At Auschwitz, the guide, a man in his early forties, told me the following story. He was leading a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli youths understood what had happened, but the young men and women who were Palestinians had not even heard of Hitler, so the young man doubted they had gained very much from the experience.
But then he said something that was alarming. “There was no hope for peace between Jews and Muslims.” In some ways, I heard his words as though he was speaking more broadly, about the condition of our world. Hope was becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in our world.
Hope in the Modern Era
I believe that there is great hope and promise in the world; always and forever. Perhaps it is the foundation, the greatest motive for doing the Good in the world lishmah – for its own sake.
True, there is poverty, disease, economic challenges, and wars. All have those serious and personal challenges of the soul and of life. The idealisms of our youth have, for many, given way to pragmatism, and then to a realism that we will not complete the task, to final thoughts that our world may be no better today than it was fifty or sixty years ago. It is a very human thing to feel as if hope over time diminishes. In our hearts sometimes it does.
The Jewish Response to Despair
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of the archetype Moses and his existential affirmation, despite profound disappointment at life’s end. It is not the only story filled with the tragic. We can see the struggle to survive, to grow spiritually, the pain in nearly every story. Behind the story of God, there is the tragedy, the struggle for human survival and growth, and then and only then meaning.
The story of the slavery is often focused on the last year, when Moses appears and redeems the Children of Israel. What is often forgotten is the 419 years that preceded the redemption. What if you were born in the 220th year of enslavement? You simply lived and died as a slave, but somehow hope of redemption did carry on, for had it not, Moses would not have been able to accomplish all that he had set out to do.
In 70 C.E., there was the great exile at the hands of Roman Empire. Generations upon generations witnessed hardship after hardship. There was the rise of Christianity and very difficult anti-Semitism that made Jewish life unbearable, yet faith endured.
And it this faith that gave rise to the Mishneh, Midrash, Talmud, and the Kabballah; some of the most beautiful and poignant sacred literatures that we carry within us, even if we don’t know it as we know medicine, science, mathematics. We know it is there. We know it is in our genes, in our hearts, in our souls, and in our minds. No matter the condition, there was always hope and on that hope for a better tomorrow, great things were accomplished under far worse conditions that what exist in the world today. The process of reducing the Oral Torah to writing was against Jewish law at the time. The Talmud asked, “On what basis were Judah HaNasi and his colleagues at Usha permitted to violate Jewish law and reduce the Oral Torah to writing?” The Talmud responds citing Psalm 119:126:
When the Torah was in danger of being forgotten, for it is stated in Psalms, “It is time to act for the Holy One, for they may violate your Torah.”
It is better to uproot one law of Torah, one letter of Torah, than have the entire Torah forgotten by Israel.”
Our literature responded not with despair caused by rigidity to the old, for during this period of time, when despair and hope hung in the balance, our tradition always, our people always chose hope and then did something about it. What a great lesson – a simple one but profound. The Jewish people suffer from within and without; in the United States there is assimilation, synagogues closing, individual spirituality is being sought and our communal institutions suffer. Israel has very real existential threats from both within and without. The UVJC itself is now suffering from yearly significant deficits.
And yet, there is cause for hope. For me, it lies in the promise of the next generation. It lies when in the quietness of the Roth Center Sanctuary, I work with a young person 12 or 13 years of age, one on one, teaching them to chant the liturgical landmarks of our Siddur that dates back to at least the time of the Talmud, the Haftorah, the Torah, their meaning, their writing of a d’var torah. And you know why? It has nothing do with the subject matter. It has everything to do with choice. They care about their faith. They are learning to read, chant, sing words they don’t even understand, because deep down they know, they sense, they trust, that this will last with them a lifetime and will influence their lives. Soccer, basketball, and all the extra-curricular activities are no substitute. They really “know” this truth. Their parents know this truth and we know this truth.
Tragically, there are so many Jewish people in this tiny community alone, who don’t “know” this truth and their absence is noted and felt at this moment.
I have faith in all of you who are here that you want to connect in your own way and yet communally with God and to feel a renewed sense of hope for your personal future, for your loved ones, and for humanity.
Yom Kippur is a paradox. We come here to afflict our souls both physically and spiritually. We will abstain from food and drink and for the next twenty-four hours, we will make vidui (confession) and recite ashamnu (we are guilty). We will expose our moral shortcomings collectively and say to God “al chet” (for the sins) that we have committed.
And yet, tonight, our tradition regards us as being in a state of purity. We are pure in spirit. We are angelic and that is why only on Kol Nidre do we say out loud the second verse of the Shema baruch shem kavod malchutoh l’olam vahed (blessed is the honored name, whose kingdom is forever). The reason we do so is because there is a sacred story in our literature that envisions the angels upon high reciting this very passage continuously before the Holy One Blessed Be God, imagining as it were, a sacred relationship in the purity of spirit. Tonight, we are as angels before God. Like the angels above, we are in a state of spiritual purity for we acknowledge our humility, our frailty, our humanity with all of our imperfections and troubles before God. All that we have done wrong dissipates before God as if it never existed. Close your eyes and feel it. Take a moment and feel this Kadosh that is in your soul.
In Kadosh, the holiness that comes from kippur, we find the strength, the moral strength to return to earth and to respond to our world, for we have dwelled for a moment and for eternity in the sanctuary of the Almighty.
Vision of our People
Perhaps the best way to describe what it is that we hope for and we envision for ourselves is to imagine it for ourselves. What it is it that we want most for the world on this Yom Kippur? What would be the ideal world in which to live? Here is Maimonides’s vision of the messianic era:
In the time of the Messiah, there will be neither famine nor war; neither will there be jealousy or rivalry. The Good will be very plenty full. And the only thing that the entire world will be engaged in is to know God. And accordingly, Israel will have hachamim g’dolim individuals with great wisdom, and they will know the hidden things in life and we will all learn the knowledge of the One who created them, each according to his or her wisdom, for it is stated, “And all the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
This is hope for a better tomorrow. The order of nature will continue. People will live and people will die, but the matters that lead to war, famine – that is jealousy and distrust – those things will be absent. The Good will be plentiful and all will be devoted to God as we who are gathered here for the next twenty-four hours will be. Tonight is a foretaste of this era.
Returning to Earth
I refuse to conclude this sermon in the Heavenly Court, for at the end of the day, we are here on earth. My messianic era is something that I have experienced already, so I am contented. It was my study with my teachers, Rabbi Ben Zion Wacholder, and my Hazzan from Cincinnati, both of whom were Holocaust Survivors. The former taught me Torah in the long walks that we often shared after a session in Talmud. My Hazzan from Cincinnati taught me the meaning of faith that cannot be interrupted by time. His nusach, his melodies that he learned as a child in the town of Ozarow, continue on here tonight. Being in his presence during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was more than any human being has a right to ask of God.
I did not say this to the guide as a basis for my hope for a better tomorrow, for you see, I have been given one as well. I was given a better tomorrow by those who preceded me.
It is my obligation, your obligation here tonight, to give to the next generation a better tomorrow and for that we must bequeath unto them hope and a vision of a better tomorrow.
I began this sermon at Auschwitz where the young guide at Auschwitz said there was no hope. My response to him now is to say, “Let us journey back in time to another death – the one at Bergen-Belsen at the moment of liberation (the lyrics are the original composed by Naftali Imber in 1880).
If the people who sang this song bequeathed unto the next generation, hope under these circumstances, then, as Dr. Eliezer Berkowitz, in his landmark work “Faith After the Holocaust”, urged us to take on the obligation to bequeath our faith to the next generation.” This is Jewish hope. It is about hope amidst despair; destruction of our ancestors amidst a ruin that I believe even God to this day is ashamed. Please listen to the following tape of a broadcast by a British correspondent on the Friday night after the liberation of the death camp at Bergen-Belsen. It is a response of our ancestors that hope exists wherever a person, a community, or people may be, even in the midst of the ruin. This hope is part of our image and our likeness that reflects the Divine. These are their words.
Please rise. http://www.isracast.com/article.aspx?ID=766.
כל עוד בלבב פנימה
נפש יהודי חומיה
ולפאתי מזרח קדימה עין לציון צופיה
עוד לא אבדה תקותינו
לשוב לארץ אבותינו
לעיר בה דוד מחנה
Kol –od balevav penimah
Nefesh yehudi homiyah
Ulefa’atei mizrach kadimah
Ayin letziyon tzofiyah
Od lo avdah tikvateinu
Lashuv le’eretz avoteinu
La’ir bah david m’chaneh
As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still looks toward Zion
Our hope is not yet lost
The Ancient hope
To return to the land of our fathers
The city where David camped