Zachor Al Tishkach: Remember, Don’t Forget

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in the Hebrew language. The word that comes closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is the word “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”

The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor”. One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.

“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).

These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.

 

Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and our holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history brings the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, I think you will come to realize why it is so important “not to forget what went before.”

 

STALIN’S RISE TO POWER

Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his own research into recently released Soviet archives. I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.

 

In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schols because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.

In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the provisional government. In spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.

Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin’s opening to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone apposed to him or his ideas. Stalin was able to do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.

In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered collectivization of farmlands, the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which lead to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.

It seems that although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means, and secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.

 

THE RISE OF THE NAZIS

RISE OF THE NAZIS

This month, I also had the opportunity to study Hitler’s ascent and reign via the excellent documentary series Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.

In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazi party, rules the country. Hitler is the autocratic ruler and his collaborators, Ernst RöhmHermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, control all German national institutions:

  • The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
  • Herman Goring creates his own espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
  • Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.

In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlists Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).

Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape, and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.

  • Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. He used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
  • Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humanity was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, all morality and truth were judged by these criteria. (Source: Britannica)

Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist, dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. His perception that right-wing radicals were literally getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.

In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because Hitler was meanwhile trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and to maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”

Although Litten manages to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces, all German national institutions were corrupted. Litten himself is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had  converted to Lutheranism.

The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler aquires his positon of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expands his power by acquiring methodical control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachay as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his own power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their own personal pursuit of power then lead them to collaborate with each other in order to denouncing Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his storm troopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.

This episode ends with the little known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible to be condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his wn intitiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the report was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began November 20, 1945.

These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. They managed to seduce and to intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”

 

History-Zachor Al Tishkach

CHINA UNDERCOVER

In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.

The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere and allow the regime to keep a close eye on all its citizens, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “becoming a part of uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibiliity of privacy or resistance.

This reality seems to be even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.

Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important? 

Why is it so important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? It shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral compunctions, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame, and to claim supreme governing authority.

The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these kinds of rulers, even after we ourselves are prospering, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to review these events, we all become witnesses.

Andrew Blinken, Biden’s recently nominated US Secretary of State, reminds us here how important the power of memory can be, especially for those who may have power over our lives.

In First Speech as US Secretary of State Nominee, Blinken Recalls Story of Late Holocaust-Surviving Stepfather

 

 

News and Knowledge during Covid-19

How do you get your news, and how do you process it?

We all know the problem, excess options and information coming at us from all sides.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks would have said, in his booming voice:  “We have been here before!”

Following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jews worried that their information would be lost if they did not write it down. But, how do you write down all the information about a culture in an accessible form?

This was the birth of the Talmud. Today, the Talmud is six volumes, which takes seven years to read, if you read one page per day. It took six centuries to compile.

A page of the Talmud

How did they do it?

First, they recorded the conversations and the names of those who were doing the talking. Then, they organized the material into six tractates that cover everything you may have ever wanted to know but had no idea how to ask. The voices of many, both elite and commoner, are captured.

I have dipped into it here and there. We studied a page in my Jewish history course at Hebrew University back in the day. I remember the first line of the page we studied: “Where do the rains come from?”. Yes, they deal with all kinds of issues.

During the pandemic, I have participated in a weekly Talmud class on Zoom with my niece, Ilana Fodiman Silverman, living in Israel in Israel teaches students from around the world. The other day, when studying the conversation on “What type of prayer should be said after a meal and whom you should or shouldn’t invite to join you in the prayer?” (Berachot 47 A), she mentioned that the Talmudic discussion reminds her of Dr. Seuss’ whimsical world of exploration. She says “Sometimes, the Talmud tests the breadth and depth of an idea by pushing the edges of possibility, by using our most imaginative selves to suggest scenarios and uncover its design.”

The Talmud is an acquired taste, and it is almost impossible to study without a knowledgeable guide. Some have described it as a “sea of knowledge” that you dip into from time to time. It reminds me of the internet today. Due to the internet, and another brilliant teacher, Rav Adin Steinsaltz, Z’l, who passed away very recently, anyone can now have daily access to the Talmud in English by subscribing to his website www.steinsaltz-center.org and their are many tallmudic study groups on Zoom. No one has to do this alone.

Covid-19 news

So how do I get my news during Covid-19?

Well, I am a regular listener of CBC Radio One – anytime I am eating or taking a break. My favourite programs are IDEAS with Nahlah Ayed, which explores “social issues, culture and the arts, geopolitics, history, science and technology, biology and the humanities”. But, in truth, I will listen to anything that’s on when I feel like a break, including The Doc Project by Acey Rowe, Tapestry with Mary Hines, Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel, The current with Matt Galloway and q with Tom Power.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I subscribe to two newspapers: The National Post and The Gazette on weekends. I also subscribe to online Jewish media, including The Tablet, Commentary, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, Jewish Journal (California), Honest Reporting, Algemeiner, Mosaic, Tikvah, CIJR BESA, ISGAP, and sites from Rabbinic scholars. These are some of my favourite Rabbinic sites which send regular email offerings:

Rabbi Fohrman illustrates his teachings with animation, making it very palatable even for the youngest among us.

His weekly explanations regarding the Torah portion – parsha – of the week with special editions for family conversation

  • Rabbi David Etengoff – Parashat Hashavua  – brief weekly explications regarding the Torah portion in English

  • Hebrew College: Seventy Faces of Torah – Reform Judaism’s website with Torah commentary.

I am also subscribed to Netflix and Cable TV, which offer many US channels, including PBS, Fox, and CBS. I reserve these for evenings when my energy is low.

I also participate in regular Zoom classes, some local and some international. Mondays, Rabbi Poupko gives a weekly zoom class. The first half is about the weekly bible portion (the Parsha), and the second half is his take on the news in Montreal, Israel and the US. Tuesdays, there are Zoom classes offered by JMI (Jewish Music Institute in London). Fridays, I am a regular participant in a class with a rotating roster of local Rabbis. I also participate weekly in classes with my Israeli Yeshiva Group Shiviti.

Shabbat

But as Shabbat nears, Friday evening to Saturday night, I stop all of the electronic inputs. I enjoy my festive meals, attend synagogue (that meets all the pandemic protocols), visit a friend living alone after the service, and read books that I have had on my shelves for years but never managed to get to.

We all want to live in a well-informed society. But today, there’s considerably more of it out there than we can ever absorb. I try to diversify my media diet to inform me in what’s truly going on out there. Still, in the end, I need to turn to someone like Rabbi Sacks to articulate the values that will keep me grounded, as he illustrates in this white-board animation, which puts it all into perspective, explaining how science and religion necessarily need to work together.

 

 

To Honour One’s Parents

“Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother!” ~ The Fifth Commandment

Our first teachers are always our parents.

My teacher, Yehudis Golshevsky, recently gave a talk on this commandment on the occasion of the first anniversary – the yahrtzeit – of her father’s passing. It is traditional mourning practice among Jews to get together with family and friends to remember and recall parents every year on the anniversary of their passing to the next world, to share reminiscences about them along with words of Torah.

Apparently, the Rabbis of the Talmud claim that the fifth commandment is the most difficult to fulfill. They say this is because all of us necessarily have “complicated relationships” with our biological parents. And these “complications” may take a lifetime and even beyond to process.

If you want to understand this, you have only to read this article about Andre Taylor, the former pimp who was recently named Seattle’s Street Czar by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Taylor does not shy away from his past and, in fact, has openly spoken about it most of his life.

“God brought me from the gutter; my mother was a prostitute; my dad was a pimp. I was born from the womb of a prostitute by the seed of a pimp. But the context is this is my mother and father, and regardless of how society has seen them, there was no way I could see them in that light… they hugged me, they loved me, and they cared for me and even though society says this is the scum of the earth this was not my reality.”

Rebbetzin Golshevsky shares that the sages of the Talmud identify this mitzvah – kibbud av v’eim – as being the most difficult to fulfill properly: After all, we are all born, without our consent, into a specific genetic and historical process. It is quite common to wish that we had had”different parents” or been born into a different time.
In a later halachic work, the Chayei Adam, explains that the reason honoring one’s parents is so difficult is because the root of it is in our minds, and our attitudes, and that is very deep work. Ibn Ezra, a medieval scholar regarding the same issue points out that our feelings towards our parents can continue even into adulthood, to be very powerful, even obsessive, and this can easily obscure the debt we nevertheless owe to our biological parents: If they had not given birth to us, we would not be here. It takes a long time for most of us to achieve this insight and pay them the respect and care they deserve.

Rebbetzin Golshevsky shares her own and her father’s evolving process in the video below with her family and students. She describes how both she and her father went through enormous changes as they evolved together. Her talk begins at 7:14 minutes.

As he was dying, Rebbetzin Golshevsky’s father requested that certain songs be played at his yahrtzeit. Little did he know that his yahrtzeit would take place on Zoom, in the midst of a pandemic, and that his dear friend Michael would be able to play his favourite songs on the piano from his home in Jerusalem, – Autumn Leaves by Gershwin and You don’t know Me by Ray Charles. The musical part begins at 45:14 min.

 

In this pandemic year, my family has also commemorated on zoom the yahrtzeits of my dear mother, Esther Edith (Z’l) and my dear father, Eliezer Leslie (Z’l), who are both pictured below. It’s a wonderful way to bring them back to life in their full glory for all of us here and now, and especially for the next generation who get a glimpse of those who came before. As my dear Mother would look over her family gathered around the Passover seder table, before her passing on, at close to ninety-nine years of age, finally giving herself the acknowledgement she deserved, she was fond of saying with a laugh, “If not for me, none of you would be here!”.

Esther Edith and Eliezer Leslie

 

Yom Kippur: The Day of At-One-Ment

This evening will mark the beginning of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur or Yom Hakipurrim translates as The Day of Atonement.  But “atonement” is one concept that nobody understands, least of all me. We talk about reviewing our behaviour, acknowledging our sins, and being judged by the Holy One, the One and only G-d of Abraham. He or She Who has many names and many attributes but is invisible to human sight.

How does this work?

There are five behaviours that one should refrain from on this day.

  • No eating and drinking
  • No wearing of leather shoes
  • No bathing or washing
  • No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
  • No marital relations

How do we understand these avoidances?

Withdrawal from our usual human pursuits of eating and drinking and relating to others encourages our sincerity to G-d – naked and alone.

But how does not wearing leather shoe fit-in?

According to the Talmudic sources, the creation of leather shoes signifies man’s dominion over the animals. On this day, we want to acknowledge G-d’s sovereignty over all, including ourselves.

And what are we asked to do?

To go to the synagogue and commune with G-d and the community through our prayers alone. Our prayers are formulated in the plural “we.” We confess our sins as a collective, but G-d forgives us individually. And that forgiveness is precious and joyful.

And in this way, a fearful and solemn day becomes a festive day, because He/She is a forgiving G-d – a compassionate G-d, slow to anger, and quick to forgive. This is the  “forgiveness” that creates the “at-one-ment” between man and G-d towards the end of the day. “Teshuva” is Hebrew for return – the return to G-d is our yearly birthright following the sincere acknowledgement of our sins and request for forgiveness. This is how “atonementt/at-one-ment” occurs.

Yom Kippur follows the template of the First Day of G-d’s forgiveness. The Day the Israelites in the desert received forgiveness from G-d for the sin of having created the golden calf and worshiping it during the period when Moses had gone up the mountain to bring down the Heavenly Torah.

“The Lord said to Moses: I have seen these people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger may burn against them and consume them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

So Moses returned to the LORD and said:

“Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made gods of gold for themselves. Yet now, if You would only forgive their sin. But if not, please blot me out of the book that You have written.” (Souce: biblehub.com)

And so began the first real-life process of sin and reconciliation between G-d and the Children of Israel. Yes, they had sinned, but they would ultimately be reconciled and forgiven. That day of forgiveness is the day, forty days later, when Moses came down the mountain for the second time when G-d accepted the People’s contrition and Moses presented the second set of Tablets, the Jewish contract with G-d. That is the template for the Day of Yom Kippur.

It is the template of forgiveness and reconciliation with G-d after serious misbehaviour. Although it is a day of fasting, it is also a day of joy and reconciliation, and going into the future renewed and refreshed.

How does this happen?

This morning I discovered a fantastic video that explains the psychological dynamics of “forgiveness” and how it is the ultimate tool in reconciliation.

Rabbi Manis Friedman explains that there are two kinds of forgiveness. When someone has hurt you by their behaviour, you want to forgive them because you don’t want to carry around the hurt and the pain, but you are not the same as before, and you don’t want to have anything to do with the person who hurt you. This is the first kind of “natural forgiveness,” which most people profess to.

But if the person who hurt you acknowledges his wrongdoing and beseeches your forgiveness and reconciliation, your heart may melt, and you may realize that the person is essential to you, and you do want them in your life. That is the second type of forgiveness, the forgiveness of reconciliation. Begin at 9:12 min – 20:28 min.

 

I found this very apropos to the current struggles of aboriginal communities and black communities wrestling with the history and ongoing presence of racism in our society, and how to deal with the “apologies.”

Are they apologies?

This second kind of apology, the sincere acknowledgement of past sin and vow to be different in the future, this is the path to justice, reconciliation, and a relationship of mutual acceptance that is stronger than before.

 

RBG: How Jewish Was She

Today is Friday before Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat that arrives during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the Shabbat that Rabbis traditionally give a sermon to their community. Since many will not be in synagogue this year, Rabbi Whitman, Rabbi Freundlich and Rabbi Poupko gave the sermons last night on zoom.

Following the sermon, I tuned in a live interview by Hilary Helstein of filmmaker Julie Cohen, producer of the documentary RBG, about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Ginsburg was appointed to the US Supreme Court by Clinton with a 97% approval rating by both house and senate. If you are interested in learning more about Ginsburg’s extraordinary career, you can rent or buy the full documentary on Youtube. A second film, “On the Basis of Sex” is a 2018 American biographical drama based on Ginsburg’s early life and cases.

The following morning, I read Melanie Philips’s recent post, RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior highlighting Ginsburg’s Jewish identity and how intertwined that is with her life. Melanie points out that the Guardian did mention her Jewish identity; however, the paper got it all wrong.

In the [ Guardian], Godfrey Hodgson wrote:

“Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17.” He also wrote: “[In 1993, President Bill] Clinton was anxious to make the supreme court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment.”

These statements produced astonishment among people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was threaded through her life and work.

Phillips further explains why non-Jews get so much about Jews and Israel wrong.

“This failure to understand the complexities of Judaism and Jewish identity also fuels hostility to Israel. Many non-Jews, assuming that Judaism is merely a religion, cannot understand why a faith group should be entitled to a state.

They have absolutely no awareness that the Jews are, in fact, a historical nation, bound by their own system of law and a common language, history, institutions and culture, and that they are the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever their national kingdom.”

After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to say that Ginsburg “moved away from strict religious observance after she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17. Indignant at that exclusion, she nevertheless remained deeply committed to her Jewish identity.”

The Clinton passage was also changed to say, “Ginsburg’s Jewish identity may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment to women’s equality before the law.”

What was that quintessential Jewish characteristic that any Jewish person could recognize in RBG?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied that unique Jewish characteristic that began with Abraham, sparring, even with G-d, when justice was the issue. 

“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!”

(Genesis 18:25)

This is how Abraham confronts G-d when he learns that G-d is planning to wipe out all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because the city is corrupt.

Justice and mercy are central to Jewish faith and central to the principal idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when all the world, every individual and every community, comes before the Supreme Judge – G-ds Gaze – to be judged with justice and mercy.

It was also this central awareness of seeking justice for all that characterized Justice Ginsburg’s life from the beginning of her career to the very end, both when she won and lost her cases. By expressing her mordant dissenting opinions, which then reverberated for relief and action in the wider society.

She presents a shining example of what it means to be a Supreme Court Justice in the United States – the final arbiter of justice according to the USA’s constitution and warns of how and why those who are elected to that position must be of the highest moral character.

Watching these movies would be excellent preparation for carrying out our responsibilities as citizens in the coming challenging months of electing a new Supreme Court Justice and making thoughtful choices as we elect our important democratic leaders.

This Yom Kippur may we all go on to glorious heights of justice and mercy together.