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Be Holy – Wage Peace — erev Rosh Hashanah

September 18, 2009

“Wage peace with your breath.

Breathe in firemen and rubble,

breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.

Breathe in terrorists

and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mowed fields.

Breathe in confusion

and breathe out maple trees.

Breathe in the fallen

and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.

Wage peace with your listening

hear sirens, pray loud.

Play music,

learn the words thank you in three languages.

Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,

imagine grief as the out breath of beauty…

Swim for the other side.

Wage peace.

Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.

Act as if armistice has already arrived.

Don’t wait another minute.”

Poet Mary Oliver urges us to “act as if armistice has already arrived” but we are not so easily fooled. Peace often seems to only be the interlude between skirmishes and wars. Our world frustrates and fragments: we have been battered and bruised by the economy; Ahmanidejad is our curse; and Mumbai yet another example of terrorism unleashed. We pray for peace, but it eludes us.

Our prayers are pledges repeated as mantras: “Never again” we say. “Never again” the waves of anti-Semitism that rolled across continents, herding families into ghettos, onto trains, and then into concentration camps and crematoria, slowly turning Europe into a vast cemetery of scattered ashes and broken dreams; “Never again” suffering the silence – and sometimes complicity – of the Church; “Never again” stripped of dignity, rights and life by the stroke of pens wielded by kings and dictators. The words of poet Nelly Sachs, in her collection entitled ‘O The Chimneys,’ {1} gives voice to our despair and dashed hopes:

“If the prophets broke in

through the doors of night

and sought an ear like a homeland –

Ear of mankind

overgrown with nettles,

would you hear?

If the voice of the prophets


on flutes made of murdered children’s bones

and exhaled airs burnt with

martyr’s cries –

if they built a bridge of old men’s dying

groans –

Ear of mankind

occupied with small sounds,

would you hear?

If the prophets stood up

in the night of mankind

like lovers who seek the heart of the beloved,

night of mankind

would you have a heart to offer?”

Our response to that question is a hopeful “Yes,” but many of us think, “Probably not.”

Beneath our pledge that the Holocaust will “Never again” happen, lurks this haunting possibility: “Ever again.” We are students of history and so we are wary. “Ever again” ties us to the conviction that while all things are possible, horrible things are probable. It is draining to live one’s life with this presumption. It colors the way we see the world and those who inhabit it. We often label people on the basis of their race, religion and ethnicity, and stereotypes condition our responses to them. Just think what the word ‘Muslim’ connotes for many people.

I lived through this conundrum for a significant portion of my life. Raised by my parents to love…I hated. This consuming flame was burning in me for several decades, and for a long time I did not realize that the only person it was hurting was me.

My parents fled Vienna just a month before Kristallnacht – “The Night of Broken Glass” – so named because of the mosaic glass of synagogues and 7,500 shattered storefronts that lay in shards on streets. Kristallnacht: a pogrom unleashed by the Nazis in Austria and Germany on November 9-10, 1938. Ninety-one Jews were murdered while the police stood and watched; 30,000 were arrested; more than a thousand synagogues were destroyed; and Jewish newspapers were ordered to cease publication immediately, severing critical lines of communication and information, particularly about emigration. Hundreds of Jews committed suicide, and thousands were interred in concentration camps, a harbinger of worse horrors to come. Kristallnacht revealed the Nazis’ awful intentions.

A few years before Kristallnacht, my father’s instincts led him to prepare for the worst, and so in October of 1938 – just a month before Kristallnacht exploded – my father and mother were able to flee Vienna for a safe haven in London. A year later they came through Ellis Island and in 1944 received their Certificates of Naturalization conferring upon them the right “to be admitted to citizenship [in] the United States of America.”

Grateful to have fled, it was not easy for them to leave the past behind. Almost all of my father’s relatives survived the Holocaust – one of his brothers was sheltered by a Christian family in Holland; two brothers fled through the underground and made their way to Palestine, which like the biblical Jacob would be renamed ‘Israel’; and another brother survived a concentration camp and returned to Vienna to live out his days – but almost all of my mother’s family was murdered on streets and in camps.

Ironically, my father would not talk about the Holocaust, even though most of his family came through it relatively unscathed. I think his silence was a form of mourning for the millions of our people who died. It was almost as if relief for his family’s remarkable good fortune – a combination of will and courage – was nullified by the suffering and deaths of so many. It defied imagination and rendered him, at least on this topic, mute. My mother, on the other hand, who had lost so much, would quietly and sadly speak about what had been: her parents and siblings, whom I only knew through old photographs; her childhood in Galicia and young adulthood in Vienna; and the names of friends who would have their futures torn away from them. My parents spoke numerous languages, most often in German, and so I came to understand German through proximity to sounds that struck me as unbearably harsh, as if they were gears constantly grinding against each other.

I detested anything German and anyone German. I refused to learn the German language, something that I would come to regret later in my life when I realized how much the ability to read it would have helped me in my education. For a significant part of my life, whenever I heard someone speak English with a German accent, my instant conclusion was that they were complicit in what had befallen our People during the Holocaust, or that someone in their family bore that guilt.

If I ever needed to justify my rage, it seemed to be fortified by no less a source than the Torah. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how [that people] surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” {Deut. 25:17-18}. One verse later the text continues, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” {Deut. 25:19}. I had taken the imperative to heart. I indicted every German-speaking person I met, allowing only those of Jewish descent to escape my condemnation. I later allowed for some measure of tolerance by estimating how young they were during the Holocaust, and I blithely assigned guilt to anyone who was at least 18 years old at the time, when flames were licking the bones of my ancestors. Such was the measure of my wrath that I became the personification of Dante’s words:

“Through me the way into the suffering city,

Through me the way to the eternal pain,

Through me the way that runs among the lost…

Abandon all hope, ye who enter”

the furnace of my fury.”

I was many years removed from young adulthood when I learned that our traditional texts – the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud – are filled with more calls to holiness than I realized: “You are to be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” {Exodus 19:6}; “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” {Leviticus 19:1}; “The world endures because of three things: [applying the words of] Torah, [dedication to] prayer, and deeds of loving kindness” {Avot 1.18}. The call to holiness is part of our daily liturgy: kadosh, kadosh, kadosh/”holy, holy, holy” is repeated three times in succession in order to emphasize its centrality in our faith and importance to our lives.

Years later, I learned the wisdom of the attribute of mercy. It was never my prerogative to forgive, and I could not forget, but it was in my power l’havdil: the Hebrew verb that means “to make distinctions.” I could, in time, distinguish between those who abetted evil and those who, consumed by fear, became bystanders, as unpalatable as it seems. I could do the math that would enable me to add up the facts that would unmask mendacity, and be exhausted by the effort, or I could be merciful to myself, as self-serving as sounds, by being a bit less judgmental of those who played relatively minor roles in “the banality of evil.”

I eventually asked myself, “What if the guiding philosophy in my life became ‘Be holy’ rather than ‘Never again’?” There is no doubt that we need to be vigilant. We cannot close our eyes to the reality of discrimination, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and terrorism, but if you choose to live your life motivated by the imperative “Be holy,” you live differently. You treat people differently. You come to see yourself surrounded by blessings. You choose to live in the light of optimism and are open to possibilities instead of in darkness that is defined by pessimism and limitations. You are more aware of goodness in the world because you are among those who dispense it.

You take your cue from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He was born in Ukraine in 1772. He was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who was considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Nachman combined the wisdom of Kabbalah with Torah study. He encouraged his followers to live with faith and joy, but all the while he was the focal point of vitriol between Orthodox Jews who denigrated him and his fellow Hasidim who literally danced their joy of Judaism while davening. There were pitched battles within Hasidic ranks between those who supported rabbinic dynasties, and those who, like Nachman, did not. He was vilified by his staunchest opponents, but through it all – and perhaps because so much of what swirled around him was divisive – he urged his followers to seek joy and be holy. Nachman taught that all you need to discover is meh’aht ha’tov/”the tiniest bit of good.“ This is all you need to find,” he writes, “just the smallest bit, just a dot of goodness. That should be enough to give you life, to bring you back to joy.” Look for one good point, he said, and then look for another, and then look for another, and then expand the good points and attach them to each other, until you weave together something that is made up of genuine goodness.

You look for meh’aht ha’tov – for glimmers of light in the darkness. You create shalom bayit – a peaceful home from which goodness emanates. You set aside time for bikur cholim – you visit the sick, for they are in need of your presence as much as your prayers. You become a brachah – a blessing. You do what you can, even if it is meh‘aht ha’tov -” the tiniest bit of goodness” because you need to start somewhere, and slowly but surely, step by step, you do your part in the pursuit of tikkun olam – healing the world of pain by helping people across borders because – as we are reminded in the Book of Leviticus – they, like you, are also created in the Divine image. {Leviticus 19:18}

The essence of Judaism is to overcome separation: separation from people and from nature. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazik chief rabbi of the British Mandate in Palestine, said, “The Jewish outlook is the vision of the holiness in all existence.” He said this at a very difficult time in our People’s history: the Arabs armed for war and the British were busy preventing us from defending ourselves. Yet he advocated “the vision of the holiness in all existence.

One of the stories that my mother told me when I was a child came from memories of her childhood in the little town of Zablotav, in Galicia. Every Friday afternoon, as Shabbat was about to commence, her father would take her by the hand and together they would go to homes – hovels really – where very poor people lived, and they would leave envelopes with money for them. They never wrote anything on the envelopes to indicate who had done so: just a few coins in envelopes placed anonymously on the windowsills of several homes, every week, as Shabbat arrived, to bring hope on the day of rest.

In the words of Torah: kedoshim tih’yu – “Be holy.” Look for goodness. Connect the dots. Build a new world. Wage peace.

Shanah tovah.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin