Tu B’Shevat 5777 - Opening to the Beginning

Some beginnings are dramatic and obvious:
Move-in day. The birth of a sibling or a cousin. Commencement.

Beginnings like this are identifiable, recognizable--you can celebrate their anniversary.

But sometimes beginnings creep up on you.

A friendship grows in trust and depth.

A task becomes a vocation, somehow.

NYU turns into “home,”
but you can’t remember the first time you used that word for this place.

Tu B’Shevat is a beginning: the new year for the trees.

And it’s happening when we’re covered in snow,
Wondering what spring will feel like, should it ever come (G-d willing, it will!).

We sit together and eat different kinds of fruits,

Fruits full and ripe, with the potential of a new seed inside,

And fruits locked into themselves, encased in a shell.

We are mindful of what is seen and what is unseen,

Mindful of what is hidden just beneath the surface.

We eat fruits we have never eaten before--
Or fruits we have not eaten for a long, long time,

So that we experience their tang or their sweetness

As if for the first time.

And before we eat each fruit, we say a beracha, a blessing.

In Jewish tradition, we are obligated to bless something

Before we enjoy it, before we gain benefit from it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 50:1).

Easy to do, with these fruits laid out beautifully in front of us.

Easy to eat mindfully and gratefully, with a seder to guide us.

But what if our new beginning, what if that enjoyment, what if that benefit and blessing,

What if it sneaks up on us?

We are obligated to bless before the miraculous renewal we feel
in enjoying the fruits of this world.

But what if we don’t notice until it’s too late.

What if we’re like Jacob,

Who ran through the wilderness in fear of his brother’s anger.

Jacob sleeps on the ground, a stone for his pillow.

And something happens.

He has a miraculous dream.

He experiences a new beginning.

A ladder, with angels traveling down and up.

And G-d’s Presence, right there with Jacob in the middle of the desert.

Jacob awakens.

אכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

Wow! The Eternal was in this place, and I, I did not know.

Jacob experienced something new, something unprecedented,

In the most unexpected place.

He wasn’t ready.

It took him a beat or so to catch up with his experience.

And then he sprung into action,

Marking the place with a stone, anointing it with oil,

And making a promise to G-d.

Jacob renamed the place of his new begining Beit El, the House of G-d.

Our beginnings aren’t always announced to us.

Every day isn’t “the first day of school” or “the hundredth day before commencement.”

Or Tu B’Shevat, when bounty is laid out before us.

I keep thinking about how this holiday, this seder,

Is happening just after a blizzard.

How are we supposed to think about beginning, about budding?

The medieval Rabbi Menachem Meiri calls this day
the midpoint between winter and spring (Beit HaBechirah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

Winter is weakening. The sap is flowing in the trees.

The author Kurt Vonnegut claims that there are six seasons, not four.

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.

But also “Locking” and “Unlocking.”

Between Winter and Spring,

The time we are just on the cusp of approaching,

Is “Unlocking” (Palm Sunday: Bits of the Collage, 1981).

The earth needs to get ready for spring.

The beginning doesn’t happen in that glorious moment
when the crocus peeks up from the rich brown in all its green and purple glory.

The beginning is before that,
When the grown begins, imperceptibly to humans, to thaw.

The beginning is when the worms begin to stir.

The beginning is when a flow of energy happens

Just beneath the surface.

Everything is unlocking

So what does this have to do with us, tonight?

On Tu B’Shevat we bless before we eat and enjoy,

And we’re mindful of this process.

But all the time we are invited, we are called, we are obligated,

To unlock ourselves to the possibility of beginning again.

If we must bless before we enjoy,

And if the potential for benefit and blessing is all around us,

Then we’d better get ready!

Our challenge, all year round, is to be open to the possibility of the new.

To be open to the possibility of blessing.

To be open to saying Achein!

What just happened here, that’s blessing, that’s goodness!

Any place could be that Beit El, a place where something Divine has taken root
And blossomed.

Indeed, the very place that Jacob named “Beit El” was originally called “Luz.”

“Luz” is an ancient word for almond-blossom:

The shaked, the almond-tree, is the first to bloom in the land of Israel.

The first to bloom at this time of year, at Tu B’Shevat.

So this New Year of the Trees
Is a reminder to us

That every Luz, every almond-blossom,

Might be the opportunity for a Beit El,

For a place where surprise and blessing and miracle and holiness

Can take root.

Be open to the possibility of beginning again.

Shabbat Va'eirah D'var Torah - Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi

Laboring for Freedom
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi
27 January 2017


“I have heard the cries of the children of Israel,
Whom the Egyptians are enslaving in bondage,
And I remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6:5).


The certainty with which this week’s Torah portion opens is

So comforting.

Our people are in pain.

We are being treated unfairly.

We are held in slavery.

Generations have passed since the leader
Of the land in which we’ve been living

Has even known the names of our Jewish communal leaders.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

“And they oppressed the Israelites with difficult labors.”

Suddenly the ultimate Authority hears our cries,

Recognizes us,

And does something about it.

All told, ten things, actually--

The plagues that finally prompt Pharaoh to “let our people go.”


But it’s never really that easy,



Freedom has never been a matter

Of a great, all-powerful God

Suddenly splitting the sea for us.


Freedom won’t work that way today, either.


Over Winter Break and J-Term,

Many of you reached out to me

With questions about how to live

In the uncertainty of today’s world,

Including but not limited to the current presidential administration in particular.

Uncertainty is agonizing.

And we all want to hear that promises have been remembered,

That freedom’s just around the corner,

Across the sea, within reach.

It would be comforting to hear that all we need to do is be led to the shore.


But the thing is, freedom doesn’t work that way.

Freedom is having ownership of our bodies and some measure of autonomy

For our futures.

Freedom is not an absence of work.

Freedom is a different sort of labor.

In Hebrew, avodah means “slavery.”

And avodah also means “worship.” “Service.”


Freedom is about laboring for our values, our heritage, our communities,

Our covenant.


I keep thinking about the heroes of last week’s Torah portion:

The Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah.

In the course of their work,

They took ownership.

They refused to be enslaved to Pharaoh’s edict.

They disobeyed his orders to kill all male Hebrew children as they emerged

from their mothers’ wombs.

Instead, they lied to Pharaoh and let all the children live.


And I keep thinking about the Hebrew parents themselves:

Those folks who continued to grow their families

Despite Pharaoh’s attempt to bring only death and destruction and bitter bondage.

In the haftarah reading for this week,

Isaiah uses the image of birth to describe

The miraculous turn from slavery to freedom,

From rejection to acceptance:

“Who has ever heard the likes of this?

Who has ever seen the likes of this?

Is it possible that a land can be born in one day?

Is a nation born all at once--

That Zion should feel birth pangs and

Immediately bear her children?” (Isaiah 66: 8).


I’ve never actually given birth.

But I think it likely feels both as miraculous as Isaiah claims

And also like a sh&* ton of work!

It’s called labor for a reason.


Some of you may have seen Sikh activist Valerie Kaur’s
New Year’s speech.

She asked us to reenvision the darkness many of us see around us

Not as the “darkness of the tomb,”

But rather as the “darkness of the womb.”

“Breathe,” she urged.

And after that, she reminded us, it’s time to “Push.”


So, here’s the thing:

Lots of us want certainty.

Lots of us want the Ultimate Authority to come and

Tell us what to do.

Lots of us want to hear a booming voice reassuring us,

“I have heard the people’s cry,

And I have remembered My covenant.”

Lots of us want to just be on the other side of the sea already!


But that’s skipping a whole bunch of steps.

That’s skipping the hopefulness of the Hebrew parents

Who went ahead growing their families despite Pharaoh’s edict.

That’s skipping the rebellion of the midwives Shifra and Puah

Who simply disregarded the words of a powerful king.

That’s skipping the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam

In showing the people that a new future was possible.

That’s skipping the agonizing plagues.

That’s skipping the terror at the shores of the sea

And the immense relief and fulfillment and wonder of reaching the opposite shore.

And that’s for sure skipping the years of wandering in the desert,

Figuring out how to be a free and an ethical people.


That’s skipping the avodah, the service,

That we’re called to as Reform Jews.


Our movement was founded by folks who believed deeply

That it is our responsibility as Jews

To refuse to merely accept tradition because it was handed down to us.

Reform Jews have long believed in doing the work

That freedom requires:

Examine inherited beliefs.

Honor the generations that came before us.

Listen to the cries of the oppressed around us.

Respond to the changing needs of our world.

Accept newly-revealed truths.


Reform Jews, in the words of its leaders

On the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary

Of the formal establishment of our movement in the U.S.,

Dedicated itself to this labor:

“The great contribution of Reform Judaism

Is that it has enabled the Jewish people

To introduce innovation while preserving tradition,

To embrace diversity while asserting commonality,

To affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt,

And to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”

Narrowing the gap between the affluent and the poor,

Welcoming refugees,

Achieving full inclusion for women and the queer community

In both Jewish life and political life,

Bringing meaningful Jewish practice into our homes,

Engaging with the broader Jewish community in love and respect--

These are just some of the values we espouse as Reform Jews.

Values that require us to labor.

To breathe. And to push.


It’s not easy.

In fact, it’s labor.


That’s what freedom is like.

That’s what avodah is.

Freedom doesn’t appear in a flash.


It is birthed.

Freedom requires parents and midwives,

Community and family.

And, sure, it requires a miracle, also.


God heard the cries of our people in their enslavement.

God performed miracles such as had never been witnessed, before or since.

God recognized that the Jewish people suffered from kotzer ruach--

A crushed spirit.


And God lifted our spirits by performing those signs and wonders.

And God made it possible for us to breathe again.

But the purpose of all those signs and wonders,

All those labors,

Was to free us for a different kind of avodah,

The labor of being Jewish in a changing world.


The work will never be over.

Because there will always be a cry to which we must respond.

There will always be a name that calls out to be recognized.

There will always be new kings who make claims on the lives of the less powerful.

And there will always be an opportunity for us to pay no heed

To the edicts of any Pharaoh who rises up in the name of destruction and enslavement.

There we always be an opportunity for us to choose life,

And to labor for the values of our Jewish covenant.


Maybe that’s not as comforting as a religious tradition

That would assure us that all we need to do is surrender everything into God’s hands.

But freedom has never worked that way.


So, instead of comfort, we’ll turn to covenant--

That call to birth the freedom we wish to enjoy and to engender.

Shabbat Vayeira D'var Torah - Ilana Symons

This text was take from Ilana's D'var Torah to the Reform Community on Friday night, November 18th, 2016.

Shabbat Shalom!

My name is Ilana. I’m a sophomore in Liberal Studies.

This week’s parsha is called Vayeira. It is most well-known for the Akedah, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. However, it also contains one of my favorite stories in the Torah: the story of Sodom. In it, G-d tells Abraham G-d is planning on destroying the city of Sodom because of their wickedness. Abraham asks if G-d would still destroy the city if it contained fifty righteous people, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. G-d agrees to save the city under these circumstances, but unfortunately, is unable to find these righteous people. I think it’s easy to see this as negative; after all, Abraham worked hard to stand up to G-d, and was still unsuccessful. He lost, it was over. I don’t think we can see it as a failure though.

The most topical theme I’ll point to here is the importance of advocacy. I can only imagine that Abraham was terrified when approaching G-d. After all, G-d had just blessed him with a son and again promised to make his descendants a great nation. Abraham had the courage and humility to approach G-d and say that this is wrong. He did the right thing rather than the easy thing. He advocated on behalf of people he didn’t know sort of for an unknown reason- maybe because his son was just born, maybe for his uncle Lot, or maybe because it was simply the right thing to do.

As Jews in the twenty-first century, we have many texts and events we can point to that make us want to stand up for others. Over and over in Jewish history, we see Jews standing up for ourselves and for other peoples. We look at Moses who, despite his lisp, told the most powerful man in Egypt to “Let my people go.” We point to Hillel who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when?” We recall Abraham Joshua Heschel who prayed with his feet while marching in Selma and Washington during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. We do the right thing because we were strangers in Egypt and continue to know what it feels like to be a minority voice.

All Abraham knew about the Jewish people at this point is that G-d promised they will be a great nation. He didn’t have Jewish role models or texts or events he could site when asked why he stood up for the people of Sodom. His motivation came solely from the knowledge that his people will be great, and he is in no small part responsible for this greatness. It came from his son who even at just a few days old, Abraham knew would lead the Jewish people.

Midrash teaches us that Sodom’s crime was inhospitality. G-d punished them for closing doors in the face of people who were different, for humiliating their visitors, and for keeping their bountiful crops to themselves. Any of that sound familiar? Abraham was the opposite. He was known for audacious hospitality. Before the time of Jewish role models, Abraham embodied what it meant to stand up for others for the sake of doing the kind and right thing, rather than the cruel and easy one.

After the events of the past few weeks which confirm the hatred and bigotry in our world, it’s easy to feel small and powerless. It’s easy to feel that our voices aren’t being heard and to focus on helping ourselves rather than anyone else. After working so hard maybe for a specific candidate or outcome, some of us feel that we failed and that’s going to mean a lot more pain in the world. Like Abraham, we put ourselves out there and for a second maybe felt that we had won, only to find a crushing defeat. But like Abraham, we must keep going. We must fight on and work for the future and for the great nation we have yet to become. We must be one of those 10, 20, 30, 40, 45, 50 righteous people that G-d couldn’t find in Sodom but could find in America.

Somehow, I think Abraham knew we’d be put in this place. That the Jewish people would have to endure thousands of years of anti-Semitism and that beyond helping ourselves, we’d want to help others. It is Abraham that I look to as a role model in these distressing times. Abraham who was the first Jew and who is most remembered simply for welcoming people into his tent. For standing up for people without a voice. For being promised a great nation and setting up a beautiful legacy for it to fulfill. Abraham teaches us that the best we can do is advocate for a better world for our children and to be kind simply for the sake of kindness. If we do that, we will have succeeded.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reflections on Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim

Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) consists of Moses’s speech to the people of Israel, as they prepare to enter the land of Canaan. In this first parasha, he describes their journeys in the desert, including the establishment of the judicial system, the incident of the spies, their encounters with the nations of Eisav, Moav, and Ammon and battles with Sichon and Og, and the giving of the Trans-Jordan territory to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe.

Devarim, Rashi, and God’s Love for Israel
The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) opens: These are the words which Mosheh spoke to all of Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wildnerness, in the Arava, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban and Hatzerot, and Di-Zahav.     
Rashi comments: Since these were words of rebuke, and here are listed all the places where they angered God. Therefore the verse condenses these matters and alludes to them only through a hint, on account of the honour of Israel.
From a simple reading of the text one would not have gleaned that concern for Israel’s honour is the guiding principle behind the list of locations. What explains Rashi’s comment?
Before suggesting an answer it is worth considering some of the difficulties of reading Rashi.
Rashi – full name Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki – wrote, arguably, the most significant and beloved of all commentaries to the Torah. And yet, figuring out what Rashi himself actually thinks is particularly difficult.
Firstly, where other medieval Biblical commentators such as Ramban or Seforno wrote, in addition to exegetical works, long essays on topics they deemed significant, Rashi’s work is almost exclusively made up of commentaries to verses. If he is ‘chained’ to the verse, how can we know what topics mattered to him?
Secondly, his comments are almost always brief. If we are to deduce something of his worldview, we have only a few words each time to work from.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the vast majority of Rashi’s words are not even his own! Rather they are select quotes taken from the vast pool of earlier midrashic commentaries. So if Rashi is copying and pasting from elsewhere, what can we usefully say is his own opinion?
Professor Avraham Grossman, in his wonderful book on Rashisuggests a number of tools that lovers of Rashi can use to overcome these problems. One idea is to isolate instances where Rashi consistently inserts a certain theme into the text at various locations, even though the Torah text itself makes no hint at such a theme.
The most striking example of this is Rashi’s first comment to each of the Torah’s five books. In each case Rashi diverts from the simple meaning of the text in order to insert an alien theme – God’s love of Israel.
Bereishit (Genesis) opens with creation – a universal theme – and yet Rashi turns to the land of Israel and God’s gift of it to the Jewish people, conditional upon their righteous behavior.
Shemot (Exodus) begins with an innocuous list of the names of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt but Rashi notes that the list has already been mentioned at the end of Bereishit, and is repeated here ‘to make known God’s affection for them’.
Vayikra’s (Leviticus) begins, ‘And God called to Mosheh…’ – and goes on to list the various sacrifices. Rashi, however, notes that the language of God ‘calling’, as opposed to the usual language ‘speaking’ denotes the affection and intimacy that God feels for Mosheh and Israel.
Bamidbar (Numbers) opens with the census of the Jewish people, ostensibly to assess their military strength. Yet Rashi explains, ‘on account of His love for them, He counts them at every moment’.
And, as we have seen, Rashi’s first comments on Devarim introduce an identical theme. The Torah passes over God’s rebuke to Israel on account of their honour.
Five times then, at a highly significant juncture in the text Rashi emphasizes God’s love for Israel, and this, despite anything in the actual text, which indicates that this is a theme. What are we to conclude from this?
Rashi lived in France and Germany from 1040 to 1105. Dominated by the Crusades, this period was arguably one of the most miserable in Jewish history. If ever there was a period in which Jews could have been forgiven for thinking that God had forgotten this covenant with Israel – this was it. A religious leader could have told them that God was still their judge or king and would hold them to account if they strayed.
Yet Rashi, put God’s enduring love for Israel front and centre.
Tisha B’Av – the most sombre day of the Jewish calendar – falls this Sunday. Rashi’s example, at the beginning of Devarim and elsewhere, reveals one of the most compelling themes of the day. More noteworthy than the destruction of the Temple and other historical catastrophes, is that despite these catastrophes, Jews did not lose their faith.
Not for nothing was Rashi given the moniker ‘me’or einei hagola’ – he who illuminated the eyes of the exile.

This post was originally posted in Limmud on One Leg's weekly email.

AJC Forum Reflections

AJC Forum Reflections - Yana Yasevich, Bronfman Center Student Leader

At the beginning of June, I attended AJC’s annual Global Forum, a three-day conference devoted to highlighting the committee’s programming and bringing together a diverse collective of thought leaders and visionaries to boldly, passionately and intelligently discuss the greatest issues facing Israel, foreign policy and diplomatic relations today.

To provide full disclosure, my attendance at the conference was my first exposure to AJC – I was unfamiliar with the American Jewish Committee, what they did, and what the goal of the conference was. Though this unfamiliar approach to an extended conference could have gone both ways, I ended up truly blown away by the quality of the event. Several hours after my arrival in Washington D.C., our group of university students, the first of its kind to be assembled, heard from AJC CEO David Harris. In extending a warm welcome, David shared with us the committee’s mission and activities since its inception in 1913, highlighting its incredible advocacy for the Japanese during World War II, African Americans throughout the Civil Rights movement, and women in their push for equality. He proudly conveyed AJC’s devotion to lobbying for those who need the support of a louder voice, regardless of nationality or religious affiliation.

Over the course of the weekend, we attended and participated in various discussion groups and panels. With Hillel’s President Eric Fingerhunt and Stanford’s Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, we examined Jewish life on campus, sharing with one another both our hopes for the future and the challenges we currently face. Through the patient, intelligent and deeply respectful words of Dr. Tal Becker and NSA Susan Rice, we explored in depth the great trials of diplomacy and foreign relations. Listening to panels of exceptional journalists converse, we witnessed the tremendous diversity of thought and opinion even within Israel itself, giving faces to the multitude of opinions we often hear.

At its heart, every discussion and panel was rooted in deep respect and understanding, in awareness that no one had the singular right answer regarding Israel or its relations with others. We were here to learn from another, to kindly engage in challenging discourse. Personally, I regard this pursuit with the highest esteem, and am tremendously thankful to be part of a collective that seeks to confront its existing beliefs, even if doing so is uncomfortable. The AJC Global Forum is, in my humble opinion, an incredible gathering, and I hope to attend once again in the future.  

Elie Wiesel, Mosheh, and Moving on from the Waters of Strife


A piece for Parshat Chukat in memory of Elie Wiesel.

Great books capture something vital about what it is to be human. I feel a debt to an author when their work has given me a new way of thinking about life. The book, once absorbed, becomes a part of the way I look at the world, a new tool with which to decipher mysteries. Few books have had more of an impact on me than Elie Wiesel’s Night, the chronicle of the author’s time in Auschwitz.

Beyond the book’s overall impact on me (which I once wrote about elsewhere) it gave me an insight into understanding a part of the book of Bamidbar and a crucial moment in the life of Mosheh Rabbeinu that had always perturbed me. Whenever I read this portion of the Torah I now remember Night.

In my own internal world, it seemed both eerie and fitting that the Torah passage appears in parshat Chukat, – this week’s reading in the Diaspora and last week’s in Israel – in such close proximity to Wiesel’s passing. Given that he was as much Jewish educator as Holocaust witness, it seems appropriate to share this idea now.

We are twenty chapters and forty years into the desert. The people are hungry and thirsty. They cry out. They would have preferred to have stayed in Egypt rather than die in this wilderness. Mosheh despairs and cries out to God, who responds that water will burst forth from the rock, enough for the whole congregation.

Mosheh berates the people and strikes the rock. The waters flow. And then God’s word comes:

יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם

Since you did not believe in me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel Therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them (Bamidbar 20:12)


And with this one act and response, Mosheh’s career as leader is given its end date. The goal to which he has been working for so many years will not be achieved. Like the generation who he led out of Egypt, and took to Sinai, he too shall die in the desert.

The question most frequently asked about this passage is what exactly did Mosheh do wrong, for on a simple reading, the severity of the punishment is so much greater than that of the crime. Many are the answers given[1], but I would like to approach the story from another perspective, by posing a different question.

What it is that we would expect to be Mosheh’s response at the sudden news that his life’s mission is to end in failure? He could argue with God – surely such a ‘small’ sin does not deserve such a harsh response? He could plead – at least him be given another chance! He could try to compromise – he would pass the mantle of leadership to another but let him at least live to see the promised land! Or, perhaps most likely, when all these efforts come to null, we would expect to see him break down – an emotional collapse as the great ambition towards which he has been working with all his might for the last forty years fades into the desert sands.

And yet we read immediately afterwards:

וישלח משה מלאכים מקדש אל מלך אדום

כה אמר אחיך ישראל, אתה ידעת את כל התלאה אשר מצאתנו

וירדו אבותינו במצרימה ימים רבים, וירעו לנו מצרים ולאבותינו

ונצעק על ה’ וישמע קולנו וישלח מלאך ויצאנו ממצרים והנה אנחנו בקדש עיר קצה גבולך

נעברה נא בארצך, לא נעבור בשדה ובכרם ולא נשתה מי באר

דרך המלך נלך לא נטה ימין ושמאל עד אשר נעבר גבולך

And Mosheh sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom:

Thus does your brother Israel say:

You know all the hardships that have befallen us

How our fathers went down to Egypt for many days,

And that the Egyptians dwelt harshly with us and with our fathers

And we cried out to God and He heard our voice and sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt

Now we are in Kadesh, a town at the edge of your border,

Let us pass through your land. We shall not pass through fields or vineyards and shall not drink water from wells.

We shall follow the king’s highway, turning neither to left or right until we pass through your borders

No remonstrations or recriminations. No pleading or breakdown. Instead Mosheh gets on immediately with the task at hand. He takes concrete steps to fulfil the mission which he has just been told he won’t be able to complete! How does he do this? Where are his emotions? Is the self-restraint superhuman or inhuman? [2]

Primo Levi, one of the few Holocaust writers who can claim to be Wiesel’s equal, writes inThe Drowned And The Saved that one of the key factors that separated those who survived the Holocaust from those who perished was whether they had something else – a political ideology such as Communism or Zionism – or someone else – a relative or friend – that could expand their universe beyond the immediate misery and brutality of the camp, providing a reason to carry on living when everything else told them to give up.

One of the critical characters in Night, is Elie Wiesel’s father. Together throughout their time in the camps each one looked out for the other, frequently giving away their own share of the rations when the other was on the verge of collapse. And throughout the work’s powerful description of their relationship one feels the truth of Levi’s insight – that both father and son carried each other through those years – not in the obvious sense that the stronger one provides for the weaker one, but that the stronger one is himself sustained by the knowledge that another human life is dependent on him.

Thus one of the most poignant and painful moments in Night comes towards the end of the book as the war draws to a close. The Russians are approaching and the Nazis abandon the camp. All the prisoners who are fit to walk will be force marched hundreds of miles as the Germans withdraw, whilst those who are bedridden, including Wiesel’s father,  will be left in the infirmary. Elie Wiesel is confronted with a terrible dilemma: does he take his father with him on brutal journey which he will surely not survive or does he leave him in the infirmary, not knowing whether or not the Nazis will blow up the camp as they retreat. He chooses the former option taking his father with him on the death march. As feared, his terribly ill father cannot make it and perishes on the way with no grave or burial. Wiesel loses his beloved father and the person who had given his life a modicum of meaning in the midst of the nightmare.

And then something amazing happens. Wiesel remarks, almost as a footnote, that he later discovered that the Nazis had left the infirmary untouched, and that the inmates had been liberated by the Russians a few days later with many of them surviving. Had he left his father there, they may well have been reunited after the war!

Here is the critical moment. At this point in the text I was sure Wiesel would break down with an outpouring of self-recrimination. ‘If only I had left him in the infirmary, we could have been reunited, and lived many more years together…

And yet this line never appears. Instead Wiesel moves on straight away with his story, moving to the next encounter in which he needed to navigate his survival.

Over the years I have noticed this when Holocaust survivors tell their stories. So frequently did their families have opportunities to leave Europe before the war, or escape the Nazi clutches at some point or another. They didn’t take the escape route because they assumed that the madness would pass, because they couldn’t stand to lose everything they owned, or because they simply made a wrong calculation. And yet, almost without failure, at the moment when the listener expects them to break down into anguished ‘if onlys…’ they move straight on with their story, not pausing to reflect upon what might have been.

Why do they do this? It seems to me that it must be a condition of those who survive. That in the face of the most devastating setbacks they do not pause to wallow in what-ifs. They pick up. They move on. Their world will never again be complete. But there is still a world there to save, a life to lead – and lead it and save it they must.

Mosheh too must have dreamed of making it to the Promised Land. The decree that he would die in the desert must have been terrible. He could have given up at that point. Remonstrated. Screamed. Broken down.

And yet he carried on. He carried on immediately with the holy task that he had been given, to lead the people through the wilderness even as he knew that he would not make it to their destination. The power of this is remarked on by the Tanchuma (Chukat #33)

וישלח משה מלאכים מקדש אל מלך אדום כה אמר אחיך ישראל וגו’ (במדבר כ יד) …בנוהג שבעולם אדם עוסק בפרקמטיא עם חבירו והפסיד, פירש ממנו ואינו רוצה לראותו, ומשה אע”פ שנענש על ידי ישראל, לא פרק משואן מעליו, אלא וישלח משה מלאכים

And Mosheh sent messangers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, ‘thus does your brother Israel say…’ It is the way of the world that when a man enters into a deal with his fellow and loses, he removes himself from that person and doesn’t wish to see him again. And yet Mosheh, even though he was punished on account of Israel… he did not remove the load (i.e. the task) that was upon him, rather, ‘And Mosheh sent messengers…’

Upon the loss of their greatest hope or their dearest relative, neither Mosheh nor Elie Wiesel gave up. They did not berate themselves for the wrong decision they had made. They both carried on, knowing that there was still so much for them to do.

A Midrashic Afterthought:

In answer to the more frequently asked question, of what Mosheh did that was so heinous as to warrant such harsh punishment the midrashim provide many varied suggestions. One of the most intriguing is a tradition that Mosheh did not in fact sin at all, rather his fate was that of everyman.

ומת בהר אשר אתה עולה שמה, אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם למה אני מת לא טוב שיאמרו טוב משה ממראה משיאמרו טוב משה משמועה לא טוב שיאמרו זה משה שהוציאנו ממצרים וקרע לנו את הים והוריד לנו את המן ועשה לנו נסים וגבורות משיאמרו כך וכך היה משה כך וכך עשה משה אמר לו כלך משה גזירה היא מלפני שהיא שוה בכל אדם שנאמר +במדבר יט יד+ זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם למה מת אדם הראשון אמר להם שלא עשה פיקודיי אמרו לפניו והרי משה עשה פיקודיך אמר להם גזירה היא מלפני שוה בכל אדם שנאמר זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל.

‘And you shall die on the mountain which you are ascending…’ Mosheh asked at this time, ‘Master of the Universe – why must I die? Would it not be better that I should continue to live, so that they should better we know Mosheh with our own eyes, rather than knowing him only from hearsay. That they should say, this is Mosheh who took us out of Egypt, who split the sea, who brought the manna down for us, who performed miracles and wonders, than they should say such and such did Mosheh do… God responded, ‘Enough Mosheh! It is a decree equal for all men! As is said, ‘this is the Torah (law) of man, who dies in a tent’

Said the angels before the Holy One. ‘Master of the Universe: why did Adam, the first man, die?’ God responded, ‘Because he did not fulfill My instructions’.

The angels asked again, ‘yet Mosheh fulfilled Your instructions?!’ He responded, ‘it is a gezeira (a decree) before Me that is equal for all men, as it says, ‘This is the Torah (the law) of man, that he shall die in a tent.’ (Bamidbar 19)

Hashem responds to the angels’ question of why Mosheh died not by mentioning the sin of the striking of the rock (which is so clearly the reason mentioned in the Torah itself). Rather, unlike Adam who died on account of not listening to God, Mosheh died ‘because it is a decree that is equal before all men. Everyone must die. The midrash can be understood at various levels.

At its simplest it is that literally all humans, even Mosheh, are mortal whose lives must eventually come to an end. The point may sound obvious but is worth pointing out when we remember that, contemporary to the midrash, certain religious ideas were coming into vogue that on occasion a great religious figures can gain immortality. Against this idea, the midrash argues that all men, even the very greatest, even Mosheh Rabbeinu, must eventually pass away.

At another level the midrash teaches not only that all humans must eventually die, but thatall of us will pass away with unfulfilled ambitions. It is impossible to get 10 out of 10 in life. Mosheh succeeds in breaking Egyptian slavery and in taking the people out of Egypt. He leads the people through the desert, brings them to Sinai and receives the Torah. Yet even he cannot make it past the desert and into Israel. Franz Kafka gives expression to this in a diary entry:

Moses does not enter the Land of Canaan not because his life is too short but because his life is a human life.

For both Kafka and the midrash, this is something essential about what it means to be human: that no one finishes their life having achieved everything they would want to have achieved.

I used to find this idea difficult and depressing. Is trying the first step to failure? But then I read Night and in light of Wiesel’s relationship with his father I understood something new about living in the wake of loss. It would have been completely understandable if Wiesel had broken down when his father perished and if he had spent the rest of his life berating himself for having taken his father out of the infirmary. Similarly, Mosheh could have ceased his work at the moment he was told that he would not lead the people into the land. But instead both of them carried on. Not looking backwards, regretting decisions they had taken. Instead they got on with the task at hand. They knew that they would no longer achieve everything, that their lives and worlds would not be complete. Yet even if they could not have everything there was still so much more for them to accomplish. Mosheh would lead the people to the edge of the land and would climb the mountain to see the place they would inherit. Wiesel would spend the rest of his life teaching the Jewish people and the world about the danger of the hatred of the other.

And now the lesson of the midrash is no longer crushing. It is liberating. Once the message that one will never be completely successful is internalized, a person no longer needs to feel duty-bound to achieve everything. Rather, they are empowered to achieve exalted tasks along the way, knowing that they need not lament or berate themselves for that which they have fallen short on.

It is not upon you to finish the work, but nor are you free to abstain from it.


 Elie Wiesel 1928-2016


[1] The most well-known answers given by the medieval commentators focus on the striking of the rock rather than speaking to it (Rashi) or on Mosheh’s anger (Rambam) as the central problem. I gave a shiur on the midrashic answers to the question here.

[2] Mosheh’s unwillingness to come to terms with the decree is in fact hinted to at the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan, ‘And I pleaded with God at that time saying… let me cross over and I will see that good land’ (Devarim 3:23,25). According to Professor Gerald Blidstein, in his excellent book B’etzev Nevo, the topic of Mosheh’s death and his responses to it are more greatly elaborated upon than any other topic throughout midrashic literature. In Bamidbar however the text is silent.

Strong Start

Strong Start - Jordan Einhorn, CLIP New York 2016

The first seminar in this year’s CLIP program focused on Jewish identity. Throughout the day we participated in different sessions which provided us opportunities to define our own Jewish identities, create and reflect on visual representations of these Jewish identities, and ultimately hear from and speak to a panel of three young current Jewish professionals about how their identities influence the work that they do. All in all it was a productive day filled with chances for both open discussion as well as introspective analysis on our Jewish identities, even though by the end of the day the word “identity” was used so much that it started to sound less and less like English. Despite this, our first Friday together (other than orientation) provided a great opportunity to learn more about ourselves as individuals and as a cohort. On display throughout the seminar was not only everyone’s willingness to be open and honest with one another about how Judaism plays a role in their lives, but also a prevailing sense of diversity in the different ways in which members of the cohort relate to Judaism. It truly brought to the forefront certain CLIP values such as pluralism, inclusivity, and Jewish engagement.

As great as the first CLIP seminar was, and as much as it allowed us all to really engage and grapple with the idea of Jewish identity, I get the feeling that we as a cohort are still just scraping the surface of in-depth discussions about Judaism, identity, community, pluralism, and other key elements of the CLIP program. We still have a lot of summer left, including multiple Friday seminars, Monday electives and a Shabbaton, and I look forward to getting to delve into these issues as well as others with the rest of the cohort. If we deal with all of these concepts with the same enthusiasm and thoughtfulness that was in the room for our identity seminar, then I am very confident that CLIP 2016 will be an unforgettable experience.