I Have a History

Back in November, when Rabbi Jan Uhrbach was our scholar at the annual Shapiro Lecture, she told a wonderful story that has stayed with me and, once you hear it, it will remain with you as well. I want to share it now because Monday, January 27th is a milestone anniversary that we all should be aware of—the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Granted, there’s nothing special about the 70th anniversary of anything—it’s just a number. Why should the 70th anniversary of an event be more significant or noteworthy than its 69th anniversary? Actually, what’s striking about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is that it reminds just how far in time we’ve come since that terrible and dark time in our history.

And now the story. Rabbi Uhrbach was talking about the importance of connecting to others when we gather for prayer and how we ought to be concerned about more than just our own spiritual fulfillment through prayer. She related how years earlier she was davening one Shabbat morning in a New York synagogue, trying to concentrate on achieving kavana (deep focus) in her prayers. A woman sitting by her side struck up a conversation with her, asking her several questions about who she was. Somewhat impatiently, Rabbi Uhrbach (who was not yet a rabbi at the time) answered her and returned to her prayers. The woman interrupted her again with more questions. Rabbi Uhrbach replied, “Ma’am, I’m trying to concentrate on my prayers…please stop interrupting me.” The woman turned to her husband who was sitting on her other side and said, “Look, dear, I’ve met this nice young woman…say hello.” Rabbi Uhrbach repeated, “Please let me daven…this is very distracting.” The elderly woman said, “You know, I have a history,” perhaps implying that she had a story worth hearing. “We all have a history, ma’am.” At that point, the elderly woman rolled up her sleeve and showed her forearm. “No, I mean I have a number…” Rabbi Uhrbach related that never had she been as mortified and embarrassed as in that moment. Here she was playing the role of self-centered worshipper trying to achieve greater piety, while ignoring the story of the person near her, who just happened to be a Holocaust survivor.

We’ve come 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, which is two generations of distance and increasingly faint memories. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz reminds us that the personal accounts of survivors and liberators are fading from our grasp, and that the sacred task of remembering is upon us with even greater urgency.

So I urge you to come to Oheb Shalom this Sunday, January 25th at 9:30 AM to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust through reflection and learning with Dr. Nili Keren, who will speak about the unique and universal nature of the Holocaust. Come to recommit to the sacred and time honored task of remembering. For if we do not remember, and tell what we know to our children and grandchildren, then the stories of suffering and heroism will be gone forever.

For more details, visit THIS PAGE.

Boil or Broil: A Choice Affecting the Jewish Future

You wouldn’t think that the way you prepare dinner could affect the future of the Jewish people, but it just might.  It could affect the vitality of the State of Israel and that of the Jews of America.  The way dinner is cooked has everything to do with the way we align our priorities and express our values.  Since this seems like an outlandish idea, an explanation is in order.

I’m not referring, of course, to any routine dinner we might cook and serve but to a special dinner—the Passover meal eaten at the Seder. The Torah tells us, in Exodus chapter 12, that the Passover offering was to be roasted over fire (broiled), and specifically says that it should not be boiled. I’ve read that passage countless times and never paid very much attention to the statement that the lamb had to be roasted and not boiled.  But this year I happened upon an intriguing commentary on the passage that quoted the “Maharal of Prague” (Judah Lowe ben Betzalel, 1525-1609).  The “Maharal” explained that the process of boiling involves absorption of elements surrounding the meat, and that the meat is fundamentally changed by being boiling.  Roasting, or broiling, has the opposite effect, as broiling results in the meat being sealed off and preventing the elements around it from being absorbed.  In explaining why the Torah states that the Passover sacrifice offered by the Israelites had to be roasted (broiled) and not boiled, he said that the young nation at first had to develop a strong identity, which would initially require that it resist being shaped by the cultural and religious influences surrounding it.  When that strong national identity was in place, providing a foundation for the people to develop their cultural and religious norms independently, then they could “boil,” or afford to absorb and be influenced by the trends and ideas around them.

I thought of this Torah verse and the commentary of the Maharal this past week during the second session of a wonderful class being taught at Oheb Shalom by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach.  Rabbi Uhrbach was teaching about the Jewish views of particularism vs. universalism, or, more simply, the question of whether Jews ought to be concerned exclusively about the needs of Jews or, more broadly, about the world.  We live in an age of universalism, so the question might seem odd and its answer obvious.  But the future of Judaism actually may depend on how it’s answered.  Rabbi Uhrbach gracefully led the group through a series of texts that led to a conclusion: we must begin with concern and care for our own people, and then build outward to have concern for the people of the world.  One reason, she argued, is simplest of all: if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?  But another reason would be that it’s impossible to develop a sense of compassion by aiming to take care of everyone in the world.  Rather, we should begin by caring for those closest to us, those with whom we share a common story, a common set of values, and a destiny.  But we can’t be satisfied by caring only for our own.  We must move beyond self-interest to concern for all people.

The way we approach the tension between a Particularistic approach and a Universalistic one has broad implications for the future of our people.  What will happen to the State of Israel, and to the institutions and organizations of the Jewish community in America and around the world, if Jews don’t take responsibility for one another?  This is one of the biggest challenge facing our generation, and concern for how it will be addressed can be seen when observing how young teenagers relate to it.  In the past, when I’ve asked Bar/Bat Mitzvah students if they prioritize giving money to Israel and Jews around the world over other non-Jewish causes, the answer has been a resounding “no” (keep in mind that the question posed is about prioritizing Jewish giving, not giving exclusively to Jewish causes).  Ask yourself if you are worried about the future of the Jewish people if young Jews no longer feel that it is a priority to care for their fellow Jews.

We need to develop a strong sense of concern about ourselves, and invest in our own future.  Only then will we be strong enough and confident enough in our values to reach out to others.  First we need to broil our dinner, and only then can we afford to boil it. 

Note:  Rabbi Uhrbach’s third- and final- session, on the theme of Jewish law vs. conscience, will take place this Sunday, May 18 from 9:30-11:00 AM.