Friday, April 17, 2015

A spark of blessing - Sermon - Parashat/Portion Sh'mini and Yom Hashoah/Days of Holocaust Remembrance - April 17, 2015

   Watching the news on television this morning offered a sober reminder of what happened 20 years ago this coming Sunday.  The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was an American tragedy that was unexpected and shocking for many people in our country.  For those who knew that a small number of citizens espoused (and still hold) extreme views like Timothy McVeigh, that horrific event was a terribly unfortunate affirmation of how bigotry can persist in various guises.   The Christian Identity movement which strongly influenced McVeigh teaches that Jews are “the seed of Satan” who are “under God’s curse.”  When it was revealed that the Oklahoma City bomber was associated with that ideology, it put him in virtually the same place as the perpetrators of the Shoah, the Holocaust.   
   The same could be said of the movie “Mastermind” that is now being shown in Turkey. That film claims that Jews have been plotting world domination since the days of the Bible.  It asserts that the 12th Century Scholar Moses Maimonides was a leader in this plot, as was supposedly-Jewish Charles Darwin, who we know was not Jewish at all.  Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech last December 12 which provided the beginnings of the “Mastermind” accusation which the new film carries to its hateful conclusion.   It is difficult to see Turkey, which is still viewed as an ally of the United States, perpetrating this unfounded slander and bigotry.
    On this day after Yom Hashoah V’Hag’vurah, which commemorates the Holocaust and Heroism associated with Shoah, we are mindful of those who still harbor hatred and prejudice that echoes the expressions of the German National Socialist Party and its too numerous supporters and collaborators throughout Europe. 
     We can, however, be grateful that, in most of our 50 states and in other nations, ceremonies were held yesterday that highlight how humanity can overcome this tendency towards fear and hatred.  The
March of the Living brought together 11,000 participants from around the world this week.  One part of that march is a 3 kilometer walk from the gates of Auschwitz to Birkenau.  Those gathered at the March of the Living paid tribute to all who died at the hands of the Nazis.  At the same time, with marchers coming from so many countries and from various ethnic and religious groups, they develop unique and significant bonds with each other as they sought to learn lessons from the Holocaust for today.  Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat declared in his speech to the marchers: “Do not believe the magic incantation of 'Never again': it HAS happened again. Think of Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda. In different ways, to different peoples – but it has. The Shoah remains unique in the sense it was unprecedented. But all genocides are tragic in their own ways, and remembering them is the first step to preventing their recurrence.”
   The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum established “Learning from
the Holocaust: Choosing to Act” as this year’s theme for the week of April 12-19.   Rolats’ comment resonates with that theme regarding how the events of the Holocaust relate to what we can do in the here and now.    A new book by child of survivors Menachem Rosensaft also includes many reflections that direct us to action in the world today.  Rosensaft’s compilation, GOD, FAITH AND IDENTITY FROM THE ASHES, collected comments from the children and grandchildren of Jewish Holocaust survivors from around the world.  Contributors shared wisdom about their own Jewish identity and about how memory and determination to combat hatred, bigotry and fear can help us make a difference for all of humanity.  
Rosensaft, whose parents survived
 Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, was born in May, 1948 in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany.   He comes by his reflections on the lessons of the Holocaust from a deep personal experience.  Rosensaft stated in the introduction to his book, “We…have a moral
responsibility not to stand idly by…while human beings anywhere in the world are oppressed or persecuted. We have no right to criticize the world for not coming to the aid of our parents and grandparents during the 1930s and 1940s unless we do everything in our power to fight all forms of contemporary racial, religious, or ethnic hatred and to prevent contemporary genocides, whether in Darfur, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, or elsewhere. If we learn only one lesson from the cataclysm known as the Holocaust, it must be that the ultimate consequence of silence and indifference to the dire plight of others was embodied forever in the fires of Auschwitz and the mass graves of Bergen‑Belsen.”
     Rabbi Judith Schindler also shared her reflections in this book.   Her father, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, served for 23 years as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.   Alexander Schindler’s family, with his father facing certain arrest in Germany in 1933, eventually made their way to the United States.   The future rabbi completed high school in America and then served in the United States Army’s Tenth Mountain Division and fought Hitler’s forces in World War II.  He was wounded in Italy, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.  Judith Schindler was profoundly influenced by her family’s experiences. In her entry in Rosensaft’s book, she explained, “My grandfather's voice calls to me, saying, ‘Never be complacent. Be vigilant about hatred. Speak out against injustice, no matter what the cost.’ When I hear of rhetoric or legislation built upon racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, or any other bigotry, I cannot be silent. Even in the face of those who seek to intimidate and threaten me, my past enjoins me to act. My grandfather's voice does not allow me to look the other way when inequities permeate our society and prejudiced voices echo in the air. Acting with moral courage is the message I teach, preach, and aspire to fulfill.  The call of our biblical prophets such as Amos to bring righteousness and justice to the world is a primary Jewish legacy I choose to embrace. My role as a rabbi is to comfort the disturbed, to disturb the comfortable, and to bring God's vision for justice to the world.  The Holocaust taught us that human good is not a given. Free will demands that when free will fails humanity, we must act.”
     Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, the first Jewish woman to serve on the Canadian Supreme Court, was born in a displaced persons camp in 1946 to parents who had both survived four years in concentration camps.   She focused in her comments in Rosensaft’s book on the themes of remembrance and justice:  “We…need ask no one to forgive us this preoccupation [with how to remember the Holocaust]. It has taught us much. It has taught us that we can never value anything more than justice; that we can never put economies over dignity; that we can never appease bigotry; and that we can never sacrifice morality to expedience.   My generation grew up in the shadow of the worst injustice and inhumanity the world had ever known, injustice perpetrated because of our identity as Jews. That means, to me, that my generation is the generation that has a particular duty to promise our children that we will do everything possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents. And that means a world where all children, regardless of race, religion or gender, can wear their identities with pride, in dignity, and in peace.”
    In the Torah reading for this week, Shmini, there is a section in Leviticus, Chapter 9 which portrayed Moses and Aaron blessing the people, accompanied by God’s presence.  A fire then came forth from God to consume the offering that had been placed on the sacrificial altar before them.  The people reacted with amazement as they fell on their faces, realizing they had just witnessed and participated in a sacred moment.  They responded with “shouts,” a word in Hebrew – V’YARONU – which can also mean they let out a cry of joy.  It was their way of voicing amazement, wonder and gratitude towards the presence of God in their midst.  
    Would that we could sense the presence of such a divine spark to today!   Would that we could be blessed as were the Israelites by their leaders Aaron and Moses!   In light of this week’s commemorations of the Holocaust, a spark of God would do all people a lot of good, infusing in us greater understanding that could enhance life throughout the world.  We ourselves have the capability of uncovering that spark and of bringing blessing to ourselves and to each other.    We may think that, to be blessed, we would need to know answers about why people harbor hatred and bigotry that can be such a detriment to the well-being of society.  Greater understanding between people of different backgrounds does not so much emerge from answers, but from deep, insightful questions.  
    Ellen Cassedy, author of WE ARE HERE: MEMORIES OF THE LITHUANIAN HOLOCAUST, shared in a recent article about a conversation with a young Lithuanian woman during a visit to that country.  The woman had been told by her parents that 90% of the residents in their town were Jewish before the war. “We all lived together,” her parents said. Now, this young woman wonders, “How can we touch people’s hearts? How can we use the power of words to free ourselves, to bring peace?” As the conversation continued, Ellen Cassedy noted how she and this young woman from Lithuania spoke of broader questions with implications for all humanity:
  • How can we promote an open frame of mind, rather than a closed, competitive frame of mind – an attitude of “yes, and,” rather than “yes, but”?
  • How can we expect the best of ourselves and others, while also feeling compassion when ordinary people fall short?
  • Can people honor our diverse heritages without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past?
  • What do we gain when we seek to overcome mutual suspicions and reach out to “the other”?
  • How can we help people to use the vital tools of civic engagement and social action to resist the forces of hatred?
     Even questions without answers can provide us with a sense of the presence of a divine spark that could become a glowing flame of warmth that offers comfort and hope.    Seeing the face of God in each other and acting based on the belief that all people are created in the divine image can create that warmth and bring us blessing.    It could be as if we, like Moses, Aaron and the Israelites, were standing together in the presence of God.

    Rhonda, Adam and I visited the memorial and museum at the site of the
Murrah Federal Building a number of years after that 1995 tragedy.    Rhonda
recognized that one of the docents who was there had been one of the survivors interviewed in the video shown to museum visitors.  Rhonda offered to give this woman, a stranger, a hug, a gesture that was accepted as a show of support and connection.  In that spirit, may this year’s observance of the Days of Remembrance enable us to connect with the spark of God in every person so that we can overcome hatred and can bring to our world the blessings of cooperation, partnership, love and peace.  

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