatest glory. Call us what you will: “Holy Schleppers” or “Kvetchers without Borders.” Especially since Auschwitz, that is our calling.
Ray Allen writes, “The Holocaust was about how human beings — real, normal people like you and me — treat each other.”
He’s right. The Torah of Auschwitz begins and ends with human interconnection. It’s about human beings who perpetrated horrible evil and humans who showed an astounding capacity for good. It was the darkest time in human history, but we all know that it is during the darkest nights that the stars shine most brightly, and never before or since have so many acted so courageously. It is said that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. So perhaps will that dark night of seven decades ago will usher in a time when those supernovas of compassion will create a reverse eclipse and brighten the midnight sky.
The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to get beyond parochialism and nativism and reach out to what is common in all of humanity, for what we share is so much greater than what divides us. For there were no such distinctions in the gas chambers.
The Torah of Auschwitz is far less about the identity of the weaver than about the tapestry that is constantly being woven.
If there is a God following Auschwitz, it is the God of Kesher – the God of interconnection.
It’s the God of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was open on all four sides.
And the God of Isaac and Rebecca, who loved both of their sons, as different as they were.
And the God of Jacob and Esau, who reconciled with the one to whom he was joined in the womb, as one single human tissue.
And it is the God of Moses, who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves.
Love the stranger – because the stranger loved you in Krakow, and at the Warsaw Zoo, even though none did in Egypt.
Love the stranger, because we are one human tissue, Rikma Enoshit Echat, each of us a single strand in a vast, lovely tableau.
Cultivate kindness in yourself and and accept grace from others.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. That is the essence of the Torah of Auschwitz.
And that garment is being woven – by us.