03 February 2012


I refuse to say good-bye to those who are gone forever, which as a Jew, I think is a pretty sound policy. "The past is a fuel that keeps burning," a wise young person said to me once and I think that's true.

The picture you see above is the remnant of a Torah scroll from a German synagogue that had been destroyed during the Holocaust.  It was recovered by the colleague of a late and beloved teacher of mine, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, who kept it above his study here in Brooklyn for the past thirty years, after bringing it home from Berlin some time ago.

This week, while visiting his widow, my dear friend Marianne Dreyfus, whose grandfather Dr. Leo Baeck was Germany's leading Liberal rabbi before the war, this sacred fragment was handed to me.  Marianne is moving soon and is therefore making sure that many of Stanley's cherished tools for the conveyance God's word, Torah wisdom and the triumphant survival of our people after the cataclysm of the Shoah will long live.

The section of Torah that is framed above is in fact from this week's Torah portion, בשלח, a serendipitous moment of bone-chilling realization that, as is often the case with this Pillar of Fire that has accompanied our nation on all its journeys, never ceases to amaze me.  You should join me in that awe.

The right hand side of the framed scroll above begins:
"And the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?' Moses cried out to the Eternal, saying, 'What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!' Then the Eternal said to Moses, 'Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out.  I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.'  And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.  The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites tried the Eternal, saying, 'Is the Eternal present among us or not?' "
Leaving aside the minor miracle that when the architects of our synagogue's Temple Lobby created their design scheme, they graphically depicted several Biblical passages and the one quoted above--the Israelites complaining to Moses soon after experiencing the miracle of the parted waters of the Red Sea (which is placed above the door to the Rabbi's Study!), you have here the scribal depiction of a classic Jewish theological knot:  when times are tough, is God present among us or not?

Rabbi Dreyfus once told his students the story, which he heard from Rabbi Baeck, about why after the war and after his internment at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Baeck continued to return to Germany to teach.  "I never forget the German woman who risked her life by giving me bread, in front of the eyes of the Nazis, as I was being led to the trains."

Each of us, at one time or another, have put God on trial; and each of us, at one time or another, have had the opportunity, regardless of where and when we were born, to bear witness to a Presence beyond ourselves--fate, physics or faith--that provided water to sustain our thirst in the dry, withering heat of, if not evil, the absence of good.

"Strike the rock and water will issue from it."  No passive plea, that.  Rather, a call to action.  Sometimes absence is keenly felt, and the accompanying darkness can bring on despair.  But we never lose hope.  We never say "good-bye."  We remember, we teach in others' names, we light candles and tell stories, we let in the light.

Look back at the picture of the Torah scroll above.  On the left is the day, shining through the window in my study, a portal to the present on an ancient story that is ours to tell to future generations.

"The past is a fuel that keeps burning."

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