Loving Dead Jews – Second Day of Rosh Hashana

It was the height of Chutzpah. Too surreal to be believed. Too unimaginable to be made up. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz was standing together with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, in Berlin, fielding questions from reporters. Suddenly, one reporter’s hand shot up and asked a question about the upcoming anniversary of the Munich massacre half a century ago, in which eleven Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, a group linked to Abbas’ Fatah party. “Mr. Abbas,” the reporter asked, “do you plan on apologizing to Israel and Germany for the attack ahead of the 50th anniversary?”

The question infuriated Abbas. Irate, Abbas responded instead, by citing allegations of atrocities committed by Israel since 1947. “If we want to go over the past, go ahead,” Abbas, who was speaking Arabic, told the reporters. “I have 50 slaughters that Israel committed in 50 Palestinian villages… 50 massacres, 50 slaughters, 50 Holocausts,” he said, taking care to pronounce the final word in English.

What chutzpah! Can you imagine? Accusing Israel of perpetrating a Holocaust in Germany?! Surely, Abbas would have been thrown off the stage! Surely, the German Chancellor would have instantly rebuked Abbas and disavowed his comments. But instead…he was met with silence.

Germany’s popular BILD newspaper published an outraged story about the incident, under the title “Antisemitism scandal at the federal chancellery.” It expressed shock that “not a word of dissent [was said] in the face of the worst Holocaust relativization that a head of government has ever uttered in the chancellor’s office.” To be sure, in the coming day, there were apologies issued by the German government. But in those crucial moments, the German Chancellor remained silent. 

Why? Or better yet, how could such a thing have happened? Germany is so committed to rectifying any wrongs done by their country. How could the German Chancellor be silent?

The answer, or at least one answer, lies in the central message of a book I read this year by Dara Horn. The title of the book is startling and deliberately provocative. It’s called, “People Love Dead Jews”. The Holocaust garners world sympathy. But the Holocaust reminds us of the past. When it comes to say, Israel, a living, strong Jewish state – the world can’t stand it. People love dead Jews. Live Jews? Not so much.

If you listened closely to the condemnations that followed Abbas’ comments, it was mostly about the trivialization of the Holocaust. It was NOT the blood libel against the Jewish State. That people didn’t care about too much. And that I suspect, is what confused the good Chancellor.  A blood libel against Israel did not warrant immediate condemnation. But when he realized that he also trivialized the Holocaust- that we must condemn. 

Horn’s book does an incredible job proving this sad truth. Here’s another example she gives related to the Holocaust. Once again, the height of Chutzpah. Too surreal to be believed. Too unimaginable to be made up.  In the opening chapter she describes a kippah-wearing man who was discriminated against for his Jewishness. He was not beaten, but he was barred from wearing his kippah at work. Where did he work? You’re ready for this? The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Barry Vingerling was asked to wear a baseball hat to cover his kippah in one of the most well-known sites dedicated to tolerance! And specifically, tolerance for Jews! After four months, they finally relented and allowed him to display his faith. As Horn put it, “Four months seems like a long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder if it is a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.” All the sympathy in the world for poor dead Jew, Anne Frank. But none made available for the living, practicing, vibrant Jew, Barry Vingerling.

This is not just about a perversion of the Holocaust. One more story: On July 13, 2022, at 3:40 PM, Yossi Hershkop, a young Orthodox man, was attacked in New York. He was punched repeatedly, needing hospitalization for his bruises. His five-year-old son sat a foot away, witnessing his father, his rock, his source of stability, being reduced in front of his eyes.  This was not a mysterious crime. It took place in broad daylight. You can watch a video of the perpetrators beating Yossi. You can see the security camera footage that catches their faces and the license plate of the car that they drove off in. You would think that with this much information, the police would have caught the criminals immediately and brought them to justice. But that’s not what happened.  A full two weeks later, Hershkop, exasperated, tweeted how his son is too traumatized to walk outside. The tweet went viral, caught media attention, and magically, later that day, the first arrest was made.  

I imagine many of you never heard of this incident with Yossi Hershkop. Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of the almost daily violent attacks against Orthodox Jews in New York. Despite a dramatic spike in incidents, they almost never make the news. Not only do they not make the news, these crimes, even when they are reported, almost never lead to prosecution. Of the 118 adults arrested in the past few years for antisemitic incidents, only one has been sent to jail for his crimes. Local activists assume that around 80% of crimes go unreported because Jews in New York have lost faith in the justice system protecting them. 

Why didn’t they care about Yossie Herskop? He was a Chabad Chossid. He had a beard, tzizis were out. He was a vibrant, religious, living Jew. But the world only loves Dead Jews. This is exactly Horns’ point. Here’s my final and most telling example – when a politician or famous actor makes an antisemitic remark and then apologizes, where does the Jewish establishment take him?

To Washington, to the Museum of Tolerance. Far better than going to Washington to see dead Jews, you know where they should be taken? To Brooklyn to see live Jews, with their peyos flying, kippah on their head, trying not to get smacked by a passerby. But that’s not where they take them. Because – people love dead Jews.  

It’s a chilling book with a chilling thesis. But as I was reading it, an even more chilling thought occurred to me. It’s not just “People” who love dead Jews. You know who else loves dead Jews?

We do. Jews love dead Jews. For example:

  • What’s the one day a year the entire American Jewish community makes sure to come to Shul? Is it Purim with its incredible exuberance, children in costume, and lively music? No. Its Yizkor. We pay tribute to the dead.
  • What’s one value that all Jews can embrace? Is it Israel with its incredible success? Miraculously rebuilding the country? Reviving our ancient tongue, regaining sovereignty after 2000 years? No. It’s the Holocaust. Israel is deemed too offensive for many. Living, vibrant Jews are too controversial to talk about. But not 6,000,000 dead Jews. 
  • What’s the one ritual that we all hold dearer than any other? Is it Torah study? That incredible chance to connect to our ancient wisdom? Is it prayer, that incredible opportunity to speak directly to the Almighty? No. It’s a yahrzeit when we say Kaddish for the dead. For dead Jews.

Do you want to know who also realizes this? Our kids. The next generation. There’s nothing less inspiring than when children see the thing that matters most to their parents about their Judaism is dead Jews. I once asked a child what shul is. His reply? “Where my family goes when someone dies.”

There is an age-old question as to why the Torah does not speak of the afterlife. It hints, it alludes, but it never spells it out. It’s only when we arrive at the Oral Law, the Mishna, the Talmud, that the afterlife is discussed explicitly. Why is that?

Allow me to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Ernest Becker in his classic The Denial of Death argues that fear of our own mortality – of death – has been one of the driving forces of civilization. It is what led the ancient world to enslave the masses, turning them into giant labor forces to build monumental buildings that would stand as long as time itself. It led to the ancient cult of the hero, the man who becomes immortal by doing daring deeds on the field of battle. We fear death; we have a love-hate relationship with it. Freud called this thanatos, the death instinct, and said it was one of the driving forces of life.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah is silent on the afterlife, in what happens after death, because “Judaism is a sustained protest against this worldview. That is why “no one knows where Moses is buried” (Deut. 34:6), so that his tomb should never become a place of pilgrimage and worship. That is why, in place of a pyramid or a temple such as Ramses II built at Abu Simbel, all the Israelites had for almost five centuries until the days of Solomon was the Mishkan, a portable Sanctuary, more like a tent than a temple. That is why, in Judaism, death defiles and why the rite of the Red Heifer was necessary to purify people from contact with death. That is why the holier you are – if you are a Kohen, more so if you are the High Priest – the less you can be in contact or under the same roof as a dead person. G-d is not in death but in life.”

Today, on Rosh Hashana, as we plead with G-d for life. Zachreinu l’chaim, Kasveinu b’sefer Hachaim, if you listen really closely, you could hear G-d ask us: Can you write Me into your life? Can our relationship, your relationship to Judaism, be about the life you live and not your deceased family members who are no longer? Can it be about connection and not guilt? Can it revolve around Torah study not the recital of Kaddish? Can it be a year of life?

And so, if I may be so bold. On this Rosh HaShana, 5783, perhaps we can make the following resolutions:

  • For every Yahrzeit candle we light, we should light a Shabbos and Yom Tov Candle, or do an extra Mitzvah. 
  • For every Kaddish we recite, we should recite and better understand one of the treasures of Jewish prayer. 
  • For every Yizkor service that we come to Shul for, we will come on a Simchas Torah or a Purim. 
  • For every Holocaust program, or article we read, we will connect with an Israel event or Torah learning session to enrich our appreciation of Yidishkeit. 

I started this talk with the growing challenge of anti-Semitism, I may have gone a little astray. But not that far astray. As we speak about and think about rising antisemitism, we always come back to the question of what can we do? How can we respond?

Let me share with you how Dara Horn responded. In the final chapter of the book, People Love Dead Jews – and I am sorry for the spoiler, she writes as follows. After the antisemitic shooting in Pittsburgh, the New York Times reached out to her for comment. After the antisemitic shooting in Poway, the New York Times reached out to her for comment. On December 10, 2019, there was an attack in New City, New York. Instead of reporting on the clearly antisemitic nature of the attack, many of the newspapers decided to focus on “context” – the fact that in recent years, many Jews have flooded this small town and there is some tension between Jews and those who had been living there before. Aside from the implication that neighborhood disputes should be taken care of by donning tactical gear and trying to storm a Jewish school… it was also completely irrelevant as the attackers were not local to New City.

Be that as it may, at this point, Dara Horn was tired. She was tired of being the spokesperson for dead Jews, and so she turned her attention elsewhere, to a gathering that was taking place at around the same time that also caught her attention. 90,000 Jews met at Met Life stadium in New Jersey. It was not a protest against antisemitism, it was a celebration of life. These Jews were celebrating their completion of a seven-year cycle of daily Talmud learning. That, thought Dara Horn, is what I want to focus on.

To quote her, “I suddenly knew what I wanted to do… I began to study the Daf… and something magical happened when I switched over from looking online at news reports about anti-Semitic attacks to joining some of the online Torah study platform…After the dark weeks I had just sleep-walked through with anxiety and worry about anti-Semitism, I experienced a strange and unexpected feeling, an undeniable sense of welcome and relief. It was like coming out of a cold dark night, into a warm lighted room…And while I still read today’s old, old news about anti-Semitism. I also run away from it, toward the old, the ancient. I turn the pages of Torah texts, carried by fellow readers, living and dead who all turn the pages with me.”

If I could add one more suggestion, inspired by Dara Horn, every time we hear or read about another antisemitic act this year – and unfortunately, we likely will, let’s go to a class that day, let’s go online and listen to a lecture, let’s open a siddur, let’s open a Jewish book. Or even better, pre-empt it – Let’s make this a year of chaim by filling our lives with more Judaism, more Torah, more life.

The story of the Jewish People is not one of survival against those who tried to kill us – that’s a victim narrative, it places death at the center of our faith, and it’s just not true. The story of the Jewish People is the story of a group of people who chose life, and who continue to choose life. We will, of course, remember and give respect to our past and to our loved ones, but we will also live our own Jewish life, by praying more, by studying more, by living more.

May G-d bless us with a year of life. Amen.

Written with Rabbi Avi Goldstein.

Finding Awe Ki Seitzei

There will be many terms that you will hear and read in the tributes to Queen Elizabeth II. Words like stability, dignity, tradition, unifier of her country, and grace. Those are all special terms in that they are hard to find in this day and age. As one columnist put it, “As I sit down to write about her life, I cry, realizing that all that she stood for is no longer.”

In addition to all that she stood for, there was something that surrounded her that is also ‘no longer’, something that would be worth spending some time contemplating and appreciating this morning, and that is awe.

In April 2009, President Barak Obama and his wife Michelle, visited the Queen of England. It was a disaster. The gift the first family presented the monarch was an iPod – which was derided as tacky. But far more controversial was the way the First Lady greeted the Queen. She gave Queen Elizabeth the Second a hug.

Now for most of you here that means absolutely nothing. What’s the big deal? None of the papers in the US picked this up as anything special. But across the Commonwealth, they were losing their minds

You do not hug the queen. It is not just against royal protocol. It’s just unfathomable. The queen is sacred. The queen is literally untouchable. When in the Queen’s presence, if you are lucky enough to be there, you don’t breathe unless it fits with royal protocol. Like the big-hatted soldiers outside Buckingham Palace, in the Queen’s presence, you stand at attention. You stand in awe.

The concept of awe, the notion of something being sacred, is quaint, it’s old-fashioned. It is, to us democratic and egalitarian Americans, backward. And that’s a pity. Awe is the most… awesome emotion we can experience, but our culture, its speed, its tone, its self-centeredness all precludes us from experiencing true awe.  

A few years ago, a group of students from Vassar College visited the home of Ludwig van Beethoven. His home is preserved as a museum in Bonn, Germany. The centerpiece of the museum is the room in which Beethoven’s piano is found. It’s the piano on which he composed most of his incredible musical pieces. The 200-year-old piano, valued at an estimated 200 million dollars, is of course, roped off.

However, one of the students came to the room that held the piano and just couldn’t resist the temptation to ask a museum guard if she could play it for just a moment. The guard allowed himself to be influenced by her generous tip and he let the young woman beyond the ropes for a few moments. She sat at the famed piano and knocked out several bars of Moonlight Sonata. When she finished, her classmates broke into applause.

As she stepped back through the ropes, the young woman asked the guard, “I suppose over the years, all the great pianists that have come here have played the piano, right?”

“No, miss,” the guard replied. “In fact, just two years ago I was standing in this very place when Paderewski, the famous pianist and composer, visited the museum. He was accompanied by the director of the museum and the international press, who had all come in the hope that he would play Beethoven’s piano. But when he entered the room, he stood over there, where your friends are standing, he gazed at the piano in silent contemplation for almost fifteen minutes. Finally, the director of the museum gently invited him to play the piano, but with tears welling in his eyes Paderewski declined, saying that he was not worthy of even touching it.” (h/t R. Efrem Goldberg)

That, my friends, is awe.

What would you do in that room? Would you play that piano, or would you stand in silent and awe-inspired contemplation? 

The last passage of this week’s portion speaks of the archenemy of the Jewish People, the nation of Amaleik. We know they attacked us as we left Egypt. But they weren’t the only ones who did so. Why is the Torah so dead set against this nation?

If you look closely at the Chumash, it does not say they attacked us, it writes, asher karcha baderech, literally, this means they encountered you on the way. It’s a strange term, asher karcha. And so, our Sages, with their exquisite and sensitive ear, understand the term karcha not to mean encounter, but rather, from the word, kar, cold. They cooled you off.

You see, the nation of Amaleik is the anti-awe. The Jewish People, after the ten plagues, after the splitting of the sea, were revered, they were untouchable, they were seen as special by all. Amaleik could not stand this. They believed that there is nothing sacred. There is nothing called holiness. There is nothing that is worth an iota of awe. And so they attacked us to demonstrate that we are not that hot, that nothing is that hot.

Had they lived in 2022, they would have just tweeted a cynical tweet. Maybe they would have created a silly meme of the Jewish People. Or they would have written a hit piece. The Amaleiki people with their anti-awe philosophy would fit right in with our modern society. Amaleik would scorn the notion of an untouchable queen. Amaleik would sit down and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ at the piano of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Amaleik is no longer. But what they represent – anti-awe – is all around us. The quick pace of life precludes us from ever allowing ourselves to be swept up in a magical experience. Fashionable cynicism precludes us from admiring anything or anyone. Leon Kass once said, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten to shudder.” We, our generation, has forgotten to shudder.

So how do we develop this ability to shudder? How do we overcome the cynicism, the pace of life, and develop a sense of awe?

It starts here, in shul. One of the prime objectives in the institution of the synagogue was to instill within the Jewish People a sense of awe. According to Jewish Law, it is forbidden to kiss a child in a shul. Judaism is all about family, but in shul, we are meant to develop a sense of awe. This is why we have separate seating. Sitting with family is comfortable. But we are supposed be a little uncomfortable in the presence of G-d.

When I first joined the shul, I remember how David Greenfeld would get so worked up about making sure the people taking the Torah out of the ark all stood in the right place and all walked in formation following the Torah. My initial reaction was, who cares. But he was right.

We come to shul, especially during the days of awe, and we stand in silence, we bow, we listen, we have processions, we have pomp, we have ceremony. It’s slow. And you know what, it’s supposed to be slow. It’s meant to slow us down.

And then we open the siddur, and we start reading about things that we know and see all the time, but we ignore them or even worse, dismiss them. “Thank you, G-d, for giving me sight… for enabling me to stand… to walk.” We thank G-d for the cosmos, for light, for darkness, for Jewish history. Shul is one long exercise in developing a sense of sophistication and a sense of awe.

The goal is to then take that sense of awe and bring it to every part of life. I’ve shared this poem with you before but it’s worth sharing again. It’s an old Yiddish poem about an orange that was brought to a small, poor shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe. The town-folk had never tasted, let alone seen, an orange in their lives. And so, when the orange was brought to town, everyone left work early that day. They gathered at the marketplace, and each and every person had a chance to hold and smell the orange. They admired its radiant color, they took in its powerful citrusy-sweet smell, and allowed their fingers to caress the smooth grooves of the fruit before passing it on to their friend.

The next day, after work they gathered again as the orange was peeled. They crowded together so they could catch the burst of juice as the peel was punctured for the first time. The peel was first grated and a lucky few were able to go home with some orange zest. The remaining peels were chopped and then distributed among the community members so they could each make a tiny little batch of marmalade.

The next day, they gathered again. This was the grand finale. They all stood in silence as one woman delicately peeled apart each segment of the orange. The people admired the ingenuity and uniqueness of a fruit that needs no chopping or dividing, a fruit that’s readily available for sharing. They oohed and aahd as the sections were separated and a chosen few were given an orange piece of their own to eat, to savor and to enjoy.  

We don’t need to go to Buckingham Palace to feel this way. We live in a magical world, we’re surrounded by incredible people, we are the recipients of endless gifts from Hashem. Can we use our time here to slow down, to open ourselves up, and to experience a true sense of awe?