(Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2)
To listen to the audio of this sermon, click here.
Today’s journey begins with a man named Artur Berlinger, born in Wurtzberg, Germany in 1889. He and his wife had two daughters, and after Kristallnacht in 1938, he was able send his kids to safety to England on the Kindertransport, while he and his wife were deported to Dachau and eventually to Terezin.
Artur was a man of many talents, a Judaic scholar, musician, painter, calligrapher. He was a visionary. In Terezin, he was able to put all of those talents to work. In 1943, after miraculously being taken off a transport to Auschwitz at the very last minute, he discovered a small room with a vaulted ceiling in the secluded yard of a prisoner house, where he created a secret prayer room, decorating the walls and ceiling with stars, candles and calligraphy, including one of the most visionary lines from our daily liturgy, ”V’techenzena aynaynu b’shuvcha l’tziyon berachamim,” “Let our eyes envision God’s merciful return to Zion.”
The prisoners’ eyes could envision no such thing. They knew what lay ahead for them. But somehow, led by this single, heroic individual, they were able to convert their living hell into an oasis of hope. With the SS lurking just outside, inside this secret synagogue their world was transformed.
On September 28, 1944, Berlinger was transported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. His daughter Rosie, who moved from England to America and now lives in Detroit, says this secret synagogue, which was not discovered until the 1990s, shows that her father never lost his faith in God. I don’t know whether Artur eventually lost faith in God; I can only say for sure that no one who visits this place will ever lose faith in Artur. Whenever I come to that prayer in the Amidah, I think of him and others weeping for salvation in that holy space, people who dreamed of a future that they knew they would never see. We are not merely their witnesses – we are the fulfillment of their dream.
Today, I want to discuss how the experiences of the Holocaust can help us to confront a world where everything has been turned on its head, everything we thought was true turns out not to be; when “new normals” become the norm. The Torah of Auschwitz tells us never to stop dreaming of the destination, even as our inner GPS seems to be eternally recalculating the route. If they could adapt themselves to the most inhuman conditions ever fashioned back in that secret synagogue, we can adapt today to our frightening world of exponentially accelerating change.
But first, let’s step back and look at the place of the Holocaust in our culture.
On November 3, history will happen.
No, that day’s not the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, laying the legal and moral framework for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That’s November 2.
No, not the 70th anniversary of the passage of the UN partition plan, which granted international legitimacy to the founding of a Jewish state – along with an Arab state. No, that’s November 29.
November 3 might even be more significant; for that date will mark the release…of a video game. Not just any video game: “Call of Duty: WW2” – the long awaited next installment of the “Call of Duty” series that has, since its initial release in 2011, sold 30 million units worldwide. And this one will depict the Holocaust. In this game, the player controls an American soldier fighting in the European theater. In addition to shooting Nazi soldiers, players will also be exposed to racism towards Jews and African-Americans within their platoon.
“We absolutely show atrocities,” the game’s senior creator Bret Robbins said to Mashable. “It’s an unfortunate part of the history, but you can’t tell an authentic, truthful story without going there.”
And since I know you were wondering, “Call of Duty: WWII” will also feature a mode that turns the Nazi soldiers into zombies. Nazis, and zombies too! It’s a gamer’s dream!
And a rabbi’s nightmare.
“Call of Duty” is not alone in bringing the Holocaust into the mainstream of popular culture. Other games like “Wolfenstein” are filled with Holocaust imagery and are top sellers. And if you are more into old fashioned board games, this year’s hit is called “Secret Hitler,” which simulates the rise of fascism. It’s sold out two runs and has been a top seller on Amazon. Hitler is a hit!
Now I could stand up here and say it’s in bad taste to depict the Holocaust as a video game – or a board game… or a comic book, like “Maus” for that matter. But tell me, are there 30 million people in this world who have any idea what Balfour Day is? There may not be thirty in this room! But for millions and millions of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, the Holocaust continues to have an enormous impact on our culture. We should embrace that.
Back in the ‘70s, Elie Wiesel disparaged the TV series “Holocaust” – he called it “untrue and offensive.” But that series, as pedestrian as it as was, accomplished two very important things: 1) it helped to launch the career of Meryl Streep; and 2) when it was shown in West Germany, it changed everything. It was seen by 20 million people, half the population of the country, and after the programs aired, panels of experts helped explain what happened, as thousands of shocked and outraged Germans called in. “Did we do THAT?” This led to massive reforms in the German educational system, and as our group saw first-hand this summer, that has made all the difference.
So while I’m not a great fan of video games, millions of people who otherwise may not learn about the Shoah will now bear witness, hopefully with some accuracy, to the greatest crime ever perpetrated on humanity – and hopefully they will convert that gamer’s rush into a renewed commitment never to let such hatred prevail again.
November 3rd, then, will be a big deal. And the Holocaust, which was always a big deal, is getting bigger all the time. Bigger, more important, more resonant, more terrifying, and more a part of our Jewish self-image than ever before. It has changed everything and it is forcing us to adapt.
The 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry told us lots of interesting things about ourselves. But what stood out above anything else was the response to the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”
Nineteen percent said, “Observing Jewish law.”
Twenty eight percent said, “being part of a Jewish community.”
Forty two percent said, “having a good sense of humor.”
Just forty three percent said, “caring about Israel.”
Fifty six percent said, “working for justice and equality,” and sixty nine percent said, “leading an ethical and moral life.”
But leading the way, was “remembering the Holocaust,” at seventy three percent.
You can’t get three quarters of American Jews to agree on anything – except for that. Not whether to fast on Yom Kippur, light Hanukkah candles or what to put on a bagel. If there is a core to our self-image as Jews, a common story, that teaching is far more likely to come from Auschwitz than from Sinai.
We may not be comfortable with that fact, but we cannot deny it.
Want to hear something even more amazing?
Ask Israeli Jews the same question. Well, Pew did. And we know that Israeli Jews and American Jews don’t agree on much these days. And when you ask, “what is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish?” there are lots of differences. Just nine percent of Israeli Jews say, “having a sense of humor.” Really.
But for Israeli Jews, just as for American Jews, the Holocaust ranks by far the highest. Sixty five percent – twenty points higher than the second choice, living an ethical life.
Holocaust tourism is booming, and not just for Jews. In 2014, Auschwitz took in a million and a half tourists, and a 40 percent increase from that was reported a few months into the next year. This July, we got there early in the morning, and by the time we left the museum a couple of hours later, there were long lines. Krakow was booming with Holocaust tourism too. Evidently, there’s no business like Shoah business.
I want you to know, that for most of my life, I felt that the Holocaust took up far too much of our Jewish bandwidth. I felt it smothered our joy and infused us with guilt and resentment and victimhood. It posed questions that were unanswerable. It eclipsed centuries of Jewish achievement and it brought out the worst in us. It gave us an excuse to hate – and it gave our children the excuse to opt out of being Jewish altogether. Who would want to be part of such a Debbie-Downer people?
As a rabbi and a writer, I‘ve spent the better part of my career trying to reframe Judaism in positive terms, or, I was afraid, it would wither on the vine.
In the 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught that in order to do Teshuvah, you have to be happy. We shouldn’t get down on ourselves; we should be able to look at the future with optimism and hope, even as we probe the bleakest, black holes of our lives during this season of repentance.
So here is my conundrum – our conundrum. We crave to live lives of joy, love, acceptance, community, hope and faith.
But as Jews, when we look out there at the cultural landscape or dig deep within ourselves, what do we see?
Everywhere we turn, being Jewish and the Holocaust have become virtually synonymous.
In school, our kids are expected to be Holocaust experts, BFFs with Anne Frank.
Turn on PBS, and you get Black History Month; Puerto Rican Heritage Month, Gay Pride Month, Polish Heritage Month – and for the Jews? Holocaust Remembrance Month (which has recently been changed to Jewish American Heritage Month).
The Holocaust is on the news almost every day. It has been brought into so many political arguments that a new rule was created, Godwin’s Law , stating that if a discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.
Everywhere you turn, it’s all Holocaust all the time. While we are looking for positive reasons to be Jewish, all we get is Auschwitz! Auschwitz! Auschwitz! We’ve become the Jan Brady of world religions.
It’s been seventy years. Isn’t it time to move on? To get over it?
No – it’s not.
And this is the discovery I’ve made: In fact, it is time – to embrace it.
It is time to embrace Auschwitz. Not to get over it. Not to become desensitized to what took place. On the contrary. It’s time to fully assimilate its lessons into our souls; to recognize that in fact it is not only part of our story, it frames our story; it IS our story – and our greatest responsibility and honor – is to bear witness and to share that story.
It is our sadness and it is also the foundation of our hope. It is our fragility but also a source of vitality. It is a story that is utterly shattering – but among the embers, there are sparks of hope. It is all this – and it is ours.
I was coming to this conclusion long before this summer. But during the trip the message became clearer to me by the day, and every day since we returned.
So, following yesterday’s lesson on remembering – Zachor – today let’s discuss the second life-affirming lesson of what I am calling our Torah of Auschwitz.
In the Torah of Sinai, Leviticus 18:5, states “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”
From this the rabbis derived the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, which states that almost any Jewish law can be circumvented if it will save a life. Cases given in the Talmud include, Sabbath violations such as rescuing a child from the sea, breaking down a door about to close on an infant and extinguishing a fire to save a life. In the Mishna we read (B Yoma 83a) that someone seized with a “life threatening” hunger can break the fast on Yom Kippur, and in 1848, during a cholera epidemic, Rabbi Israel Salanter ordered his community to disregard the fast in order to preserve their health. Famously, he ate in front them. So from the start, Judaism has always been so flexible as to have a built in GPS that allows for instant recalculation of religious obligations during times of disruption.
But here’s where the Torah of Auschwitz takes over and takes Pikuach Nefesh to the next level.
The last stop on our trip this summer was the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, home of the 1936 Games, that grotesque pageant of Nazi propaganda punctured by Jesse Owens’ heroics. At the stadium, it was positively chilling for us to sit just behind the Fuhrer’s box as close as John Wilkes Booth was to Lincoln. The architecture of this magnificent structure screams of the power of brute force and the exaltation of the fair haired Aryan body.
And our guide, Dennis, who was not Jewish, said, “You know, Hitler had it all wrong.”
He explained. The Nazis’ ideology was based on social Darwinism, which asserted the survival of the fittest. Hitler assumed that meant the strongest, and he tried to pervert the Olympic movement to use these games as a showcase for his racial theories of Aryan physical superiority.
“But that’s not what Darwin was talking about at all,” Dennis said, repeating something that I figure he learned in the German educational system, sometime after Meryl Streep’s TV miniseries. “Darwin was talking about adaptation.”
In asserting this, Darwin echoed the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” Our superheroes never win through brute force. They win with courage and persistence, ingenuity and compassion. We took pride in Wonder Woman Gal Gadot this summer, whose motto was, “Only love can save this world.”
Those species destined to survive are not the ones who are most macho. Not the ones who can run the fastest or jump the highest. The species that survive are the ones who can adjust on the fly, the ones who are pliable, the ones who can recalculate, who can figure out how best to take lemons and make them delicious.
The Hebrew word for change is built right into the name of this holiday, Shanah. Rosh Hashanah means “the beginning of change.” To be Jewish is, at its very essence, to be able not merely to manage change, but to flourish amidst the chaos. That’s the key to surviving a 4,000-year history of expulsions, deportations and pogroms and it’s what we can teach the world.
At Sinai, we became the People of the Book.
At Auschwitz, we became the People of the Rope-a-dope.
And so, on July 13, 2017, 22 pilgrims from Temple Beth El stood and posed for a photo under in Hitler’s stadium and under those desecrated Olympic rings. We snapped photos of his enormous bell engraved with his damn swastikas.
But we were there. And he was not. His box was empty.
At times of great stress, Jews have always been able to adapt, and never more so than during and following the Holocaust. And we have much expertise to share with the world.
Many of us have grappled with the meaning of the Holocaust, this existential earthquake that changed everything. But for the most part, for the past seventy years we’ve limped along, dazed, pretending things haven’t changed. It’s comforting, but so much of our tradition has become hollow and meaningless to the younger generation – which was to be expected, following the most disruptive event of all time.
But now, 70 years later, something is happening. Something new is emerging.
You know, it fits a pattern. Every time an enormous disruption has happened in the Jewish world, about seven decades later the dust begins to settle and the Jewish people enter periods of astounding creativity.
The paradigm for this was the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 resulting in utter devastation in Jerusalem and the exile of a significant amount of the population. In 520, following the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 538, the sacrificial cult resumed in what was to become the Second Temple, whose construction was completed in 515, almost exactly 70 years after the original temple was destroyed. But Judaism underwent tremendous transformation during that generation, including, according to many scholars, the coalescing and editing of biblical sources into a written canon.
Psalm 121 enshrined that moment of return in saying, “When we returned to Zion, we were as if in a dream.” Centuries later, the Talmud expanded on that verse with the story of Honi the Circle Drawer, who, while contemplating that verse, wondering how it is possible for 70 years to be “like a dream.” He then slept for 70 years and when he awoke, this happened:
One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.
In other words, Honi has learned that it takes time for the seeds of renewal to take root following a disruption. In Jewish history, 70 years seems to be the magic number.
Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and 70 years later, revolutionary Kabbalistic works were being composed in Safed.
The year 1648 was a dark one for Eastern European Jewry, as the Cossacks led by Khmelnitsky killed upwards of 100,000 Jews in Poland. Almost exactly 70 years later, the Baal Shem Tov introduced the Hasidic movement to Polish Jewry. In early Hasidic literature, his followers themselves draw a line from 1648 to their teacher’s career, claiming that he “awakened the people Israel from their long coma and brought them renewed joy in the nearness of God.” (Yitzchak Buxbaum, “The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov” p.15)
When you study the folklore of the early Hasidic masters, you see that the Cossack massacres were still very real to them. Those tales are filled with the pathos of illness and poverty and loss – but they took that sadness, and, as Abraham Joshua Heschel explained, turned it into song. Only after 70 years could they do that. Otherwise, to sing and dance would have been to dance on someone’s fresh grave. They were considered radicals by the Jewish establishment, but their ability to innovate in the face of profound disruption is what enabled their form of Judaism to become the norm in all the modern Jewish movements.
When it comes to disruptive innovation in Jewish history, there is no greater example than what happened after the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE; a generation later, the great works of the rabbis began to take shape, the Mishna and the Talmud.
It was in at that time that one of the most remarkable evenings in Jewish history took place.
Every Passover at our Seders, toward the beginning of the long section that many of us skip – er – abridge – there is a section describing five rabbis in B’nai Brak. You know, the one that includes Rabbi Yossi, whom your great Aunt Sadie insists on calling Jose. They stayed up all night before their students came to tell them it was time for the morning Sh’ma.
What was going on at this time? It was a calamity that was unprecedented; on this fateful Passover, the emperor Hadrian was planning to build a temple to Jupiter on that very spot where the destroyed Jewish temple still lay smoldering, in ruins. So these five rabbis in Bnai Brak sat up all night reinventing the observance of Passover. Some of them could still recall the power of the sacrifices that were held at the temple when it stood. They needed to do something or the memory of those great Passovers would fade away, and along with it, so would the Jewish people. So they threw together this ceremony with a little plate with a bone, bitter herbs and an egg, with some wine and matzah on the side.
Just a makeshift, temporary solution. Their students weren’t even in the room with them. No wives. No kids. Not even Aunt Sadie. They thought they were just applying a quick, insufficient, lousy band aid over a deep, deep wound.
But here we are, two thousand years later, and that stopgap solution of five B’nai Brak rabbis has become the most powerful and meaningful ritual in all of Jewish history, one that still has great power even among Jews who have long since stopped doing anything else Jewishly. And the Seder has been reinvented again and again – with over 4,000 different Haggadahs published, one to fit any occasion.
That’s how Jews adapted after surviving the second most horrific catastrophe in our history.
And so, 70 years after THE MOST disruptive event, the Holocaust – is… now.
We need to be like those rabbis in Bnai Brak.
As Albert Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
The classic example of the consequences of not adapting to disruption in the business world is Kodak, which was as synonymous with photography as Kleenex is to tissues. But Kodak’s Moment ended when it turned down digital photography and placed all their bets on film. Bad choice.
Our nation and world right now are in the midst of a period of great political and economic upheaval, which places us in great danger. Disruption rules everywhere, in business, medicine and communications, in our climate and in our politics and in technology. Some adapt and thrive. Some don’t and die.
Extremism flourishes in such an environment of chaos, and democracy can be challenged to the limits. Our group learned about that as we stood outside the Reichstag.
But from destroyed worlds, new possibilities emerge. It took the rabbis decades to reinvent Passover. After Auschwitz, it took the Jewish people only three years to return our people to our ancient home in Zion and establish the State of Israel. But still, we are at a crossroads.
The Maggid of Dubno (Jacob ben Wolf Kranz) in the 18th century was once asked how he always came up with perfect tales for every occasion. He replied, with a story:
“Once I was walking in the forest, and saw tree after tree with a target drawn on it, and at the center of each target an arrow. I then came upon a little boy with a bow in his hand. “Are you the one who shot all these arrows?”, I asked. “Yes!” he replied. “Then how did you always hit the center of the target?” I asked. “Simple”, said the boy, “first I shoot the arrow, then I draw the target.”
The Hebrew word for “sin” literally means “to miss the mark” as one would with a bow and arrow. No wonder we keep missing! The target keeps moving. Over the last 70 years, so much has changed that at times it seems like we aren’t even aiming for the right tree.
And so the time has come to do what our GPS does all the time – recalculate.
The Torah of Sinai says, Judaism has to be flexible enough to save individual lives. That’s Pikuach Nefesh.
The Torah of Auschwitz, which reflects Jewish historical experience with a Darwinian twist, says that Judaism must be flexible enough to save ITSELF – while remaining true to its core values.
Over the past generation, our congregation has done a remarkable job of staying ahead of the curve in so many areas, including musical and liturgical innovation, education and particularly on inclusiveness. But these curves keep coming faster and faster, like a drive in North Stamford at night. In the blink of an eye, echoing the changes within Conservative Judaism, we have completely redrawn the map regarding the role of women in Jewish life and the embrace of the LGBT community, altering 2,000 years of practice, and for good reason.
And now, have embraced with vigor move toward a broader acceptance of interfaith families, which within Conservative Judaism has suddenly morphed into a move by some notable rabbis to perform intermarriages. My purpose here isn’t to go into a full-scale analysis or make any dramatic announcements. For now, let me say that while it is not something I can do, I am listening closely to the conversations that are happening, abut most of all I’m encouraged that more and more interfaith couples – and other non-traditional families – are finding a true home here, knowing that they and their spouses will be welcomed and loved unconditionally. We know that we need to stay ahead of this curve too.
And as we speak we face a profound crisis in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, a relationship that will need to be redefined.
On so many fronts, we are steering the ship through turbulent waters. The Torah of Auschwitz calls on us to navigate using the stars on the ceiling of that synagogue in Terezin, never losing sight of our destination, never losing confidence, never losing hope.
In Judaism and in the world at large, the pace of change has never been so dramatic as it is now. But the answer isn’t to pretend it isn’t happening. The answer is to adapt.
One of our congregants, Carl Shapiro, was in the South a few weeks ago, in Oxford, Mississippi on business. He saw that a Holocaust survivor, a Jew named Marion Blumenthal Lazan was scheduled speak at a chapel on the campus of the University of Mississippi, and he was curious to see what type of crowd she would draw.
Let me add that the Jewish population at Ole Miss is so tiny that if you go on the International Hillel website it is listed at zero percent of the overall student body. Hey, there are only 13 synagogues in the whole state.
Well, the place was packed. Hundreds were in the room. People were standing three-deep on the sides and they were sitting in center aisle. And even though the acoustics were not great, there was no problem hearing her since everyone was so captivated and moved by what she had to tell.
Also, outside there was only one campus police car parked and no protesters or hecklers in sight.
This was just after Charlottesville, mind you.
It blew Carl away, and the photo I saw blew me away.
And I bet a good number of those students will be playing “Call of Duty WW2” on November 3rd.
From this we learn three important lessons, and with that I will conclude:
One – we have become the storytellers of the Shoah, the Hasidic masters of a new Jewish narrative, one that is captivating the world more than ever before. Marian Blumenthal Lazan and other survivors are leaving the stage of history. We need to learn how to tell their story, our story, with love and conviction. We need to embrace it with bursting pride at the incomprehensible acts of heroism and faith that we have witnessed. We need to celebrate who we are – and that is who we are.
Two, we need to bring our message everywhere. Even – especially – to places like Ole Miss, whose school colors, after all, are both blue and red. The Torah of Auschwitz transcends all political boundaries; and Americans need to hear our story right now every bit as much as Germans do – maybe even more.
And finally, three, the Shoah Narrative includes a moral message that we have long championed: not brute force, not blood and soil; but adaptation; that is the true survival of the fittest. We float like we-never-saw-another -butterfly, and we sting like a bee.
There is no greater task that we have as post Holocaust Jews than to teach the human race how to live with hope and dignity, like those heroes of the secret synagogue of Terezin – how to rise above the raging torrent – and how to survive with grace and love.
Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, stronger, higher … No! Not by might, nor by speed, but by My resilient, creative and visionary spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
For while some might be able to long jump 29 feet and pole vault to the sky, our eyes can see much farther – v’techezenah aynaynu b’shuvcha l’tziyon b’rachamim … Even from a dusty Terezin chamber, our eyes can see clear through – to Jerusalem!