2014-04-16 / Religion Column

Opening ourselves to ‘Avodah,’ service to God

Temple Emanuel

Sixty-nine years ago, on May 8, 1945 it was a time for euphoria. The war was over! The allies accepted Germany’s surrender, about a week after Adolf Hitler had committed suicide. Families that had been separated, families that had been living in constant fear, were finally united—most of them—surely not all of them. It was time for thanksgiving; the slaughter had ended. But before that indescribably cruel war came to an end, a new word entered the vocabulary of inhumanity. The word: Shoah: Holocaust.

Sixty-nine years ago, we Jews were totally powerless. As one historian has noted, “We didn’t have the political clout to get the President to let our brothers and sisters in; we didn’t have the influence to get the President to bomb the railroads; we were helpless, vulnerable and weak (a role which the world has always been more comfortable with) but we were not without hope—Tikvah—of a better tomorrow. And in Judaism that hope was protected, nurtured and sustained by Avodah, which means worship or service to God.

Let me tell you two stories about Avodah, both of them true. The first story emerges from the Shoah. I heard Elie Wiesel tell the first story several years ago. I was shaken by it; it deepened my understanding of the relationship of the Jew to Avodah.

The scene set by Wiesel; one of the barracks of Auschwitz. The time: Simchat Torah, the festival of rejoicing in the Torah. We celebrate Simchat Torah by taking the Torah scrolls out of the ark, and we parade around with them, singing and dancing, while the children wave their flags.

Here are the words of Elie Wiesel:

“In one of the barracks, several Jews gathered to celebrate Simchat Torah. In the shadow of shadows? Yes, even there. On the threshold of the death chambers? But there was no Torah scroll. So how could they organize Hakafot (the traditional procession with the sacred scrolls)? As they were trying to solve the problem, an old man—and here I remember that Elie Wiesel looked up at us and whispered, “Old? The word had no meaning in Auschwitz”—an old man noticed a young boy standing and watching. The old man asked him: “Do you remember what you learned?” “Yes I do,” the boy answered. “Really,” asked the old man: “Do you remember Shma Yisrael?” “I remember Shma Yisrael and a lot more,” the boy answered.

“Wonderful,” the old man shouted. And he lifted the boy from the ground and began dancing with him, as though he were the Torah. And all the people in the barracks joined in; they all sang and danced and cried. They cried, but they sang with fervor. Never before—Elie Wiesel concluded his story—never before had Jews celebrated Simchat Torah with such fervor.

The second story is personal. I can remember that as a young child I asked my mother: “Why don’t I have grandparents?” Why did the Germans kill them? Where are they buried? Then where are they?” These are heavy questions for a child to ask. And my parents were reluctant to give answers—so I went searching on my own.

It was probably then that I decided that I had to encourage my parents to join a synagogue, so that we could begin a Jewish journey, together as a family, and it worked. The good news is…Your journey can begin or continue at anytime. Don’t be ashamed of your most basic questions.

So how do you start? You start! Begin to claim your gift. One of the modern Jewish philosophers, Emil Fackenheim, a survivor of the Holocaust, has written that we Jews have 11 commandments, not just the 10 that were given at Sinai. And the 11th commandment is, “Thou shalt not grant a posthumous victory to Hitler.”

Hitler believed that if you rip up Torahs, burn synagogues, and kill as many Jews as possible, then you destroy Judaism, that you extinguish the Jewish light forever. And you know, he was wrong.

Let us resolve to open ourselves to Avodah, service to God, so that we may survive, so that Judaism may survive— eternally. .

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