Today is a modern Jewish holiday. It is known as Yom HaShoah, Day of Destruction. It is not a holiday of celebration. It is one of memory. We remember the six million murdered during the Holocaust.
Today–and many other days–we ponder the question: “Where was God during the Holocaust? Why did not God not stop it?”
I do not have a pre-formulated answer. What I can offer, however, are responses. They shape the way I think about this question. They can guide each of us.
1. God asks the same question of us
God did not murder millions of people. God did not start a destructive war. Humans beings did.
Since Cain and Abel, we have known human cruelty. God gave us the gift of free will, and we cannot blame God for the way we use it. The Holocaust challenges humanity more than God.
I recently celebrated five years serving an extraordinary synagogue. The relationship between a rabbi and synagogue, or a pastor and a church, is like a marriage. We need to celebrate when it works.
Thank you for giving me the privilege of being your rabbi. I cannot imagine my life outside of the synagogue. You have given the greatest gift—a purpose, a community, a way to serve God and the Jewish people.
I know it’s a bit cliche to say I’m living the dream—but I really am. Outside of being a husband and a father, nothing makes me feel prouder and luckier than to say I am the rabbi of this congregation.
And thank you for being part of Solel. Thank you for joining a synagogue. You are a counter-cultural group—I don’t mean that in the political or social sense, though some of us might be.
A friend visited a restaurant in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The proprietor did not speak much English. The only words he seemed to know were “thank you.”
When he brought out the food, he smiled and said “thank you.” When he brought out the check, he smiled and said “thank you.” When he smiled and brought back the change, he said “thank you.”
Even though he didn’t know much English, this man knew an important secret. Gratitude is the best route to happiness.
Saying “thank you” is not the only way to express gratitude. Here are a few others.
I had a wonderful conversation with my friend Pastor Corey Brooks on the morning show of WCIU in Chicago. Pastor Brooks is an inspiring leader, and we talked about Passover, Easter, new life, the Exodus story and eggs.
Last year I was invited to speak at a church on Good Friday. The minister and I had a wonderful dialogue on the Jewishness of Jesus, and we touched on the dramatic changes in Jewish-Christian relations.
A relationship mired by persecution had become one driven by love and respect. To discuss this change on Good Friday—a day Jews traditionally feared because the Gospel reading blamed Jews for Jesus’ death—was especially meaningful to both of us.
A Difficult Year
One of the world’s best-selling books this year is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Aside from the clever title, it struck a chord in our psyche. We have too much stuff.
Yet we resist parting with it. We struggle for ways to “tidy up.”
Sadly, reading about this book didn’t help me do so. It did, however, help me understand a difficult part of the Bible.
Delivering eulogies is amongst the most difficult and important work rabbis and pastors do. They grapple with death and try to make sense of life. They give strength to our spirits when we need it most.
I have given some tough ones, but none as powerful and transformative as the one below. This eulogy—delivered by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn—was described by a US Congressman as “second only to the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln as a stirring ode to the principles of democracy that are the bedrock of this country.”
Rabbi Gittelsohn was the first Jewish Marine chaplain. He fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battle ended on March 26, 1945, almost exactly 70 years ago. Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke at a memorial services for its fallen soldiers. His words helped remind survivors of the principles for which their friends fought and died. All of us can use that reminder today.
Whenever I pick my daughter up from school, I am amazed by the size of her backpack. It is stuffed with books, and by the time she reaches me, it’s fallen off her shoulders.
I am still mystified about why she has to carry so many books in second grade. Yet, many of us also carry heaven burdens. They may not fall off our shoulders.
But they can weigh us down.
Sometimes we just need to let them go. We need to forgive ourselves. One of the great lessons of the Hebrew Bible is that we are not perfect, and we should never expect to be perfect. Perfection is reserved for God, and God can handle our mistakes.
Letting Go Of Our Heavy Load
We can forget this truth. Sometimes, like my daughter, we think we have to carry it all ourselves. A rabbi from the eighteenth century conveys this lesson with a parable.
A poor man was walking along the road. He carried all his earthly possessions on his back. A wagon driver stopped and offered him a ride to the next town. The poor man declined.
After a few miles, the wagon driver looked back and saw the man sitting there, still carrying the load on his back. The driver approached him again. “Why are you still carrying your load? Put it down in the wagon!” he said.
The pauper replied, “Dear sir, you have been so kind to offer me a ride. I cannot possibly impose upon you to ask you to carry my heavy load as well.”
God gives us a ride, and God can carry our load. That does not mean we have a free pass. It means we are human, and we live with the grace given by a power far greater than ourselves.
Israel has eight million people. On Sunday, in preparation for today’s election, more than 200,000 of them gathered in separate political rallies. That’s almost three percent of the population on one day!
We are a year and a half away from own major election. Yet, perhaps we can learn something from Israel.
1. People Matter: As Americans we tend to pick a president we would be most comfortable “having a beer with.” Political scientists confirm the centrality of criterion. Now this is not a bad criterion. The personality of our leader matters.
But what matters most is the person’s wisdom and worldview.
I don’t think many people would have enjoyed having a beer with George Washington.
My daughter Hannah and I have a ritual. She says, “Daddy, let’s play hide and seek. You count to five, and I’ll go and hide.” “Okay,” I say. I begin counting: “1…2…3…4…5. Ready or not, here I come!”
Then she says, “Okay, Daddy… I’m behind the couch!” The next time it’s “I’m in the dining room.” Or “I’m under the desk.”
For Hannah — and for many young children — the point of the game is to be found. Over time, however, we start to get lost. We hide from ourselves. We hide from what we know is right. We start to hide from God.
That hiding can take many forms.