18 Elul 5778
29 August 2018
Books of life – retaining the legacy
The path of Elul, leading towards Tishrei, provides the chance to train ourselves with kavanah intention and focus devekut, as if preparing for a major athletics event. The “finish line” is always Tishrei 10, but we are only ever competing against our own better selves in the critical review of our own track record for each year, as we recite prayers and poems, read timely reflections and listen to the Shofar in anticipation of Rosh ha’Shanah and Yom Kippur.
As an image of the cycle of repentance, at first glance, ‘a race’ may seem an inadequate metaphor. David E Fishman’s, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (Foreedge 2017, available through Booktopia etc) invites us to reflect on the various races we run in life and provides an apt moment for pause. Book Smugglers chronicles the courage of those who understood that saving extant written holy documents, sifrei kodesh, would be a key legacy whenever the Shoah madness came to an end. Forced labourers were charged with the task of categorising klafim parchments, documents and books for destruction and retention (those which ought to end up in eventual museums). Despite the engulfing destruction of the Holocaust they could see around them, the price many would pay as individuals did not deter them. Every attempt to steal and preserve precious manuscripts from under the noses of the Nazis, was truly a sacred act sanctifying God’s name, Kiddush haShem.
Each of us who takes a moment to prepare, to reflect, to honour, to weep, to remember, to study and to embrace the cycle of the approaching chagim, holds the past in our hands. Each letter of our venerated past is a fragment of holiness. Each word insists on our collective Jewish future, in which our individual deeds – like those of the giborim courageous individuals of the past – might also be worthy of being written in books worth saving, should the need ever arise again. It is against that standard that we undertake our annual accounting of the soul, an individual and communal heshbon ha’nefesh.
--Rabbi Aviva Kipen