The fast is half over, and I can’t help thinking about the difference between my version of the diaspora experience, and the version that the people who came before me had.
What could it have been like to be forced out of Israel when as far as you know, expulsion means doom? It means disappearance. After all, isn’t that what your eyes tell has happened to every other nation that ended up divorced from its land?
I can’t go there. I was born to a cosmopolitan society in which almost no one I know lives where their ancestors lived. When I ask girls in Neve, where is your family from, I get answers like, Eastern Europe, England, South Africa, Bukhara, Israel, Russia, Morocco, Syria, Persia, Mexico, and more (we are a rather international bunch at Neve!). Once n a very long time, “my family was in the States 7 generations”. My reality is just too far to find geographical exile to the horror it actually is. The fact is that none of our ancestors left their homes for adventure; they left because they had no real choices left.
I didn’t stand in their shoes.
Growing up in the States never felt like exile. It’s the culture that feels like home, the language that I speak best, and the place that nurtured my Jewish self. My aliya was far more a matter of “going to” what turned out to be a far more intense and vivid version of being alive, than “escaping from” fear of death or the kind of poverty that no one in the 21stcentury can relate to. Every so often the holocaust sneaks in and breaks through my wall of indifference. I will share some of my more recent vicarious exile experiences.
My son lives on Chai Taib (for those of you who for whatever reason are coming out of a cave, that is in Har Nof). There is a small synagogue near his house. One of the regulars is a man in his nineties, with the strength of a man far younger. He appointed himself the shul’s caretaker. He straightens up, puts the siddurs and chumashes back on the shelves, and sees that the shul’s general appearance is inviting. Every so often the shul has a shalosh seudos, or a bris, and food is served. Once, after a meal, someone wrapped up the plastic table cloth and threw it in the trash can along with everything that was on it. The old man turned to my son, and said, “Look! There’s a lot of rolls in there. They’re still good. Take them home, you have kids”. To tell you the truth, my son had absolutely no desire to salvage the rolls, and told the man that Baruch Hashem, he has bread in the house. That wasn’t good enough. “You’re just too arrogant to use them. You don’t know what bread is worth”. And then, this man, who made a principle of never discussing the holocaust, opened up. “I ended up deported with three friends. Once a crust fell from of one of the guard’s sandwiches, and he just walked away. All three fell over themselves trying to get a piece of the crust: I was too far”, There was nothing more to say. My son took the whole rolls out of the plastic wrap and brought them home. Did they eat them? I don’t know, but it opened his heart enough to want to, just to share something of the old man’s pain.
The other story is about one of the great lights of the pre-war world, Rebbe Avraham Elimelech of Karlin. He saw the clouds beginning to gather far before anyone could anticipate that they would inundate the world with the kind of horror it had never known. He travelled to Eretz Yisrael in the late 30’s to pray at the kivrei tzadikim and entreat Hashem to change the decree. The old Karlin chassidim still know how shaken they felt when they saw him daven with tears running down his cheeks. He made it clear that he would not remain in Israel, he would not abandon his people back in Karlin when they needed him the most. He sailed on what turned out to be the last boat heading out to Europe before the war broke out. He spent the next 2 years in the Pinsk-Karlin ghetto suffering hunger and the constant threat of death. In the last days of the ghetto’s existence the great majority of inhabitants had already been sent to Auschwitz, where many of them had already turned into ashes. The remaining Jews were ordered out, they were told to search their “homes” and give over anything of value. They were then gathered together, and told to strip off their clothing. It was clear that these were their final moments. The Rebbe, and his son said no. This was not the way the plan was supposed to go, from the perspective of the SS men. No one says no. They were the first ones to be shot. They would not let themselves be killed more than once; their bodies are vulnerable but they would not willing give up their human dignity.
When I heard the story the first time, I wondered whether they were right. Even a moment of life has infinite value, and the Talmud tells you to never give up hope even if the hangman’s noose is around your neck. It does however say (Maggid Mishneh one of the commentaries on the Rambam in perek 5 of Yesodei HaTorah) that a person who is known in his generation for piety, is permitted to give up his life for love of Hashem to avoid any transgression, not just the 3 cardinal sins.
You may be reasonably wondering why this story touched me so deeply. It’s because in our current exile, no one has to force you or me to lose our basic sense of dignity. It’s gone. We have absorbed the degradation of the society that we live in. The appalling rate of assimilation tells the whole story. Most of the unaffiliated Jews I know are beautiful people. They could understand the way the old man in the synagogue values bread, and would respond to him with understanding and sensitivity (as I am proud to say my son did). Most of them would not really understand the second story. They grew up in a society in which (as Rabbi Mannis Friedman says famously) No One Blushes Anymore.
We are in deep galus, perhaps deeper than the physical oppression that was the norm just a few generations ago.
We are redeemable. Every last one of us. We have to pray, be personal examples, and hope for the times that Yechezkel prophesized as being ones in which even Jews who don’t know they are Jews, return.