October 2, 2023 -
This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple are the Kol Nidre Congregational Service sermon of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Friday, September 29, 2017. We encourage you to make comments below and share the link to this post by email, Facebook or Twitter, to engender further conversation of the topics it raises.
The words for which this service is named, Kol Nidre, are about something that makes us uneasy. Kol Nidre is about broken promises. Tonight on this pulpit, when unfulfilled vows weigh on our hearts, I want to ask an uncomfortable array of questions. These questions all begin with the words: “what if…”
-What if the promise of your legal status in this country were suddenly in jeopardy?
-What if your children told you they felt conspicuous & unsafe practicing Judaism?
-What if new leaders on our city councils and school boards, began to echo the rhetoric of the alt-right, questioning whether Jews, immigrants and multi-culturalists were replacing true citizens of America?
I know such questions are difficult on your ears. Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to ask them! Given the positive trajectory of history, such a litany of questions is supposed to sound preposterous. We are making progress as Jews. Aren’t we? Targeting of our communities based on race, religion or national origin, that’s history. Right? I’m sad to say the answer isn’t clear.
The 1st century, Rabbi Hillel explained: B’chol dor Vador Chayav Adam l’irot et atzmo, k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim. This means: in each generation, Jews must see themselves as having personally crossed the border from oppression. It is the quintessential Jewish mindset: we personally remember what it was like to leave Egypt and run for the promised land. We tell the story first-person. The Exodus happened to me. It was my weary feet. It was my aching heart. It was my conviction to live where all people could be free. And…truth be told: we have scarcely needed Hillel’s reminder to remember our tzuris. Why? Because our legal status was tenuous. Why? Because our own families told us what it was like to watch their nations break promises and pass laws targeting Jews, ghettoizing us, and legalizing our deportation without delay.
We are not just Jews. We are Hebrews. This term carries the same root of the verb, La’avor, to cross over, as we did many times across many borders. If historians called us wandering Jews, that was a euphemism. We weren’t wandering. We were running! We were refugees leaving behind our homes, determinedly crossing border after border, worried for what might be confiscated from us. We were concerned for both our wellbeing and the continuation of our heritage. This narrative was the basis for many of us educated in the last half of the 20th century. It highlights our historic expertise in keeping the values of our heritage even while on the run, desperately evading those who’d seek our destruction.
These values are being tested in recent days. For just imagine that your entire lived memory took place in America. Imagine that you were brought over to our country without documentation when you were a child. Then you have grew up, attended school and begun to contribute to our culture and economy. Yet you were just told by the only nation you’ve ever known that it is time to pack your bags. This group of “dreamers” alongside numerous other groups, such as the refugee population fleeing unrest and chaos in many parts of the world, are genuinely afraid for their lives and their futures.
In this tumultuous time, Jews are being asked to stand up and speak for these vulnerable groups. Why us? The first reason is that our history has taught us the real dangers of isolationism as a national policy. But another reason is: we’ve made it well known that Jews are k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim, We have taught the world of our enduring commitment to remember oppression and never ever forget to be its foe. Whether you personally empathize with the groups I’ve identified or not, certainly we can all agree that now is a good time to question what is it about Judaism that enabled us to run from oppression while still holding on to our faith? How did we do it? How did Judaism survive all the interrogations of the guards on the borders of we’ve crossed, whose job was to contain us, coerce us or even kill us?
I believe we were able to save our faith because of the 36 different times the Torah demanded that, no matter what we go through, we encounter stranger with empathy. For knowing what it feels like to be the target of oppression is not an end in itself. It is a catalyst! It is supposed to inspire us, living in the freest society on earth, to help those still under the yoke of broken promises and depraved cruelty.
That is as true today as it was in the 1930’s when my Grandma Esther, then a teenager but now 100 years old, ran from a shtetl in Poland across dozens of borders to the home of her uncle Eddie. Eighty-five years after she, a refugee, arrived in the U.S. with nearly all of her family killed by Hitler, my Grandma Esther and the safe harbor she and her faith found in her uncle’s home in Detroit are proof to me that our Judaism was saved by Jewish immigrants and refugees who ran from oppression but didn’t forget what their faith demands of them in terms of support for those still in harm’s way.
What kept Judaism alive for my Grandma and many others is something no border guard can confiscate. It was her courage, her knowledge, and her belief that each and every person is worth the life of the whole world. Let me say it again more universally. I believe that we Jews still remain on earth because of our courage, our knowledge, and our belief in the infinite worth and dignity of every human life.
There is a story which gives testimony to all of these traits and values of the Jewish people. It is a story that takes place in Poland in a place called Auschwitz where every promise ever made to the Jews of Poland was broken. No, not broken, shattered. Told in a collection of short stories called Moments of Reprieve, most every moment in the story was witnessed by a talented writer named Primo Levi. (The following story is adapted from Levi’s book, Moments of Reprieve.)
As the story begins, it seems that some new prisoners had arrived to Auschwitz and somehow they brought word that today was the ninth of Tishrei, which meant that at sundown that night would begin Yom Kippur. Though the day’s work was as grueling as any other, when night fell, the prisoners got into line for soup. Survivor Primo Levi writes:
In front of me stood Ezra, a watchmaker by trade but who was also the cantor of a remote Lithuanian village. [Ezra had crossed many borders to try to escape the Nazis but was ultimately captured in Italy.] He rarely spoke and never raised his voice. But when Ezra got in front of Otto, the barracks chief, he did not hold out his mess tin. Instead, he said: “Mister Barracks Chief, for us today is a day of atonement and I cannot eat my soup. I respectfully ask you to save it for me until tomorrow evening.”
The barracks chief, Otto…had already dipped the ration of soup from the tub and he stopped abruptly with the ladle in midair. We saw his jaw drop slowly in one smooth movement, and his mouth remained agape. In all his camp years [at Dachau and now at Auschwitz], he had never run into a prisoner who refused food. For a few moments, he was uncertain whether to laugh or to slap him. [Instead] Otto told him to step aside and come back to him after he had finished ladling the soup for others.
A short while later, Ezra entered Otto’s office for a private meeting. Relieved of his usual role, Otto addressed Ezra in a…less brusque voice and asked him, “What is this business of atonement? Was he, perhaps., less hungry on this day than on other days?” Ezra answered that certainly was no less hungry and that on the day of Yom Kippur he should also abstain from work. But he knew that if he did so he would be denounced and killed, and therefore he would work because the Law allows disobedience in order to save a life, one’s own or another’s. But that nevertheless he intended to observe the fast, from that evening until the follow, because he wasn’t certain that this would lead to his death.
Otto asked him: “What sins do you have to atone for?” Ezra replied, “I know about some but perhaps I have committed others unwittingly, and in the opinion of some, atonement and fasting are not strictly personal. On Yom Kippur you seek forgiveness even for other’s sins.”
Otto, the barracks chief listened to all this, and [at once] became perplexed, torn by amazement, a desire to laugh and still another feeling to which he no longer could give a name and which he had believed died in him, killed by years of ambiguous, savage life in the camps…Then…in a subdued voice, Ezra continued, [explaining the holiday to Otto, who could have had him killed if he wanted. He told Otto about Jonah and the desire in his story to seek forgiveness for the people of Nineveh.] At this point, Otto interrupted him, now returning to his habitual brusque tone: “What are you trying to tell me with this story of yours?” he asked. “That you’re fasting for me too? And for everybody? Or that I should fast too?”
Ezra replied that he is no prophet, but just a… cantor [and watchmaker.] But he was hoping that the barracks chief would do him one favor: to see that his soup be saved until the following evening.
Finally, Otto muttered an incomprehensible phrase, in which one word that all Germans then and all of us now, will know. Otto looked at the soup and looked at Ezra and said [one word]: Meshuge, which in case you don’t know, means crazy.
Then Otto did something he didn’t have to do. In a place of inhumane cruelty and depraved indifference to Jews and Judaism, he placed Ezra’s soup into a small personal locker of his own, and told Ezra that he should come the next evening after sundown and that Otto would give him his soup then, after his Yom Kippur fast.
Can you imagine? Reconciling one’s sins with God while living in a place so devoid of God as Auschwitz! It’s absurd! As I read the story, I marvel at what was inside Ezra, the courage that could allowed him to step forward to ask that his soup be held for a day for Yom Kippur. This was Auschwitz, after all. Ezra could have died by not eating the soup! He could have been killed for asking not to eat the soup! Otto could have been killed for allowing Ezra to not eat the soup. Yet somehow, based on his knowledge of our tradition, Ezra was able to break through to Otto and thus, both men risked their lives to bring just a little humanity to a place that was inhumane.
In some ways, Otto had it right. It is meshuge, absolutely crazy to risk our lives that our faith might live. But Primo Levi adds a cautionary word. He tells us that Ezra is not alone. “In the course of the millennia, many have behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number.” He adds that rather than call him meshuge, we should recognize that Ezra is simply heir to a heritage that while “strange,” is also a tradition that is “ancient” and “sorrowful.” In other words, the generations who already perished and would never be able to seek atonement, even in the form of day-old soup. This watchmaker and part-time Cantor held sorrow in his heart. But he also held an abiding belief in the ancient idea that all human beings, even a barracks chief at Auschwitz, had the capacity to act for the dignity of other human beings. And that, that is not meshuge.
Judaism has survived countless trials and hardships because of things no one can ever confiscate from you. Inside each of us is something precious and holy and identified with our Judaism. For some it is rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles or hiding the afikomen from your grandchildren. For others it is ethical actions such as volunteering and leading organizations committed to your values, organizing inside and outside this temple to demonstrate for the sake of troubled communities and to combat inequality and strengthen our our freedom. These precious sparks inside us are, to me, the very best way to grow our knowledge, to make firm our courage, and to inspire us to unequivocally answer the “What If” questions that so terrify us this Kol Nidre eve with clarity and resolve.
For a watchmaker and cantor named Ezra, it was fasting on Yom Kippur. Even in moral wasteland of Auschwitz, he wanted to keep the promise of our faith, even if it meant assuring he’d never get another chance to. Why? Because Ezra had courage. He had knowledge. And he held a deeply felt belief in the infinite worth and dignity of every human life. What I’m asking you to consider tonight is: do you?
I pray that you do. For we all know there will be pledges we are unable to keep. No one can surmount every obstacle or answer every last “what if” question asked this Kol Nidre. But it is time for Jews to realize that today’s immigrants and refugees are only first in terms of society unleashing its rage and hostility at them. We Jews may in fact be next. In such a moment, we must be strong and build our courage. We must grow our knowledge of our most valued teachings, and must never lose our belief in the infinite capacity for goodness and forgiveness of every last human being. These actions will save us, our way of life, and repair our world. Keyn Y’hi Ratzon. God please help us and make it so. Amen.