© Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff
The gift of prophesy is a gift rarely given. Even in the time of he Bible, true prophets were few and far between. We have the records of 15 over a period of five centuries. So if we have been graced with hearing a prophetic voice in our lives, we need to be aware of how privileged we have been.
A prophetic voice is one that can never be stilled, even after the prophet has left this world. Which is the one glimmer of comfort we can share knowing that Elie Wiesel, the prophet of our time, is no longer physically with us.
On this night of vows, we note that Wiesel too made a vow, a vow to the memory of the victims. With his deep moral pathos, his great literary talents, and, even more, his civil courage, Wiesel made keeping the memory of the Shoah a shared obligation that permeated even the most distant regions of our country.
One of my most precious possessions is a statue of an eagle, given to me by the commander of Ft. Stewart Army Base in Georgia. It is a token of their appreciation for my leading the Holocaust Memorial service there. It was one of the more remarkable experiences of my life, leading a Yom Hashoah commemoration before an audience of 300, of whom 5 were Jews. Young soldiers, white, black and latino soldiers- many from the south, many never having met a Jew. Having them tell me how they were inspired by the memory of the Shoah to fight for human freedom is something I consider one of the high points of my career.
None of that would have happened if not for the way Wiesel, zecher tzaddik livracha, brought Holocaust awareness to the entire American community.
By keeping his vow, Wiesel changed the world, or, at least, made it possible for the world to change.
What exactly did he do? Keeping it simple, he embodied a classic teaching of our people: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for my self, what am I? And if not now, when?”
I see so many of you nodding in recognition, finishing the sentence before I do. That’s really wonderful, that so many of us know that ancient mishnah by heart.
My purpose tonight, though, is to encourage us to take this mishnah to heart. Because this mishnah is crucial. And each component is crucial. They all matter, and they are all interrelated. No part of the mishnah can be fulfilled unless all are fulfilled.
So let’s start at the beginning, because, as I’ll show, it really has to be the beginning: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
As many of you know, each summer I participate in a rabbinic retreat in North Carolina. This year, I was asked to join a panel discussion on the failures of liberal Judaism. The premier failure, I said, is that we have failed to instill in ourselves and our children an unshakeable sense of the legitimacy of Jewish self- interest. Oddly, in fact perversely, we feel squeamish, even embarrassed, about being concerned specifically for Jews. “So parochial. So exclusionary. So clannish.”
An example: The last beracha of the Amidah is the paragraph Sim Shalom. “Make peace…” It is a wish so heartfelt, so indicative of what prayer is about, that the Conservative movement gave that name to the very prayerbook we use. But if you examine the prayer carefully, and compare it with the traditional version, you’ll see that a change has been made. The original says “make peace, goodness, and blessing, grace, mercy and compassion on us and on all your people Israel.” It is a prayer that is meant to focus us on the condition of the Jewish people who, so often in our history, were in desperate need of precisely that mercy and compassion. But the modern version in our prayerbook now reads, “make peace in the world, goodness, and blessing, grace, mercy and compassion on us and on all your people Israel.”
As if it is somehow inappropriate just to pray for us and our people, the Jewish people. We, who have been singled out so many times, we who, historically, have been more desperate for peace than any other people on the planet, we suddenly aren’t allowed to just express our own concerns and our own identity.
As if the world comes first, instead of ourselves. From a logical point of view, an utterly incomprehensible set of priorities. This was writ large at the funeral of Shimon Peres, may his memory be a blessing, where his children, in reciting the kaddish, concluded “May G-d who makes peace in his heaven make peace on us and on Israel” and then added, in what has become common Reform fashion, “and on all the world’s inhabitants.” A beautiful sentiment, to be sure. But in context utterly absurd, and profoundly self-defeating. In light of the fact that the essential road block to peace in the Middle East is precisely the refusal- by the world in general and by the Palestinians in particular- to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, in light of this, what better time could there be to declare in no uncertain terms, in the presence of representatives of most of the world and the Palestinian Authority, that peace for Israel, specifically for the Jewish state of Israel, matters?
Instead, the universalism of the prayer implies that we’re all one big happy family. And if so, why in the world would we need yet another ethno-national state, this time specifically for Jews?
Of course, only Jews are thought of this way, and only Jews think this way. The legitimacy of an ethno-national state for Palestinians is universally unquestioned. For Jews, not so much.
Yes, the mishnah warns us that “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Narcissism is rarely if ever a virtue. But the mishnah presupposes that we, at the very least, are for ourselves, are supposed to be for ourselves, and are proudly and unselfconsciously prepared to say so.
Even worse still, putting the world first instead of ourselves cheapens and makes more shallow our understanding of, and sympathy for, the world’s suffering. If, instead, we start with ourselves, and drink the bitter cup of our suffering through the ages, as Wiesel did, we will only be strengthened in our ability to help the world.
Listen to Wiesel talk about the vulnerability of the human race in the modern era:
“The Jew tells mankind: You did not want us to be Jewish [. You did not want Jews to exist. And by inventing the tools for our annihilation, you became as vulnerable as the] Jewish [people] yourself….The trouble is, we think too much about others; we are too concerned with our ‘image,’ with the way ’others’ would judge our suffering. I could not care less [(Wiesel continues)] how the world judges our suffering or whether by being ‘exclusive’ it might…provoke resentment. Our experience was not exclusive; it was unique. And I could not care less whether these claims on our part do or do not create bitterness. Listen to such chutzpah: first they made us suffer, and now they resent it when we acknowledge the suffering as ours. Must we forget what they have done simply to please them?…[Wiesel continued]
Of course, chronologically, Hiroshima follows Auschwitz…Whether we want it or not, the Holocaust affected all subsequent events…. If mankind is to be destroyed, it will be a result of Auschwitz. If there is a lesson to be found in Auschwitz, it is for the world to learn, not for us. We are still engaged in telling the tale. The world should learn its own lesson on its own level for its own good, namely: when people do things of this nature to Jews, tomorrow they will do them to themselves. This, perhaps, may be our mission to the world: we are to save it from self-destruction.” (from, “On Jewish Values in the Post-Holocaust Future”)
Would that we all followed Wiesel’s wisdom! Defend Jews to defend the world! Unfortunately, examples of the peculiar Jewish predilection to always see the other side before we see our own are too numerous to count. For sake of illustration, I’d like to mention three examples. The first we saw a few months ago, when Bernie Sanders appointed three anti-Israel and some would say anti-Semitic figures to the platform committee of the Democratic party. Luckily their opinions were rejected. In fact, I would venture a guess that this was the only area where Hillary did not budge. But I can say without fear of contradiction that only a Jewish candidate would consider doing what Sanders did.
Similar, but far more tragic, is the story of Rosa Luxembourg. Rosa Luxembourg was a classic European radical, eventually murdered by German paramilitary thugs. Once, while in prison, she was asked her opinion on that which was then quaintly called, “the Jewish problem.” Her response was classic, and exemplary. She noted her concern for African tribesman and for Chinese nationals. For the Jewish problem, on the other hand, “she had no time.”
The tragic irony, of course, is that 30 years later there were still lots of African tribesman, and even more Chinese people. But all the Jews of Luxembourg’s home town of Zamosc, along with 6 million other Jews, had been exterminated.
This is not to say that the fate of African and Chinese people is irrelevant, or in any way trivial. But considering the position of Jews in Europe early in the 20th century, even without the benefit of hindsight, emphasizing the fate of others before the fate of Jews was most certainly misplaced.
The third example is the most current. The Black Lives Movement recently voted for a proposition declaring us all to be accessories to genocide, calling for a complete boycott, military and otherwise, of Israel, and the eventual destruction of the Jewish State.
Question: how many Jews are still prepared to support the Black Lives Movement? Not the proposition that black lives matter, mind you. I would hope that every single one of us does that. If you don’t, you’ve definitely got work to do today. But supporting a movement that has declared that black lives matter but six million Jewish lives in Israel do not? Not a chance, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining. When someone calls me representing the Black Lives Movement, my answer is “not a dime and out of time.” But there are those of my colleagues who, in a supposedly daring display of universalism gone wild, will remain supportive of the movement because “we have to be better than that.”
On this holy day of Yom Kippur, I say to you: No we don’t.
Even more, we shouldn’t. Such knee-jerk universalism should never be our first consideration, and that for two reasons. First, however important the rights of others are, we cannot fight for the rights of others if we aren’t here. And if we don’t fight for our right to be here, history teaches us, we won’t be here.
The second reason we have to put ourselves first is deeper, and less pragmatic. It has to do with love and loyalty. Imagine, if you will, being on a sinking ship. You quickly seek life jackets for your children. Suddenly, someone says, “Wait a minute. There are lots of children on this ship. Why are you privileging these children in particular?”
This would be idiocy on two levels. First of all, only an idiot gets philosophical when a ship is sinking. Let’s talk about it in the lifeboat, you know what I mean? More important, though, is that his very objection is idiotic. Family is family. The word itself implies loyalties that transcend virtually every other consideration. You save your children because they are your children. Period. They are yours. They are a part of you. Your fate is intimately intertwined with theirs.
Well, the Jewish people are a family. They are your people, they are a part of you. Your fate is intertwined with theirs. Kol yisrael arevim ze ba zeh.
Elie Wiesel did not win the Nobel Peace Prize by running away from his people and indulging in abstract universalism caring about everybody on the planet except Jews.
To the contrary. It was precisely through his eloquent defense of specifically Jewish interests that he gained the moral legitimacy to speak out about all the other suffering in the world.
And we certainly must be concerned about the nearly endless suffering in the world, any concerns about inappropriate universalism notwithstanding. It is to that topic I now turn
“But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Of course Wiesel was on the forefront of the fight for Soviet Jewry, and in defense of Israel. But it is absolutely no coincidence that he was on the forefront of those who fought for the protection of innocents in Rwanda, and Bosnia, and Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, and Argentina’s “Disappeared,” and Cambodian refugees, and Kurds, and victims of famine and genocide in Africa, and apartheid in South Africa. And late in his life, incredibly, he expressed regrets that he had not done enough for the Palestinians. Precisely because he knew in his bones the depth of our suffering, his quiet voice thundered with moral authority when he would begin his condemnation of contemporary oppression and genocide with the most powerful words any of us can ever say–“As a Jew…”.
Wiesel had no patience at all for those who were prepared to turn their back on the world and be concerned only with Jewish matters. There was, of course, a practical consideration, indeed, self-interest: how could we ever imagine that the world would come to our aid, if we were not prepared to come to the aid of others? It is inconceivable that we could turn a deaf ear to the anguish of those contemptuously referred to as “the goyim” and then expect “the goyim” to come rushing to our aid just because it is the right thing to do.
And, that, yet again, points to a deeper moral concern than the merely pragmatic bargain–if we help them, they will, or might, help us. To be fully human, we must care about others, no matter what others will or won’t do. Callous indifference doesn’t just risk all our lives—Jew and non-Jew alike. It strips all of us of human dignity.
We must act. “And if not now, when?”
I am not speaking in the abstract. The questions I am raising tonight are not theoretical. There are serious issues in the world which demand a robust response. NOW.
Putting ourselves first, as we must, you’ve got open anti-Semitism to the left and to the right. You’ve got the Black Lives movement, as I mentioned. You’ve got attacks by Islamist fanatics and neo-Nazis. You’ve got governments, unions, schools, voting to boycott Israel. I already mentioned the anti-Israel people on the Democratic platform committee, and now I’ll mention the anti-Semitism among Trump supporters so rampant that the Trump campaign had to shut down their web discussion.
And in the world at large, you’ve got Islamic terrorists who think that raping children is a virtue. You’ve got inhuman sectarian dictatorships that won’t think twice about murdering or starving millions of people to death. You’ve got callous disregard for environmental disaster (think kids drinking lead in Flint). For heaven’s sake, you’ve got 20 million honest to G-d slaves in the world.
Some of this, that which is closest to us, we often choose to ignore. The rest, we don’t ignore; we just say nonchalantly that it doesn’t concern us at all. Which is precisely why we have to choose to engage. We have to fulfill our vows. And none is more important than the vow that Elie Wiesel made, and that only we, now, can fulfill.
Which brings us back to Kol Nidrei, all our vows. This is our yearly ritual which lets us off the hook. We acknowledge our failures in the year past, but before a merciful G-d declare that we nevertheless are allowed to pray for forgiveness and move on.
But that should not alleviate our sense of urgency. Not at all.
Reb Levi Yitchak of Berdichev was one of our greatest daveners. He knew how to speak to G-d from the heart better than almost anyone. And each year, he would stand before the open ark on Yom Kippur and declare: This year, I’m going to be a good person. Now, last year, I said I would be a good person. But then I was lying. Now I am telling the truth.”
Last year we said we were concerned. We all knew: “If I am not for myself…” and so on and so forth. Implicitly or explicitly, it was a principle intended to guide our conscience and our consciousness in the year past.
But it didn’t. Last year we were lying. We were not for ourselves, except in the most selfish individual sense. We were not for the Jewish people. We were not for the world, either. We had no sense of urgency, no sense of immediacy, no passion to respond to the massive challenges with which the world confronts us.
And besides, we had giants like Wiesel to face those challenges for us. We could read with pride his support for the weak, his condemnation of the brutal and the cruel, his challenges to kings and presidents alike, we could read all that and imagine to ourselves that since we were so well and eloquently represented, our work was done.
Well, it wasn’t true then, and it is certainly not true now.
We have a vow to make tonight, an unshakable vow that Eli Wiesel’s legacy must live on, that we will take our place in the struggle to defend the Jewish people, to build on that experience to humanize the world, and to do it now.
Next year, as usual, there will once again be many broken vows for which we must seek forbearance and forgiveness.
Please, G-d, let this vow not be one of them.
Ken yehi ratzon, amen.