Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, March 24, 2022
In This Moment: March 25: Why Zelensky Drives Israelis Crazy; The Red Heifer and the Refrigerated Trucks of Dnipro; Spotlight on Berdichev
In This Moment
Purim: Back and Better than Ever!
It was great to get back into our sanctuary for Purim last week, and into the social hall for Temple Rock. Thank you to Lisa Gittelman-Udi for the photos seen here. Clickhere to see all of Aviva Maller's fantastic photographs from Purim, which can be downloaded individually. If you share them on social media please tag Aviva Maller and use her copyright as well - AvivaMaller Photography.
As our concern for Ukraine continues to grow, our interfaith community will be gathering virtually for a prayer vigil on Tuesday at 7. I've engaged a special guest speaker for the event, Larry Cohler-Esses, who just returned from the region, reporting for the Forward. Larry (pictured here), an acclaimed and well-traveled journalist, spoke here several years ago following his trip to Iran, where, according to The New York Times, he was the first journalist from an American Jewish pro-Israel publication to be given an Iranian visa since 1979. Please join us on Tuesday as we welcome Larry and pray together with our neighbors.
You have likely seen our revised Covid protocols, which, mirroring the world around us, reflect a deep desire to enable people to gather in person comfortably and safely. Still, with the threat of a new variant growing, we are not going to be caught with our guard down yet again. So we are focusing our efforts on instantaneous adaptability. The new tent will help, as will our commitment having all our services be engaging on multiple levels. We strive for excellence in person AND online.
And that's where you come in. In order to provide excellent Zoom options for Shabbat mornings and many Friday nights, we need people to run the Zoom for us. We'll train you! We'll help you! But we need you! Without a Zoom operators, we will not be able to move Shabbat morning services to in-person in April, as we are hoping to do. So please contact me or our office if you are interested. More details can be found in the weekly announcements.
And we have a big social justice event for TBE teens this weekend. Several will be participating in a Midnight Run on Sat. night, bringing food for people without homes in Manhattan.
The Red Heifer and the Refrigerated Trucks of Dnipro
This week is Shabbat Parah, the third of the four special Torah readings read before Passover. Parah means cow, and the section, from Numbers chapter 19, describes the red heifer that was killed as part of an ancient purification ritual when coming into contact with a corpse. We are reminded to purify our homes - and ourselves - with the festival fast approaching.
But this ancient ritual gains special meaning for us this year, both in light of the weekly portion, Shmini, which speaks of the tragic and sudden deaths of Aaron's two young sons Nadav and Avihu, and with the specter of death everywhere in Ukraine. I was taken by a report shown on CNN today, featuring the deputy mayor of Dnipro, 240 miles southeast of Kyiv, a city that has seen its share of death and suffering and an area with a rich and tragic Jewish historyas well. The reporter was shown the cemeteries where Ukrainian soldiers are buried, and then large refrigerated trucks, within which 700 Russian soldiers lie, awaiting transport to Kyiv and then, presumably, back to Russia - if the Russians will take them back.
The deputy mayor does not open the trucks, not wanting to show the faces of the "dead guys," preferring to preserve some sense of their dignity. The reporter asks why go through all this effort, and he replies, "We cannot leave this body on our fields, on our streets or another place. It is not normal."
This small example of human dignity in the midst of an inhuman war reminded me of another biblical purification rite involving a heifer and a corpse. In Deuteronomy 21, we read:
Heschel said, "In a free society, some our guilty, all are responsible." This ritual, however strange, reminds us that if we come across a calamity, even if we didn't cause it, even if it's outside our area of prime responsibility, we are obligated not to ignore it - especially if it involves a death.
The Russians have retreated without taking the corpses of their comrades with them, whether out of fear of causing panic back home, sheer denial or simply reflecting the wishes and character of their nihilistic leader. The Ukrainians are providing a more dignified repatriation, in line with the values espoused by the Torah. What the Russians are doing to their dead brothers, and what they are doing to their Ukrainian cousins, is not normal.
May we all possess such caring hands as those of the deputy mayor of Dnipro, and may those caring hands purify our hearts, as the season of liberation approaches.
Should Russia's War Be Compared to the Holocaust?
Why are Israelis Really So Angry at Zelensky?
The screaming headlines from Israel’s newspapers said it all, quoting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett: "Zelensky is fighting for his nation's survival, but it is forbidden to compare the Holocaust to anything else."
Volodymyr Zelensky was crying for help from his bunker when he addressed the Knesset on Sunday. Yet while Kyiv literally burned, Israelis fiddled with the Ukrainian president’s misguided use of the term, “Final Solution.” How is it that this icon of democratic values and steadfast self-determination, who would have been the envy of Israel’s founders, felt the wrath of Israel over a couple of misplaced words of an otherwise galvanizing speech?
Something is happening here, and it has little to do with the Holocaust.
This overreaction demonstrates that Israelis have no idea what to do with a man who has turned Zionism on its head. Zelensky is the antithesis of what was supposed to happen in a dying diaspora – and in Ukraine of all places, the deadest of the dying diasporas. He represents a new form of Jewish hero, more Mordechai than Maccabee, combining the courage and battlefield prowess of the IDF with the chutzpah and street smarts of Ukrainian-born Golda Meir, whom he quoted in his Knesset speech, along with the transformational, earth-moving faith of another Ukrainian Jew, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, whom he also referenced. Diaspora Jews are supposed to be disheveled shlemiels and good fundraisers and maybe occasionally smart politicians and media stars. This guy is all of the above and more.
He’s a hero, in the way that Israelis used to be heroes. He’s Moshe Dayan and Yoni Netanyahu – and he’s Jon Stewart too. And, to top it off, he’s a political leader who isn’t standing trial for corruption. Who knew?
And that’s driving Israelis crazy.
Here's the perfect partner that your child brings home, and the parents are complaining, “Yes, but he’s not a doctor!” And to top it off, they refuse to give Iron Dome as a wedding present, and they want to invite Putin to the wedding.
Zelensky has been pitch-perfect in addressing government gatherings throughout the world. But when he addressed the Knesset last Sunday, he touched that third rail when he compared Russia's actions against his country to the Holocaust. Specifically, he appealed that Russians are aiming for a "final solution" for his people.
Zelensky was not totally wrong about that. But “genocide” is the word he should have used. There was only one "Final Solution." For decades, we’ve all had to navigate verbal minefields to avoid using that term. Israeli-Palestinian peace plans always include provisions for a "Final Status" agreement; never a "Final Solution." Synonyms like "end result" or "ultimate consequence" have found their way into the vernacular to replace the Holocaust expression that rolls so effortlessly off the tongue.
So Zelensky, who lost family members during the Holocaust and who successfully compared this conflict to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor when addressing Congress, and to Dunkirk when speaking to the British Parliament, slipped up here. It was an unforced error but give the guy a break! The energy with which Israeli politicians pounced on this modern Jewish hero who has done more to save democracy than anyone since Churchill, was even more tone deaf than Zelensky's remark.
It's even greater chutzpah for the Israeli government to act so offended when the state is now aligning itself squarely on the side of neutrality, at a time when even Switzerland - Switzerland! - has taken a side. They are choosing the way of Kissinger realpolitik when a strong Wiesel-like moral stance would be both morally right and politically prudent, at a time when Congress is voting on a 4.8-billion-dollar security package for Israel.
Neutrality in the face of evil is itself evil; and to Putin, it reeks of weakness. Perhaps a month ago neutrality might have made sense - perhaps. But now, who cares if Israel is the peace broker? Others can take up that mantle. Ukrainians and the world need to see Israel being a true beacon of justice here - precisely because of the Holocaust. Because of the Final Solution.
Zelensky's analogy was spot on; he just used the wrong words. This battle between good and evil is every bit as fateful as the one fought 80 years ago. Call it what you want, but Putin is aiming to annihilate the Ukrainian people, which incidentally, includes tens of thousands of Jews. This enemy has proven himself to be every bit as craven as the one the allies defeated in World War Two.
Zelensky should be absolutely embraced by his fellow Jews, not relegated to a Hollywood Squares Zoom session with nit-picky Knesset members looking for gotcha quotes. He is the ultimate Jewish hero envisioned by Herzl and the founders of Zionism. He's the ghetto fighter who survives in the bunker. But they can’t stomach that he's a product of the exile, a diaspora Jew who has stolen their mojo.
When hundreds of thousands of Jews left for Israel after the Soviet Union fell, Zelensky's family stayed behind in the land of Golda and Reb Nachman and Bialik. He chose to continue to identify proudly as a Jew and yet won a national election by a landslide. He reduced corruption and antisemitism in his country. His army could give the IDF a run for its money.
And he's not afraid to take on Putin alone.
All of this makes Israel look like the diaspora weakling begging the Russian bully to return their lunch money in Syria.
Zelensky has turned Zionism on its head, and that's why Israeli politicians are treating him with such disdain, when they should in fact be embracing him, as everyone else in the free world is, including American Jews across the political spectrum. He got a standing O in Washington. He got a muted Zoom wave in Jerusalem.
There is still time to change that. Ukraine still needs what Israel has to offer. And this war has not yet reached its final…resolution.
Pilgrimage to Jewish Ukraine
Spotlight on Berdichev
Members of the Bene Tsiyon (Sons of Zion) society with visiting writer Sholem Aleichem (second row from front, fifth from left) and composer Mark Varshavski (third from left), Berdichev (now Berdychiv, Ukr.), 1900. (YIVO)
According to the census of 1789, Jews constituted 75% of Berdychiv's population (1,951 out of 2,640, of whom 246 were liquor dealers, 452 houseowners, 134 merchants, 188 artisans, 150 clerks and 56 idlers). Around the turn of the 20th century, Berdichev counted some 80 synagogues and Jewish schools and was famous for its cantors. At that time it was an epicenter of constant debate between Hasidim, Mitnagdim (their rationalist, legalist opponents) and Maskilim (proponents of the Enlightenment). Throw in some socialists Zionists and Yiddishists - like Shalom Aleichem - and it was quite a volatile mix, Jewish culture at its absolute zenith. You can read all about the history of Jewish Berdichev at this website.
The most influential Jew to come from there was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740–1809) who transformed it into one of the great early centers of Hasidism. Following an old tradition that dates back to Abraham, Levi Yitzchak was known to challenge God. One Rosh Hashanah he went far beyond that, actually putting God on trial. (And you think I have chutzpah!) He claimed that God had no right to extend Israel's exile when other more sinful nations were allowed to live in peace and prosperity.
The verdict is rendered: "guilty," after which the rabbi rises to praise God's name by saying Kaddish. Elie Wiesel wrote of such a trial actually happening among the prisoners at Auschwitz. Musical renditions of this "Kaddish of Levi Yitzchak" became staples of cantorial repertoires around the world. Here's an example of how that "Kaddish" has resonated far beyond its original setting.
One could imagine Levi Yitzchak repeating his emotional appeal, with his hometown facing renewed devastation from the skies.
He raised his fist to the heavens to defend his people - such was his sense of compassion and devotion. He also had a keen sense of humor, as is seen in this story, with which I'll conclude this tribute to Berdichev, another magical place being trampled upon by the Russian oppressors.
R. Levi Yitzhak’s every pronouncement was punctuated by a love for the Jewish people. When R. Levi Yitzhak once chanced upon a Jew standing in the street on Shabbat and smoking a cigarette, he did not approach the young man with harsh admonishment: “My beloved brother, you probably do not realize that today is the holy Shabbat.”
The smoker responded in a belligerent tone: “I know that today is Shabbat,” and demonstratively placed the cigarette back in his mouth.
“Then, dear friend, you probably do not realize that it is forbidden to smoke on the holy Shabbat.”
“I know that it is Shabbat and I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat!” replied the smoker cantankerously as he exhaled puffs of smoke.
Seeking some line of defense, R. Levi Yitzhak’s brow became knitted for a moment until suddenly his eyes lit up and with a satisfied grin he said: “My friend, you must be ill and the doctors have told you that the only remedy for your health is to smoke and you must smoke even on Shabbat because of your life-threatening condition!”
The Shabbat smoker’s eyes were ablaze as he aggressively responded: “I am perfectly healthy, I know it is Shabbat and I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” And with that he blew smoke straight into the face of the Berditchever Rebbe.
R. Levi Yitzhak raised his eyes heavenward and called out to God: “Master of the universe! Look how unbelievably worthy Your children are: They will smoke on Shabbat, but they would never dare to tell a lie!”