Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What Would the Maccabees Do Today?

Before the State of Israel was born, and for much of our history, we Jews were a rather submissive, pacifist people. We endured inquisitions, pogroms, and genocide, and for the most part we were not in control of either our security or our destiny.

But it wasn’t always so.

In 167 BCE, Matathias the High Priest and father of Judah the Maccabee, returned to Modi'in. When he was ordered by a representative of the Greek emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods, he refused to do so, and slew the official. So began the Hasmonean Jewish revolt, followed by a resounding Jewish victory, the re-dedication of the Holy Temple, and the miracle of Hanukkah.

Yet surprisingly, the celebration of Hanukkah is much better known for the Talmudic story of the cruise of oil which miraculously lasted for 8 days than for the stunning Jewish victory over the more powerful Hellenistic Greeks. This remarkable victory is plainly depicted in the Book of the Maccabees, while the story of the cruise of oil only appears later in the Talmud. It is the miracle of the oil that takes center-stage (and why we eat so many oily delicacies like latkes and sufganiyot), while the military victory is hardly discussed. And the sages had more to say about how to light the Menorah than why we actually celebrate this holiday.

So why is that?

The truth is, our sages were rather ambivalent about Hanukkah. They didn’t much care for the Maccabees or their militaristic nature. The rabbis of the Talmud lived during a time of Jewish powerlessness, and they were clearly uncomfortable with Hasmonean militarism being the model of Jewish behavior. This is reflected in the Haftarah they chose to recite on Shabbat Hanukkah, where it states in Zechariah 4:6: “This is the word of God: Not by might, and not by power, but by my Spirit alone”. The rabbis even excluded the Book of the Maccabees from the Biblical canon altogether, which is why we hear more about the cruse of oil than about the heroic military victory of the Maccabees.

Once the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE it left the Jewish people without a homeland, without a military, and without the ability to ensure their own safety. For the next 2,000 years we lived (or died) at the whim of various rulers, kings and tyrants.  We shuddered in fear of the next crusade, pogrom, or anti-Semitic attack, relying on the good graces of the king or government to protect our communities.  And often there was no protection to be found.

So for much of those 2,000 years we were a vulnerable people, who often had to flee from one country to another to escape persecution.  And this largely remained the case until 1948, unless you were fortunate enough to make it to the shores of the New World.  Israel exists today because the Jewish people finally recognized that there are times when we must take up arms and protect ourselves – just as the Maccabees did.

America has certainly been a different experience for us.  Anti-Semitism was still there, often just below the surface, but it was largely limited to rhetoric and discrimination.

That was until the horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Jews feel under attack once again. And if there is a lesson to be learned from the Hanukkah story, it is that complacency is not an answer. Yes, we know we must defend ourselves, but at the same time we also need to be on guard not to become aggressors ourselves. In an increasingly dangerous and hostile world, that is the great challenge that both Israel and America must face going forward.

Post Pittsburgh, we are reminded that the world does not always deal kindly with the Jewish people. Now our synagogues are having to bear the cost of being under armed guard -- and those costs are both financial and spiritual. We also know we must remain alert to the renewed specter of anti-Semitism as it rears its ugly head, often in the guise of anti-Zionism or anti-Israel BDS movements.  Our college students increasingly feel the effect of this new reality.

Yet these threats are not new for us. The Jewish people have been around for 4,000 years, and we are not going away anytime soon. God willing, the heroism of the Maccabees will inspire us and provide us with the courage to face whatever challenges lie ahead.

May the lights of the Hanukkah menorah continue to inspire us, strengthen our resolve, and give us the fortitude to achieve a more peaceful, tolerant, and compassionate world.

Hag Urim Sameyach,
Rabbi Mark

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Days of Awe – It is Never Too Late to Return

The High Holidays are arriving a bit early this year. At least so rabbis keep hearing. But did you notice that the Holidays never seem to arrive on time?

So when exactly is “on time” for Rosh Hashanah?  For many of us the answer seems to be: one week later than when they appear on the calendar! But actually “on time” should be when we have properly prepared our souls for the experience; when are ready to return to our roots and make a fresh start. That’s what the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be about. A month of preparation to truly experience the Days of Awe.

I often wonder why so many Jews, particularly those who are not as connected to the rhythms of Jewish living, put everything else aside to go to shul during this particular time of year.  There must be some mysterious force that brings us back year after year.  I know some of us come out of a sense of religious conviction. Others come out of a sense of guilt, or simply force of habit.  But like the salmon that must return to the stream from which it spawned, there is an almost irresistible force that calls most of us back to shul to usher in the New Year.

Something often pointed to in the world of Yiddish culture is the concept of das pintele yid, that tiny part of a Jew that just never quits. It is that little spark of Jewishness dwelling inside each and every one of us that is virtually indestructible.  No matter how hard someone tries to leave their Jewish-ness behind, there is a part of us that cannot get away.  Run to the ends of the earth, and it will still be there.  Tell everyone you’re not that religious, and the 'pintele yid' will tug at your neshama (soul) and call you back home.

Whatever it is that brings us back to connect one with another and to become part of a synagogue kehillah is certainly praiseworthy.  People join congregations for many different reasons, and often sign up for one of the various “life plans” that resonate with them.  There is the “High Holiday Plan” (available in either the one, two, or three day a year option); the “Bar/Bat Mitzvah Plan” which expires once the youngest child reaches 13 years of age; and of course, the “Lifelong Membership Plan”.  But those who join the “Frequent Daveners Plan” are clearly the winners, getting the most for their synagogue shekel.

Perhaps part of what I find so inspiring about the High Holidays is that it is during this special time of year that all the different facets of our shul communities come together in one place, notice one another, and acknowledge each other’s presence -- becoming a real kehillah kedosha, a holy community.

Jewish demographers explain that the sense of belonging that our parents and grandparents held so dear doesn’t always resonate today. But I’m not so sure. I often think it’s just one of those cyclical parts of human nature. Often those who have left their Judaism far behind come to realize later in life that something isn’t quite right; that a certain ruach is missing. And many times, it is that spiritual hunger that brings the disaffected among us back home again -- sometimes when you least expect it.

The High Holidays have long been that catalyst that brings Jews back home when they are spiritually hungry. These powerful days teach us that it is never too late to do teshuva, to come back into the Jewish fold and rekindle your relation with God, Torah and the Jewish people.  By returning we can recapture what we have lost, or even acquire what we never had in the first place.

We are blessed to live in a wonderful Jewish community that offers countless venues through which to deepen our knowledge and connection to our heritage. And at Beth Shalom we have created a special community for those who have decided to come along with us on their Jewish journey, and share meaningful Jewish moments together throughout the year.

There are so many ways for us to recapture and rekindle the Jewish spark in your lives.

The Holidays are almost here.  It is time to come home.

Friday, November 10, 2017

What Does it Mean to be a Congregation?


Once the fall holidays come to a close, I find myself pondering: What is it that makes Beth Shalom a congregation?  Sure, we all came out to observe the High Holy Days together. Many of us remained beyond Yom Kippur to celebrate in the Sukkah (on our beautiful new patio garden), and even to dance together on Simchat Torah. We experienced a wonderful sense of ruach and camaraderie during that sacred time. Nevertheless, I wonder, what keeps us linked together as a congregation the rest of the year? 

Elie Wiesel once asked:  “What does it mean to be a congregation? It means to care about each other.  Pray? We can pray at home. We come together as a congregation in order to share in each other’s lives and in order to share in the life of the Jewish people — past, present and future.”

Once the Gerer Rebbe, decided to question one of his disciples: ‘How is Moshe Yaakov doing?’ The disciple didn’t know. ‘What!’ shouted the Rebbe, ‘You don’t know? You pray under the same roof’? You study the same book? You serve the same God? — yet you tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?’

Here lies the essence of our way of life: every person must share in every other person’s life, and not leave anyone to themselves. Not in sorrow and not in joy.

Wiesel was right.  But in our consumer-driven society, we increasingly look to the rabbi or other synagogue professionals to provide that kind of concern, instead of seeing it as a responsibility that we all share for one another.

When I visit someone in the hospital, I often learn that besides the family, I was the only one to have visited them during their illness.  This should not be. Maybe it is because many people find it difficult to get intertwined with someone else’s tzuris, or we just don’t know the right words to say, but I usually find that just being there is the greatest help of all. As the rabbis teach us, when you visit someone who is ill, you take away 1/60th of their illness.

In reality, it is the duty of all Jews to perform such mitzvot.  This isn’t just a “service” that we join a synagogue in order to receive, rather it should be a natural expression of being a part of a caring community and sharing concern for one another.  No one person can adequately fulfill this task alone, but as a congregation we can work to make sure that nobody is ignored in their time of need.

My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein wrote: “Ancient Greek democracy created the ‘citizen.’ Renaissance Europe invented the ‘gentleman’. Colonial America produced the ‘frontiersman’. Each human civilization, it seems, fashions its own unique character type. And ours is no exception. Contemporary America has spawned the ‘consumer’.

The consumer is a character type unique in human history. The Greek citizen saw himself as an inseparable part of an organic community. The European gentleman conceived of himself in terms of a code of obligations – chivalry and noblesse oblige – that bound him to others… By contrast, the consumer seeks absolute independence. He is sovereign, complete unto himself, and in need of no one. No unfulfilled existential need motivates him. The consumer engages the world only as a source of stimulation and satisfaction.

Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel - where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving on. So, too, the consumer joins, but never belongs. Never will he allow the obligations that come with relationships, values or community to compromise his sovereignty. He has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability partnerships. In a moment of crisis, he’ll call for Emergency Roadside Judaism. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.”

In our religious life, we need Jews who are more than just a consumer of services. Beth Shalom is no different.  And while we need people to help us build and maintain our community, we only thrive when we have real commitment and concern for one another as well. If we only pay our dues, drop off our kids, and occasionally visit, we can’t expect to be part of a genuine congregation.  Yet it is precisely that sense of kehillah, or community connectedness that we all strive for and yearn to create.

God willing, with your involvement, your concern for one another, and your support, together we can make CBS into just that kind of congregation. Amen.

L’Shalom,
Rabbi Mark

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What Do We Have to Kvetch About?

In our cycle of Torah readings this time of year, we read how for forty years our ancestors trekked through the wilderness, far from cities and civilization.  They trudged along without the luxury of interstates, service plazas, or travel agents. So it should come as no surprise that throughout their journey there were also endless complaints, arguments, and rebellions.

How different travel is today!  I recently returned from leading a synagogue trip to Eastern Europe. We took planes, trains, a motor coach and even an old turbo-prop. (I was a bit nervous about that last part.) But it all went off without a hitch, traveling thousands of miles and an ocean away with ease. Such are the miracles of modern life.

Compare that to the short hike our ancestors took from Egypt to Israel. That was a journey of even less than 300 miles, and it took them 40 years to complete! You could make that flight today in under an hour. And yet, we are so spoiled by the conveniences of modern travel that we kvetch even when our plane is delayed just for a couple hours, or when we are stuck taxiing on a runway waiting for a gate to open up. 

But we should never lose sight of how lucky we are to even experience the marvels of modern travel, or the myriad of other blessings we usually take for granted.

Traveling to Eastern Europe this summer was an eye-opening experience in so many ways.  It underscored for me how fortunate we are just to be among those Jews who survived the horrors that befell our people during the last century. We traveled through countries and towns that were once filled with bustling Jewish communities.  In many of them, all that is left now are synagogues turned into museums, memorials emblazoned with the names of families who perished, or a few remaining inhabitants struggling to keep their shul and communities alive. Sure, there are some places in Europe experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life (ironically, like Berlin), but they are only shadows of their former glory. And for every one of those communities, there are hundreds of decimated cities and villages throughout Europe where Jewish life once thrived, but remains no longer.

You feel that most deeply when you visit Auschwitz. One can never find the right words to describe what Auschwitz is, or what the horror of that place represents. As we walked into the one remaining gas chamber, and then casually walked out -- you are haunted by the stark realization that right where you stand, so many of our fellow Jews had their lives brutally snuffed out.

And yet in the midst of that terrible darkness, some stories of bravery, heroism, and perseverance managed to emerge. A few attempted to fight back. Others somehow managed to survive the terror and hopelessness of the shoah.  And a few of these survivors even decided to return to the very communities from which they were driven out -- though it is difficult to fathom the how or why.
One such community we visited was Bratislava.  Only a mostly empty shul remains where a few elderly Jews struggle to hold Shabbat services each and every week. And while remaining there would probably not have been my choice, I can understand the painful decision the returnees faced. Move somewhere else and allow another Jewish community to perish?  Leave and watch another shul close down and be turned into a museum?  Or stay and struggle to keep Judaism alive in your hometown, even if only for a while longer.

Then you realize how fortunate and blessed we are.  We take our shuls and even our Jewish community for granted. We feel self-assured, believing that if we don’t support our synagogues, someone else will step in and do so. But of course that isn’t the case at all. By maintaining and supporting our shuls and other important institutions, we work to ensure that Jewish life will continue here for generations to come.

This is the time of year when we think about where we will be for the upcoming holidays, which synagogue we will attend, and whether we will continue to be a supportive part of our shul community. If Bratislava has taught me anything, it is that we should never take our shuls or our community for granted. By supporting them, we are not just enriching our own lives; we are giving back to our community by showing gratitude for the myriad of blessings that we -- as the survivors of Jewish history -- have been so fortunate to receive.  May we never lose sight of that privilege and sacred obligation.  Amen. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Embracing the Stranger and One Another


You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...

In synagogues around the world we are now reading from the section of the Torah which tells of our people's exodus from Egypt - perhaps the most defining moment in Jewish history. In fact, one of our core Jewish values emanates from this verse, connected to our collective experience of having been liberated from Egyptian bondage. We are reminded time and time again to love the stranger, to care about the stranger, for we have been there ourselves.  And as it turns out, this wouldn't be the last time in Jewish history that we would be cast in the role of the stranger. We would go on to find ourselves in that unwelcome role many times throughout our history.

Events of this past week have shined a new light on how we respond to the plight of the stranger, just as they have highlighted the political tensions in our land.  And beyond refugees, we increasingly view anyone with whom we disagree as a stranger, which only serves to pull our country and our people apart from one another.

In today's highly polarized world, rabbis often find themselves pulled in multiple directions at once. Our social media heightens these tensions, making it very easy today for people to vent their righteous indignation upon anyone holding a viewpoint in opposition to their own. This is particularly true in the realm of politics.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg's well-known adage about Jewish religious movements can easily be applied to political ideologies.  He famously said: "It doesn't matter which Jewish movement you are affiliated with, as long as you're ashamed of it".  And so we could probably all benefit from being a little more introspective when it comes to the bitter political discourse in our country.

We can and should vigorously debate issues, but we should not let our families, our friendships, or our congregations be torn apart by those who would pounce on anyone who dares to deviate from their own political orthodoxies. We all need to be vigilant to ensure that our internal divisions don't consume us, which is why rabbis usually seek to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

And yet, rabbis should feel empowered to address the universal values rooted in our Torah that bind us together as Jews.

One of our most deeply-held Jewish values concerns caring for the stranger.  The Torah reminds us repeatedly (especially in the Exodus story) that we are to "Love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".  The principle of welcoming the stranger is ultimately repeated 35 times in the Torah -- more than any other commandment.

The Jewish people can be rightfully proud of such eternal values that have guided and sustained us throughout the millennia. And it is praiseworthy that we continue to be strong advocates for those principles which are so near and dear to us. We should love the stranger, pursue justice and care for the poor, as it is these values which have shaped us as a people. Yet even while we agree on the goals, sometimes we will remain divided on how best to achieve them -- but that's all part of the process.  Nobody would suggest, for example, that all our country's borders should be torn down; yet neither do we accept that an innocent refugee should be neglected in their hour of need.

As Jews, we are particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees. We know from painful, historical experience what it is like to flee oppression and to find no welcoming door. This is why we can be proud that the various arms of the Conservative Movement came together to issue a resolution in response to President Trump's executive order barring refugees and immigrants from entering the United States. You can find the text of that resolution here:

www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/conservative-movement-condemns-president-trumps-executive-order-immigration-and-refugees

In fact, in a rare show of unity, both orthodox and liberal denominations came together to voice their concerns regarding the ban:

www.jta.org/2017/01/30/news-opinion/united-states/in-rare-unity-orthodox-and-liberal-denominations-are-critical-of-trump-refugee-ban

We may not always agree on a whole host of issues, or be uncertain about how best to advance those principles which are sacred to us.  Nevertheless, we must work to put away the daggers that threaten to tear us apart, and work to sow the seeds of respect and tolerance among ourselves and among all the peoples of our great country.

May we strive to uphold our cherished Jewish values; moving from divisiveness to healing, from despair to hope, and from fear to faith.  And in doing so let us help build a world that is true to the principle of Tikkun Olam, repairing our fragmented and often polarized world.

L'Shalom,
Rabbi Mark

-------------------

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Congregation Beth Shalom
Atlanta, Georgia  (770) 399-5300
www.bethshalomatlanta.org    

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When Prayers Go Unanswered


I had an interesting encounter at the barber shop last week. Just as I walked in, I was greeted with a “hi rabbi” by one of the stylists who knows me, and then proceeded to get my regular haircut. A gentleman with a pronounced southern accent was getting his hair cut in the chair next to me. He was just finishing up and paying his bill. He then said in a slightly raised voice: “I hear that man over there is a rabbi. Well I need all the prayers I can get, so let me pay for his haircut as well. Here’s a $50 bill to cover the both of us.”

Well, I’ve been a rabbi for 27 years, and that’s never happened to me before. I was taken by surprise and not quite sure how to react. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful by declining his kindness, so I thanked him and wished him all the best.

But I had an uneasy feeling about the whole encounter. I wondered if perhaps he thought that rabbis take a vow of poverty (like Catholic priests do) and could use the charity. Or perhaps he thought that by helping out a rabbi, God would show him special favor and answer his prayers. It sounded to me more like the latter. I also got the impression that he was one of the many devout Christians who takes the verse in Genesis 12:3 literally. That’s the verse where God promises Abraham (and by extension the Jewish people) that "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse." And as you may know, many Christians take that verse to mean that they have a religious obligation to demonstrate their kindness to the Jewish people by supporting the State of Israel.

But if that was the motivation for the gentleman’s kindness, I felt guilty about it. Perhaps that’s a knee-jerk Jewish reaction. But according to my religious calculus, I felt this man was getting cheated, since I don’t believe God works that way at all.

Nothing offends my theological sensitivities like seeing the way some people project onto God all kinds of things about their own lives. They get angry at God when misfortune strikes, and when spared from tragedy they are convinced that God took particular interest in their individual situation. It’s the ultimate question of: “Is God running the show down here on earth or are we?”

My personal belief is that God gives us absolute freedom of will; and vulnerability is the price we pay for that freedom. God doesn’t alter all the outcomes, but God gives us the wisdom, the strength and the ability to follow our conscience, and through mitzvot the ability to make the world the best that it can be.

It is a scene that gets played out repeatedly on the evening news. A tragic fire or devastating natural disaster destroys a residential area. One family manages to make it through unscathed and everyone they love is ok. Meanwhile, other families nearby are not so fortunate. Yet the person whose family has been spared gushes forth with praises to God for the divine intervention and mercy that miraculously spared their lives.

When I watch such an interview, my thoughts always turn to the direction of the family that was not spared. What is that family - the ones who just suffered such a tremendous loss - supposed to think at this moment? Does God somehow love them less? Did they not pray hard enough? Or did they simply not deserve to be saved? I hardly think so.

But if it’s the case that God directs all the outcomes in our lives, then should we not also blame God for every earthquake, plane crash and disease outbreak? I don’t believe that either. I believe that these tragedies are random, amoral events that simply happen. And God gives us the strength to heal the wounds and spread a little Divine favor around wherever we can in order to bring about tikkun olam; to help repair our often fractured world.

I don’t claim to have all the answers as to why things turn out the way they sometimes do. If we knew the answer to such questions we would have the mind of God, the Infinite. And those who claim to have all the answers, typically have none of the answers; at least none that are satisfying. As intelligent people, we know that our lives are often determined by factors over which we have little or no control. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that things don’t always turn out the way they ought to. If they did, there would be no need for us to fight for just causes, give tzedakah, or strive to repair the world.

The disciples of Rabbi Moshe Leib once asked their teacher: “Why are there atheists in the world? Why does God even permit atheism to exist?” The rabbi answered: “God has a need for atheism, one that is ultimately for our own good. If someone seeks your aid, you must act as if there is no God to help. In that way, even atheism can be exalted. Even atheists can be blessed.”

When our prayers are answered, let us show humility and remember that others are not always so fortunate. And when we are confronted with the opportunity to ease the burden of others whose lives have been scarred, let us respond in the same way we would hope that God would deal with us.

L’Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Monday, December 16, 2013

Keeping Our Jewish Spark Alive




In the aftermath of the now famous Pew Report, our community leaders are in a tizzy trying to figure out how to re-energize the American Jewish community.  The report confirms many of our fears and some things we already knew about Jewish life here. There are less Jews marrying Jews. There are less Jewish children. There are less Jews who affiliate with our  community institutions. At the core, we seem to be a less inspired and engaged community than we used to be.

Yet, there are certainly bright spots as well. One such bright spot is the many young adults who have gone on Birthright Israel trips and have come back much more passionate about Israel and inspired about their Judaism.

We can and still do prosper here in America, and we Jews are certainly survivors. We have always managed to find new, innovative ways to overcome whatever challenges we must face. And there are still millions of American Jews who want to be Jewish and want their children to be raised with a strong Jewish identity. Many of them still come to our synagogues each and every week.

But one thing I know for sure is that it we should never give up on any Jewish soul, no matter how disconnected they may be, and it is never too late for someone to re-discover and reclaim their Judaism.

 “Testament of a Jew in Saragossa” is the title of the story in which Wiesel recounts an experience he had during his visit to Spain years ago. He went to a city called Saragossa. At one time, before 1942, of course, it was a thriving Jewish community, but there had not been a Jew there in 500 years until the new visits started happening.  

When Wiesel was at the cathedral in Saragossa, a man approached him and started speaking to him in French, offering to be his guide for no fee. He was proud of his town and wanted to show Wiesel around. They started talking and the man asked Wiesel some personal questions. Finally, it came out that he was Jewish and that he knew Hebrew. “There have been no Jews here for almost 500 years, I've been waiting to meet one so I could ask you for some help. There’s something I want to show you at my home.”

The two of them walked off to the small apartment on the third floor. The man took out a fragment of a yellowed parchment and he asked, “Is it in Hebrew?” Wiesel took this document, this yellowed document, and he started trembling as he started reading it, because it was clear to him that these were not only Hebrew letters, but also that they had existed for 500 years. He started to read and translate for the man. These are the words that he translated: “I, Moses, the son of Abraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, its head high under the sun without fear and without remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written at Saragossa, this 9th day of the month of Av, in the year of punishment and exile.”

This man then explained to Wiesel that this yellowed document was cherished by his family and was passed from one generation to the next. It was considered as an amulet – and that if you lost it or destroyed it, a curse would come to your family. So here this man had finally completed a circle that was 500 years in making. He found out, after five centuries, from a message of Moses, the son of Abraham, that he in some distant way was a Jew.  

“Read it again,” the man demanded of Wiesel. “I want to hear it again. I want to hear the words again.”  So Wiesel translated it over and over and over again." They went to the cathedral and they sat. The man said, “I want to know more. Who are these people, these Jews? What has happened? Why were there Jews in Saragossa 500 years ago but none today?”  

Wiesel began explaining. He took hours, in fact the whole day, to explain who we were, where we had been. He withheld nothing. He talked about Jewish history in Spain. He talked about Queen Isabella and Torquemada and how they had set up stakes, had hung and killed our people until they were decimated, how we were thrown out of Spain on the 9th of Av in 1492. The guide couldn't believe it.

Years later, Elie Wiesel traveled to Israel. He was accosted on the streets of Jerusalem by a man who said, “Hello, don’t you remember me? Saragossa. Saragossa.” There he was on the streets of Jerusalem, this same man, but he was speaking Hebrew, not French. He said to Wiesel, “I have something to show you.” He took Wiesel, who was trembling again, to his apartment. They walked up the three flights and there was that yellowed parchment in a picture frame on the wall. But this time he read it to Wiesel in Hebrew and he translated it. From Moses, the son of Abraham, 500 years, to him. He had come to Israel. He had learned Hebrew. He had learned who he was and he had redeemed his Jewish tradition.  

Wiesel said to him, “You know, I’m ashamed I didn't recognize you.” As Wiesel was about to leave, he said, “You forgot to ask me my name. I want you to know my name. My name is Moshe ben Avraham, Moses son of Abraham.  He is alive after 500 years.”

The lesson is clear.  If this man from Saragossa could reclaim the forgotten Jewish heritage that lay dormant in his family for so many generations, then we too can certainly do the same.  We have the capacity to reinvigorate our own Jewish lives, and in so doing re-energize our Jewish communities as well. All it take is a Jewish heart coupled with the spirit and desire to keep that Jewish spark alive.

L’Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman