Tuesday, April 15, 1997

From Redemption to Redeemers

Rabbi Michael Feshbach

More than a thousand generations ago, a certain group of Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt escaped from their bondage and left behind the land of their captivity. The events turned a loose rag-tag association of tribes into a nation, which left its mark on the religious consciousness of humankind.

This year, Passover begins on Friday night. The holiday begins with a festive meal and special observances, and it lasts for eight days (seven in some circles - especially in Reform Judaism).

Passover is most characterized by two particular observances. The first is the "Seder", the ritual meal held on the first two nights at which the story of the Exodus is told and retold in great detail. The second is that, in memory of the hasty departure from Egypt (in which even the bread that the Israelites were preparing did not have time to rise), most Jews refrain throughout this holiday from eating bread or any kind of food that "rises" in a similar way. Thus, only "unleavened" , or flat, crispy bread called Matzah, is eaten, and the only flour used in cooking is made from this Matzah.

The name Passover comes from the last of the ten plagues against the Egyptians, when the angel of death came at night and killed all the firstborn in Egypt, but "passed over" the houses of the Jews that had been specially marked.

A story is told in the Haggadah, the special book used at the ritual meal, about certain rabbis who lived in the second century. These rabbis spent the entire evening after this meal discussing the "redemption" involved in the Exodus from Egypt. They continued with their discussions all through the night, until their students came to them and said: "Masters, the time has come to recite the morning blessings.”

On the surface, this is a cute little story. It says that each year Jews should spend time thinking about the Exodus, the real beginning of the Jewish people .But this story also tells much more about the deeper significance of Passover.
These rabbis lived under the Roman Empire, at a time during which both Jews and Christians were persecuted. Simply observing Passover at all was a crime punishable by death - and some of the rabbis in this story were eventually martyred.

There is a theory that what they were doing that night was both talking about the past redemption, the Exodus from Egypt, and actively trying 1 'bring about a future redemption - by plotting a revolution (ill-fated though it was) against the Roman oppressors. Their students came to tell them not, "It is time to pray now," but to warn them: It is morning; it is time to begin less subversive activities.

In the annual celebration of Passover, past and present - and future - meet and interact. Every year a Jew is told: In every generation, each person must think that he or she came out of Egypt. The redemption was not just in the past, but is experienced every year as a present event.

This is the key to understanding Passover. Redemption is an ongoing experience and a need in the present. Every year, as long as there is hunger, oppression or poverty in the world, while someone, somewhere, cries out for freedom, the Jew is commanded to feel the experience of being freed himself , and to help others wherever needed. "This year", the very end of the Haggadah reads, if there is discrimination or degrading, slave-like conditions anywhere, "we are all slaves". The closing words of the Haggadah express the eternal Jewish hope; physically and spiritually, "Next year may we all be free. Next year in Jerusalem.”

Tuesday, April 01, 1997

I Am Not A Number

"I am not a number!"

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, Pennsylvania

During my junior year in Israel, studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I took a course on the Holocaust taught by a professor named Ze 'ev Mankiewitz .It was a strange thing, indeed, to take a course on the Holocaust, to take exams and be graded on our knowledge of the mechanisms of death, to write academic papers on the inner workings of hate .It was strange, but it was important. And there is at least one session from that class that will stay with me forever.

We were talking about the guards in the camps. One student raised her hand. "How?" she asked. "How could they have done that?"  There was a very brief silence. And then Dr. Mankiewitz, who is a native of South Africa, told of a trip he had taken to the land of his birth several years after having made Aliyah (moved to Israel).

It was a snowy July night, and he was with friends, after a night at the theater.        Standing near their car in the parking lot was a shivering black child of about seven or eight, in a torn coat. As his friends walked past the boy without even breaking their stride or focusing their eyes, Mankiewitz turned to his friends ... and he realized ... that they simply did not see a human being standing there. They did not even notice, because this boy was not a person to them.

As a classroom is a limited setting, so too is a film. How can a film, a play, a novel, any work of art at all capture the horror of the Shoah, the Holocaust? In scope of course, no matter how many piles of bodies or shoes are shown, it cannot. As any work of art, even in retelling a fact-based story, Schindler’s List, (which is now to be shown without commercial interruption on national television) falls short of that mark. In this film, a high percentage of the characters with whom we become involved survive. This, alone, makes its portrayal of the Holocaust too sugar coated.

But it also probably enables the film to reach and touch such a large audience. Besides, the point of art cannot be to show the full scope and scale of the most sordid story of history. What art can do is show a glimpse of the story, and the most basic building block that allowed this horror to happen.

It can show ... how human beings turn each other into something less than human .It can show the act and the outcome of people treating other people as objects. And this Schindler’s List does as powerfully as any other film I have ever seen in my life.

The balance between human touches and the process of dehumanization is brilliant. A young girl waves: "Good -bye, Jews." Some people reduced to papers, others to ashes. Suitcases carefully packed, then flung aside .A jeweler working on separating out precious metals ... presented with a pile of human teeth. Condos into ghettoes, gravestones into footpaths. The randomness of murder. The futility of hope. A single camera shot into the dark and open eyes of a child, clutching his mother’s skirt. People struggling to figure out the rules ... but in the kingdom of the night, where people are not people, there are no rules to figure out.

But this can only be a Steven Spielberg film ... because the reverse process is shown a well : how, for one man , statistics that are numbers on paper , that are merely cheap labor, true objects in the line of production ... become , to him, real people. Slowly .Gradually But completely.

And in the midst of it all, in an ocean of black and white, are the burning yellow flames of the candles ... and a mysterious red dress.

Never again, we say. But never again what?

It should be never again -- not just to the height of the horror -- but the mundane evil that we can not only see in this film, but also relate to. For there is an evil here that is not just Nazi in nature. It is something we see in our everyday lives.

Never again should we allow any people to treat any other human beings as objects.           Never again should a skater skate that saw her rival as only an object to be clubbed out of the way.

Never again should we Jews, of all people, speak derisively of any other people as a whole group, we who have been the objects of such groupthink. ("Goyim, this" or "shvartzes that", for instance -- how many times have we heard it ... or even said it?) The frustration of our history may make this hard, at times. But we must try.

Not too many years ago, there was a short-lived and extremely popular television series in which everyone was referred to by a number. The show was called "The Prisoner," and the ex-spy was number six. But in the opening sequence of every show, he stood on a beach and waved his hands in frustration and shouted at the sky ... "I am not a number. I am a free man!"

As are we all ... not numbers ... but free men and women. Each one of us ... is a human being ... b 'tzelem elohim, made in the image of the Most High, endowed with divinity, touched by God ... and worthy of respect in life ... and in death. Each one of us a story, each one of us a universe, a whole precious world onto ourselves. It is something that we must not -- that we dare not ever forget. About anyone!

It is not the lesson of the Holocaust. That is too large for a class or a work of art, ungraspable, unfathomable .There is more to the Shoah that just that. It stands out, burning in our minds and our hearts and the face of pure evil itself. But to treat other people as people ... it is, to me, the message of this film, and one of the most important lessons of life.