It is now 27 years since my eyes, which until then, had been thought to be open and taking in reality, were for the first time actually opened. The occasion was my first experience of Central Europe, and the actuality of what had happened to the Jewish community there. It was an amazing experience, and I want to share it with you.
For 25 years at that time I had been teaching children, young adults and adults – in fact, Jews of all ages – about the effect of the Holocaust on the Jewish centres of Central Europe, particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia, which had been the centre of Jewish culture and inspiration for many centuries.
I had been teaching how the great centre of Jewish life that was Poland came to an abrupt end on 1st of September, 1939 - how centuries of Jewish culture and scholarship and vibrant thought and living were suddenly and brutally ended.
Yes, I had taught all this – but the reality of seeing it myself brought home to me the realization that I had been amazingly naïve over the previous 25 years, because it suddenly dawned on me, as I walked through the streets of Domazlice, from where our/this Holocaust Scroll comes, looking for the synagogue and looking for a surviving member of the Jewish community there – and found not a synagogue, but the Czech Narodny Bank built on the site where the synagogue had stood, and found not one Jew living in Domazlice; as I stood in the ancient synagogue in Holesov which was the centre of a large and flourishing community and where a great Jewish scholar had once taught and worshipped, but that synagogue is today a museum cared for by a wonderful little old gentile woman – because there is not one Jew left in Holesov.
As I experienced Domazlice and Holesov and Prague and Krakov, I realised that in spite of 25 years of teaching with my heart, I had not in my head understood what had really happened - that in fact Hitler had virtually succeeded in what he had set out to achieve “vernishtung der Judische rasse in Europa” – the destruction of the Jewish race/people in Europe. Central Europe was, in fact, ‘Judenrein’ – empty of Jews and of meaningful Jewish life! In fact, Central Europe is Jewishly one vast plain of Jewish emptiness.
And as I stood there with my family, just the four of us Jews in that vast plain of emptiness, feeling so very alone, I thought to myself “How vitally important are we, in Chatswood, in Sydney, in Australia and in the rest of the free world, in ensuring Jewish Survival, and the survival of Judaism, for without Jews there can be no Judaism”.
I am reminded of a midrash, a rabbinic tale concerning this question: “On the way to Mount Moriah to offer up his son, Isaac, as an offering to God, Abraham met Satan, who quite logically told him that if he, Abraham, went ahead and sacrificed his son, that would be the end of the Jewish people, since Isaac was his only legitimate heir. To which Abraham replied, “My task is to do God’s will and to obey God; God’s problem is the problem of Jewish survival!”.
In Abraham’s time, it was God’s problem because there was only one Isaac, there was only one descendant of Abraham to continue the line.
I was reminded of the philosophy of Rabbi Professor Emil Fackenheim whose writings form the theological underpinning of the survival syndrome of post-Holocaust Jewish thinking – “I confess I used to be highly critical of Jewish philosophies which seemed to advocate no more than survival for survival’s sake. I have changed my mind. I now believe that, in this present, unbelievable age, even a mere collective commitment to Jewish group survival for it’s own sake, is a momentous response, with the greatest implications. I am convinced that future historians will understand it, not, as our present detractors would have it, as the tribal response mechanism of a fossil, but rather as a profound albeit as yet fragmentary, act of faith, in an age of crisis to which the response might well have been either flight in total disarray or complete despair.”
The change of heart induced Fackenheim to suggest that one additional mitzvah, an additional commandment, should be added to the 613 traditional mitzvot recognized in Jewish Halachic observance. “The authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another posthumous victory.”
The question is, of course, whether this answer is an authentic reflection of Jewish theology, or is it a mere attempt to elevate the neurotic clamour for survival to a respectable doctrine. It is a haunting question. Whatever we Jews do in the future as a people and as community of faith will depend on the answer.
But of course the question is raised, “Is survival just for survival’s sake enough?” The sociologist Bruno Bettelheim poses the question with his statement, “To survive, one has to want to survive for a purpose!” – and it was Abraham Joshua Heschel, that great luminary of the 20th century who hated the term ‘Jewish Survival’. He said, “Survival!? Es passt nit –Survival.” He gave as his reason for his hatred of the use of the term ‘Survival” a verse from the Psalms, from the Hallel which we sing every festival morning: Lo Amut, ki ech’yeh “I will not die, but live! Va’asaper ma’asei Yah: “and I will tell of God’s deeds.”
Heschel asks, “Why the repetition, why the apparent redundancy? Lo Amut, ki ech’yeh – I will not die, but I will live” Surely this is redundant, surely this is a repetition? If I do not die, then surely I must live!?” “Aha” said Heschel, “No! No! No! ‘Lo Amut’ - “I will not die” means ‘I will be undead. ‘Lo Amut” does not mean : ‘to be alive’ – therefore Ki ech’yeh – ‘Therefore I will not die but I will live’ - therefore I will not be merely undead, but I will live – properly, fully!’
You know that at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, after the N’ilah service, it is the custom to link Yom Kippur with the next festival – the festival of Sukkot which falls 5 days later. As soon as we have broken our fast, Jewish tradition has it that should make at least a token start on the building of our Sukkah.
Well, forgive me therefore if I tell you a Sukkot story tonight. After all, if Jewish tradition can link Yom Kippur and Sukkot then so can I!
The story is told by a rabbi of his childhood. When he was a little boy, his grandfather, his Zayde, his Opi, would take him on Sukkot to the synagogue – and he especially loved to go with his grandfather? Why? Because his grandfather would give him a job to do: he let him carry the Etrog and the Lulav – the citron and the palm-branch. It was his annual treat.
One day, as they were walking to shul, the little boy asked: “Zayde, why do we need an Etrog?” So he told him that since Sukkot is a harvest festival in Israel, and since the Etrog is a fruit of Israel, that’s why we have an Etrog on Sukkot which is the Harvest Festival.
“But Zayde, is the Etrog the only Israeli fruit? Why can’t we have an apple or a banana?” The Zayde answered, “You ask a good question, my son. You see, the Etrog is the only fruit that does not rot. If it rots, then it is not a proper Etrog – perhaps a lemon, but not an Etrog!”
“If that’s the case” said the little boy, “If that’s the case, why do we need a new Etrog each year?”
“You’re right,” said the grandfather. “I tell you what. After Sukkot, take the Etrog and put it in a box and put it away in a cupboard for next year.
So the little boy, let’s call him Yankel, did so. The year rolled round and it was time to get ready for Sukkot. The Zayde said, “Come, let’s go to shul.” And Yankel said, “Sure – but where is the Etrog?” And the Zayde said, “Don’t you remember? You put it away last year!” So Yankel fetched it and opened the box and unwrapped the paper.
He cried out: “Zayde, look!”
“What’s happened? Did the Etrog rot?”
“No’, said the little boy, “It’s shriveled, it’s shrunk it’s all dried up! It looks like a nut rather than a beautiful Etrog!”
The Etrog survived! But iss och’n’avay a survival – what a survival! Is this the survival for which Rabbi Akiva gave his life? Is this the survival for which Jews dashed into burning synagogues to save the Torah scrolls? Is this the survival for which Jews marched into the abyss during the Shoah?
No, my friends, ‘Survival’ is not the answer. The answer is “Survival Plus!” Again, we look at Bruno Bettelheim’s words ‘To survive, one has to want to survive – to survive for a purpose!’
So now our question must be, “Survival? For what?” What is the point not only of Jewish survival, but the survival of Judaism?
It is amazing how many people have difficulty in answering this question. So many agree that Jewish Survival is important, but cannot give a valid reason for the survival of Judaism.
One of the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity is the belief concerning heaven and hell, concerning salvation. Christianity stresses the ‘life after death in heaven’. Judaism has no teaching concerning heaven, but it does propose the concept of two worlds - Olam Hazeh meaning this world, and Olam Haba – normally understood to mean “the world to come”, perhaps meaning life hereafter – a very difficult concept indeed.
I discussed this some years ago with a post Bar/Bat Mitzvah class and a young woman gave me an insight that perhaps could be a little more practical than what is normally understood. She said, “Rabbi, I always thought that Olam Hazeh - this world - means ‘the here and the now’ , and that olam haba - the world to come – means this same world, but in 20 or 30 or 100 or 5773 years time.
And in truth, what a beautiful thought. There are some of us who can accept the idea of a “world to come” as being the hereafter – but there are many among us who cannot – and surely the concept of olam haba –. ‘the world to come’ as being this world of ours in the future, here on earth, the world of our children, of our grandchildren and of our future descendants - surely this concept gives us an ideal to which we can all adhere and aspire.
And, of course, the basic teaching of Judaism, its ultimate aim, is expressed in the line which we find in the Aleinu prayer – our goal as Jews is l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai – ‘to perfect the world under God’s unchallenged rule’ – to make of this world a better place than we found it - to take olam hazeh, to take this world, and work within it according to the values and moral teachings of Judaism and to turn Olam hazeh into a better place so that when olam haba arrives for our children and grandchildren and for our descendants, it will be a much better place than it is now.
Now, just thinking of the task ahead – to make this world a better place – seems like a massive challenge, an almost impossible challenge – far beyond the capabilities of the humble amongst us. But I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of my many doctors on the question of weight loss. He said, “You need to lose at least 5 kilograms!” I rolled my eyes in disbelief (as I have done on many occasions when this question of weight loss is raised by my doctors). “Ah,” he said, “You think that it is too much for you. But you don’t need to do it all at once. 5 Kilos is a lot – but if you aim to lose 100 grams a week – which is surely not too difficult – then after 5 weeks, you will have lost 500 grams, and in a year you will have lost the 5 kilos!”
The same thing applies to us and the concept of tikun olam – the improvement of the world. We don’t have to do it all at once. All we need to do is to make sure that this world is a slightly better place than it was when we came into it.
Anne Frank: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.
A great rabbi once said: said: Lo alecha ha’ml’achah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hi’batel mimena” – It is not your duty to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it completely
I was recently asked in my Monday group, “Rabbi, what can we do to make this world a better place?” A whole lot of smart-Alec answers leapt to my mind – but then I realized that it is a serious question. There are so many areas in which our activities can improve the world in which we are now living. And the obvious way is to consider how our actions will impact on other human beings.
Do we give enough support, financial or otherwise, to those who are striving to relieve suffering? Do we try to improve the situation of Asylum Seekers? Do we do anything at all to assist the homeless? Do we act to assist the needy? Are we involved in any way with the various agencies which exist to assist those who need help? Do we do anything at all to ensure that our environment is left for our descendants? What about teaching the importance of ‘Courage to Care’, as the B’nai B’rith organization does?
This is what Jewish survival is all about – this is what Bruno Bettelheim meant when he said “To survive, one has to want to survive for a purpose.” This is worth surviving for. This is “Survival – Plus!” This is being more than UNDEAD. This is being TRULY Alive!
INDICATE HOLOCAUST SCROLL TO CONGREGATION
When I think of the Jewish emptiness of Domazlice; when I think of the now non-Jewish existence of Holesov; when I think of the great Jewish emptiness of Central Europe – I know that THIS is a survivor, that this survivor has a message to us all – to all of us who are here today, we who are the survivors, the remnant. Its message is, like Emil Fackenheim’s: Survive – Don’t let Hitler celebrate a posthumous victory.
It’s message is like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s – Survive - yes, BUT LO AMUT, KI YICH’YEH I will not die, I will not merely be UNDEAD, but rather I will live, I will survive, but for a purpose
Its message, like little Yankel’s Etrog is SURVIVAL IS NOT ENOUGH It must be a fresh, a live and dynamic survival – a survival for a purpose.
Its message is like that of the Aleinu, is to survive l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai – to improve the world, not the world up there, but the world here, OUR world, so that the Olam Haba – the world that is to come for our descendants, will be a better world because of us, because we tried, albeit in our own small way, because we survived – and in doing so, we have a purpose.
This is the message of THIS survivor- we are charged with what it represents. May it be God’s will that we prove worthy of that charge, of that sacred task.