לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך …. (Gen. 12:1)
Go forth, from your land, your birth-place, from the house of your parents!
At the start of Lech L’cha, the third Torah portion of our yearly cycle, Avram is commanded to sever his connection to his homeland, to suddenly shift his entire consciousness towards an entirely new and unknown place. No easy task, but one we understand as divinely crafted and one that will be filled with reward. It is God who makes this command, who calls out to Avram promising to shower him and his progeny with blessing, promising in time to settle his people permanently in the Land of Canaan, a place we are later informed will be flowing with milk and honey.
Eighty-four years ago, our ancestors who lived in Germany, were told to lech l’cha. They, too, were abruptly commanded to leave their homeland. With no warning, they were told to pack up and go – ejected from the very place they called, knew, and felt home.
Here, however, no God was present in this command to leave.
There was no blessing here.
In stark contrast to our biblical story of chosen-ness and the well-known refrain “you shall be a blessing” (thank you Debbie Friedman, z”l), this tragic lech l’cha was a thoroughly human invention crafted by fear, hatred, and greed for power. Fear, hatred, and greed that would ultimately lead to utter and senseless destruction on the evening of November 9, 1938, an evening we remember as Kritallnacht.
Kristallnacht, which we will mark this Wednesday evening, marks according to most historians, the beginning of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Certainly, Jewish persecution was routine for Jews living in Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century, particularly following WWI, but Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, marked a significant and painful transition from social, political, and even economic persecution to direct physical harm. Jews were told to leave, and those who didn’t were, without exaggeration, in mortal danger.
Painful questions arise out of the ashes and the trauma of the Shoah:“where was God?” Why couldn’t have God been with the Jews of 20th century Europe in the way that Torah imagines God with Abram? Where was the “and you shall be a blessing” in WWII? Why didn’t God point us then to a place of refuge, a tangible promised land?
Such questions are, of course, unanswerable. I would argue, unfair even. The tragedy of this horrific episode in history wasn’t the absence of God. The tragedy was the absence of humanity! The failure was entirely human, it was of our own making. We can challenge ourselves, our own humanity, not only by remembering but by allowing the memory of this violent episode (and all that followed) to propel us towards acting in the world in a way which works to prevent such history from repeating itself. We must strive to learn from our past, pay attention to our present, and engage in our future. Our Reform theology reminds us that goodness – that Godliness – cannot reign if we don’t work to nurture and maintain it. On Tuesday, the day before the anniversary of Kristallnacht this year, we have an important opportunity to do just that. Please (please!) – lech l’cha – get yourself up and go vote! Each and every one of our voices matter. History demands that we not take our opportunity to share our voice, to cast our vote, for granted.
The editors of the Reform Movement’s historic Union Prayer Book – the first siddur written specifically for the Reform synagogue – argue that the path to knowing God involves justice motivated action. In an English reading that leads into the Shema, they quote a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Halevi that reflects on the transcendence and unknowability of God. Then in the same breath, they add a passage that will ring familiar to us as an excerpt of it remains even in our most recent siddur, Mishkan Tefila. If you’ll bear with the language, allow me to share the original:
When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow down to the vision of Thy goodness? Thou livest within our hearts, Thou pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Thy presence.” (p. 39 UPB)
How do we find God? By giving, by doing, by working towards justice.
Our Reform siddur editors remind us at the moment before we declare the Shema, that watch ward of faith, that Godliness in us and in our world depends fully on the actions we take in this world. It is a mutual partnership. God enters the world only by our striving to make sure that atrocities such as Kristallnacht never happen again not only to our own and to all communities in our world.
Lech l’cha –the confluence of the anniversary of when our own were stripped of our rights and election day, a day in our country when we can activate our right, reminds us of our responsibility. Lech l’cha – it is incumbent upon us to go forth and vote next week.
In memory of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, let us reflect on the following, a poem written by my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl, who along with his immediate family was among those fortunate enough to be able to get out and have a place to go at the dawn of the Shoah.
scars remain on aging skin,
scars too on minds, faint memories.
was nothing sacred?
burning scrolls and shattered glass
synagogues engulfed in flame
the eyes that saw that night
will not forget
the hate filled faces,
the impotence of former friends,
collusion of the law’s enforcers,
the roundup of the innocents,
prelude to disaster.
not even intimacy transmits the memory of those who were not there.
where once an open would aroused our curiosity
the scar, at best, evokes an eyebrow raised.
was this for real?
for those of us who live in history this night remains
the capstone of our memories,
‘tis more than stone that shatters glass –
for us amnesia pulverizes what is left.
the scars remain on aging skin.
Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl
Rhoda H. Harrison
Rhoda J. Harrison was ordained as Cantor in 1993 by the Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion after studying at both the Jerusalem and New York campuses, and she holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies with concentrations in Liturgy, Biblical Hebrew, and History from The Baltimore Hebrew University (now The Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University).
She was ordained as Rabbi in 2008 while finishing her doctoral dissertation. She has trained and continues to work as a Chaplain and holds a certificate in Gerontology & Palliative Care from Wurzweiller School of Social Work at Yeshiva University.
Cantor/Rabbi Harrison, Ph.D. currently serves as Cantor of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, NJ. She moved to the area in 2018 to serve as Cantor of M’kor Shalom and stayed with the congregation through the first year of its merger into Congregation Kol Ami. Before moving to the area in 2018, she served the Reform community in Baltimore, MD for 25 years as Cantor and Rabbi where she also raised her two, now launched, daughters.
You can email Cantor/Rabbi Rhoda J Harrison, Ph.D. @: firstname.lastname@example.org