Spiritual Sustenance In Dark Times

Rabbi Israel Spira told of a dark, cold night at the Janowska Road Camp.

All were ordered to leave the barracks or be shot on the spot. The prisoners stampeded their way out the door towards an open field. With their last drop of energy, they realized where they were running. And breathless, they saw in front of them two pits.

A voice called out in the night: “Each of you miserable dogs who value your life must jump over the pit and land on the other side. All who fall into the pit will get what they deserve – ra-ta-ta-ra-ta-ta” as the guard imitated the sound of a machine gun.

Even at the best of times, it would have been hard to traverse one side of the pit for the other. But the men who stood there were skeletons, diseased and feverish from sleepless nights. They knew for the SS and the Ukrainian Guards, this, was just a game.

Rabbi Israel Spira stood there with his friend, a free-thinker from a Polish town. His friend said: “Spira, jumping over the pit, that’s impossible. Let’s just sit down and end our wretched lives now.”

Rabbi Spira responded: “My friend. Man must obey God. And if it was decreed that we should be here, that pits should be dug, and that we were to be ordered to jump, then, this must be the will of God. So, jump we must, and if we fall, we will reach the World of Truth a second later. So be it. We must jump.”

As the two neared the pit, they could see it was filled with bodies. As they reached the edge, the Rabbi closed his eyes and said in a powerful whisper: “We are jumping!”

And when they opened their eyes, they found themselves on the other side of the pit.

“Spira” cried his friend, “We are alive! We are alive! There is a God! Rebbe, how did you do it?”

Rabbi Spira replied “I was holding onto my ancestral merit, the coattails of my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather of blessed memory. Tell me my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?”

And his Polish companion answered: “I, I was holding onto you.”[i]

The Shoah, in our current generation, is surely remembered as the darkest time of Jewish recent history. But there have been many dark times in days of yore. Only two weeks ago we were commemorating Tisha B’Av, the catch-all day on the Jewish calendar of atrocity – the destruction of the first and second Temples, the beginning of the first Cruscade that killed 100,000 Jews, the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain, Pogroms, and so on and so on.

The book of Deuteronomy also recalls a dark time – a time when God tested us with hardships in the wilderness. And why? To teach us that human beings do not live by bread alone.[ii] Life is not just the physical time and physical space we find ourselves in. There is another realm of existence of equal importance. The level of the spiritual which provides a different sustenance to our being which allows us to endure.

Even five years ago, many Jews in America felt that they were living in blessed physical circumstances. Antisemitism seemed in many ways on the decline, a Jewish man was running to be the Democratic nominee, and Jews had “made it” in many parts of society. We were proud members of Country Clubs and had benefited from access to all kinds of education and professions. The antisemitic incident was considered the exception not the rule. We had become complacent and skeptical that anti-Jewish sentiment was a real threat to our lives in the American present.

Contrast five years ago with the news just this last week.

The reporters have highlighted the antisemitic views held by two freshman congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib, who see Israel as an apartheid state and support the Boycott  Divestment and Sanction movement.  And the media is still conversing on the flagrant antisemitic words expressed by President Trump: that Jews who vote democratic are disloyal to America.

As the historian of the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt, has so cogently argued in her new book Antisemitism: Here and Now, we should not be so myopic to think that antisemitism is to be found only on one side of the political spectrum. It has become clear to all of us, that we Jews are not living in a golden age in the golden medina. We know antisemitism when we see it. We know antisemitism when we feel it. And it is now.

So how are we to deal with this modern reality were antisemitism is once more, not in faraway places like the Middle East or Paris, but here, in America, where we reside?

I found Deborah Lipstadt’s book very helpful in molding my thinking on this. She contends that Antisemitism is not a rational concept. The idea that Jews killed Jesus, when they had not power to do so under Roman rule; or that Jews control the banks and the media; or can be identified by physical traits alone; or have a secret cabal that runs the world, are irrational ideas. It has nothing to do with any action Jews have taken. Irrational ideas cannot be argued against on a rational level.

Not so long ago we witnessed extremists in Charlottesville who shouted: “Jews shall not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” brought together through the hate and vitriol of preconceived ideas promoted by social media.

We are now hearing about the increase of white nationalists, usurping identities of well-known Jews, and using their impersonations to create a narrative with the intent of increasing antisemitism and to bolster their own understandings.

We have all met individuals tone-deaf to their own tropes. Remember that moment in the film Gentleman’s Agreement , when David Green’s young son came home from school, crying because he had been called “a stinking Jew” and Dorothy McGuire hugs him and says “Darling! It’s not true! You’re no more Jewish than I am. It’s just a horrible mistake!” She could not hear her demeaning nuance.

And we are seeing now, here in America, but also elsewhere in the world, antisemitism used for political purposes and ends. We are reading and watching those with a predilection to supporting the underdog, consistently painting Jews as the oppressors. And at the dinner table, we will hear someone who believes that they are complimenting, when they say that they invested with a specific stockbroker because they are a Jew, and he will know how to make money. They are unaware of their own bigotry.

Our cogent arguments reach deaf ears of these antisemites. The antisemite will find their own rationale, and choose to believe fictitious facts, that support their belief even if truth is to the contrary.

One does not live by bread alone. The circumstances are as dark as a wilderness at night. But there is more to our Jewish existence than negativity. Where, and how, do we find that spiritual sustenance that will sustain us?

A tale is told of Louis Brandeis when he was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were closed to Jewish attorneys.

When Louis Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say “Brandeis, you’re brilliant! If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up at the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all your problems would be solved!”

Louis Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but in his official introduction to an exclusive Honor Society at the Law School, he took the podium and announced: “I am sorry I was born a Jew…”

His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts and cheers! And when the noise died down, he continued: “I am sorry I was born a Jew, but only because, I wish I had the privilege of choosing to be Jewish on my own.”[iii]

The initial response was stunned silence, slowly giving away to awed applause. Ultimately, his antisemitic peers gave him a standing ovation.

Being Jewish means that we realize that Judaism provides our lives with something more than exposure in time and space to bigotry. We, wandering the wilderness do not live by bread alone. In this dark time, we must choose not to wallow in pity or be scared – but to embrace our identity, be proud of it, and defend it, for within it is spiritual sustenance.

Here are some of the things we can do.

We must call out antisemitism when we see it or feel it. Whether we are on the political right or political left, we must ensure that our voices are at the table speaking up and naming, what we experience as Jews.

We must speak the truth to our friends, sharing how the offhanded remark or joke makes us feel, and how it is interpreted in our heart-of-hearts, so they become more aware of their own bias blindness.

We must recognize that in America today we as Jews have many allies and friends. People like the Churches in this Interfaith Center, who strive to create a world filled with understanding. Folk who seek to right the wrongs of bigotry against Jews in times past and in moments present.

We must celebrate all that is wonderful in Judaism – our food, our stories, our culture, our history, our music, our religious holidays – and share the Jew positive with ourselves, our friends and the next generations.

We ultimately need to know, that Judaism, culturally and spiritual, is a sustenance that brings a deliciousness to our lives that we cannot live without.

Like Rabbi Spira, who jumped over a pit we must feel a connection to our ancestors. They survived many dark times. We have survived because of their merit and their grit. We are Jews because of them. We hang on to their coattails.

And in the moments, we feel distance from our ancestors, we hold onto each other, and in this dark moment of history, pull each other across the negative divide.


[i] Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, NY: Vintage Books , 1982 “Hovering Above the Pit” pp. 3-4

[ii] Deuteronomy 8:3

[iii] Reference needed – found in a previous sermon

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