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Who will Write our History? We will! Parshas Acharei Mos

Imagine for a moment that the gun had not jammed.

Imagine for a moment that his aim at Rabbi Goldstein had been more precise.

Imagine for a moment that a former combat veteran had not been in attendance.

Those are but some of the thoughts that crossed many of our minds after hearing of the terror that took place in Poway, California on the last day of Pesach. And as we mourn for the loss of Lorie Kaye, Hy’d, we also say, thank G-d, thank G-d, and thank G-d as it clearly could have been so much worse.

 

Thinking about what took place and what could have taken place, a terrible thought crossed my mind, an alternative and most dreadful scenario – Imagine, imagine for a moment, what would be if no one would have survived to share the stories of Poway.

Imagine us never hearing how Lori Kaye’s husband gave CPR to his dying wife and fainted in shock upon realizing who it was that he was helping.

Imagine that there would be no one around to tell us about the Dahan family who ran from the rockets of Sederot to what they thought was safety, only to have their daughter Yuli injured in a terrorist attack here in the USA.

Imagine that there would be no one around to tell us of the bravery of Almog Peretz who didn’t think of himself, but instead grabbed every child he could see, to rush them to safety.

Imagine that there would be no around to tell us about the dedication of Rabbi Goldstein who refused to be taken to the hospital despite having his fingers shot off and bleeding profusely, so he could be there with his community to give them support.

It’s a scenario which unfortunately does not take too much creativity to imagine. Because although thank G-d, this did not happen here, 70 years ago, this scenario played out time and time again.

Who knows how many Rabbi Goldstein’s there were in Europe who could have escaped but chose to stay with their flock? Who knows how many Dahan families there were, who escaped one tragedy only to be caught in another? Who knows how many Almog Peretz’s there were who saved countless lives?

Thank G-d many of these stories are well-known to us, but too many are lost forever; too many are buried in mass graves, in crematoria, who experience what Mitch Albom described as a second death; not only to die, but to have no one remember you.

This fear of dying a second death was one that haunted Emanuel Ringelblum, a young social worker and historian, living in the Warsaw Ghetto. While there were many optimists within the ghetto walls, Ringelblum and a team of sixty men and women, correctly assumed that there was no happy ending in sight.

Knowing that ‘history is written by the victors’, knowing that they, the victims, would most probably not be around to share their stories, they compiled a vast historical archive, consisting of over 350,000 pages describing the day-to-day living in the Warsaw Ghetto; the significant and the benign, the poverty and the resistance, the hope and the despair, to ensure that they would be remembered. In the words of one of the contributors, 19-year-old David Graber, “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world, we buried in the ground.”

 

A few days before the ghetto was liquidated, they buried this archive, most of which did survive. But tragically, of the team who put it all together, 57 of the 60 involved perished in the Holocaust.

(As you know, we will be showing a film Sunday night that takes us through those dark days and shines a light on the heroic work of Emanuel Ringelblum and his team, but) today I’d like to focus on just one of the contributors to this archive, Rabbi Kloynomous Kalman Shapira, may G-d avenge his blood.

A little history – Rabbi Shapira was born in Poland in 1889 to a prestigious Chassidic family. He assumed the leadership of the Piazetzner Chassidus at the young age of 20, and quickly developed an ever-growing group of followers around him. They flocked to him for a number of reasons. For one, he was a deeply spiritual person. He kept a personal diary which was later published which gives us a glimpse into the soul of this great man. Let me quote to you a short passage: “G-d, Master of the World, who sees my innermost secrets! Before you I confess. You I beseech! I feel so cast aside and distanced from you and from your holy presence! Help me- I want to become a simple Jew!

G-d save me from wasting the rest of my years chasing the illusions of life! Draw me closer and bring me into Your innermost Presence!

But to what shall I commit myself? To learn more (Torah)? I think that as far as possible, I don’t waste any time. To abstain from physical pleasures? If my own desires are not fooling me, thank G-d, I am not so attached to them. So what am I missing? Simply to be a Jew.

I see myself as a self-portrait that shows all colors and features real to life. Just one thing is missing: the soul. (Torah from the Years of Wrath, Henry Abramson)

These are words he wrote as a young man, that demonstrate the incredible spiritual intensity that he lived with.

Rabbi Shapira was also a master-educator, well ahead of his time, very-much attuned to the changing winds of time. Many historians have compared his writings on education to the famous Holocaust hero and master-educator, Janus Korczak. Charisma, deep spiritual reservoirs and a keen understanding of human nature caused his following to flourish.

But in 1939, he was forced into the Warsaw ghetto together with many of his followers. The truth is, he did not have to be in the ghetto, he was given numerous chances to escape but he decided to stay in the ghetto with a singular vision that drove him through those dark years.

And it’s that vision that I’d like to highlight today. Because you see, Rabbi Shapira, although he ultimately did contribute writings to the Warsaw ghetto archive, ensuring that he and his fellow Jews would not experience that second death, Rabbi Shapira’s focus during those years was to prevent a different type of death, that of the living dead.

So many of the men and women who were stuck in the ghetto, those who hadn’t already given up on life, were entirely and understandably focused on survival. But Rabbi Shapira understood that survival is not enough, that simply burying these archives, ensuring that those who perished will not die a second death is not enough. And it’s not the Jewish way.

This week’s parsha, which teaches us of the service on Yom Kippur begins by telling us that the laws were taught “Acharei mos sh’nei b’nei Aharon, after the death of the two children of Aron.” Nadav and Avihu, Aron’s sons were especially holy people, they died in an attempt to come even closer to G-d, by entering the Holy of Holies in a state of religious fervor. And yet, the Torah by juxtaposing their death to the laws of Yom Kippur – to the instructions on how to enter the Holy of Holies without dying, is teaching us that we do not celebrate death, as heroic and as spiritual as it may seem. We sanctify life. V’chai bahem! Judaism is not a cult of death. It is a religion of life. Although so many, too many associate Judaism with kaddish and with candles, with shiva and with Yizkor, in modern times, one would be justified in assuming that Judaims was born from the Holocaust. But Rabbi Shapira understood that that is the greatest distortion of what we are all about.

Judaism is a religion dedicated to the vibrancy of life, to living every day, even in the darkest of times, even in the most hellish of places, with meaning and with purpose. Rabbi Shapira understood this and attempted to impart upon all who would listen that even there, even in that hell-on-earth called the Warsaw ghetto they had to live lives worth remembering. It was not enough to ensure that they would be remembered after they died. First they had to live.

And so, during that time, in the Warsaw Ghetto (!), every Shabbos, Rabbi Shapira would deliver sermons, words of inspiration, encouraging those in attendance not to give up faith, encouraging them to do small acts of kindness despite the atrocities they were witnessing, encouraging them to give of themselves even when they had nothing to give. And in those sermons, in a brutally honest fashion, he grappled with the questions we still grapple with today; Why? How? What does this all mean? Though he lost his precious son, his only child, though he lost his daughter-in-law and so many of his close friends and followers, (he lost his wife before the war) he never stopped grappling, and he never stopped believing. At times, his questions led him to radical conclusions, but to live is to never give up hope.

Rabbi Shapira did not survive the Holocaust. He is one of six million individual stories, but I focus on his story today because it’s a story not of memorialization, not of remembering after the fact, but of remembering the importance of life while we live. The legacy he left us, through the sermons he left in those archives, is that no matter how dark, no matter how desperate, and no matter how depressed, we are a people of life, of living every day to its fullest. He understood, as Viktor Frankl later wrote, how “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Dying a second death is tragic, but far more tragic is living as if you’re not alive.

Which brings me back to Rabbi Goldstein of Powy, California. Two days after the shooting, an op-ed written by Rabbi Goldstein appeared in the New York Times, and began with the following words:

“Today should have been my funeral.”

In what could have been an obituary, Rabbi Goldtsein wrote a manifesto to life. He wrote how every day that we breathe is an opportunity to write another page in a glorious book called life. And we get to choose how to interpret the things that happen around us; we choose whether we see ourselves as victims or see ourselves as heroes. We choose if we will fill the pages with mitzvos, with kindness, with personal growth, or if we’ll fill those pages with bitterness, with wit sorrow, or even worse, with nothingness. It’s our story, and we are the only ones who will write it.

And so I conclude with Rabbi Goldstein’s words, with his commitment to how he plans on living the rest of his life, and I hope, in the memory of Lory Kaye, in the memory of the Rabbi Shapira, and in the memory of the six million other stories, we can do the same.

Writes Rabbi Goldstein: “From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue — especially this coming Shabbat.”

Thank G-d, so many here and all over the world, were able to hear his call, to learn from his story, and show up in proud, spiritual defiance. May we continue to write this beautiful story, may we continue to fill the world with light and life, and may we continue to ensure that no Jew will die a second death by dedicating ourselves to life, to a meaningful life, and in doing so ensuring that their stories will live on through ours.

Postscript: A request went out that all shuls hold a moment of silence at 11:23 AM this morning – this was the time that the gunman burst into the Poway Chabad. With all due respect, I disagree. We have had too many moments of silence. Just this week, a moment for Yom HaShoah, and next week, a moment of silence for Yom HaZikaron. We’ve been silent for too long! I propose at 11:23, we make a lot of noise. I propose that we daven like we’ve never prayed before. And that our singing and praying, with all our heart and soul, on the top of our lungs, break through gates of heaven.

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