A Righteous Person – Ekev 2017

Posted on August 14, 2017

Talia shared beautifully in her dvar Torah this morning her interest in the Holocaust. It is something that she and I have in common. I also took an interest in this subject at a rather young age. As a child, I was taught that the atrocities of the Holocaust were a thing of the past, they would not—they could not–be replicated in “modern” times. It was something that my generation needed to hear in order to feel safe. As I got older the words “never again” changed in meaning from a promise that parents and teachers asserted for us to a declaration of commitment to actively work to eviscerate tyranny, hatred and genocide from our world.

The past year has tried my understanding of humankind. Anxiety and fear have become normal routine. Tensions are high. In America. In Europe. Throughout the world. For the first time in my life I can understand how a variety of factors came together to ignite and sustain the second World War. I can picture a future that quickly descends into a dark period of human history.

I share these sentiments to acknowledge the tensions, concerns and realities that consume much of our thoughts. The backdrop of current events always shapes our experiences, and certainly affects the way in which we read and interpret Torah. With all of this—and so much more—in mind, we turn to the weekly reading from the Torah.

Our yearly cycle of Torah reading finds us at Parshat Ekev in the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy literally means second telling. While there is plenty of new material within the Book, there is also a lot of recounting of familiar tales. This week we encouter the recollection of the incident of the Golden Calf. A short summary—while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving Torah from God the Israelites were concerned by his absence. Fearing Moses would not return, they convinced Aaron to construct an idol for them, which takes the shape of a Golden Calf. Seeing this on his descent from Sinai, Moses throws down the tablets that he was carrying, shattering them beyond repair.

In Deuteronomy’s retelling of this narrative, the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother, is recalled immediately after this incident. Now, Aaron died 40 years after the Golden Calf. A traditional understanding of the mention of his death in conjunction with The Golden Calf teaches that although he was spared at the time, he did not escape punishment for his role in Israel’s idolatry. Like Moses he died in the wilderness, never reaching the Promised Land.

But there’s a 17th century commentator who read the text differently. Turei Ha Zahav, or Taz, taught—Aaron’s death is recounted here, after the story of Moses breaking the tablets, to demonstrate for us that the death of a righteous person is as grievous as the shattering of the original Tablets of the Covenant. Both represent a diminution of God’s presence in the world.
The sentiment of Taz spoke to me, particularly as I encountered it hours after learning of the death of my teacher, Rav Pesach Schindler. Rav Schindler was my first teacher of contemporary halakha, guiding me to understand the strategies and methodologies for understanding our Jewish legal system. I took his class at Hebrew University, and it was the first class that I ever took that was taught fully in Hebrew. Rav Schindler was the head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. If you have visited Israel, perhaps you have been to the Fuchsberg Center, on Agron Street, notably across the street from Supersol. I worked there for a time, and would often have the pleasure to see Rav Schindler, to visit with him and learn from him. And so, he taught me not just Halakha, but important contemporary lessons, particularly those in navigating Israel, from the red-tape of the health care system to running the city streets with their many hills. He was 70, I 20, and he still ran faster than I did!

Though he did not in any way hide it, I did not know, upon meeting Rav Schindler, that he was a Holocaust survivor. One day, as I was working at Fuchsberg Center, he invited me to join him and his visitors for lunch. I cannot remember all of the details of the visit, but I do recall that it was really a reunion with a friend from Germany. Rav Schindler had been placed in an orphanage in Germany in 1938. He had the precarious distinction of being “stateless”—that is to say, as a Jew born in Germany after World War I, he did not have German citizenship. So while his parents were able to escape Germany through legal channels, he and his brother were not. Of the 140 children in the orphanage, 4 survived, including Rav Schindler and his brother. They were smuggled out on a train carrying German soldiers to the Dutch border. They were able to pass for German children on their way to visit family, able to hide in plain sight because they had blue eyes and blond hair.

Rav Schindler’s story is documented at the Shoah Foundation, and I was able to find a brief video of him telling pieces of his story for a project called Portraits of Faith. In it, he discusses the realities of grief, the value of questioning and the danger of anger. Anger, he says, is spiritual suicide.

In hearing my teacher, zichrono l’vrakha, of blessed memory, speaking on anger, I was brought back to this morning’s Torah portion. The story of the Golden Calf contains within it a series of encounters with anger. God is so angry at the Israelites for building the idol that the Lord considers entirely destroying the people. There is narrative elsewhere in the Torah that discusses an angry mob of Israelites actually killing an individual who sought to stop their idolatrous actions. And, despite assuaging God’s anger atop Sinai, Moses smashes the tablets, and while his reasoning has been argued by commentators for generations, anger is commonly cited for provoking his actions.

What do we do with these broken tablets?

Tradition teaches that the broken tablets were placed in the aron hakodesh—the holy ark of the covenant. They sat there alongside of the entact, “replacement” tablets. Because that is what we do. We carry fragments with us. We carry brokenness with us. Broken hearts. Broken faith.

The death of a righteous person is akin to the shattering of the Tablets of the covenant. And just as our ancestors carried the fragments of the Tablets with them, we can carry the memories and lessons of the righteous people that we have been blessed to know in our lives. We cherish the fragments—the memories–for what they were, for what they are and what can become.