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Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Day of Remembrance

09/12/2018 08:48:25 AM

Sep12

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

The main theme of Rosh Hashanah is to remember. But what are we remembering?

Ve-Hashem Pakad et Sarah. 

The Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is “and God remembered Sarah.”  Sarah had desperately been hoping for a child and on Rosh Hashanah we read that God remembered her prayers.

One reason we read this passage on Rosh Hashanah is because the day on which God remembered Sarah was, according to the Talmud, actually Rosh Hashanah.

Says the Talmud: Berosh Hashanah nifkadah Sarah, Rachel, ve-Chanah, on Rosh Hashanah, God remembered Sarah, Rachel, and Chanah” (Rosh Hashanah, 11a). 

These three holy women shared the common desire of praying for a child. And according to the Talmud their prayers were all remembered by God on Rosh Hashanah.

How does the Talmud know that the “remembering” for them all happened on Rosh Hashanah?

It’s very simple. Seven simple steps. Follow the logic.

  1. The word zachor — remember— appears in the story of Rachel: “Vayizkor elokim at Rachel, Gd remembered Rachel” (Bereishit 30:22).
  2. The word zachor also appears in Chanah’s story: “Vayizkareha Hashem, Gd remembered her” (I Shmuel 1:19).
  3. Rosh Hashanah is called in the Torah a day of remembering—zichron teruah (Vayikra 23:24).
  4. This proves that the remembering of Rachel and Chanah both happened on Rosh Hashanah.
  5. It also mentions the word pakad—also to remember—in the Chanah story: Ki pakad Hashem et Chanah, and Gd remembered Chanah” (I Shmuel 2:21).
  6. The word pakad appears in the Sarah story as well.
  7. QED The remembering of Rachel, Chanah, and Sarah all took place on Rosh Hashanah itself and for this reason we read the stories of Chanah and Sarah on Rosh Hashanah itself.

 

It is deeply symbolic that these three holy women were remembered on Rosh Hashanah because Rosh Hashanah itself is known as Yom Hazikaron, a day of remembering.

Why is it that our Jewish New Year is known as the day of remembering?  I mean, of all things, it could have been, “day of prayer or joy or blessings”, why remembering?

The answer is because who we remember and how we remember tells us who are as a community and what are our values and priorities.

Memory is about the present even more so than it is about the past.

Remembering has been on my mind ever since our shul traveled to Ukraine for a spiritual mission at the end of July. 

The primary reason we traveled there was to raise awareness of the memory of at least 1.5 million Jews who were murdered in Ukraine during the Holocaust. 

Since the story of the Holocaust has been studied so much and is so well told I was shocked to learn that the story of Ukraine’s Jewish community is relatively speaking untold and is in danger of being completely erased from history. 

I know these words sound like hyperbole. But they are not. They are actually an understatement.

There are between one and two thousand mass graves in Ukraine. That means one to two thousand places where entire Jewish communities were brought together and shot one by one.  I challenge people in this room to name five such communities.  Name five cities in which in each one thousands of Jews were murdered. It’s embarrassing how few of these names we know. But until I traveled there—despite having a rabbinical degree and a masters in Jewish history—I was no better.

We know about Auschwitz and Treblinka in Poland. But what do we know about town after town where every Jew was murdered in Ukraine.

Their memory will be erased. The reason I know this is because right now their memory is being desecrated on a daily basis and the world does not care.

We had time to travel only to four mass graves on our trip—Babi Yar, Sosinski Forest outside of Rivne, Rohatyn, and Janovska. Each one demonstrated evidence of grave pirates desecrating the graves—digging up the graves and looking for bones.

What do these robbers want with these bones?  The Ukranian authorities claim they are looking for gold in the teeth. That’s possible. But it’s not certain and there are other possibilities which are even too dark for me to say. But think about this: according to the Ukranian police (as reported in Ukranian media) the robbers who raided Sosinski Forest the day before we got there were caught with 200 bags of bones!  Two hundred!

What do you say when your young child comes with you to recite prayers at the graves of our ancestors and instead of seeing a well kept grave sees bones scattered around like the bones of an animal. We tried to pick up the bones and place them back in the earth. Our group was very brave. But many of us burst out in tears as we had to pick up a skull or a full set of teeth.

These are graphic images I am painting because I want us to take this to heart—because these are our cousins, our uncles and aunts.

The nicest city we visited was Lviv. Lviv is beautiful. Some call it a mini Vienna or a mini Paris. In Lviv we visited Janovska which includes both a mass grave and also a concentration camp.

We couldn’t even visit the Concentration Camp itself because today it operates as an active prison.

But we were able to visit the mass graves where approximately 100,000 Jews were murdered.

On this trip I visited Janovska three times. Twice I saw no one else there. The third time we came upon two teenagers taking drugs.

Janovska today is filled with heroin needles, trash, and human bones scattered around. It is a garbage dump in the city of Lviv.

Janovska.

The name might not mean anything to us. So I want to tell one story about the holy Jews who died in Janovska.

The Bluzhover Rebbe was a survivor of Janovska and after the war whenever he was given an honor at a bris, he first told the following story that took place in Janovska.

He said that one day at the camp he and another prisoner were doing their assigned task—the heavy labor of sawing wood. Suddenly they heard shrieks which he said were unusually piercing even for the hell of Janovska.

A man came rushing by pushing a wheelbarrow and without looking at them said, “it is a children’s Aktion.” Children were being brought to Janovska from the surrounding towns to be murdered and it was their shrieks that they were hearing.

Suddenly the Bluzhover Rebbe saw a pale woman standing in front of him. She looked at him and said, “Give me a knife.”  The Rebbe thought she surely wanted to kill herself and so he said, “My friend, why are you in such a hurry to meet your Maker?”

At that point a Nazi guard noticed their interaction and looked at the Rebbe and said to him, “Dog, what did she say to you?”  Before the Rebbe could respond, this woman with a crazed look in her eyes said to the Nazi, “Give me your knife.”

The stunned Nazi gave her a pocket knife he was carrying on the front of his jacket.

Just then the Rebbe noticed that this women had been carrying a bundle of rags. She quickly threw the rags away and uncovered a snow white pillow and on this pillow was an angelic, sleeping baby.

With a clear voice and a steady hand she recited the blessing of circumcision and circumcised the child.  She then recited another blessing. “God you have given me a healthy baby. I am returning to you a wholesome, kosher Jew.”

She then gave the Nazi back his bloodstained knife and handed him the baby on the white pillow.

At that moment the Bluzhover Rebbe said that her act must have shaken the foundations of earth. He said next to Abraham’s actions on Mount Moriah (about which we will read tomorrow) there can be no greater act of faith than that of this holy mother (Eliach, Chasidic Tales of the Holocaust, 186-187).

These are the holy people whose bones are laying in the mass grave of Janovska. The bones of a new born baby who was circumcised with the knife of a Nazi. The bones of a holy woman who was surely as great as Sarah, Rachel, and Chanah.

Some might argue that the matter of bones is not that important. After all, we have plenty of problems with the living which we should deal with before we worry about the dead.

But what we remember, how we remember, and who we remember tells us what are our priorities for the living. 

The care of the dead is called chesed shel emes, true kindness because there is no way to be repaid for it. Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik taught in his class that chesed is measured by the level of a person’s inability to help oneself. And there is no one more helpless than the dead.  This helping the dead is the highest chesed (as told to me by Rabbi Avi Weiss).

The murdered Jews of Ukraine were the most vulnerable people. They were murdered because they had no protector. And they are being forgotten because they are still vulnerable. If we choose to not prioritize their memory, then what message are we sending about the vulnerable people of the present.

It has always been the way of the Jewish people to guard the bones. 

Before the Jewish people left Egypt, Moshe Rabbenu specifically went to look for the bones of Joseph. The clear message is that there can be no redemption without memory. 

In 1941, before Simon Dubnow was taken from the Ariha ghetto and murdered by the Nazis he shouted: being murdered during a pogrom in Riga, he shouted out, “Yidden: shraybt unfarshraybt, Jews—write and record.” 

Memory is the path to redemption.

Memory is the path to fixing the world.

There is another interpretation offered by the Talmud of the verse, “va-Hashem pakad et Sarah.”

The story of Hashem remembering Sarah comes immediately after the story of Avraham praying for Avimelekh to be healed.

Based upon this the Talmud teaches: “Kol hamevakesh rachamim al chaveiro vehu tzarikh leoto davar, hu neeneh techilah; if one prays for compassion for a friend, and is actually oneself in need of that same matter, then the one who prays for a friend is answered first” (Bava Kamma, 92a).

The Talmud is saying that Hashem pakad es Sarah, means we must move beyond ourselves. 

To remember is to acknowledge that we don’t just live in the present; that the world isn’t all about the now; that the world isn’t all about us. 

That’s why Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron. It’s a call for us to live our lives as Jews who remember. We must remember the vulnerable—past and present; we must remember those who have no voice—past and present; and we must our responsibilities to the past and to the present.

There is one more story I want to share about the Bluzhover Rebbe in Janovska and in Lviv.

The Bluzhover Rebbe decided to try and escape the Janovska Concentration Camp. So one night as his work detail was returning he jumped into an abandoned building in Lviv and hid till darkness. He then walked through the streets unsure of what to do. If he were to return to the ghetto he would surely die immediately and if he would live on the streets he would soon be stopped for papers and that too would lead to certain death.

There was one possible chance of being saved. He was a holder of a South African passport that had expired. He could take this to the Nazi headquarters and get his passport renewed. If that happened then he would be able to live outside the ghetto.

The only problem was that the Nazi who was the Captain of this office was a vicious horrible murderer.  Even amongst the Nazis he had a reputation for being especially cruel. But since it was the Rebbe’s only chance, he had no choice but to try.

The Rebbe went to the office and the office was filled with Jews waiting to have their passport stamped. From his seat in the waiting room he could hear the screams of the Nazi. He would start every conversation by screaming at the Jew: “Dog—where did you buy this passport?”  For every ten who approached him, only one survived. All the rest were immediately taken to the courtyard and shot.

The Rebbe held back before going in. He figured that he should delay his entrance into the office in order to extend his life as much as possible.

But eventually he was called into the office. The conversation began the same way: “Dog — where did you buy your passport?”

But the Rebbe immediately recognized the Nazi. Every year the Rebbe used to travel with his wife and daughter by train to vacation in Germany. One year they had met this Nazi, a man named Muller. They had become friends on the train and stayed in contact with each other and made it a point of reconnecting every summer. This same Nazi used to send Rosh Hashanah cards every year to the Rebbe.

The Rebbe no longer looked like the person who Muller once knew. His beard was shaved and his appearance had changed dramatically. Yet, the Rebbe took a breath and said, “My name is Rabbi Israel Spira.”

At that moment this wicked Nazi underwent a transformation. His whole demeanor collapsed. He asked about the Rebbe’s wife and daughter. The Rebbe said that they had already been murdered. The Nazi broke down in tears and embraced the Rebbe. He said you must never tell anyone about our friendship or it will be very dangerous for both of us. But I will make sure you survive. He provided the Rebbe with an apartment and that night a wagon full of food arrived at the apartment.

This Nazi was an evil and horrible man. But in that one moment of his life his humanity flickered. He remembered. He remembered his friendship with the Rebbe. He remembered what it was like to be a human being.

If this Nazi can remember then surely we can remember.

We can remember those from the past and those in the present.  We can remember that it is our responsibility as Jews to remember the vulnerable: to remember those who don’t have a voice. 

This year let our shofar—our holiest sound—be their voice.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779