Unashamedly I gloat as I walk through the European cities that feasted upon my ancestors impending demise, planning for a new world without the Jew. I can only imagine how I would react if I were to gaze with such close proximity at the history of antiquity. The story of yetziat Mitzraim (The Exodus) tells of the bitter memories of our sojourn in the land of Egypt. Today people visit the pyramids and the tombs of the Pharos and amaze at the architectural feats that were accomplished without modern day technology, failing to even contemplate what our ancestors must have gone through during that era. The oppressive slavery, the humiliating, backbreaking work, and the dehumanization of a people are overlooked by the gawkers who are focused on purchasing trinkets and cheap art while oblivious to the horrors of yesteryear.
My family spent two days in Prague; a mystical and beautiful city that still possesses a faint hint of the majesty and splendor of a bygone era. Sadly, today’s Jewish community numbers only 1500 souls or 1% of the prewar community. The Alter naie shul, the old new shul, which over four hundred years ago was the seat of the legendary Rabbi Loew (better known as the Maharal), still exists but its splendor and glory can only be felt by closing your eyes and allowing your imagination to conjure up a past. And to those that need to know, I did not find the Golem nor did I see any armed guards blocking the entrance way of his mythical eternal resting place.
I gloat as I walk over the Charles Bridge in Prague where artistic monuments celebrated our defeat: the Hebrew lettering of kadosh kadosh kadosh is clearly visible despite being enveloped by their deity hanging on a cross. The symbolism is painfully clear; the end of the Jew culminating in the salvation of the world. I watch as the crowds caress the statue in glee, oblivious of its true message, unable to fathom the insensitivity my people may feel. I walk by the magnificent churches but am unable to appreciate their beauty. My imagination gets the better of me and all I hear is the venomous spewing of hatred that emanated from those edifices. I see the priestly garb of religious leaders stained with the blood of babies, mothers and entire families. Sadly, I am unable to see the ecumenical embrace nor can I hear the voices of protest, yet I walk proudly with my kippa covering my head letting them know I am still here. I am sure they fail to grasp my consternation, nor can they even begin to contemplate what I am thinking. Yet for me it is enough that I embrace my imagination and empathize with those souls of yesteryear.
Perhaps this is why the Exodus story plays a dominant role in our daily rituals. It is almost too difficult to go back three thousand years and envisage what life was like. Unlike the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Terezin which are living reminders of the Holocaust, there are no relics left to assist humanity with imagery to understand the horrors of slavery. Yet we are told to remember, not sometimes, not just on holidays, but everyday. One of the 613 commandments is to constantly remember the slavery and Exodus from Egypt. On Passover we are asked to take it a step further; to reenact what happened and teach our children that they should forever have these memories incorporated in their DNA.
Examine the opening words in this week’s Parsha; the exhortation to not only be thankful for Hashem taking us out of Egypt, but also “Lmaan tesaper b’aznei bincha et asher hitallalti b’Mitzrayim.” We are asked to retell the story of our ancestors in order for our children to be able to grapple with and contemplate their past. Until I came to Anshei Emuna my sleep patterns were consistent; I would lay my head on a pillow and wake up the following morning. Of course I knew about the Holocaust, it just wasn’t connected to the part of my brain that would interrupt my sleep. But in interacting with survivors and hearing the testimonials of their lives, their experiences have penetrated the deepest recesses of my soul. Chilling images with nightmarish visions wake me as the vivid realities gnaw at my soul, unwilling to allow me the tranquility needed for peaceful rest. I am almost embarrassed to even mention my sleeplessness, but I do so in a shallow attempt to allow us to somehow try to contemplate the dreams and sleepless nights of those who lived the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Jew that only studies the Torah or history as an academic pursuit fulfills no mitzvah and the pursuit truly has limited benefit. Our sages explain that at the time of the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, scholarship was strong but Judaism was lacking. There was much Torah study but little Torah appreciation. I call it the Starbucks conundrum or the cappuccino Jew. We are overly focused on the fluff and thus often ignore the essence. There are numerous studies on the whys of anti-Semitism and reasons for the dismal projections found in the Pew Report. But if I may ask one question, it would be this: how many sleepless night have these studies produced? I care less about nightmare scenarios and more about nightmares. What is true empathy? It has nothing to do with an emotional connection; it is actually feeling the experience of another. The Hagada on Pesach states “b’chol dor v’dor chayiv adam lirot et atzmo.” In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if it were us that were going through the trials and tribulations of Egypt. To begin the task of resolving the pressing issues of our generation we have to follow the dictums of the Torah; we have to imagine that is us going through these difficulties. We can’t be objective arbiters without making it our own personal issue.
Yes, I gloat but I am not fooled. Yes, I empathize but I am not a contortionist. I can never truly be or feel the torment of 6,000,000 souls. It is an endeavor that is impossible to accomplish yet unforgivable if we cease trying.
Shabbat shalom (from 37,000 feet)
Rabbi Jack Engel