Transformation (a): Parshat Beshalach 5776
Curiously, we don’t commonly call the splitting of the Sea of Reeds bikat yam suf, as it is called in the Torah (Shemot 14:16, 21). Instead we refer to the “ripping” of the sea, kri’at yam suf, as the Talmud employs the midrash (Sotah 2a). Such a violent term, kri’a. Upon becoming mourners we perform kri’a by ripping our shirts over the breast and exposing the grieving heart. In the kri’at yam suf, it’s as if the waters rip themselves in two until Israel is finally safe from tyranny. According to the midrash, each tribe walked through its own tunnel toward freedom. The midrash also tells us that all wicked Jews died along with the Egyptians during the ninth plague of blinding darkness. Only one-fifth of the Israelites crossed the yam suf; the majority chose to stay in Mitzrayim once they were emancipated. After the Egyptian pursuers were drowned in the sea’s fury, the escapees could have returned to retrieve their compatriots, or perhaps even to overpower the soldierless Egyptian nation. And yet, led by Moshe, they chose instead to walk into the dry and dangerous sands of the Sinai. Freedom meant little until it led to Har Sinai with its earth-shattering purpose.
The two agitators Datan and Aviram stayed behind on Passover when the Israelites departed. They were among the multitude who felt enough at home in the land of Pharaoh. And yet upon hearing that Pharaoh had sent his men to re-capture the Israelites at the yam suf, they scurried to join in their people’s fate. But the yam suf refused to re-open for Datan and Aviram. The sea proclaimed them reshayim, wicked people discordant among the tribes, and refused to let their taint reach the nation. G-d said to the sea, “I am the Judge of the Earth—do not second-guess Me.” And there G-d tore the sea asunder. This was the real kri’a.
Who were this nefarious pair? They were the kapos of Mitzrayim. They exacted the Pharaoh’s price to build the Egyptian infrastructure. We know more about Datan than Aviram. Datan was the Jew who called out Moshe for killing the Egyptian slavedriver. And they were to become the quarrelsome Jews who agitated against Moshe throughout the journey through the desert. Why would G-d intervene to save the troublemakers? It seems the sea was onto something…
As a rabbi in Toronto, I served a congregation of Shoah survivors, Jews from the city of Lodz. The Lodz Ghetto was the last in Europe to be liquidated. The last of the Lodzers were finally brought to Auschwitz in the latter part of 1944. Lodz was the textile capital of Poland, and the Jews there were spared as long as they provided useful materials for the Reich. The head of the Judenrat was Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, who bargained expertly with the overlords, fulfilling quotas of Jews on trains while forcing Jews to toil for the benefit of the Wehrmacht. Still, Heinrich Himmler eventually gave the order to liquidate the ghetto, and the villain Rumkowski himself was killed by Jews upon arrival at Auschwitz.
One congregant of mine defended Rumkowski to the stars. She was his personal secretary during the war, and considered his work noble and heroic. It is true that his traitorous actions enabled many in the ghetto to survive the war. The overall majority of survivors are Lodzers and Hungarians. Of course, there were advantages to staying out of Auschwitz.
One day, a new worshipper showed up for Shabbat services. There was a stir among the congregation. Some left the room immediately. One of the congregants called me at the kiddush and told me this man had been a notoriously vicious kapo in Auschwitz. “Bar him from our community,” an ad-hoc committee advised me. “We built this shul for refuge, and now we feel unsafe.” I believe that we all pray at shul for repentance. Prayer is a search to regain the lost purity of our souls. “You don’t have to befriend him or even associate with him,” I replied, “but we can’t replace nor second-guess G-d as Judge.” Anyway, this man’s stay in the community was short-lived. I assume he sought out a shul where he could be anonymous.
We all know survivors who lived through April 30th, 1945, when Hitler (yemach shemo) killed himself. They had faced the abyss and were left shaking to question: “What now?” It’s the skeletal howl of the vulnerable, exposed to the basest of elements. To discover the kapos amongst themselves must have made the Israelites feel like they were witnessing Egypt’s reinvigorated pursuit. So why did G-d insist they re-enter the camp? Must the people bear extra weight as they trudge through the waterless desert? Was the sea not compassionate in its wish to spare them the wounds of memory?
The people did not know everything there was to know about Datan and Aviram. According to Shemot Rabba, Datan felt great shame because he himself was the Jew who quarreled with the Egyptian. The midrash suggests that Datan was the husband of the adulterous Shlomit, who went to bed with her Egyptian slavedriver. It was knowledge of this incident which prompted Datan to fight the slavedriver, whereupon Moshe intervened to save Datan’s life. This may illuminate the uniquely fierce resentment Datan nurtured and directed toward Moshe. He was a power-minded man in sudden, shameful debt to the prince.
Furthermore, the midrash tells of how the two men, in their capacity as taskmasters, had bargained with the Egyptian functionaries: “Whenever you want to whip a Jewish laborer, whip one of us instead. Come down hard on us but spare the commoner.” Neither the sea nor the people knew of their pain and sacrifice, nor of the love they kept for the nation. The escape was incomplete until G-d’s kri’a ushered every willing Israelite across.
I believe we live in a culture that exalts judgment by the people, encouraging us to evaluate everyone and everything. Just as it was then, so it remains now. The spectacle of society is eavesdropping on strangers talking to strangers. We are encouraged to discriminate indiscriminately. Ultimately, we cannot know the full breadth of a stranger’s circumstances, nor the depths of his or her heart. G-d is the true Judge. The soul does not stand before the people’s gossip. It stands only before G-d. Amen.
Transformation (b): Parshat Yitro 5776
// Sinai Means Despised
Israel’s redemption into the desert leads to a deliverance at Har Sinai. The nation is drawn forth from the void, through water, through wilderness. It takes seven weeks for the people to arrive at the foot of G-d’s towering words. Seven times seven: the echo of Shabbat, reiterating the re-creation of Creation. The nation arises to hear G-d say: you are my treasure, my segulah (Shemot 19:5). The people looked at each other confounded. “Is G-d speaking to you?” I imagine them muttering. “I am a beaten-down slave, wretched, rejected…” And yet G-d appoints them as priests for the sake of the world, embodying holiness as a royal nation: mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (19:6). Scorned by all the known world, these people are precious in G-d’s eyesight. And G-d kept on speaking until they were able to receive Sinai.
Last week was Shoah Remembrance Day—January 27th, the date Auschwitz was liberated. My mother(-to-be), fifteen years old, describes the wild scenario: Nazis scurrying about, dismantling the crime scene, blowing up their own gas chambers. The ovens’ chimneys no longer sputtering their ashen cloak. The sky opening up to the endless heavens.
But the end of the crematoria was the beginning of the night march. “You will walk back to Germany,” the Nazis barked. The skeletal and forlorn Jews limped haggardly away from the black hole and into a new chapter of death. They marched into the squinting daylight: let all the world see us. They marched in front of a sun that did not bow its head. They marched in broad, invisible silence. No one outside the gates had missed us. At night they took shelter in farms along the way, slept in the barns. One such night, my mother’s seventeen-year-old sister Edith said to her, “I can’t go on.” My mother replied, reassuringly. “Fine, I’ll stay with you.” And another girl whispered, “me too.” My mother suggested they hide under a haystack. So they crept behind the largest one and waited for morning. After dawn broke, the Nazis took their usual head count. Three women missing. They searched within the press of time, frantically jabbing pitchforks into the haystacks. The overlords’ anger and noise, horrors ours again. After a short while they gave up the search and left, locking the barn door behind them. The children waited until nightfall and then began to bang on the door. If the Nazis come back, my mother suggested, we’ll say we were sound asleep. They pounded until they heard the door swing softly open. My mother remembers that loudest of quiets. In came a group of Italian farmhands working the fields. They saw the girls and opened their arms wide with joyful smiles. They cooked food over a campfire and sang jovial songs. The balance were love songs. They sang to the girls—”oh, how beautiful you are!” The motley, slavery-minded girls regarded one another, confounded. “What beauty? What me? My me is hidden. I’m the property of those who beat and cursed us.” They were serenaded until they were able to inhale the praise and found their spirits livening. Until they were ready to receive Sinai.
It is now within modern Jewish society to let go of Auschwitz. Many survivors married other survivors and kept the tyranny between each other. But my mother married a hero who loved her for the truth in her core. He told her, “You are my instructor of divinity.” The Italian well-wishers had enabled her to begin refurbishing her identity from within. She literally re-minded herself of who she was, from the depths outward.
The word of G-d has to comfort us to break us from our isolation. And such is the purpose of our primal story, our infinite loop of Bereishit. If you spot a broken loneliness before you, remind the crestfallen heart: you are a treasure, a segulah. Echo your treasure through the wilderness. Just like the Israelites, we each have a mission to repair the world’s fractures into wholes, and to never stop speaking Sinai until we restore our world to holiness and glory. Pharaoh and the Nazis alike lived by the wicked creed of “might is right.” Their flawed understanding of power—man unto man, not G-d unto man—took the horizontal shape of the destructive snake in the garden, the one who seeks to break the holy soul from itself, replacing G-d’s glory with human might. But what is might to the Al-Mighty? Pharaoh and the Nazis were not able to overpower G-d’s Presence in the world. The most they could do was to conceal it until the antidote to their venom was found. G-d pronounced the Torah to the most beaten-down of people, the refracted ones who lived in the rictus of man-made shame. G-d spoke so that we might all move beyond our self-defeating rejection of the Divine. Amen.