September 25, 2023 -
This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the keynote address shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Senior Rabbi, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple at the Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah service for the Jewish community of Cleveland, Sunday, April 23, 2017. We encourage you to share comments below or questions, to share the link to these remarks by email, or to post to social media such as Facebook or Twitter to encourage continued dialogue and discussion on its themes.
A little over a week ago during Shabbat Pesach, a survivor spoke at our Shabbat morning minyan at Fairmount Temple. Instead of conveying a personal narrative of survivorship, she spoke k’ilu hee yatza mi-mitrayim, she told her story of personal redemption from Egypt. The community listened with rapt attention as the words conveyed by the survivor told of the meaning of our observance of Passover.
This survivor’s story resembles the life of Moses – whose journey to redemption began at the side of the river. She was born at the confluence of the Labe and Vltava Rivers, approximately 35kim north of Prague, in a town of the Czech Republic known as Melnick. By the time most Holocaust survivors began their journey out of the brutal conditions of the Nazi regime, many of them were still young and capable of seizing and making the most of the freedom of life here in Cleveland, in Detroit or Miami, in Tel Aviv or Yerushalayim. But by the time the death camps were liberated, the survivor who spoke here on Shabbat Pesach was almost 95 years old. You see, the survivor who told us her story of redemption is the Torah scroll I carried in my arms into this sanctuary and placed in the ark alongside the Holocaust Torah scrolls of our sister synagogues here in Cleveland.
I ask you now to reflect within your heart. Consider what it must have taken, what human courage, what acts of righteousness and decency made it possible for each of these survivors not just to arrive to us intact. Imagine how these scrolls, once buried beneath homes, once smuggled in bags that likely disguised them as garbage, protected them from the attention of the Nazis who stole them from our people, only for them to be lifted and read again in celebration of one of our most precious Jewish traditions.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, himself a survivor, taught that to live as a Jew, “means to feel the soul in everything, in others and in our own existence.” If Heschel was right, then these scrolls have lived like Jews. They have felt the soul, the spirit and the heroism we honor today. They stand here with us like Jews, dignified by the truth as our Torah wisdom understands it. At the center of each of their stories is the cry our tradition beckons us with today: Lo Tisna Achicha Bilvavecha: Do not hate your brother in your heart! Do not hate, these surviving Torah scrolls demand. Do not repeat in your own day the indifference and depravity that once threatened Jews.
I think about the conversations I’ve had with my own grandmother, a survivor from Poland from whom Hitler stole nearly everything. At her 100th birthday party this winter in Florida, my Grandma Esther confessed to that sometimes, she thinks God forgot about her. She said it with a gentle laugh. Because for her she was expressing gratitude for God having forgotten about her long enough to witness the mazel that comes with a century in your family. But more common in her ten decades on this Earth, “did you forget about me” was asked of God as a measure of staggering human pain. So many of our people were treated like garbage, or worse, only to emerge, protected, held by a human community, only to wonder why, to what end did they survive?
Rabbi Heschel might’ve said that these Jews survived so that they could “feel the soul in everything” including the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another Heschel taught, our souls were like candlewicks waiting to be lit.” He explained that like such candlewicks waiting for a flame to touch them, so do [Jews] wait for the action that has a slight bit of pure intention, a grain of refinement. In each of us flickers a longing for Shabbatness, for beauty, for serenity.” Let us consider that metaphor together. We are, each of us, even after all the hardship our people have faced, each of us is a “candlewick waiting to be lit.”
Our tradition prompts us over and again. Light the wick, it says. Make of your lives a light. Choose blessing. Choose hope. In our homes lighting the candle wick marks the onset of a festival or a Shabbat. In our work as leaders of Jewish communities, synagogues and Federations, our efforts are linked to the 70 elders whom Moses commissioned in the wilderness. To give them authority to govern through the perils of traveling with thousands of people in the wilderness, Moses transferred some of the spirit within him to leaders of our people. How? He used his torch to light theirs. Indeed Moses himself is described as having shown how a Jewish life can be a candlewick waiting to be lit. Due to his constancy and devotion to God, due to his willingness and his family’s patience with his involvement in the liberation of our oppressed people, due to all this, some of the radiant light God intended for Torah, became part of Moses own beaming complexion, when he emerged from the mountain with his face so radiant that the people had to avert their eyes.
Moses living like a candlewick waiting to be lit meant his accepting a commission to free an oppressed people he could have left for dead. We too can live in this way. We must emulate in this moment in history the gevurah, the heroism, the resistance, emotionally and physically, it took for each survivor still alive to remain with us. For them to outlast their tormentors, tremendous resilience was needed.
For resistance against oppression, resistance against hatred is hard. But it is very much what living as a Jew can be about today. Today our determination can bring light not just to temples where our Torah scrolls are read and studied. Rather it can bring light and radiance to our marketplaces, where Torah must be lived. It can bring light and wellbeing to all our Jewish community institutions, from our community centers and summer camps where we and our children connect and play, to the halls of our capitols where Jews advocate for laws in our nation to be fair and humane. Our lives lived with gevurah will strengthen and protect the cemeteries of our community, so recently vandalized in our nation. And there must always be radiance and vibrancy to the places where we commit our volunteer energies or contributions of tzedekah, to the places where we advocate for Israel to secure a meaningful peace and wherever Jews raise their voices to express our fierce commitment to a reparation and healing in the world. Like candlewicks ready to be lit, yearning to be lit, we must be, and I say it with conviction from this bimah, that we must be Jews who take action not just when Jews are in harm’s way, but when any living being is treated like garbage, oppressed, trod upon, forgotten.
This is what I heard our surviving Torah teach last week when we gathered around her at our Shabbat morning minyan. She told us to observe Passover because we are free of Egypt. We are free, she taught, and so must our lives be committed to redemption. Not unlike Moses, in our quietest, gentlest, loneliest moments, when no one is watching or listening, we must live attentively and responsibly. When no one else but us would witness us, Judaism demands we live with our eyes wide open. Why? Because at any moment the modest bush before us might show that it too was always a candlewick waiting to be lit. That is the story of Jewish responsibility our Torah conveys each time we open her.
Lest we forget that sense of responsibility, let me conclude with a story I once heard from the past president of Yeshiva University Richard Joel. This is a story about one who sought but failed to live up to the responsibility we owe our fellow human beings. The story takes place many years ago, on a dark night in a small rural town in upstate New York. You see, in the story, a man in a car felt he simply had to get where he wanted to go quickly. So rather than wait the extra time he was required, the man decided late at night to take a chance and cross a set of train tracks speedily, even though there might be an oncoming train. Sadly, his decision was fatal, and the train struck the car and caused the driver to be killed.
But the story doesn’t end there. You see, it seems the driver’s widow took the railroad to court and the case came down to the testimony of one key witness. There was a night watchman who was to wave a lantern at the crossing, his job to warn the cars of oncoming trains. The night watchman testified in court, telling the judge: “As the car approach from down the road, I took my lantern and went to the road. There I began to wave my lantern back and forth while the train approached. I waved my lantern to warn the car, but it kept coming. And the train got closer. But the car would not slow down. So I stood out there and waved my lantern furiously. I waved it back and forth, continually. But the driver, he ignored me and he drove right to the tracks. The watchman continued, saying “I was terrified. I was horrified. I saw with my own eyes how he was killed by the oncoming train.”
When the testimony was finished, a moment passed. Then the plaintiff’s attorney rose to cross examine him, and said: “I have just one question: was the lantern lit?” And at that, the watchman began to shake and tears started down his check. And the question went unanswered, for his silence said it all. The night watchman, the one whose task was to guard this flame, he just didn’t know if he had kindled the flame.
It is Yom Hashoah V’Gevurah. I love our people and our public commitment to act in the world so that a Shoah can never be repeated. But I am afraid. I am afraid that perhaps we have not guarded the flame. For too long we and our communities have carried our lanterns. We have carefully held and protected the container in which the flame might dwell and shed light.
Our studies to date, our prayers, our activities to better our world, they’ve helped us grab ahold of the lantern. Our teachers taught us when and where to wave the lantern back and forth with great vigor and spirit. But there is an oncoming train to right where we are standing, and only we can kindle the flame. Only we can light our Jewish souls aflame, each and every day. Only we can protect the world from a Shoah because generation after generation, we have been taught what a hateful pogrom looks like from the inside. And if we are to live up to the purpose of our faith, we had better respond to the most decisive question life will ever throw at us. Is our lantern lit? Is our candlewick lit?
For if it is, we’ll stand up and speak out even when it is unpopular. We’ll be willing to sacrifice what is convenient for what is driven by our conscience. And then we’ll never stop demonstrating that no one in this world is to be forgotten or written off. Judaism tells us that no one on this planet, no one has our permission to treat others like garbage, not in Syria nor Chechnya, not in Cleveland nor in Kabul. Committing on this holiday to guard this mitzvah permanently will fill our house, the whole house of Israel, with light. Keyn Yehi Ratzon, So may it radiate for even God to see.