Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What Is It That We Jews Remember When We Say “ Zachor”? A Response to Natalie Portman's Important Question

What is it that we Jews Remember When We Say “ Zachor”?   Yom Kippur Yizkor  2015

Here is a deep  Rabbinical discussion for you :
The Yeshiva student asks the Rabbi:Why are four questions asked on Passover and no questions on Yom Kippur? After all, Yom Kippur is the greatest day of the calendar—If Pesah, gets 4 questions, Yom Kippur, all achat kamh ve lamah, even more so, should have at least 4 questions.
To which the Rabbi replied:
Because on all other days, just like on Yom Kippur, to see a Jew upset and moan is not unusual and raises no questions. But on Pesah, but to see a Jew happy!? That demands an explanation!
So, on Yom Kippur, we are in our normal mode—brooding, concerned, and moaning. So much trouble- so much anxiety—how can we dig in and find some good in all of it?
    We compound this mood by the emphasis that people place on Yizkor.This aspect takes on a sanctity of its own, as if it were given to Moses on Sinai itself, even though it is strictly an Ashkenazi custom.
    It is a reflection of the exceptionally heavy burden that was placed upon the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, who faced a continuous history of crusade, pogrom, and expulsion over the past 1000 years. It is said that the service of Yizkor goes back to the massacres during the Crusades, when the survivors gathered in their synagogues to celebrate the Festivals, and then were struck with tears at the thought of their fellows who were no longer alive to celebrate with them.
    Onto this, we have, in the past decades, we have added the Remembarcne of the victims of the Holocaust, a reality of our modern history that we cannot escape.
    You can see that we Jews have the memory of an elephant. We remember past tragedies but we remember past triumphs as well.  Zachor”, Remember, is such a powerful force in our collective psyche.
                As many Jewish scholars have pointed out, Remembering, for a Jew, is not remembering details of historical events and facts. It is what academics call “ HeilGeschichte”, the Sacred memory of History. Something as ancient as the Exodus becomes more powerful to a child  than any bricks and stones that an archaeologist can unearth. It is taking the events of the past and turning them into tools for cultivating the soul of a people.  
            Remembrance of past keeps us in the present and points to the future..
    Let us think again of the one great horror of Jewry in the 20th century-- the Shoah. In what way can bringing up again and again such horrors light the way for the us in the future? It ended 70 years ago, after all.
            Yet see how we can’t escape it. The United States is in the midst of a deal with the largest state sponsor of terror and anti-semitism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the hopes that it can forestall this rogue regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. I can tell you that our friends next door at the Iranian American Jewish federation are very, very worried. They understand the regime form the inside. But not just Iranian Jews. American Jews suddenly find themselves questioned by erstwhile allies on the left about dual loyalty and there are splits inside the Jewish community. There is no doubt that our malaise stems from this memory of the not-distant past.
            So, can we pull something positive from this Remembrance?  Can we take a message form this that is past a collective post-traumatic stress disorder? 
            The greatest lesson is that we are the contradiction of Nazism and that our message is at the foundation of civilization.
            Now, we ask, with the Holocaust, was Hitler out to get the Jews, or Judaism. On the surface, it could be argued that, unlike any other campaign against us, only in the Holocaust were Jews threatened with extermination—In the ancient war of the Romans against the Jews, a Jew could side with the Romans and be made a general or a court advisor. Under Christian or Moslem persecution, a Jew could switch sides, and be saved.
            But under Hitler, all Jews were equal—equally doomed-- Communist and Hasid, Zionist and  German war hero ,Reform, Orthodox, atheist, Baptized Christian, it made no difference.

            Clearly, Hitler was out to get the Jews as a people as never before. Still, was it only because he didn’t like our noses?
            What was behind this ultimate madness that engulfed an entire nation? It was not just the Jew as the carrier of some racial traits or blood type. It was that the Jew, whatever variation of Jew could be imagined, represented the great moral weight of religious tradition that shaped Western Civilization at its best. For that reason, the books of the Jews had to be burned, not just the bodies.
            Judasim is the negation of everything that Nazism stood for. Judaism , every resemblance to it, was to be destroyed. Christianity, indirectly, and all of its moral baggage, would eventually be destroyed as well, in the final end-game, even though many Christian groups were duped to play along.
            So I want us to recall with the Yizkor of our martyrs, what it is we that we stood for and still stand for.
            Nazism, and much social theory that preceded it,  took the teachings of Darwin’s concept of survival  of the fittest and twisted it to their own ends. Struggle for survival is part of nature and the powerful have the obligation to trample the weak in that struggle.
            Jews, for all our supposed isolation and clannishness, were the bearers of the concept of  “ all men are created equal.”
I give you just one source that defines this, in the warnings given to witnesses in court in capital cases, from the Talmud:
Therefore, only a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. 
Again but a single person was created for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”.
Again, but a single person was created against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”.
Again but a single person was created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another.
Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”
Is there any greater example of the dignity of the individual, the great potential, in which each one of us says,” For my sake the world was created”.
In Nazism, only one people, genetically, had the capacity for culture and civilization. All truth could flow out of one land and one race only.
Our Sages emphasized that the Torah itself was not given in the land of Israel, but in the wilderness at Sinai. What did the sages teach us from this?
Torah was given openly, in public, in a place belonging to no one, for had Torah been given in the Land of Israel they would have said to the nations of the world, "You have no portion in it!" Since it was given openly, in public, in a place belonging to no one, anyone who wants can come and receive it.  Exodus 19.32, Mekhilta Bahodesh 1.II 198 .
You see, our sages taught in this, that as much as we may be “ Am Segulah”, a distinguished people, we hold no monopoly on the great teachings of the Torah. It is given in the wilderness, ownerless, so that anyone who wants to can come and receive it.
            The racial theory of Nazism, of the innate supremacy of one people, necessarily called for eugenics and elimination of people with defects. The first gas chambers were set up for the elimination of the mentally incapacitated and later perfected on the Jews.
            What is our take?
You know that we have blessings for fruits, vegetables, and wine, anything we enjoy.
Then for sights of nature- thunder and lightening, oceans and mountains, blsooms in the springtime,  all sights of nature that impress us. We have blessings for categories of people, as well, for scholars, for Kings, even for beautiful people.
Finally, though, we find a blessing for a person or an animal that is disfugured. What kind of blessing could there possibly be?
         Upon seeing some one who is disfigured-- we say. barukh atah.. meshaneh et habriyot
Prasied are you ... who  varies his creatures.
                       In other words, where others see disaster or a source of ridicule, we say, meshaneh--variation, change, difference. What we may see as wrong or inferior-- is also a part of God's creation--change, variation, and difference, are not roadblocks, but essential parts of creation.
                         In Nazi doctrine,if there is a superior race, it must be lead by a superior human being. Superman, the Leader, the Fuehrer, is the embodiment of the great will of history, the one who holds the true vision of the future, before whom, all Parliaments and Congresses are useless.
           In the Torah, a King is tolerated, barely, and he is told that he must abide by the laws of the Torah, may not amass wealth or power or wives. The Kings of ancient Israel are constantly hemmed in by the people and the Prophets.
            It is no wonder that the movement for European democracy came first from those who studied and preached the Bible in the language of the people. Five centuries ago, Tyndale stated that it is for government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is this attitude that is embodied in the American Declaration of Independence, and in the call to break free from the British Crown. There can be no Fuehrer, no divine leader, in a world inspired by teachings that came from the Jews. .    
           In the theory of Nazism, the survival of the fittest race requires that all other races be subservient to the Aryan race, that they exist to serve the Herrenvolk.
           The Talmud  Yerushalmi teaches otherwise, and it is codified in Jewish law:
           In a community where Jews and gentiles (pagans, we presume) dwell together, we establish charity collections jointly and distribute to the poor of the gentiles and to the poor of Israel. We care for the ill of the gentiles and for the ill of Israel. We bury the dead of the gentiles and we bury of Israel. We comfort the mourners among the gentiles and we comfort the mourners of Israel, we cleanse the garments of the gentiles and we cleanse the garments of Israel—Mipney Darkey Shalom—all for the sake of peace.
           Finally, the Nazis taught that the supreme race must constantly prove and improves its merits through war to secure lands for the expansion of its people. In Nazism, terror is the cherished tool of the regime, and war is the noblest action and its purpose is to dominate.
           It is no wonder, that the United Nations, which came into existence to unify the civilized world against Nazi barbarism, put these words from Isaiah, on its walls.”Nations shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war any more.”
           Do Jews have a master vision of triumph at the end of days? Here is Maimonides definition of it, the conclusion of his masterpiece of Jewish law and ethics, the Mishneh Torah:
           “The Prophets , in regard to the Messianic era, had no desire to rule the world nor to subjugate the nations, nor to be elevated above the nations, nor to indulged in feasting and drinking but instead, they envisioned that the people would be free to study the Torah and its wisdom, without disturbance, and thereby gain eternity.”
           Many of you know that I have written about my father’s experience under both the Nazis and the Communists. In 1938, shortly after he had been released from a Naiz prison in berlin, he wrote an essay of the contrast between Judaism and the “isms” of his day.
  I close with his words, whereby we recognize what our goal as Jews and as human beings is on this Yom Kippur day, what it is we must so deeply remember:
         “ The originality of Judaism rests primarily on the point that the Bible, for the first time, inquired into the question of the sense and inner unity of all human history and conceived of the individual events of history as steps up to a meaningful and powerful world goal. ..
            The duty of mankind in this world is prescribed in these brave words by an ancient Jewish philosophy of history "Man is called upon to be God's co-worker in the act of creation. (Mechilta,Ex. 18:13).

We are all, as human beings, in God’s image, challenged to be God’s partner, in the act of creation. May we always so carry ourselves, thereby sanctify the Remembrance of our martyrs and erase the Remembrance of the Doers of Evil. ” Yitamu Hataim min haaretz” Let sin disappear from the earth,” U reshaim od eynam—and there shall be no doers of evil.”

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