In merit of a refuah sheleima for Mindal Mariam bas Risal
I am sure everyone here has read many a Holocaust memoir. Some stories understandably sound rather similar to the next. However, there is one memoir that begins with the following rather atypical warning:
“Courageous readers can go ahead and read the terrible story of what happened to me when I was a boy. Whoever doesn’t have the courage can read a little bit and then close the book, go to the kitchen and take some ice cream out of the freezer.”
Yes, this is the introduction to a Holocaust memoir, written by Avraham David Leitner, nicknamed, Dugo.
Due to a strange circumstance, Dugo, had two separate numbers tattooed on his arm. He describes it as a 2-for-1 special…
In 1944, crammed into a cattle car, on their way to a concentration camp, the then 14-year-old, turned to the man next to him and asked if he could have his ticket. He almost got beaten for that one.
He describes himself in the cattle car: “My shoulder was up inside Father’s shoulder, and Shmuel was pushed up against his other side. Mother was stuck to him, and Rachel and Esther and Ethel were stuck to her, and Nathan was in the middle of us all. But the main thing was that we were together. And – that I did not have to go to cheder.”
You get the picture, right?
Dugo was a street-smart trouble-maker who grew up in Hungary. He describes his rebbe in cheder wanting to give him a good old-school beating, cornering him into the back of a classroom, and then, with nowhere to go, jumping out the second-floor window to escape.
Those skills served him well when he came to Auschwitz. He was sent to the ‘wrong’ line, but he realized it wasn’t good for him, and so he slipped into the line with the adults. Mengel saw him and pushed him back to the other line. He waited and as soon as he got a chance, he slipped back with the adults, and in doing so saved his life.
Recognizing that he had to be working and working hard to stay alive, he and some friends offered themselves as sewage cleaners. They were given a nickname which I can’t say out loud. He describes it as the best thing that could have happened to him. Because it was such a terrible job, they got extra food.
At one point, he was taken into the infamous showers, but right before they closed the doors, a Nazi asked for 50 strong men to come forward to help with a particular job. Of course, Dugo, despite his age and size stepped up, and in doing so, saved his life.
On January 18, 1945, as the Soviets came close to Auschwitz, the death march began. Writes Dugo, “It was freezing cold, wearing a thin shirt and a pair of pants with one leg three quarter length, while the other reached my knees. I couldn’t open my eyes, I was almost a block of ice. We walked for three days without stopping. People were falling all around me and the march just continued.”
There was no food and he was starving and completely sleep-deprived. At one point, he describes himself sleep walking and dreaming as he trudged along. “I dreamt about my home and I cried like I had never cried before.”
He dreamed of bilkelah, a type of sweet bread that his mother used to make for him.
“My mother always told me about the Land of Israel and how good it was there, and that one day soon we would go to live there. She used to say that in the Land of Israel bilkelah grew on trees. ‘David, if you’re ever hungry you can just pick a bilkelah from the tree.’ In my dream I asked my mother, ‘Please mother, give me just one bilkelah now,’ and her voice returned to me in the dream. ‘Dovid, I can’t give you now. Only when you get to Israel, when you reach Jerusalem.”’
That dream kept him alive.
Though most of his family perished, he and his brother, Shmuel survived. In 1949, he moved to Israel. The first thing he did was go to Yerushalayim. While there, he passed a falafel stand. And I quote: “I saw them frying these reddish brown balls in oil, and memories of my mother and the death march came back to me. ‘Dovid, I can’t give you now, only when you get to Israel, when you reach Jerusalem. Remember what I told you about bilkelah, here it’s called falafel.’”
He bought himself a falafel and every bite tasted like freedom. He bought himself another falafel. And then, he decided that every January 18th, he would commemorate the death march and the vision of his mother by buying falafel.
He moved to and became one of the founders of Moshav Nir Galim, a few minute drive from Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He met his wife, had two children, 10 grandchildren, and tens of great-grandchildren.
But every year, on January 18th, he would make his way to a falafel stand and buy two falafels. “Never again,” he would say, “will I go hungry.”
Over the years, people heard about Dugo and his strange minhag. And they started copying him. Thousands of people in Israel would go every January 18th and buy falafel in his honor. They’d post pictures of themselves eating falafel with the hashtag #OperationDugo. In 2019, then Israeli President Rivlin invited him to the presidents’ home for falafel.
He never lost his sense of humor or his positive energy. Three years ago, at a gathering in Auschwitz to commemorate 75 years since liberation, at the end of an exceptionally solemn service, someone yelled, “Am Yisrael Chai!”
It was Dugo, of course. He felt like the event was important but lacked a yiddishe Neshama, some Jewish soul, so he felt compelled to pierce the silence with, ‘Am Yisrael chai.’
The subtitle of his book, which summed up his attitude to life is, Wasn’t it enough that I was an orphan – did I have to be sad as well?
You see, Dugo made a choice, an impossible choice, one that was almost superhuman. He chose to focus on the positive. Not on the fact that he lost his family in the war, but that he had a new family in Israel. Not on the fact that he went through so much hardship, but on the fact that he survived. Not on the fact that he went hungry for so long, but that now he could eat falafel.
This Shabbos is called Shabbos Nachamu, literally the Shabbos of comfort. It’s a festive Shabbos; it’s meant to be uplifting and joyous- we remind ourselves of the Messianic era and how G-d promises us that we will one day be redeemed. If you were to go to the Catskills, there are huge Jewish concerts taking place all celebrating how great things are and how great things will be.
It’s beautiful but also bizarre.
We just spent a day on the floor, crying, bemoaning our fate. And now, we just stand up, dust ourselves off, and sing and dance?! Are we expected to be sad over the lack of a Bais Hamikdash or celebrate the fact that a new one is on its way?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the answer can be found in the name of this Shabbos – Nachamu. We often translate Nechama as comfort. But he explains the real translation is to turn or to shift one’s attention.
When we go to be Menachem aveil, to “comfort” a mourner, we are not taking away the pain of their loss, we are sharing stories of their loved one, we’re showing them how we care about them, and in doing so, we are turning their attention ever so slightly away from focusing on the pain onto a different perspective that they weren’t paying attention to, but was always there.
Yes, it’s tragic that we live in exile. That we still have so much in-fighting, illness, corruption, you name it. And on Tisha B’av we pay attention to all that is broken. But on Shabbos Nachamu, we turn our gaze, we look at a different perspective – one that was always there, but we weren’t giving it any attention.
This past Wednesday, on Erev Tisha B’av, Dugo passed away at the age of 93. He was an embodiment not only of Shabbos Nachamu but of the Jewish spirit; to face death in the eyes and to sing, to bear untold tragedy and to smile, to go through the Holocaust… and eat falafel. May his memory be for a blessing. Am Yisrael Chai!
Sources: https://aish.com/holocaust-survivors-falafel-is-tribute-to-his-survival/, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/my-tears-for-falafel-dugo-the-holocaust-survivor-who-screamed-before-kings/, https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/the-people-of-israel-live-endure-and-eat-falafel/2017/04/24/
I’d like to contrast two speeches made by two incredibly well-connected statesmen at very similar junctures in Jewish history. The first was made this past Wednesday a few miles from here in the Capitol building. Israeli President Yitzchak Herzog was invited to address a joint meeting of Congress attended by nearly all congressmen and women, with the exception of a few of the usual suspects. President Herzog comes from the closest thing we have to royalty in modern Judaism. His father, Chaim Herzog served as a general in the IDF and then president of Israel. His grandfather, Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel after the establishment of the State. As I said, royalty.
There’s a certain pride I am not alone in feeling when an Israeli political leader is invited to speak at such a gathering. To think that just over ¾ of a century ago, a group of leading Jewish rabbis, coming to beg form the American government to save Jews from the inferno of the Holocaust couldn’t even get an audience. And today, a Jew is invited to speak to a packed house. To think that for so many of the past 75 years, Israel has been completely dependent on others, but just this past week in a widely-shared article, two writers entertained the notion of Israel ceasing to accept American aid – not because Israel is not a friend of the US, these were Zionists who wrote the article. They were arguing that Israel is now at point where it does not need such assistance! Whether they are right or wrong, but the fact that not that many years after Israel was pulled from the brink of bankruptcy by other nations, not that many years after Israel was completely dependent on the weapons and intelligence of other countries, the fact that this can even be entertained is astounding. What a proud moment in Jewish history we live in.
And then the speech itself; a masterclass. Allow me to quote: “When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the land which the Almighty promised to Abraham, to which Moses lead the Israelites, the land of the Bible, of milk and honey, evolved into an exquisite land of democracy. Against all odds, the Jewish people returned home and built a national home, which became a beautiful Israeli democracy, a mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians, secular, traditional and orthodox, of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles. A land which welcomed the ingathering of exiles from one hundred different countries.
A land which became the Startup Nation – a bustling hub of innovation and creativity, social action and intellectual discovery, spiritual awakening and business ventures, scientific ingenuity and lifesaving medical breakthroughs.
We built a nation-state which has faced relentless war, terror, and delegitimization since its birth. A country fighting to defend itself from enemy and foe, yet whose citizens continue to greet each other with the word “peace”, Shalom.
A country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.
A state founded on complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender – as stipulated explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
A country which is ever evolving. A diverse amalgam of accents, beliefs, backgrounds and customs. Truly, a modern-day miracle.
This is the sweetness with which our country has been blessed.”
Yes, President Herzog spoke about the-not-so-sweet; Iran and its nuclear ambitions, the internal strife playing out through the judicial reform. But ultimately, it was a message of hope. Again, to quote:
“As President of Israel, I am here to tell the American people, and each of you, that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA…
Israel’s first seventy-five years were rooted in an ancient dream. Let us base our next seventy-five years on hope. Our shared hope, that we can heal our fractured world, as the closest of allies and friends.”
Approximately, two thousand five hundred years earlier, a speech was given by another dignitary. His name was Yeshaya, Isaiah. He too was part of the royal family; his uncle was King Amatzya, and his daughter ultimately married a future king, Chizkiyahu.
Yeshaya also spoke during a time of incredible prosperity. The Jewish People at this time had just developed modern weapons which they used to fortify Jerusalem and attack their enemies. And they were wildly successful; they conquered the Philistines, a nation that had been a thorn in the Jewish People’s side for decades, they took control of a tremendous portion of land in the South, and the neighboring nations fearing for their lives were paying tribute to the Jewish king. It was a time of prosperity. The wealth in that era is described as rivaling that of King Solomon. And this was all taking place as the king led a spiritual revival.
And so Yeshaya, the well-connected dignitary, living in of the most opulent and secure times in ancient Jewish history, gets up to speak to what I am sure was a packed crowd. It was the Haftorah we just read in shul, Chazon Yeshayahu, the vision of Yeshayahu, that the Abarbanel suggest was shared at this high point in Jewish history. But unlike the President’s vision, the Prophet’s vision was anything but hopeful. We’ve been learning the Book of Yeshaya on Shabbos afternoons for the past year. When we started out, I would summarize each chapter with a little poem, and so please indulge me as I share with you a poetic summary of Isaiah’s speech:
Political strength, spiritual heights; we’re growing at dizzying speeds.1
Safer than ever, increasingly wealthy, matched by our many good deeds.
If we listen real close, footsteps approach, it’s Mashiach! He’ll be here so soon!
But a lone man cries out, and shatters our dream, with a message of impending doom:
You see, Yeshaya had a choice; he could have focused on the prosperity, the security, and yes, even the explosion in Jewish learning and practice, and be filled with immense pride. But he chose to focus on what was still missing, what was still broken. What was broken? What were the flaws that he saw around him? They are flaws that are not so different than the ones we experience today; an explosion of Torah observance but a lack of connection to G-d; external practices that do not reflect one’s inner world. And chesed, kindness, that is skin deep; giving to the poor, but not caring for the poor. A lot of lip service but not a lot of service of the heart. Yeshaya is so dismayed with what he witnesses, that he describes the people of Israel as the people of Sedom.
“Ketzinei Sedom, Am Amorah, Hashem is not bribed by your deeds.
Your learning, your prayer, means nothing at all, if you don’t stop to think about Me.2
You give to the poor, but ignore their real needs, not caring for feelings and pain,
Can you not hear the cries of the marginalized, drowned out by tzedakah campaigns?3”
And so while everyone around him was patting themselves on the back; look how mighty our army is – 4th strongest army in the world! Look how prosperous we are – we are the start-up nation! We could survive without American support! Look how much learning is taking place! Yeshaya recognized that hope that is not tethered to introspection is hopeless. A people who only pat themselves on the back and don’t demand of themselves radical change, even and most specifically, when things seem great, that is a people that is doomed.
“Where you see great buildings, I see desolation, we’re marching into an inferno.4
The ads are all glossy, the children are matching, but my vision sees what is internal.
The silver is shiny, the wine is aplenty. Look deeper, it’s all watered down.5
Don’t be shocked when a city of faith is no longer; not when, it’s happening now.”6
To be clear, this was not a reflection of depressing cynicism; it came from a place of optimism – we have the ability to change. When we only focus on the good, we can too easily become proud and stagnant. When we focus on our flaws, we become motivated to fix them. And that is the avodah, that is the practical focus of these next few days leading up to Tisha B’av. Tisha B’av shakes us out of our complacency; yes, in two thousand years, it has never been better to be a Jew, but simply taking pride in this moment will not get us anywhere.
Tisha B’av reminds not only of our tragic past, it begs of us to change. And by asking us to change it is letting us know we can change. Like our ancestors we too are far too superficial in our service of G-d. Like our ancestors we too do not do enough to the underprivileged amongst us. The illness of Yeshaya’s time was superficiality, of commitments that are skin deep; I cannot think of a more relevant message. But these are reflections that are meant to propel us to action. If we believe we can be corrupt, we must believe that we can be pure. If we believe that we can be callous, we must believe that we can become full of heart. If we can believe we can cause the destruction of the Temple, we must believe we can cause it to be rebuilt.
And so Yeshaya concludes his message:
As the people despair, desert, and decry, the man stops them, “Yesh li od chazon!” (I have another vision)
“It’s never too late, Hashem is your father, and you are his daughters and sons.
No matter how dirty, how sinful, how evil, to white snow red blood can transform.
With justice and fairness, and true self-awareness, to Tziyon, I will return.”
- The opening prophecies of Yeshaya take place during the rule of Uziyah, a time of great military conquests, expansion of the Southern Kingdom, and great spiritual accomplishments.
- R. Adin Steinzaltz understands the famous critique against the Jewish People’s many offerings – “why do I need your many sacrifices?!” – as an indication that they were following all the laws, but their intentions, doing Mitzvos for the sake of Hashem, was entirely lacking.
- The Malbim understands that the court systems, at least in the early stages, were just, only that they did not seek out justice for those who could not come to court, like the underprivileged.
- אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה, עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ
- כַּסְפֵּךְ, הָיָה לְסִיגִים; סָבְאֵךְ, מָהוּל בַּמָּיִם – the simple understanding is that the merchants were cheating people by selling inferior products. The Malbim understands this to be a metaphor for the deeds of the Jewish People, which appear righteous but in truth, are diluted.
- In line with footnote 5, the Malbim explains that Yeshaya is responding to their shock of, “How did the faithful city become a city of harlotry?” by telling them that such things do not happen overnight. The people are rotting within, there is no inner vitality – “the trees are withered,” but it is not yet evident from the outside.
I finally came to terms with why everything is so expensive in New York City – the taxis, the food, the hotels; everything is a fortune. Hindy and I spent last Shabbos in Manhattan and I realized the reason you’re paying a premium on everything is because you’re actually in an amusement park. When you’re in an amusement park, you pay a premium. You pay 5 bucks for a coke and that’s just the way it is.
Think about it – you have people walking in the wildest costumes. There are literally people walking around decked out in cartoon costumes – they’re not part of parade; just walking around. There are people walking around like they just walked out of a museum exhibit of 16th century life in the Americas. There are people walking around with almost no costume at all. Ironically, I’m the one getting stared at because I’m wearing a kippah. Do you see yourself?!
You’re also surrounded by an ongoing soap opera. Everyone is talking to each other or on the phone about the most intimate things – full volume. I’m assuming this is why so many screenwriters live in NYC. They’re probably all just sitting in Central Park with a pen and paper taking notes.
Then you have the amusement park rides. Find me a more thrilling ride than taking an Uber in the city. Switching lanes at full speed, avoiding pedestrians, and flying out of our seats as we go over ten-foot potholes.
And then the most extreme sport in all of NYC – crossing the street. Talk about risking your life. Everyone huddles at the street corner and waits for that light to turn green. You’re crammed between businessmen, people in the middle of a jog, people sleeping on the floor – there is no discrimination at the street corner; we are all equals beholden to the mighty power of the light. The nanosecond the light changes, the race begins. Here’s the crazy part – apparently, you’re not allowed to look up. Everyone keeps their eyes completely glued to their phone as they walk ahead at full speed ahead. I don’t know how they do it. To top it off, the people driving – they have a ten second rule. For at least ten seconds after the light changes, you are allowed to run a red in NYC. Or so it seems. And so the car is flying full speed ahead, you’re trying not to trip on a homeless person’s sleeping bag, listening to the person next to you spill the beans on their entire personal life, all while checking your emails. Who wouldn’t pay a few extra dollars for such a thrill?
While we were there, we decided to go Sefardic for the weekend. Friday night we went to a beautiful shul that will not be named with a completely different nusach. For about ten minutes during davening I had no idea what they were saying. I couldn’t even pick out the words he was saying. All I heard was the Middle Easterm Sefardic ukulele sound… For all the people here who struggle to follow along with davening, I feel your pain.
But what really stuck out was this one little kid who was making noise. He was actually just trying to sing along with the chazzan, but I learned one thing – you do not make noise at a Sefardic shul. This poor little boy was getting death stares.
I thought that was intense, but the next day, I got a real lesson in decorum. We went to the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, the oldest shul in New York, whose customs go back to the conversos or anusim who escaped Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th century. They take decorum and ceremony very very seriously. First of all, no one talks. There were two women who were talking, but they were just moving their mouths there was no sound coming out… It was impressive. Second, all men MUST wear a talis. I was standing next to a visitor who was not, the gabbai immediately walked over with a talis, held it until he got the hint. And everything is choreographed. Right before the rabbi speaks, anyone who wants to make a donation comes forward and gets a blessing from the rabbi. They wait in line, when it’s their turn they come forward, receive the blessing and then the rabbi and the donor bow at one another, congregant turns to the left and follows a path back to his seat. And then, the best part, if you get an honor in their shul you MUST wear a hat and tie. When you walk in, there is a stack of hats and a stack of ties for those who are under-dressed. All in all, I was very taken by the decorum, the formality, the ceremony that we found in the Sefardic community.
And I was thinking – we have always struggled with decorum in our shul. It’s gotten much better, but there’s still a good amount of chatter. So I’d like to propose that Ner Tamid goes Sefaradi. From now on, parents of children who talk have to give an extra donation, and anyone who gets an honor must wear one of my old hats or ties. I’ll be happy to bow and walk in a perfect line and all if us will be deathly silent during davening. What do you think? (Do we have to bring this to the board?)
Many years ago, we had a gabbai committee, and we were trying to ensure that all the unique customs we have were codified. We were trying to create a rigid structure for our gabbaim to follow so everything would run smoothly. The individual tasked with creating the gabbai handbook was Mitch Mirkin, of blessed memory. Mitch was a gem of a person, who was tragically taken from us about a year ago. Mitch took davening very seriously – he was one of the brave people who sat up front in shul. He was working on this handbook for months and then one day he turned to me. “Rabbi,” he said, “I’ll tell you the truth, I think this gabbai handbook is a mistake.” He went on to explain that one of the things that attracted him to our shul was that things didn’t always run like clockwork. While I was busy looking at whatever every other shul was doing, he found the way our shul functioned as charming. I think about what he said. A lot.
Every shul and every community has its own unique character. Every shul has its own unique set of customs; some are Halachic customs, and some are just the culture of the shul. A child singing along in one shul may get death stares and here, the child will likely get a high five. Some shuls have four hundred clocks, ensuring that davening finishes at an exact time, and here, the is no pressure to finish at a specific time. Is one right? Is one wrong? No, there are different pathways in the service of Hashem.
Many years ago, I overheard a comment that really stuck with me: “When Mashiach comes,” this person was saying, “we won’t have the same debates between the Religious Zionists and the Chareidim etc etc. We’ll finally know who was right all along.”
I remember thinking then and I still stand by this now – I could not disagree more strongly. In ancient times, we had twelve tribes; twelve unique approaches to serving G-d. Nowadays, for the most part we don’t know which tribe we’re from, but the notion that there is a plurality of approaches to G-d is very much alive. Whether it’s Sefardi or Ashkenazi. Whether it’s Chassidic or non-Chassidic. Whether it’s Chareidi or Modern. Those are the modern tribes of Israel.
To be clear, there were twelve tribes, not 1000 and not even 100. Not every purported pathway to G-d is legitimate. But the varying cultures and communities that are committed to Halacha, committed to Torah coming from Sinai, who possess a belief in the 13 principles, all of those approaches are legitimate.
The final instructions given in the book of Bamidbar, which we concluded today, was that each tribe was expected to only marry from within their own tribe. Intermarriage, back then, meant someone from the tribe of Shimon marrying someone from the tribe of Yehuda. This was not only done so that tribes would hold on to their territory. We were expected to marry within our own, explains Rabbeinu Bachya, to maintain the spiritual character of each tribe. It is critical that we appreciate and build upon the unique strengths that our community possesses. If we are constantly looking over our shoulders, if we’re just copying, then we lose out in the unique role that we have to play.
And at the same time, there is a danger with this approach. There is a danger that each tribe or each culture will become so confident in their own way that they distance themselves entirely from the other tribes. Too often, we become so confident in our value system that we become disdainful of those who don’t share those same values. We become so loving of our way of life that we become disgusted by the lifestyle of our brothers and sisters who have chosen to live on a different path.
And that’s exactly what happened to the shevtaim, to the tribes of Israel. Yes, they developed their own way of life, but in doing so, they no longer felt connected to their brethren. So much so, that a few hundred years after arriving in the land of Israel, a civil war broke out, and the tribe of Binyamin was almost entirely decimated.
The leaders of that generation realized that there needed to be a greater bond among the people and revoked the practice of not marrying between tribes. But we haven’t yet found a perfect balance. It was tribalism that led to the splitting of the Davidic Monarchy, which in turn led to the destruction of the first Bais HaMikdash. It was factionalism that led to the feud between the Hasmonaean kings which led to the destruction of the second. We have been unable to find the balance between a confidence in our own way of life and a respect for a different point of view.
We are about to begin the Nine Days of mourning, during which we reflect on the loss of the Temples and why they are no longer here. There are a lot of things we cannot do during this time but I’d like to propose an exercise, something proactive that we can and should do. Can we take a moment each day of the Nine Days to reflect on a group of Jews who are living differently than we are? We don’t have to travel to NYC, we could look out the window or read the news. Can we not learn something from “them”? Can we not find value in something “they” are doing? We’re not going Sefardi (sorry). We can and must maintain our own customs and our own way of life without making the same mistakes as our ancestors. We have the ability to break this thousand-year cycle of infighting. *
In the merit of this exercise, in the merit of our ability to see the good, may we merit the day when we return to our Bais Hamikdash, where we are taught that each tribe, each group will enter through their own unique gates, but once through those gates, we will all connect to our one common Father.
*This Nine Days exercise was inspired by a Tweet by @wordpaley
Every once in a while, Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, the fast day that kicks off the Three Weeks falls, out on July 4th and we have a real dilemma. How do we reconcile fasting all day with a barbecue? Do you wake up really early in the morning before the fast starts, have a coffee, and quickly grill a hot dog or two? Do you barbecue to fulfill the Mitzvah of barbecuing on July 4th and just not eat? Do you break your fast on corn on the cob?
These are the things that keep American rabbis up late at night.
In all seriousness, as American Jews, and yes, I will include myself in that category even though I only have a green card – as American Jews – Jews who live in and love America, this upcoming week is a wild mix of contradictions.
On July 4th, Independence Day, the day that the people of this country declared independence from British rule, we will celebrate.
On July 6th, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, the day that the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem after a long and deadly siege, we will mourn.
On July 4th, Independence Day, we will pledge allegiance to this glorious country.
On July 6th, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, we will pray to leave this country and for our return to the land of Israel.
On July 4th, Independence Day, we will praise democracy, plurality, and religious freedom.
On July 6th, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, we will dream of a Messianic king, a Jewish State, and a return of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court that will enforce Jewish Law in the land.
How to fast and barbecue on the same day is the least of our problems; the Jewish dream and the American dream are not as compatible as we often think.
I’d like to share with you a story about a man named Jonas Phillips that is emblematic of the tension that we will experience this coming week. On September 7, 1787, a few days before the ratification of the United States Constitution, Jonas Phillips, formerly Pheybush, a German Jew who immigrated to the US, wrote a letter to George Washington to complain about religious discrimination. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, delegates were required to take an oath and swear that the Old and New Testaments were written through divine inspiration – something that no Jew would dream of doing.
The thinking of the time was this that was fully in line with freedom of religion as no one was being forced to worship a religion they didn’t believe in. The fact that this precluded one from being a delegate was immaterial. But Jonas argued that true freedom of religion meant being able to be an involved member of society, to take one’s religion into the public square and have the exact same privileges as all other religious individuals. Ultimately, they changed the rule and allowed Jews to become delegates and set the stage for the freedoms that we enjoy today.
Jonas Phillips was the embodiment of all the good that America has to offer. He was an immigrant who came with nothing but built up a number of successful businesses. Though he was German, he married a Sefardic woman. In the 18th century that was considered “marrying up” for a German Jew – something that would only happen in the melting pot called America. And despite his involvement in business and politics, he remained a devout and unabashed Jew.
But at the same time that this glorious American freedom was opening so many doors for him and his co-religionists, it came with its own set of problems.
Jonas’s wife, Rebecca, was the daughter of the Chazan of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York. The Spanish Portuguese synagogue was led by its lay leaders and they ruled with an iron fist. They would fine people for misconduct. They would fine people for not coming to shul when they were supposed to… They were the ones who decided who could and who could not sell kosher meat. It wasn’t just a shul, it was the center of the community, through which the entire community was led. For most of her life, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue was the only shul in New York city. But as this country started to embrace and elevate the notion of freedom, the model of a hierarchical synagogue seemed backward, it seemed rather British. This is the land of the free!
During the last years of Rebecca’s life, a breakaway shul opened in Manhattan, and the same trend continued all over the country. It’s not a Baltimore Pikesville invention. Professor Jonathan Sarna traces a direct line from the American Revolution to breakaway shuls and the dissolution of the community-synagogue. The splintering of communities which we are so accustomed to today is a byproduct of the new-found freedom and autonomy that this country had to offer.
And that’s benign compared to some of the other byproducts of freedom. Jonas and Rebecca Phillips had 21 children. Most of his children, it seems, within a generation or two did not keep the faith. Yes, it was certainly hard to find Jewish spouses in the 18th century, but that trend continues today. The intermarriage rate in the US is currently at 61%. Freedom of religion means freedom to opt out of religion.
And then there are other impacts of freedom and independence that are not unique to Judaism. Franklin Moses Jr. was a grandson of Jonas Phillips. He became the 75th governor of South Carolina; fought for equal right for black citizens and also embezzled significant funds from the government. He spent the last years of his life in and out of jail as he struggled with an addiction to meth.
The US has the highest rates of drug usage in the world. There is growing evidence that suggests a correlation between our independence from one another and America’s rising rates of depression and self-medication. The freedom to be independent from one another, to not be responsible for one another feels good, but it is not necessarily good for us at all.
The Phillips family is a cautionary tale about the mixed bag called American Freedom. The story of Jonas Phillips and his family is one worth thinking about on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz. Because absent a Bais Hamikdash which we will be praying for on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, without that central place that unites us all, we continue to splinter. Not only by religious practices and beliefs, but even by differences like politics or age.
Absent a Messianic Era which we will be praying for on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, in which a rich and all-embracing spirituality will be felt in the air, more and more Jews will continue to walk away from their faith as there is nothing compelling them to stay.
Absent a firm commitment to a value system that compels us to look out and be responsible for one another, we will continue to descend into maddening loneliness.
There is a lot to pray for and yearn for on July 6th, on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz.
But I am happy that Shiva Assar B’Tammuz does not coincide with Independence Day. Because we also need to give thanks for this wonderful country. Just this past week there was a critical ruling by the Supreme Court that was completely overshadowed by the Affirmative Action ruling. A man by the name of Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian lost his job as a US postal deliveryman because he refused to work on his Sabbath. The USPS argued that Groff’s not working on his Sabbath caused his employers undue hardship and they were therefore justified in penalizing him for not working on his Sabbath. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the USPS was incorrect, and that it was they who had to accommodate to his religious observances. This ruling has tremendous implications for Shabbos observant people in the workforce and it continues the long and great legacy of religious rights and protections kick-started by Jonas Phillips.
The Ibn Ezra suggests that the sin of Moshe at the rock was not that he hit the rock instead of speaking to the rock, not that he got angry. His sin can be found a few verses later where the Torah tells us Az Yashir Yisrael, that the Jewish People sang because the water gave forth water. Last time the Torah had the words, Az Yashir, it concluded with Moshe. Here Moshe was silent. He did not sing and that was his sin; not giving thanks for the water they received. To allow our concerns about America and the dangers of freedom to prevent us from giving thanks would be a grave mistake.
In 1984, Rav Moshe Feinstein, the greatest Halachic authority of the 20th century, wrote: “On reaching the shores of the United States; Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety. A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov — recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation.”
So, enjoy your barbecue on July 4th, and have a meaningful fast on July 6th. Let’s appreciate what we have and yearn for something even greater.