Sacrifice on Purpose
While reading the small print of the Ba’al Haturim’s commentary onParshat Teruma, an idea leapt out at me: He quotes Rabbi Avahu’s observation that when Hashem asks the Jewish people to donate some of their precious commodities to the building of the Mishkan (Temple), He commands Moshe to speak to them without coercion; gently and persuasively. “Even for elicit donations for the construction of G-d’s Temple to be used for Israel’s own atonement, He demands that Moshe speak gently and respectfully to them. What (punishment) then lies in wait for those who oppress and exploit the Jewish people?”
The Ba’al Haturim’s comments struck a cord so deep inside me having read them immediately after a visit to Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem). For a few hours I immersed myself in the barbaric demands of the Nazis of our most precious jewels: our elders, children, parents, brothers and sisters. There was nothing subtle about the viciousness with which these treasures were snatched from our national bosom. Could I find any meaning in the apparent absurdity of this horror?
The donations to the Temple were made meaningful by the purpose for which they were given and by the way in which they were later used: “And make for Me a Mikdash (Temple) so that I may dwell in their midst” (Shmot 25:8). People make sacrifices, they even give their lives, if they believe in the higher purpose for which their sacrifice is made. But people feel plundered, exploited and betrayed when their sacrifices are squandered. Never, never can we put ourselves in the places of those who suffered then nor those who have sacrificed loved ones now, so that we can prosper in Israel. Perhaps however, if we could find purpose in those terrible sacrifices, we could live a little more easily with the nightmares that plague our personal and national psyches. Was there a purpose? What was the purpose?
A Need for Historic Discontinuity
I don’t propose to offer any definitive answer to questions that have vexed the minds of millions of people for over six decades. I offer only a personal insight that struck me as I sat mystified in the gardens of Yad Vashem, reflecting and trying to access something deep within myself that might ease my pain.
Suddenly it came to me: the postwar future of Am Yisrael (People of Israel) could not possibly have been a linear continuum from what went before. There needed to be a radical disruption, maybe even destruction, of both the Eastern and the Western European Galyot(Diaspora). Western Europe was complacent, and comfortable. It saw little tension between the culture of Eisav and the Torah of Yaacov. German Jews had created a seamless interface between German and Jewish culture. In Eastern Europe, to the other extreme, the giants of Torah had created an atmosphere of rarefied sanctity al Taharat Hakodesh, an atmospherehermetically sealed from the ideological turbulence of the outside world. They needed that for that time, and in places we still need that today. With that isolation there was, justifiably, a degree of fear: the fear of attack from both the ideological and the physical forces of the gentile and the secular worlds of the times.
It is possible, I found myself reflecting, that neither of those atmospheres are appropriate for the period leading up to the Messianic era? Perhaps we now need a national psyche neither of complacency nor of isolation and fear. We cannot recreate a fraction of Eastern Europe’s Torah brilliance and spiritual piety, but perhaps we can create something different, if not better: instead of complacency and fear we can create a Jewish psyche of pride and confidence. The pride and confidence we need is not confidence in our physical strength, or pride in our wealth and political influence. The pride we need is pride in our link to G-d at a time when the world is seeking linkage to G-d. The confidence we need is the confidence to engage in civilization’s contemporary challenges and find solutions in the Torah entrusted to us. Our pride is not only in our inner sanctity. Our pride is also in our role as or lagoyim (a light unto the nations) at a time when the world is consciously groping in a hazy search for truth and reality amidst deceit and illusion. Achieving this new renewed model of Jewish pride could give at least some retrospective meaning to the destruction we struggle to fathom; the destruction of a glorious past but one that could not hatch a majestic future.
Crafting a Future that is Worthy of our Past
In this role of or lagoyim there is no place for pre-war Western European complacency. This is not time to blur the boundaries between Kodesh and Chol (sanctified and secular) and between Jew and gentile. We cannot fulfill this role if we do not recognize our difference from others, our specific destiny and our unique national purpose. Our destiny is not one of superiority; it is one of responsibility. In this role there is also no place for pre-war Eastern European isolation from the world’s challenges, nor fear of ideological or physical danger. This is a time for Jewish strength, courage, passion, and above all: thought and moral leadership on a global scale. It is hard to imagine these qualities evolving in a linear way from pre-war Europe.
So if there is any validity in my reflections this morning, the past was destroyed so that the future could be born. But will it be? If, out of their ashes, we build a future worthy of Messianic possibility, then there will have been some purpose to their destruction. Then they will truly have been martyrs, kedoshim; heroes.
But what if we continue to bicker and self-destruct? What if we satisfy ourselves with the external form of our religious practice and little or no spiritual content? What if we worship G-d even as we desecrate man? What if our State becomes one kechol hagoyim (just like those of other nations) deprived of its unique Jewish soul and theocentricity? What then will their deaths have been for?
We hold the meaning of their martyrdom in the palms of our hands. The future we craft will determine the value of the past. It is commonly thought that the past creates the future, but the phenomenon of Teshuva (repentance) teaches that the opposite is true: The future that we create provides meaning to the past. We have the capacity to transform the past through our actions and attitudes in the future. If we squander this post-war opportunity to recreate a nation of Torah pride and confidence, we will have robbed the Holocaust victims of the meaning of their tragic deaths.
I felt sadness at Yad Vashem about what was. I felt more concern though for what we might be creating out of what was. I so pray we do this right. We can build our lives on the sanctity of love, respect and oneness. We can grow our wisdom and spread our light. We each have a part to play in the crafting of the future; a future for ourselves and our families, our nation and the world; a future whose stature ensures that those who died were not mere victims of senseless murder, but kedoshim (martyrs) creating the space for new Jewish glory. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to G-d. We owe it to them.