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Let My People Stay – Yom Kippur

September 14, 2013

We are a People well-traveled, we wandering Jews. We spread our wings to explore the world on bicycle, car, ship, plane, train and on foot. We visit locales that are packed with fellow-tourists, and places that few people have seen. Cities offer us their cultural riches, as do villages and towns their charm and central squares. We are drawn to outdoor markets; cafes along canals; campaniles that offer breathtaking views of surrounding land, the sight its own reward for the long climb to the top of the bell-tower; and the discovery of small restaurants, bakeries, shops, parks and footbridges.

Museums are also on our lists: the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, and National Gallery in London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York; the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay in Paris; Hermitage in St. Petersburg; Reina Sofia in Madrid; Uffizi in Florence; Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum; the National Portrait Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum in Washington; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; and the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve listed 18 and have left out at least another 80 that qualify as ‘favorites’ among world travelers, with apologies to Asia and South America whose marvelous museums I did not mention.

Here is one that I only recently heard about. It is located in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and it is called The Museum of Broken Relationships. At first glance, you might think it to be a repository of historic documents and artifacts attesting to the splintering of countries. Not at all. It is a museum that displays tangible evidence of relationships that once were; about breaking up with someone you once loved or still love. That is, it is about the universal experience of sadness and loss, expressed through letters and objects. There is a can of love incense on which someone has scrawled the words, “Doesn’t work.” A Turkish woman donated a champagne bottle that she thought would be opened on the first anniversary of her new relationship because she expected her boyfriend to propose, but instead he walked away. And a note written by a Croatian man is displayed next to a prosthetic leg. The note reads, “In a Zagreb hospital, I met a beautiful social worker.” She taught him how to use the leg, but it endured longer than their love. His note concludes with the words, “This was made of sturdier material.” The exhibit is poignant, to say the least.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar because we are asked to examine what we have done, or refrained from doing, in the context of relationships. The key word is ‘covenant’: on the human plane, what is holy about the relationships we have with our parents, mate, siblings, children and friends? This holy day is devoted to introspection, taking responsibility, and saying “I am truly sorry,” and so it is also the ‘holy day of second chances.’

In our tradition, one is adorned in white on Yom Kippur because it is the color of burial shrouds, and will likely inspire repentance by evoking death. These Days of Awe create an imaginary encounter with death so as to heighten the meaning of life.

מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת

“Who shall live and who shall die?” On Yom Kippur, we symbolically arrive at the abyss beyond which death awaits. We peer over it, sensing some aspect of the unseen, a place without description. Last night, on Kol Nidrei, we lit the ner neshamah in memory of those no longer here, as shall someday be done for each of us: but not now, not yet. Death’s hand is stayed for a time by a benevolent force beyond us that grants life and endows it with purpose and meaning.

Sometimes death is held at bay by the courage of those whose actions ascend to heights so unimaginable that “heroism” seems a paltry word to define their deeds.

This past July, Susan and I took a two-week cruise through the Baltic and North Seas to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We visited synagogues, museums and sites of historic interest in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm – including the memorial to Raoul Wallenberg – and in addition to those cities, we went to other countries where, during the Holocaust, Jews were dying to escape: Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and the Netherlands. In Klaipeda, Lithuania and Tallin, Estonia, I wondered where our people sought refuge or hid, only to be discovered or betrayed. We were in places that in a not so distant time led to the same end for so many people, Jews and non-Jews alike: death.

That terminus was frustrated at one place along our journey: a small fishing village outside Copenhagen, called Dragor. It is a coastal point where 7,000 Danish Jews were rowed to safety in Sweden, a passage over rough water that took about an hour, with the chance of being intercepted by German patrol boats or capsizing. Another 800 were rowed across from other points. Almost 99% of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust thanks to the heroic efforts of the Danish resistance movement and the participation of ordinary Danes who performed extraordinary acts. A large three-dimensional plaque on an upraised stone 5 feet in height depicts the small fishing boats that carried us to safety, and inscribed above those boats is a statement that honors the heroism of Danes who rowed us across the Baltic at great risk to themselves, with specific reference to their fellow-countrymen, Jews, whom they saved. Below the depiction of the small fishing boats is the statement from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he {or she} has saved the entire world” {Sanhedrin 37a}.

The King of Denmark, Christian X, steadfastly stood by us. When Hitler sent him a cable congratulating him on the occasion of his wedding anniversary, the King refused to respond to it, a diplomatic slight of no small measure.

Leaders of Trinitatis Kirke – Trinity Church – in Copenhagen approached the rabbi of the nearby Great Synagogue and offered to hide the Torah Scrolls from the Nazis. Late one night, the scrolls were taken from the synagogue on gurneys, giving the impression that sick people were being brought to the hospital. The scrolls were buried below the foundation of the Church for the duration of the war, and when the war ended, they were dug up and returned to the synagogue. What the Danes did defines selfless deeds. The question is whether we would answer a similar call if the occasion arose.

In less heroic but important ways, we do so whenever we offer others their moments of redemption. Those moments might not be life saving, but they are life affirming. They occur when we stand up to combat prejudice, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and raging nationalism…and sometimes you do the right thing and only afterward realize its effect.

A remarkable life affirming experience occurred at the beginning of the first year of our synagogue’s existence. A few weeks after Kol Ami was created in July of 1994, I heard about Sam Flor, a man with the reputation of being a wonderful violinist. I made an appointment to meet him, with the intention of asking him to play the Kol Nidrei on his violin. Nothing could have prepared me for the story he would tell.

His mother lived under the domain of three different countries without ever moving: her address changed from Prinz Eugenstrasse 5, to Molotov Street 5, to Goeringstrasse 5 as Romania, Russia and Germany vied for control in the decades between the world wars. He often said that his identity was “Number 5.”

He was born in the Bukovina region, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and then after World War One, part of Romania, and then in 1940 it was annexed by the Soviet Union. When the Russians captured his town, he buried two violins in the garden of his house. After the war, he and Gertrude – they met and married on the same day in 1940, and she, reminiscing, said, “I did not think it would last. I did not think life would last” – returned to dig up the violins. They found only one, but it would be the key to their lives in America.

During the Holocaust, their family and friends were sent to their deaths in Siberia, or stuffed into boxcars like cattle bound for slaughter in extermination camps where the Nazis carried out the horrifying last stage of the ‘Final Solution.’ It was in one of the death camps that Sam’s best friend told him that while he was sure he himself would not survive the Holocaust, he was certain that Sam would. They were both 16 years old. Sam assured him that they would both survive and rejoice at the birth of their children and grandchildren. That hope would not be realized. As his best friend lay dying, he made a final request of Sam: in the future, would Sam promise to play the Kol Nidrei in his memory at a synagogue?

Sam and Gertrude were with us at our Kol Nidrei service on September 6, 1994. She accompanied him on the piano, and immediately after his breathtaking rendition on the violin of this most special High Holy Day liturgy, he told us his story and the promise that he had made. He concluded with eight unforgettable words: “You have removed the stone from my heart.”

In ‘Gates of Prayer,’ the immediate predecessor to Mishkan T’filah, our Shabbat and weekday prayer book, is a phrase that reads, “There is evil enough to break the heart, good enough to lift the spirit.” Our hearts have been broken so often that surely one miracle – in addition to the survival of our People – is the fact that hope endures. It endures despite the deadly scourge of terrorism; dictators flexing their nuclear muscles; economies in distress; and people swarming toward borders for the chance of a better life, only to find they are not wanted or, having raised children in a new land, learn that they too are at risk.

Can we write a new chapter in the history of our nation, a country enriched by people like Sam and Gertrude, founded by immigrants? Can we grant citizenship to those who chose to be here, and their children as well? Can we save them from the ignominy of intolerance that is cloaked in the mantle of principle?

As we gather to pray, many immigrants in America continue to seek a reprieve from deportation. Applicants to the ‘deferred action’ program must be between 15 and 30 years old, and must have continuously lived in America since 2007. Most applicants are under 21 years of age. Two out of every three were under 11 when they arrived in the United States, and one third were 5 or younger {Kirk Semple, “Study Offers a Picture of Young Immigrants Seeking a Reprieve From Deportation,” New York Times, August 14, 2013}. They have cast their lot with America, and yet they and their families face significant resistance to their demonstrated desire to become part of this country under the protection of law. Can we raise them to heights beyond which they dared to dream?

We who have been strangers in strange lands are reminded to identify with the stranger. It is the refrain of Passover: “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We became ‘the Chosen People’ not because of special merit – in fact, the Midrash argues that we received the Ten Commandments from God because no other nation wanted to be burdened with them – but because we were the weakest among people, and the Covenant would redeem us from doubt and despair, from being ‘the other’ to being a people chosen “to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” {Micah 6:8} and to be strengthened through our faith to perform mitzvot. Our mission is not to convert people to Judaism, but to be “a light unto the nations” {Isaiah 49:6} so that people, inspired by our conduct and ethics, will be drawn to God in the name of whatever faith they choose.

Let me tell you a brief story about the notion of choosing. Louis Brandeis was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limitations on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law firms did not hire Jewish attorneys. When he was in law school, his classmates urged him to convert in order to remove the barriers that he and his Jewish peers faced, and not just in the legal field. He did not do so, and on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, he announced from the podium, “I am sorry that I was born a Jew.” His words were greeted with enthusiastic shouts and cheers, but when the noise died down, he continued, “I am sorry that I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.” In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

Almost all of us were born into the Jewish faith, and all of us who are Jewish – whether by birth or through conversion – are also ‘choosing Jews.’ We choose when and how to manifest our Jewish identity. We choose when to act and how to respond. When God told Moses to send leaders to survey the Promised Land, they were told: “See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak?” Is a country strong because of its military might, its industrial power, its infrastructure and economy? Undeniably, yes. But there is another kind of strength. A country is great not because its citizens are strong, but because they are compassionate. It is this strength that our prophets – Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah – spoke about when they addressed the children of Israel in the Name of God almost 2800 years ago:

“Learn to do well:

seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless,

plead for the widow” {Isaiah 1:17}

“Hate evil, love what is good,

and establish justice in the gate” {Amos 5:15}

The words of the prophets informed and inspired, and though the people often tired of hearing them because the prophets relentlessly criticized the vast distance between caring and doing, and the tendency of rulers to pontificate and seek league with the like-minded and powerful, while they – the prophets – championed the cause of those who had precious few to speak on their behalf. The message and demand of the prophets was that we must do better. When we disparage one another; when we stereotype the stranger; when we forget that the other person, like us, is also created in the Divine image, we chip away at the common bonds that might yet unite us.

We could, I suppose, stand on the sideline, but not our People, and not now. This is our calling, our work for this year and all years: “to uplift souls” because in helping others we will redeem ourselves from moments of doubt or despair, and we will lift each other toward hope, and we will do the same for a bit more of our broken world. We will be among those who remove stones from hearts.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin

Note: the title of this sermon is derived from a statement in the Talmud, “Our rabbis taught, ‘When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, ‘My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?’” {Sanhedrin 39b}