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A Rabbi in Auschwitz Part 2

Outside Auschwitz

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Inside Gas Chamber

Photos by Patti

A Rabbi in Auschwitz

So what does a Rabbi do for a holiday?  We can imagine traveling to find the best possible Jewish food sampling lox (which is in fact northern European cuisine), or perhaps traveling the globe to find the perfect plate of hummus (which is popular throughout the entire Middle East).  Or perhaps some excellent kreplach, though I have never actually tasted it-there must be a restaurant somewhere in the world that makes the very best. 

 Seriously, what did this Rabbi do – among other things, and the other things were pleasant and nice but this one not.  I visited Auschwitz.  And if that were not enough this Rabbi started out the trip spending three days in Berlin.  I will write about that next week.

 I must confess visiting Auschwitz was not number one on my list – in fact I didn’t even want to go but my lovely wife wanted to visit Kraków a beautiful medieval city, and being one hour’s drive from Auschwitz it was impossible not to – not really impossible but I felt forced to see it, dreading the visit for months.

 Can you imagine having a career as a tour guide in our Auschwitz?  Our tour guide was naturally Polish, meticulous dressed, organized, and a thoroughly unemotional speaker.  She presented the facts as though there was absolutely no feeling in her heart for what had happened.  Perhaps it was her way of coping with doing this on a daily basis.  I can’t imagine being a tour guide in Auschwitz for very many weeks and having a balanced personality.  The guide reported that more than 1 million people were killed in Auschwitz alone.

 Auschwitz was as terrible as you can imagine.  Worse however was the sister camp Birkenau, where more than 100,000 people were regularly housed as slave laborers or immediately sent to the gas chambers, and incinerated.  The camp was as large as one half of the population of the city of Mobile, Alabama.  The inmates lived in unheated wooden barracks that had originally been designed as stables, with the temperatures dropping in winter sometimes below zero Fahrenheit.  They were given food rations designed to allow them to slowly starve, and on average die within less than 90 days of working as slave laborers.  This allowed the workers who died to be replaced quickly with new camp inmates, and the process to begin again.  This great opportunity went to only to the healthy ones who were not selected for immediate death upon their arrival in cattle cars.

 It all really happened.  I saw it.  You can tell the Holocaust deniers.

Travel To Find Yourself

A couple went on an around-the-world trip. It was their dream of a lifetime. They packed and planned for weeks, they read books and researched on the Internet about all the places they were going to visit, and they documented every step of the trip through digital photos. 

They had stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Bangkok; eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing; seen an American movie in Calcutta; drunk Budweiser at a bar in Amsterdam; ate Kellogg’s Corn Flakes for breakfast in London; and, they rarely passed up a McDonald’s.

Those tourists remind me of the classic American tourist getting off the bus: white tennis shoes, camera in hand, name tag, and fanny pack strapping valuables on tight.  They choose to travel the world but cannot really experience anything new. 

If you happen to be traveling this summer try to experience where you are rather than pine for your home.  After all what’s the point of traveling if you can’t enjoy a new environment, if only for a short time?

For the many who are unable to travel, or have no desire to travel, realize some act like tourists even in their own home; to experience something different is beyond the pale.  New food, music, literature, or friends, would be unimaginable.  Yes there are tourists even in our own hometown, often people who have never left or will never leave their own community.  This summer, while there is still time left, try to enjoy some new aspect of living, even if only for a short while.

Relationship Building

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Many psychologists and family therapists, when talking about keeping our relationships strong, talk about love banks or love tanks.  What they mean is we have to continually build up goodwill, to regularly show each other our commitment is unbreakable.  This must be done whether you have been together 1 month or 80 years.  Good question to ask each day is: how have you shown your spouse or significant other your indestructible commitment to your relationship by word or deed?

Transforming Ourselves

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You probably remember there were actually two sets of the Ten Commandments.  Moses broke the first set when he came down the mountain and saw the people had turned to idolatry.  Have you ever wondered what happened to the pieces of the first set of commandments?  After all, even though they were broken, they were the original Ten Commandments.   Rabbinic tradition tells us they were placed in the Ark of the Covenant together with the second set of the commandments. 

Some say the past can be completely forgotten.  This rabbinic story teaches otherwise.  What we can and must do is take the past and build upon it to reach a better future.  The past need not doom us, but it similarly can not be forgotten.  We can learn from it, and we can transform it.

Life’s Burdens

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There is a story told of a people who did not have much in the way of worldly goods.  Every day was a struggle for mere survival.  Where would they find food or water that day, and would there be a warm place to sleep?  After years of mere subsistence, they decided to take what little belongings they had, and move on to find a better place to live, perhaps with more opportunities.  Each person took the very few things they had, placed it upon their back, and began what would be a long and tiring journey.    

After only half a day walking with their small packs upon their backs, a young man began to tire.  He noticed that others in the group seemed to be carrying lighter loads upon their backs.  After a little talking he persuaded one man to swap packs, so he could carry what he though was a lighter load.  Everything was fine for the young man, until just a few hours later he noticed that another man seemed to have a still lighter pack.  After a little bit of cajoling, he persuaded that man too to swap packs with him.  This pattern repeated itself until at last he asked an older man if he too would swap packs with him.

“My son”, said the old man, “you have not learned in life that every person has his load to carry.  You might look around and think that someone else’s burden is less than yours, but do you really know what they are carrying?  Everyone has his burden, seen or unseen to others.  It is for the wise to understand this.”

 

Mission

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“The mission of the Jews,” Ellie Wiesel once said, “has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

Value of Education

Education and study have always been among the highest values of Judaism.  There is a sad lesson I remember well  learned from my father.  It summed up the centrality of the value of education in Judaism. These were words of a refugee from Hitler’s Europe.  He often said, “Do everything you can to get the best education, because it is one thing that can never be taken away from you.”  In 1938, at the age of sixteen, he was forced to leave his family and all he knew to travel by himself to Palestine, the only place in the world which would accept him as a refugee.

Brotherly Love

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There is a Jewish legend explaining the origin for the location of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  There were two brothers who loved each other with an enduring love.  Both were farmers who owned adjoining fields.  One had a family and the other was single.  One night they both awoke with a similar thought at the same time: one day each thought of the other, my brother will be old and in greater need than I.  The single one thought that the one with family would need help with his children, and the married one thought that the single one would have no one to help him in old age.  So each in the cover of darkness began carrying the grain from his silo, and placing it in the silo of the other.  They both worked all night, but never saw each other.  When dawn finally came and they found neither silo had changed, they finally saw each other in the breaking light and realized what had happened.  According to legend this became the location were God’s Temple would later be built, upon the field of brotherly love.

Who Really Wrote the Bible

There is an elephant in the room of Judaism and almost nobody is talking.  It’s not nice to talk about elephants in the room.  It makes us uncomfortable, worried a good bit about our toes.  The elephant begins with Judaism, but extends to all Western religion.   What is that big elephant? – It is our theological understanding of God, the Giver in traditional theology of  the Torah. 

 What happened on Mt. Sinai, or what did not happen, affects the very character of our religious belief.  While many believe Moses received the 10 Commandments directly from a paternalistic grandfather like God, my opinion is quite different.  Moses was a religious genius who was deeply in touch with his spiritual nature.  Moses could see the burning Bush when others could not.  Moses could commune with God, when others could not.  Did God however write the 10 Commandments and hand them to Moses?  Moses was deeply inspired by his spiritual nature as to the values the Jewish people in the world at the time needed to live holy and noble lives.  For some, these are radical words, while for others a breath of fresh air.

 The ramifications of the way we look at the Hebrew Bible, whether received by Moses from divine authorship, or largely from the inspiration of our prophets, in turn affects every fundamental activity of Western religions.  For if God is not a father figure in the heavens, passing out holy texts to his closest followers, but rather a spiritual force of both nature and energy, apparent to the deeply spiritually observant, then everything else that follows as religious dogma needs to be reevaluated.  The elephant under the elephant so to speak is our personal God conception.  Unfortunately so many people’s religious education ended when they were only a teenager, effectively preventing them from studying theology as it has developed in the last thousand years.

 Every serious religious thinker should consider educating him or herself about some of the great religious ideas ranging from the pantheism of a Spinoza, to the deep spirituality Abraham Joshua Heschel experienced through his careful observation of nature.  There are many compelling religious answers to the great challenges of our times based on a theology that addresses the 21st century.  The many of the Western world that have, and are turning away from religion especially in Western Europe might make a quick about-face, if they were only knowledgeable of how theology has progressed the last hundreds of years.  Knowledge is always powerful, and theological knowledge might just bring you back to truly understanding life’s greatest challenges and most profound answers.

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