Yesterday, I saw an amazing documentary film about the journey of teshuva – Hebrew for repentance or redemption – of an entire community, Kielce, led by a Polish born non-Jewish Prophet, named Bogdan Bialek.
This last week in synagogue, we read the chapters that speak about Abraham’s encounters with G-d: One of them is the story of how Abraham bargains with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorroh – two cities that have become the symbol of evil that according to G-d require total destruction which was carried out in the Bible.
What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh? There are several back stories contained in the Jewish books we call “midrash” which many of the commentaries to the bible base their ideas on. I came across this interpretation in Tablet magazine yesterday.
In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—recounted in the Torah in Parshat Vayera, which will be read this Shabbat—the Bible addresses the question of ethics head-on. These towns represent a human society so thoroughly corrupt that it is beyond the possibility of repair. There are other stories in which God finds human behavior to be abhorrent, but there is usually some redemption (as in the story of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), or a remnant remains that holds the potential to rebuild (like the living things in Noah’s ark). Only here does an entire place get annihilated with fire and brimstone.
What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh?
…The prophet Ezekiel brings it up in one of his warnings to the kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE:
Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
Centuries later, the ancient rabbis fleshed out Ezekiel’s charge in a midrash—a snippet of biblical interpretation. Here is a passage from Genesis Rabbah, a collection of commentaries compiled in the third century CE:
There was an incident concerning two young girls who went down to fill pitchers with water from the spring.
One of them said to her friend, “Why is your face so sickly?”
The other said to her, “Our food is all gone and we are about to die.”
What did the first one do? She filled her pitcher with flour and switched the two, each girl taking what was in the hand of the other.
When [the people of Sodom] became aware of this, they took her and burned her.
The Holy Blessed One said, “Even if I wanted to keep silent, the judgment in the case of the young girl does not permit me to keep silent.”
This midrash paints a terrible picture: A young woman burned to death as punishment for an act of compassion. And her burning was not the work of hooligans. God uses legal terminology—“judgment” and “case” —implying that the people of Sodom took the compassionate girl to court for sneaking food to a starving neighbor. She was tried and convicted under the law of the land. In Sodom, feeding a hungry person was a criminal act that carried the death penalty. The act that forced God’s interference was a legal one.
Does not this account of the midrash remind you of the State of Nazi Germany, in our time, where to offer any compassionate help to Jews was a legally criminal act subject to the death penalty!
The crimes of the Nazi State continue to be an open wound to both Jews and non-Jews. However, In this film, Bogdan’s Journey, we see Bogdan and the town of Kielce attempting to come to terms with a massacre of Jews on Polish soil (in Kielce) in 1946. In spite of almost total denial by almost everyone living in Kielce, Bogdan initiates and continues his crusade for awareness, healing, and reconciliation, showing that yes, a collective group, can come to repent, to address these issues voluntarily, and to transform itself into an aware and caring empathetic entity.
It is a must see movie for anyone who has had any connection to the Shoah or indeed to any horrible uncontrollable traumatic events whether personal or collective.
To watch the movie for institutional or private screening go to Bogdan’s Journey. I believe you will thank me! I look forward to hearing your feedback.
Postscript: After the screening, the producer, director, and several guests from Poland including Bogdan himself met at the Tel Aviv restaurant across the street from the Sherman Oaks Laemmle movie theater. After I wrote this blog I sent him the link and here is what he wrote to me:
On Nov 27, 2019, at 7:19 AM, Bogdan Białek <email@example.com> wrote:Dear Abigail,Thank you very much for your beautiful and touched text on your blog. Ifyou agree, I would like to use it on Jan Karski Society site. Themeeting in the Sherman Oaks was very interesting. For the first time Iwas in so great home and so excellent company. I hope that we will haveother possibilities to meet each other. Of course, if you will be inPoland remember about my the warmest invitation to Kielce.I will try to buy a book, which you reccomend.Best regardsBogdanDear Bogdan,I have been thinking about your response below and would like to add your letter to my post, and to also add a link to your Jan Karski website.Best regards,Abigail
Dear Abigail, I am in Israel now. I’m so sorry for the silence. Of course, you can use anything you want. I am very grateful for your text. It will stay in my heart for a long time.
RegardsBogdanWysłane z iPhone’aWiadomość napisana przez askabigail <firstname.lastname@example.org> w dniu 11.12.2019, o godz. 06:17: