The Talmud tells about a great sage named Honi who once saw a young man planting a sapling. He sat in the heat of the sun and watched the man digging in the ground, placing the tiny tree into the hole, and surrounding it with earth. And then, Honi sat down in the shade and fell into a deep sleep.
When he woke up, 70 years had passed. And instead of a sapling, there was a tall fruit tree before him. And another young man – the grandson of the original planter – was reaping fruit from its branches.
This story, I believe, is the Rabbis’ way of teaching us about how things change and how things stay the same. In the space of 70 years, an entire tree can grow. Ideas can evolve, people can grow up and build lives and pass on their legacies.
And yet, the tall fruit tree in front of Honi’s eyes is the very same sapling he saw planted earlier. The fruits we reap are the ones that were planted in past generations. Whether we are aware of it or not, the lives we live are a product of the experiences and actions of those who came before us.
If Honi were to wake up today from a 70 year sleep, he would be deeply aware of just how much we are influenced by the past. This year, we have marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau. If Honi were to awaken today, he would have closed his eyes in the world of the concentration camps, and he would open them to see a world still struggling with the consequences and the meaning of those events.
70 years ago, the Jewish world was altered irrevocably. And we are still – in many ways – living in the shadow of Auschwitz. Whether we are aware of it or not, the Holocaust affects the ways that we think and the ways that we behave and the ways that we practice Judaism on a daily basis. We continue to struggle to make sense of the senseless.
Here’s what Rabbi Harold Kushner has to say about that:
Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But …. we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing a meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
Rabbi Kushner’s words suggest that while there is no sense in the senseless, there may be still meaning to be made from the unthinkable acts of 70 years ago. And that is precisely what many of the survivors have told us as well – that out of their horrifying experiences they found new lessons, and new responsibilities, and even new commandments that have guided them for the rest of their lives, and that they wish to pass on to us as well.
As we mark this tragic anniversary, I wish to share with you the thinking of three different survivors – names that you may know, people whose books you may have read. So that we might glean together the meanings and lessons that they have found in their experiences. Lessons that might guide us as individuals, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. Lessons of Auschwitz.
Everyone handles adversity differently. Viktor Frankl handled it by turning inward. He was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist – a late contemporary of Sigmund Freud. During the war, Frankl was imprisoned in four separate concentration camps. He lost his wife and nearly his entire family.
In his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes the experience of concentration camp life from a psychological perspective. He writes about the transition that each prisoner went through – from the shock of first arriving at the camp, to the apathy that developed as they became used to its conditions. He writes about the blunting of emotions, about the ways in which camp prisoners would set up a protective shell around themselves.
But Frankl also writes about the places where humanity was still to be found. He describes his fellow prisoners’ use of humour to weather the difficulties of daily life. He writes about their growing awareness that all suffering is relative, and that one can choose to find goodness even in the worst of surroundings.
He gives a particularly moving account of a cold nighttime march in which he managed to cope by picturing the presence of his wife:
“I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look…. Then I grasped the greatest secret that human thought and belief have to impart:… I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.”
In that pivotal moment, Frankl first began to grasp what he would later come to call the “last of the human freedoms.” He writes:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
For Viktor Frankl, the lesson of Auschwitz is one of personal empowerment. No matter where we are, and no matter what others are doing to us, we still get to choose our actions and our beliefs. He teaches us that out of the horrors of the Holocaust, comes forth a command to each of us – to choose to live with gratitude. To strive to see the good in the world around us, no matter the circumstances of our lives.
This is a worthy lesson for those of us living a privileged life in the 21st century. And it is a lesson that has been present in Judaism for a long time. The Hasidim tell the story of a poor man living in a small, loud, cramped house with his large family who goes to complain to the rabbi about his lot in life. The rabbi solemnly counsels the man, “Go home, and take your goat into the house to live with you.” So the man does, but of course the house only becomes smaller, and louder, and more cramped. So he goes back to the rabbi, who tells him to bring his chickens into the house as well. Only after the man has brought his chickens, cow, goat, and horse to live into his house does the rabbi finally counsel him to put all of the animals outside and enjoy the relative peace and quiet of having only his family in the little house.
We cannot choose our circumstances; we can only choose our attitude toward them
This is all over Judaism. The tradition of Mussar – the Jewish mindfulness ethic – encourages daily study and patiently choosing attitudes and behaviours. The practice of saying blessings is meant to foster a sense of gratitude for everything that we have. The Talmud commands us to say 100 blessings every day – giving constant thanks to God for what we eat, what we drink, seeing a rainbow or sunset, even the fact that our bodies are working.
This is such an important message for Yom Kippur, because today is the one day of the year that we dedicate entirely to trying to see the goodness in ourselves and in the world around us. The rest of the year, so much of our time is spent putting out fires and dealing with circumstances, that we rarely take the time to say any blessings at all, let alone 100 a day.
Imagine how our lives would change if once an hour we took time to notice the goodness of something. Imagine if once a day, we took time to recognize and act of our own capacity for bringing goodness to others. Then we would understand in a whole different way what Viktor Frankl learned in the camps – that our circumstances do not get to dictate how we will feel or where we will focus or what we will be. Only we get to decide that.
In the worst of circumstances, human beings are capable of their best. Capable of seeing goodness in the midst of evil; capable of devoting themselves to their families and to their people.
For Emil Fackenhim, another survivor and another teacher, this is precisely the lesson of the Shoah.
Fackenheim was a German Reform Rabbi. He was arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. But he escaped to England and made his way ultimately to Canada. Dr. Fackenheim served as rabbi of Temple Anshei Shalom in Hamilton. and for 35 years he served as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of the people in this room may have studied with him.
His experiences and his conclusions are different from those of Viktor Frankl. Where Frankl the psychiatrist saw a lesson about attitude and choice, Fackenheim the Rabbi saw a commandment for Jewish survival. He is best known for his belief that after the Holocaust there is a new 614th commandment – “Not to hand Hitler posthumous victories.” In other words, he teaches that is the responsibility of the Jew to ensure the continuance of the Jewish people.
He writes: “We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.”
This is a notion that we may have internalized more deeply than we realize. We live our responsibility for Jewish continuance every time we read from our Czech Torah scroll; every time we “twin” one of our children with a Shoah victim when they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But we also live that responsibility when we build Jewish communities and engage in Jewish learning. We are often aware that there are simply not that many of us, and that if Judaism is to thrive, it will be because we made it so.
On the one hand, ensuring the Jewish future means responding swiftly and decisively to anti-Semitism. It means remembering that even though we live comfortable lives in a diverse and free country, we are only 7 decades removed from oblivion.
But in the 21st century, ensuring the Jewish future is not only about combating outside threat. It means, as well, building a Judaism that is vibrant and relevant from within.
The Torah portion for Yom Kippur morning tells us that we have connections that transcend denomination and generation. It says:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם
“Today you stand – ALL of you – to enter into covenant with your God.” From chiefs to labourers. Wood choppers to water drawers.
אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּֽוֹם:
Both those are standing here with us today, and those who are not standing here.
Fulfilling that responsibility to past generations means continuing to build Jewish lives around a deep love of learning and tradition. It means building Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming. It means building a Jewish state that is a place of pluralism and diversity, that consistently upholds the rights and freedoms of all.
Ironically, the lesson of Auschwitz is that we must transcend Auschwitz as the reason for our continued existence. It is not enough to remain Jewish simply because others tried to destroy us. Rather, our task is to continue to build the best Judaism for our time – one that speaks to the needs of the 21st century but remains rooted in the wisdom of past generations.
And that requires work. It requires a commitment to learning. It requires being open to new ideas, striving to understand how our ancient values apply today. It requires thinking concertedly about being part of Jewish community – about how we can contribute to it. Our task is to keep learning, to keep struggling, to keep wrestling. To receive the tradition, and live it and mould it and shape it, and pass it on once again.
In 1947, when the Israeli cabinet voted on the Partition Plan that would create the Jewish state, one of the ministers, Yitzhak Tabenkin, requested a day to consult with some people before voting. When he returned, David Ben Gurion asked him, “From whom did you seek counsel?”
“From two people,” answered Tabenkin. “From my grandfather who died ten years ago, and from my grandson who is not yet born.”
If we can ensure that Judaism thrives as a beloved religious tradition and as a force for good in the world, then we will be doing all that we can to honour the memory of those who died. And to ensure that what happened to them never happens again.
“Never again” has been the refrain of the Jewish people for seven decades. Never again shall we see our children marched off. Never again shall we see our people pushed to the brink. And never again shall we allow the same to happen to others. Indeed, the lesson of Auschwtz is not only that we have a responsibility to our own people, but that we have a responsibility to all people.
This message is most evident in the writings of the author, activist, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel was born in Romania and was a child when he was deported to Aushwitz. He lost his parents and his sister in the camps. His autobiographical writings have touched millions of readers in 30 languages. But he is known equally for his advocacy – both for Jewish causes like Israel and Soviet Jewry, and for victims of oppression or genocide all over the world – South Africa, Argentina, Bosnia, Sudan, and other places as well.
Elie Wiesel has always said that out of his experience in the Holocaust, he hears a command, an imperative to ensure the dignity of all human beings.
In his 1986 Nobel Peach Prize acceptance speech, he said:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented….. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
This message is reflected in our most ancient of Jewish texts. In the haftarah that we chanted this morning, the prophet Isaiah speaks for God:
The fast I desire is to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.
And the Torah as well commands us repeatedly to care for the poor and the oppressed, saying “Ki gerim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim – Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You have been oppressed, says the Torah, so you must not allow another to be oppressed.
You have been a slave, so you must not allow another to be enslaved.
In the past 100 years, Jews have been disproportionately involved in standing up for justice and the rights of the oppressed. Our rabbis marched alongside Martin Luther King at Selma. Our people spoke out for the oppressed minority in Darfour. Our own Reform movement has worked here in Canada to support the aboriginal community. And, like many others, our synagogues are beginning to act as the Syrian refugee crisis grows.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, among many others, has compared the situation of millions of Syrian refugees to the 1930s and 40s when it was the Jews of Europe who were seeking asylum. He writes that we Jews have a special responsibility to come to the aid of other oppressed people, and that “at such times, even small humanitarian gestures can light a flame of hope.”
Many of you have heard that some of our sister congregations – including Darchei Noam in Toronto and Emanu-El-Beth-Sholom in Montreal – have taken the step of sponsoring refugee families. We at Kol Ami want to do our part as well, and our President , Mark Wolpert will speak to you in a few minutes about how you can get involved.
As Jews, and as children of the Shoah, as human beings we are called upon to recognize the image of God in every person – whether the refugees of Syria or the homeless of Toronto or the battered women and children to whom our members bring food at Yellow Brick House. We are called upon to help when we can, to do our part in repairing the world.
In the city of Budapest, there is a tree. A bronze sculpture in the shape of a weeping willow, whose leaves bear the names of victims of the Shoah. It is known as Etz Hachayim – the Tree of Life – and it is a reminder of what has been lost, those branches that were cut off before their time. But it is also a reminder that all things grow and are renewed. That a tiny sapling can grow into a tall fruit tree. That a people can move forward – can survive and even thrive.
It is a reminder that we are the branches of the Tree of Life. When we live our lives with gratitude, when we contribute to a stronger and more vibrant Judaism, when we lend our strength to repair the world, not only do we honour the memories of those that were lost, but we also water the roots of an ancient and flourishing way of life, so that it may continue to grow and bloom for us and for those who will come after us.
Zecher Tzadik Livracha – The memory of the righteous is a blessing. May we, through our lives, strive to be a blessing – to their memory, to our own loved ones, to our people and our community and the world around us.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.
 When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner, p. 136.
 Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 39.
 Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, p. 57.
 Ibid 86.
 B. Menachot 43b.
 To Mend the World, Emil Fackenheim.
 Isaiah 58
 “Refugee Crisis: ‘Love the Stranger because you were once strangers’ calls to us now.” Jonathan Sacks. The Guardian, 6 September 2015.