2015-12-23 / Religion Column

Taking risks, fulfilling my name, and making Torah whole

Temple Emanuel

Parashat Sh’mot Ex. 1:1-6:1

I have a deep personal connection to our Torah portion, Sh’mot, the beginning chapters of Exodus. Sh’mot was my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion; it was my son’s (Rabbi Ben David) Bar Mitzvah portion, and it reflects the story of our family, and so many families who are children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

Another connection…

In my study at Temple Emanuel, hangs a framed, sacred fragment of Torah. This piece of Torah is crumpled, torn and slightly singed, but intact enough to identify it as verses from Exodus, Chapter 1.

My Torah fragment has a powerful story to tell. It goes back to Nov. 9, 1938, in Worms, Germany. On the night of Nov. 9, Kristallnacht, the Torahs of that historic synagogue were ripped into shreds, the Holy Ark smashed, the beautiful stained glass windows shattered, and the synagogue set on fire. On the next morning, the president of that synagogue returned to witness the desecration and devastation of his beloved shul, but first had to walk past SS guards who were “protecting” the synagogue. In his utter shock, disbelief and sorrow he reached down and picked up just one piece of Torah, of the hundreds of scraps that covered the sanctuary floor. He carefully tucked the Torah remnant into his pocket as an eternal memory of the hatred unleashed that night and with the resolve to leave that place and never return.

Opa Kiefer, as he was called by everyone, is a member of my wife Peggy’s family, and in time his daughter entrusted the fragment to me, to safeguard, share and to tell its story of survival. He did not know that, that one piece randomly rescued, relates the story of our people in Egypt and foreshadows the Holocaust.

Over the years, that Torah fragment was speaking to me and crying to me.

You have to go back;

Retrace the steps of your mother and father;

And on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9.

Should I play it safe and walk away or go to Germany. I was convinced that I wouldn’t like it…the place…the people… it was the home my parents were forced to flee…it was the death place of my relatives, and yet I was drawn because I was searching for something. I walked on in…with Peggy by my side.

On Nov. 9, 2013 we toured Berlin on our own. Everything seemed so familiar, as if I had walked those streets before, and then we came upon it. Actually, we stumbled into it, a brass plated cobblestone embedded into the sidewalk with white roses and Yahrzeit candle by its side. The inscription read “Hier wohnte” (here lived), Julius Mansbach, born 1905, deported in 1943, murdered in Auschwitz. It was then that I realized why I came and what I was seeking…to make the Torah whole again. To claim, fulfill and complete my name.

I began as a reluctant traveler and I ended up connecting with my name, with names…Sh’mot…and feeling that it is our duty to go back.

So here is the question. What have you been meaning to do? With all of the messiness and busy-ness and craziness that life has thrown you, what has been lost or skipped or postponed indefinitely.

In the words of NY Times journalist Dennis Covington, “Either you walk into a new experience or you turn away from it, but you know that no matter what you choose, you will have altered your life.”

The journey into my past altered my life in a very positive way. .

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