Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Prayer On Inauguration Day.2021

 A Prayer On Inauguration Day

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

January 20, 2021

I can now allow myself a breath of relief. The Inauguration ceremony went off without a hitch.

Regardless of our political preference and affiliation, we are still one United States, an example to the entire world of how democracies work.

The last few years—and particularly the past two weeks—have demonstrated to us all how delicate our system of government is, how fragile our society, and how close we came to seeing it all fall apart.

I am relieved that today we saw proof that our flag is still there.

Thank God.

But my sense of relief shouldn’t be seen an indication that I feel that the hard work is behind us. To the contrary, we have so much yet to do before we can even think of resting on our laurels. America continues to be a deeply divided nation. Families and friendships have been torn asunder. In many cases, the love—or at least the respect and dignity—that we owe one another has been replaced by animosity. 

The usual pomp and circumstance of a Presidential Inauguration were toned down this year, reminding us that the world today is standing precariously on the edge of a steep precipice. Despite signs of progress toward regional peace (at least in the Middle East), nations are still doing their utmost to arm themselves to the teeth with conventional, nuclear, and biological weapons. We are still confronting the challenges of climate change, a battered economy, hunger, poverty and ignorance. The tragic toll of COVID continues to rise, inflicting untold misery and tragedy all around the world. 

Despite our growing awareness of racism and anti-Semitism in America and elsewhere, these hatreds—among other pernicious phobias—are showing no signs of abating. 

And the threat of insurrection in our own nation is far from over.

This day’s events will make many of us feel that we have made great strides towards a better future. And I truly believe that we have. Yet I also know that, in a week or two, once we return to our normal, day-to-day lives, once the glow dissipates, we will realize how much yet remains to be accomplished. 

It is precisely at such a time that we need to take to heart and mind the teaching of the Rabbis: “The task is great and the day is short…. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

So, even as I breathe this sigh of relief, no matter how you or I will observe this day, let’s not forget what it stands for. It’s a salute to our chosen way of life and method of governance. It’s a celebration of the continuation of the greatest experiment in self-determination the world has ever known.

As we begin the process of rebuilding and repair, let’s allow ourselves a moment of reflection and prayer. And then let’s begin the work. Let’s turn to one another—to our neighbors, friends and family—and begin the process of healing and forgiveness. Only then will we be able to confront the larger issues facing us.

We pray to the Creator of all to grant the new administration strength and health, to steady the hands and resolve of President Biden and Vice President Harris as they begin their challenging work of uniting the people, restoring stability, and eradicating the COVID virus from our midst.

In the Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah, we find the following prayer:

“O Guardian of life and liberty, may our nation always merit Your protection. Teach us to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with those who are in need. Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation, and alert to the care of the earth. May we never be lazy in the work of peace; may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals. Grant our leaders wisdom and forebearance. May they govern with justice and compassion. Help us all to appreciate one another, and to respect the many ways that we may serve You. May our homes be safe from affliction and strife, and our country be sound in body and spirit.” 

May these words always be before our eyes as we take on the work before us.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Legacy of Martin Luther King: 2021

 The Legacy of Martin Luther King

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

January 15, 2021

There are days that are engraved in our memory, serving as landmarks on a meandering roadmap. They remind us of how things had been up to then, and how, in a matter of moments, everything changed. We all have these in our personal lives—the day we got married, or had our children, or bought our first home. 

But there are also dark days that stand alone in our national life. Some have receded to become solemn days of commemoration, like November 11, first observed as Armistice Day but which later became Veterans’ Day. Others still stand in all their breath-taking shock, recalling for us the very real sense of numbness and helplessness that they first caused us to feel.

For some of us, December 7, 1941 is a day that still lives in infamy and sadness.

And just mention “9/11” and you immediately find yourself transported to the moment and place when you first heard the news and first saw the images of tragedy, terror and horror.

Also among these are the days that President Kennedy was assassinated, then his brother Robert F. Kennedy; and April 4, 1968, the day that saw the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Those are days when time stopped and we all stood, dazed and confused. We gazed at one another, or else turned our thoughts inward. What we witnessed made us face the legacy left to us by past generations, even as we tried to assess our own role in the course of these events and define the next steps that we would now have to take.

On the anniversary of those days, we still take time to look around us. What has changed? What hasn’t? Have we? Has our behavior or attitudes?

If he had lived, Rev. King would be 92 today. What would he celebrate if he were still alive? Even though we observe this day in gratitude for his vision and achievements, there is still today—as there was when he was alive—debate about his political philosophy. There were those who opposed his policy of non-violence, who claimed that racism could only be eradicated from society once Whites become painfully—not only theoretically—aware of what Blacks have been suffering for centuries. The images of thousands of protesters marching in Selma and elsewhere across the South, arms linked in solidarity, are powerful, but then so is that iconic photograph taken on April 5, 1976, a picture published in a Boston newspaper of a White man using an American flag as a weapon as he lunges at an unarmed Black protester during an anti-busing riot. 

We may honor the Rev. King for his idealistic vision and glorious Biblical imagery, but sadly, reality presents us with a different perspective. 

Police over-reaction is still in the news. Black youth are not hanged like “strange fruit” from trees in the South anymore, but too many of them are still shot in the back, asphyxiated by over-zealous officers, or murdered for no other reason than that they were in the “wrong” place at the wrong time. 

History teaches us that corrupt leaders use hatred not only to sow division, but actually to foment violence. We were witnesses to a terrifying example of this only last week, as we watched the news from Washington DC and the riots inside the US Capitol building. Displayed in full color were images and symbols that we all recognize for what they are: statements of hatred, prejudice and bigotry. What we saw was concrete proof that racism—and its ancient twin, anti-Semitism—are still very much embedded in American society. Over the past few years we’ve been watching the tide of hatred rise like a flood. America is not greater today than it was four years ago; it’s been reverting to a time that many of us have thought we had left behind—a nation poisoned by oppression, fear and intimidation.

Though a new administration is set to take over in Washington in just a few days, the threats of violence and insurrection are far from gone, and we are left to wonder if we will ever emerge from this endless hatred that has been—and still is—tearing us apart. 

Maybe that’s why the Torah, the Prophets and the ancient Rabbis emphasize again and again that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. Because it’s too easy to fall into the trap of hatred, and because the only way to overcome this danger is through ongoing acts of love and kindness. 

Maybe hatred is too deeply embedded in our souls, perhaps even in our genes. Certainly we are taught to suspect and fear “the other.” In the Torah’s book of Exodus, this is what motivates Pharaoh to enslave the Hebrews. In an unpredictable and unstable world, his attempt to hold back change and progress took the form of oppression, slavery and genocide.

The Rev. Martin Luther King didn’t quote Biblical stories and messages only because he was a wonderful minister of God’s word: He truly understood the lesson the book of Exodus teaches us—that Pharaoh’s kind of thinking only hastens the downfall of nations and empires. This week’s Torah portion, Va’eira (Exodus 6:2—9:35), describes the consequences—the first seven plagues—that followed Pharaoh’s evil decrees. The worst is yet to come. It’s an inevitable process.

This then should be the lesson we take from this year’s observance of Martin Luther King Day. Racism is not gone from our culture and society. Ask any young Black male who drives, walks or jogs through mostly White neighborhoods and towns. Look at the disproportionately high rate of COVID infections among People of Color. Check out inner-city schools and the lack of healthcare and other social services—privileges that White people take for granted.

Martin Luther King encouraged us to think beyond his own day. In his last speech, given the day before he was assassinated, he said, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Using these words as a prism of light and hope, how we get there is what we need to think about now. 

I hope and pray that this important day in our calendar will not, at some future point on our journey, become yet another excuse for more consumerism, yet another auto sales event, but rather as a signpost along the path to freedom and equality across the land. This is what this day stands for; this is why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. That is the legacy he left for his descendants and us, the American nation.

On the Shabbat before the Inauguration of a new President of these United States, may we find the strength and courage within us to rid our land of racism and bigotry. May the purveyors of violence and prejudice be relegated back into the subterranean sewers where they belong. May peace and health reign in Washington, in our streets and homes; and may we, the American Nation, stay united in body, soul and mind.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

An Insurrection Against Democracy: Watching The News From Washington, D.C.

An Insurrection Against Democracy

Watching The News From Washington, D.C.

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

January 6, 2021

As we watch the incredible events unfold in Washington DC, we find ourselves overcome by many emotions and thoughts—fear, disbelief, powerlessness, shame, anger and many more. The United States Capitol is symbol of not only a great ideal—freedom—but also of hope and the dreams of millions all over the world: to be able to achieve something, to make something of themselves, to express themselves without fear of violence and harassment. The scenes of rioters—domestic terrorists is a better term for them—not only vandalizing the sanctioned halls of the United States Congress, but also disrupting a lawful debate, planting pipe bombs and tearing down and replacing the Flag of the United States with Trump flags create a terrifying vision for all of us who treasure democracy and this Republic.

I suspect that this day will enter our history books as a mark of shame, one that will take weeks and months to repair. While so much of the work that needs to be done now is in the hands of those we elected or appointed as leaders, we—the people—are not helpless. We might feel that way right now, but with so much to be done to shore up our confidence in our democracy once again, we will need to be engaged in the rebuilding of America. 

Voting is the first step, but sometimes that’s not enough. We must demand accountability from those who instigated the violence, who called for it and supported it. We will have to ask why security around the US Capitol was not enhanced on a day when we anticipated and should have expected violence. 

And we must also ask another, even more difficult questions,  whether a sitting President has the right to incite violence and if his personal attorney can call for “trial by combat.”

Because that is exactly what happened today.

There is no question that our very system of government, democracy, has been attacked—from the inside, not by a foreign government. How do we—The People—deal with this? 

As a nation, what must be done to make sure today’s events don’t escalate and don’t repeat themselves. Those are the big questions that will emerge from today.

As a rabbi, one of my roles is to offer prayer at a time like this. I have often explained my take on prayer: For me, prayer isn’t only wishful thinking. As I see it, prayer is an affirmation, a realignment, of my goals and my moral compass. Prayer helps me remember the difference between right and wrong—and then compels me to live that way. Doing the right thing.

At this time, I think of George Washington’s Prayer, titled “Circular Letter to the States” and dated June 8, 1783. Though by then the United States had won its war of independence, its survival was not yet certain. A peace treaty with Britain had not yet been signed; state governments remained hesitant to yield to Congress’ authority; and several officers in the Army had threatened to mutiny.  

[ Retrieved Jan. 6 2021]

And this is what Washington wrote: 

“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have the United States in his holy protection, that         he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to             Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of         the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and                 finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to      demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the                         Characteristicks [sic] of the Devine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation      of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation. Amen.”

The greatness of this prayer is that it isn’t merely a meditation: It’s a call to action. Democracy is not only a dream: it involves all of us in making it a reality, in maintaining it and keeping it safe.

What we can do is up to each and every one of us. We can start by practicing that “Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind” that Washington spoke of. Simple acts of courtesy and dignity that we can show one another or a stranger on the street. Some of us might be inspired to become involved in politics, or as defenders of the Law, our Homeland, and our Constitution. Whatever path we choose, we must go beyond the outrage we feel right now to something more positive and constructive, and always be watchful for those who would subvert the law and twist it to their own personal needs and greed.

The symbol of American democracy—the halls of Congress—was desecrated today. It is up to us to raise it once again, to rededicate the building as well as its purpose to the high position in which we have held it until today. 

We pray tonight for inspiration, for determination and strength to carry through this purpose, so that our children and grandchildren will always have this Institution of Freedom before their eyes—not only as a faded or disappeared dream, but rather as the solid foundation upon which the promise of the United States of America remains standing strong.

God bless America, God bless us one and all.

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 1, 2021

Endings And Beginnings: Vayechi.2021

 Endings And Beginnings: Vayechi.2021

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

January 1, 2021

By some coincidence, this week’s Torah portion, the last one of the book of Genesis, is also the one with which we ushered out 2020 and welcomed in 2021. Perhaps the comparisons should stop with this curious coincidence, especially since the next book, Exodus, finds the Israelites enslaved to a tyrannical and anti-Semitic Pharaoh who is intent on destroying them.

And yet the sense of closure that endings bring, and the hope, wishes and prayers that new beginnings engender are true for the calendar as well as for our sacred texts.

In this Torah portion (Vayechi, Genesis 47:28—50:26) we read about Jacob’s death, and soon after, also Joseph’s. These sad events conclude the saga of the First Family of the Jewish People, but not before these two protagonists bestow their blessings on the generations that will follow them.

On his deathbed, surrounded by his sons and grandchildren, Jacob blesses them all, while saving the best for Judah and Joseph. Joseph, too, expresses his most profound hopes—that when the Israelites return to their homeland as God had promised, they will take his remains with them and not leave him in the land of his exile.

Jacob’s blessings, while sometimes obscure, seem to indicate the future course of the Tribes of Israel—the confrontations that will arise as well as the unity and accord that will prevail in the end. Joseph goes even farther, expressing his faith in the Redemption that God will bring about for God’s People.  

In our own day, like Jacob and Joseph, while looking back with dismay at one of the worst years in our lives, as we turn our gaze towards a new beginning and a new year, today we too may be permitted a measure of hope and optimism.

2020 was a year of loss, anxiety and sadness for all of us. 

For Americans, it was the year of the most contentious and divisive national elections in memory. It was the year of social awakening and reckoning. It was the year of COVID.

It was a year that had us thinking about what really matters in life.

And even as we turn a new page in our calendars, we know that we aren’t out of the woods yet. It will take all we’ve learned in 2020 plus some, before we can breathe freely again. Even after we all receive our vaccines, for months yet we will continue practicing the routine we’ve gotten used to at this point: Washing our hands frequently (to the tune of Happy Birthday To You, twice!), wearing face covering and maintaining social distance. 

But, with God's help, the end of this frightful pandemic IS, hopefully, in sight. Though the rollout of vaccination seems slow and hampered by a variety of circumstances, the process of healing—physical, psychological and social—has begun. 

And so this is my prayer for this Gregorian calendar new year, New Year’s 2021: That we emerge from this experience with new understanding of our fragility, yet also with renewed strength and confidence. May we learn to be more mindful of our health, more appreciative of people and things that we may have taken for granted in the past.  May we gain deeper understanding of the gift of time allotted to us and learn to use it in a responsible and generous way. And finally, as we begin to return to a more normal way of life, may we find sure footing and move on, cautiously, with greater awareness of our place and role in the world.

I look forward—as do we all, I am sure—to a day soon when we will be able to gather in person again and embrace our families, friends and communities.

May 2021 bring us all recovery, strength, hope and health. Happy New Year!

© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, December 25, 2020

Joseph and Judah: A Tale Of Two Brothers, One Religion (Vayigash.20)

 Joseph and Judah: A Tale Of Two Brothers, One Religion

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayigash

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

December 25, 2020

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), contains the tearful climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. It also presents us with the dual aspects of the Jewish religion, faith and action, and has us consider the role that each plays in our life.

The story line is famous. Joseph, as we remember, was Jacob’s favorite son, first born of his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob’s preferential treatment, however, works (as expected) in a divisive manner, causing jealousy and hatred. Sent by Jacob to inquire about his brothers’ welfare, Joseph heads for Shechem, only to find them gone. Lost in the fields, he encounters a stranger who tells him that his brothers have moved on to Dothan along with their flocks. Joseph proceeds to find them there.

But upon seeing him from a distance, the brothers come up with their own ideas—first to murder him, and then, on rethinking, to sell him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders. 

Joseph finds himself in Egypt, where his knack for interpreting dreams lands him in Pharaoh’s palace—and with a job he could only dream of, overlord over the entire Egyptian population, second in power only to Pharaoh himself.

One of those famines of Biblical scale ensues, forcing all those affected to go to Egypt and purchase food at the hands of Joseph. Among them is Joseph’s family. The brothers do not recognize him. Years have passed; the boy he once was has grown up and now appears before them in full royal regalia. Joseph, however, immediately recognizes them. We can only imagine what goes on in his mind at that moment.

Faced with the two options of revenge or reconciliation, Joseph sets his brothers up for all sorts of misadventures. He secretly returns their money, forces them to bring Benjamin—his younger brother, also born of Rachel—to him, then accuses Benjamin of theft and the rest of them of espionage and treason. The calamity forces Judah—who, years earlier, had come up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery in the first place—to confess. But rather than asking for mercy for himself and his brothers, Judah asks Joseph to show pity for Jacob, who now stands to lose the second of his most beloved children. The realization that Judah’s remorse is sincere leads Joseph to tearfully reveal his true identity to his brothers. Comforting them, he says,  “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:5, NIV). 

While reminding his brothers of their wrongdoing, Joseph also invokes his deep belief that it was all God’s doing. Every step of the journey was pre-determined, programmed by Providence to save the life of the family—and thus also of the entire Jewish People.

The belief in Providence (hashgacha in Hebrew) is deeply embedded within every religion. God’s power over all life is complete and pre-determined. Yes, we still have choice, but it is limited to two possibilities: we can give ourselves freely to God’s will, or rebel against it. Joseph comforts his brothers, yet his message contains a troubling thought: that our choices do not matter. God has set everything up, and willy-nilly we end up doing exactly what God had meant us to do all along.

Judah, however, has a different viewpoint. Over the course of his life, from that first moment when he chose to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites through the shameful incident with his daughter-in-law Tamar, Judah has finally reached a different kind of wisdom. Remorse has led him to understand that our actions carry consequences. At this point of the story, he isn’t so much concerned with pre-determination. It’s Jacob’s grief, caused by his—Judah’s—wrongdoings, that he cannot bear any longer. 

As this Torah portion begins, Judah steps forward (the meaning of the Hebrew word vayigash). He realizes that the only way out of the predicament is to make public confession and offer reparation. Judah’s series of actions—stepping up, owning his mistakes and trying to make amends—is essential to Jewish belief, perhaps even more so than Joseph’s belief in an all-controlling and manipulating God.

To be sure, Joseph’s belief does offer hope to humanity. All that suffering, all that sadness and pain that fill our life, all have a place in God’s inscrutable plan. 

But Judaism—the belief of Judah—goes beyond this simplistic view. It places much of the responsibility on our shoulders. Yes, there is suffering and great misery, and only God knows why; however, relief and consolation are in our power. We can bring solace and comfort. We can alleviate some of that pain. Hope and Redemption are not only in God’s hands; they are equally within our own, human, abilities.

These two philosophies are at the wellspring of every religion. Some faiths focus more on one or the other. Judaism, however, combines them into one. Judaism’s understanding of causality leads us to the awareness of God’s power not only to create but also to set up a multitude of possibilities, each with its own set of consequences. But simultaneously, Judaism places the responsibility for our choices squarely upon our shoulders. While Joseph’s beliefs lead to a more messianic approach to life—that all is in God’s hands—Judah’s insight is more practical and hands-on. His perspective gives us human beings a far greater role in what happens to us.

In some ways, the story of Joseph and Judah is the story of religion itself. Throughout human history, the two ways of believing have given rise to conflicts, war and terror. The invaluable lesson that Vayigash would have us learn, however, is that the two are not mutually exclusive. Faith does not stand alone; it should lead us to acts of love, reconciliation and responsibility. And while righteous behavior does not necessarily have to come from faith, invariably it leads to it.

There are factual and historical reasons behind the name that we Jews give our religion. But there is also another reason. Joseph may have saved the Jewish People, but it was Judah who instilled within us the seeds of our religion, a combination of faith and action that has proven its success and truth throughout our history. 

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Seventh Candle: Hanukkah.20


Hanukkah: The Seventh Candle 

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

December 16, 2020

A few moments ago I lit the seventh candle of Hanukkah on the chanukiah (the Hanukkah candelabra) perched on my study’s windowsill. This year’s celebration of the holiday is nearly over (one more candle to be lit), but its spirit still survives, as it has for nearly 2200 years now.

Hanukkah was born in darkness, out of war, oppression and prejudice. What had started as a rebellion against a cruel tyrant  turned into a war of survival—not the first nor the last for the Jewish People. The victory of Judah the Maccabee became the stuff legends are made of. As we know and retell it, Judah entered Jerusalem and quickly made his way to the Holy Temple, which he found desolate and desecrated. Judah cleansed the Temple, rebuilt the sacrificial altar, and rededicated it (chanukah is the Hebrew word for dedication). But when he came to light the menorah—the seven-branch, gold candelabra that stood at the entrance to the Temple—they couldn’t find any  pure olive oil for its lights. After searching all over, the Maccabees finally discovered one sealed cruse of oil that still had the stamp of the High Priest on it. In it was enough oil for one night; yet by a miracle, this small amount lasted eight nights instead.

At least, so goes the legend.

The real story behind the rededication of the Temple is more complicated.  At least two versions of events exist—the first in the apocryphal Books of the Maccabees, the other in Antiquities of the Jews, history as told by Josephus Flavius, a Judean expatriate who lived in Rome in the first century CE. 

But the famous miracle of the oil makes its first appearance even later than that, in a tractate of the Talmud.

Since then, the meaning of the holiday and its wonders has continued to evolve. The appellation “Hellenizer” (at first applied to those Judeans who, for one reason or another, sided with the Greeks) was a pejorative tag used to describe one group after another, while “the Faithful” (a self-applied designation, obviously) always stood for those who stood bravely and heroically, against assimilation or defeatism. Even today this division exists among groups of the Jewish People, a cause of friction and endless antagonism between factions and sects.

One lesson of Hanukkah, however, comes to us from across the ages pure and untarnished, emerging as the most important wonder of all: the will of the Jews to survive not only as a religion, but also as a people with a valuable message to proclaim.

This meaning of Hanukkah is highlighted by Josephus, who refers to the holiday it by its other name—the Festival of Lights (possibly referring to an even more ancient, pagan, festivity related to the winter solstice). In his Antiquities, Josephus writes: “And from that time to this we celebrate this [holiday], because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival.” 

The “right” Josephus speaks of is basic. It’s a human right, the right to worship freely. Enshrined today in the United States Constitution, two thousand years ago this right was already put in writing, by a Jewish historian addressing a Roman emperor.  

And this is what Hanukkah has come to mean ever since.  

The war of the Maccabees against the ancient Greeks wasn’t the first existential war the Jews have fought. Alas, there have been many, down to our own day. But whereas other wars may be about territory, or money, or even women, what the Maccabean revolt stood for was religious freedom. Hanukkah stands for the right of Jews—indeed, of every human being—to worship in their own way, according to their own beliefs, as long as this does not infringe on anybody else’s right. 

A miracle is a story that tries to expand on history—to capture not only events themselves but also their meaning in a larger narrative. When we explain the Eight Days of Hanukkah, we don’t delve into history. We refer to the miracle. We let the candles tell the story. Each one reminds us of the victory of the Maccabee, yet also stands for something greater: a value we uphold, a life we recall, an act of courage and heroism that we admire.  

In many homes it has become traditional for every member of a Jewish family to have and light their own menorah. With each additional night, we add a candle. And the collected light, reflected from countless windows and porches, grows exponentially larger than any one of us. And that’s the miracle. That for thousands of years, the Jewish People have upheld basic human rights: to food and water, shelter, health and safety; and the even greater freedoms of knowledge, understanding and belief.

Hanukkah is the miracle of a small people holding up, fighting for, dying for, the flame of freedom. Hanukkah tells the story of Jewish resistance to oppression, ignorance, and hatred. Somehow, despite all currents and winds, despite all, even when some of the other lights disappear, this is the spark that remains, a reminder of the Menorah that was lit by the Maccabees so long ago. 

It’s a light that many have tried to extinguish, yet still glows brightly. 

And that is a miracle worth retelling.

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, December 4, 2020

Tales of Struggle And Survival: Va-Yishlach 2020

 Tales of Struggle And Survival: Va-Yishlach

December 3, 2020

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

History sometimes is depicted in large brush strokes, as a series of monumental events populated by larger-than-life heroes. Reality, however, is different. It’s made of deeds carried out by ordinary people, often through incidents that, in themselves, do not amount to much.

The decision of 29 November 1947, taken at the United Nations and known as the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 is one of the former kind. By a vote of 33 to 13 and with 10 abstentions, the UN decided to partition the land that up until then was widely known as Palestine into two states—one Jewish, one Arab.  

This historical vote was preceded by an almost endless chain of political maneuvering. Partially it was motivated by the awakening that the world came to after the Holocaust. However to a much greater extent it represents a wave that began many years earlier: the rise of Zionism and the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, Israel.

But for a much smaller group, now consisting only of a few hundred people, November 29 holds a more personal significance. 

In 1942, a group of Jewish youth from Zaglembia—a region in Poland—began meeting regularly, mostly for social reasons, but also because they were forbidden to meet anywhere else. Prohibited from attending schools and other social events, these young men and women—most of them still in their teens—gathered to discuss politics, culture, religion, and the Zionist ideal of moving to Israel.

But that was before the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Poland to death camps. 

Once the deportations began—and it was clear where they were going: Auschwitz was less than 25 miles away—the purpose of these meetings changed. Thus was born the group whose members called it Nasza Grupa (“Our Group”). For a while, they debated whether they should focus on escape or resistance. Inspired by a visit by Mordechai Anielewicz, who later led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, their final decision was unanimous: They would fight. 

Members of the group were assigned to small units—3 or 4 at a time—to steal weapons, forge documents, discover escape routes, and bribe officials and border smugglers. “One for all” became their motto, as they helped not only themselves, but also each other. An orphaned child (and there were so many!) became everyone’s child; a bereaved parent became everyone’s father or mother. 

One such unit was assigned to carry out a particularly dangerous mission. A Jewish man was discovered to be a Nazi collaborator. Accused of turning in Jews to the Nazis, he was judged in absentia and condemned to death. A squad of three—two men and a woman—was sent to carry out the sentence. Unfortunately, they were caught. Tortured until they confessed, the three were sentenced to be hanged, with the date of execution set for November 29.

On November 29, however, just two hours before the execution, the Russians arrived and liberated the prison. All three survived. 

Coincidentally, November 29 was also the birthday of one of them.

About 50 of the original members of the Nasza Grupa survived the Holocaust. My mother is one of them. And November 29 became their annual day of remembrance. For decades, the survivors—and later, their children, grandchildren and now even great-grandchildren—have been meeting on that date every year, to remember, to celebrate, to pass on the tales of heroism, of struggle and survival.

The victory of the Nasza Grupa isn’t told in any movie. A few of the survivors wrote their memoirs; some gave testimony or donated artifacts to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem), the US Holocaust Museum, and the Spielberg Foundation, among others. Their stories are far from complete, however. There are still many missing pieces to the puzzle. 

What we do know, however, can tell us much about the courage and the sheer determination to live that characterized this group. Though many were killed by the Germans and their accomplices, the survivors found their way to Israel and began new lives there. Some served in the Israel Defense Forces, reaching high ranks and earning the highest awards for bravery. 

One became a Supreme Court judge. Yet another joined the Mossad (Israel’s fabled security and intelligence agency) and headed the secret operation to bring the Jews of Morocco to Israel. Still another was instrumental in the hunt and capture of the mastermind of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann (of cursed memory), and bringing him to justice in Israel.

One of the three who were liberated on that fateful 29th of November, Esther Herzberg, the one whose birthday it was, was awarded the President’s Medal for her volunteer work in impoverished neighborhoods and for establishing the first after-school club for children in Israel. 

Was it luck that sustained the Nasza Grupa? What accounts for their success, both during the terrible years of the Holocaust, and later, as they began new lives? Was it their friendship? Their vow to be there for one another? 

Maybe it was the very struggle that made them so strong. 

Viewed through this lens, that’s how I understand the message of this week’s Torah portion, Va-Yishlach (Genesis 32:4—36:43). This portion tells of the Jewish Patriarch Jacob’s terrible ordeals as he returns to his homeland after being away for nearly 20 years—his wrestling with an angel, the reunion with his vengeful brother Esau, the rape of his daughter, Dina, and the loss of his beloved wife Rachel. Each battle, no matter how difficult, how dangerous, how tragic, strengthened Jacob and made him even more determined to survive. 

The name given to Jacob at the end of this portion, “Israel,” denotes struggle and victory. It has become a paradigm for Jewish history. We aren’t born heroes: our struggles, however, make us that. As long as we don’t give up, each step forward, no matter how small, is another victory. It’s only when we look back that we realize that with every decision and every deed, we shape the stories that, one day, our children and grandchildren will read about in their history books. 

For me, November 29 isn’t just another day on the calendar, and never will be. For me this date symbolizes all Jewish history, our struggles, our hopes, and ultimately our survival. 

As our weekly portion, Va-Yishlach, tells us, “for we have striven with God and with men, and we have prevailed.”

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman