Posted tagged ‘Welcoming Guests’

The Shoah and Today 2019

May 6, 2019

Last Thursday was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is 74 years since the liberation of the camps and the conclusion of the war, yet we still hold these memorials observances. As well we should, for we must never forget what happened in Europe when the forces of hate were released from the shackles of conscience and morality.

Yet what does that really mean in terms of our observances today, 74 years later? Are our observances just a memorial to the 6 million Jewish martyrs that perished in the Holocaust? That must not be, for there were 3 million non-Jewish victims that shared their fate. They were Roma and Sinti; gay men, women, and the transgendered; Jehovah’s Witnesses and the mentally disabled; Blacks, Communists and political dissidents. They, too, we must remember and mourn, or at least we should. Are today’s observances solely a deep dive into dark memory or should they be more than that? Are they merely a solemn celebration of the vanquishing of one evil at one time in history or should they be more than that as well?

There is no rhyme or reason to the sacrifice of those 9 million lives, nevertheless the millions of war casualties both military and civilians. No one can justify their suffering and their destruction. These martyrs were victims of what happens when mindless evil is allowed to run rampant and unchecked in the world. But if we are satisfied to treat their loss as this profoundly tragic stain on the fabric of human history, then we have not done their martyrdom justice. If all they have become is a painful yet vague memory of people too numerous to name, then they truly have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.

We must take their sacrifice and give it meaning; true meaning and not just some superficial meaning meant to assuage the human guilt of allowing it to happen. From their sacrifice we must learn vital lessons about what we need to do in order to prevent this from ever happening again. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” These martyrs must be our teachers as to what we need to do so that this history is never repeated. These are the lessons of NEVER AGAIN! NOT TO THE JEWS! NOT TO ANYONE! NEVER AGAIN should we allow anyone to single out a group of people, or several groups of people, and declare them unworthy as human beings. NEVER AGAIN should we stand idly by while others are singled out for discrimination, for persecution, or for extermination, while we say to ourselves, “Well it’s not my problem!” NEVER AGAIN should we remain silent, and through our silence, allow those in power to pursue policies that dehumanize and demonize whole segments of society, and then justify the mistreatment of those segments on the grounds of their hate-filled lies and their degrading stereotypes. There is an old saying: “Silence equals Assent” and we must never give our assent to evil.

So where do we begin? We must begin at the beginning. You would think that is the obvious answer, but not really. Why? Because today, when we look at the Holocaust, we tend to look at is as through a “rearview mirror,” perceiving it as a whole, with Auschwitz predominating our view. But the Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz. It ended there. Rather the Holocaust was an evolving process, starting with anti-Jewish laws which carved the Jews out of society and defined than as the “other.” It is with those anti-Jewish laws that we must begin, for that is where the Nazis began as they set out on their road which ultimately lead to Auschwitz and the Final Solution.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Nazis enacted more than 2,000 anti-Jewish laws. While in the 1930s most people, including the Jews, could not conceive of the gas chambers, still the road to genocide began with these anti-Jewish laws.

In the 1930’s, the Nazis transformed their bigotry into law, and sad to say, that process of transformation is still being practiced around the world, and some would say, even in our own country. As we consider some of the policies in place today in the United States and around the world, comparing them to some of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws of the ‘30’s, let us ask ourselves, “Do we hear in them echoes of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws?”

On April 7, 1933 the Nazis enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service which forbid all Jews from serving the German government in any capacity.

Our society has long discriminated against the LGBTQ community. For the last several years, we have been reducing such discrimination. Yet recently our government announced that transgender men and women could no longer serve in the military. Captain Jennifer Peace was among trans service members who testified before Congress. She shared her reactions upon first learning of this ban. She said, “I think it was in that moment that for the first time I really questioned, ‘Why am I still waking up and putting on this uniform when time and again I am not able to serve?’ Why should I wait to deploy and risk my life again when the people I am serving do not even want me here?” In the pain in her words do we hear an echo of the pain felt by those German Jews who, in 1933, also were told that they could no longer serve their country?

On April 21, 1933 the Nazis enacted a law banning the practice of Kosher slaughter. In their propaganda, they portrayed Kosher slaughter as perversely cruel, and therefore symptomatic of what they claimed to be the inhuman cruelty of the Jews. Considering the fact that from ancient days, Kosher slaughter was specifically designed to cause the least pain and suffering on the part of the animal, the Nazi assault on it was just a veiled attempt to further demonize the Jews.

Today, in Europe, seven nations – Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, & Switzerland – all ban the Jewish and Muslim practices of Kosher and Hallal slaughter, also claiming to do so on grounds of cruelty. Do we hear an echo of the Nazi ban on Kosher slaughter in these current bans?

In July 1938, an international conference to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was held in Evian, France, with representatives of 32 nations attending. In the end, most countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain, continued to refuse to admit these refugees, claiming, among other reasons, issues of national security.

After a year of public debate and court battles, in December 2017 the Supreme Court gave its approval to a travel ban which primarily targets refugees from 5 Muslim countries; Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The reason given for this ban is, like the one given in 1938, “national security.” However, when one examines the acts of terrorism, and the attempted acts of terrorism, that have taken place between the nightmare of September 11, 2001 and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018, there appears a serious inconsistency with the reasoning behind the ban. During that time period, 78 attacks or attempted attacks have been recorded. Of them, only 15 involved foreign nationals. The rest were conducted by domestic terrorists. Of the 15 attacks or attempted attacks involving foreign nationals, only 2 of the 5 Muslim countries had nationals from their nations involved; Somalia and Yemen. Yet there were 15 other nations – Muslim and non-Muslim – that had nationals involved in these attacks or attempted attacks, yet none of those nations appear on the list of the banned. Several Holocaust survivors have spoken out against this ban. Aaron Elster, who was the speaker at my own community’s interfaith Yom HaShoah service in 2003, said, “For someone to come along and say, ‘These people cannot come in,’ I believe that’s a sliding slope. It starts that way. What group will be next?” Though the order claims the ban to be “Temporary” with a possibility of becoming permanent, Fritzie Fritzshall, who also was the speaker at my own community’s interfaith Yom HaShoah service in 2004, said that for those whose lives are in danger, “90 days is a lifetime.” Do we hear the echo of the doors that were closed by the nations of the world to the Jews fleeing for their lives from the Nazis in this travel ban?

As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, countless families were torn apart, whether through parents making the heart-wrenching choice to save their children by sending them to England on the Kindertransports or turning them over to non-Jews willing to hide them, or during the selection process when they first arrived at the camps.

The issue of U.S. immigration reform has been hotly debated for many years. Unfortunately, trapped within this controversy are the children of aspiring immigrants and those whose families feel they have no choice but to send their children alone to our nation in search of refuge from the violence in their own lands.
In 2014, the former administration considered sending unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America back to the dangers of their native lands. However, nationwide protests convinced the government to set aside such plans.

But now our current administration plans to reinstate its Zero Tolerance approach to deterring undocumented immigration which includes a policy of Family Separation. Children of families crossing the border without proper documentation will be taken from their families and held by our government. This policy does not include measures to eventually reunite these families. Detainees have testified to Congress that even families lawfully requesting asylum were separated.

Members of the Hidden Children Foundation, representing children hidden during the Holocaust, expressed their deep concerns over the Family Separation Policy. Co-Director Rachelle Goldstein, who herself was separated from her parents at age 3, said, “Separation of the family is probably the worst thing that ever happened to us…When you take a child away from the parents, from the home, from everything that they know, they are never the same…Most hidden children are now in their late 70s, 80s, some are even 90, and they still think about it, and it still hurts, it still aches.” Do we hear the echo of the crying children, torn from their families as a result of Nazi persecution, in the sobs of the children impacted by our own Family Separation policy today?

Nazi anti-Jewish legalization culminated in January 1942 with the ultimate anti-Jewish policy – genocide. They called it the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The Nuremburg War Crimes Trials outlawed genocide for all time. Unfortunately, genocide lives on, from the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, to the ISIS massacres of entire Christian villages. Today, the Rohingya of Myanmar are victims of an ethnic cleansing. In December the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said it found “compelling evidence” that this is yet another genocide. Do we hear the echoes of the anguished last breaths of victims of the Nazi gas chambers and killing fields on the lips of today’s slaughtered Rohingya?

When governments target whole groups of people, all humanity suffers. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped, may we come to measure people as individuals solely by “the content of their character.”

In memory of the Holocaust martyrs, Yom HaShoah must not only speak of past transgressions but it must challenge the transgressions of today; transgressions that have become all to numerous, both at home and abroad!

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HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue

October 28, 2010






The Torah portion, Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), is one of those wonderful sections that is simply chock full of powerful stories and lessons.  It tells of how Abraham and Sarah received the news that in their old age, Sarah would finally bear a child.  It tells of how, when God revealed to Abraham the Divine plan to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham actually argued with God on their behalf.  It then goes on to tell of how those cities were destroyed because they did not merit Abraham’s defense of them.  It tells of what happened to Lot and his daughters after their escape from Sodom.  It tells of the birth of Isaac.  It tells of how Sarah, fearing for Isaac’s safety, forced Abraham to send away his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, the handmaid, Hagar.  It then goes on to tell of how Hagar and Ishmael almost died of thirst in the wilderness but instead, God saved them and promised to make Ishmael a great nation.  It tells that most famous account – the one we read on Rosh Hashanah morning – in which God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Yes, this particular Torah portion offers us much to consider, study, and discuss.  It is a treasure trove of important lessons.

Tonight I wish to focus our attention on just one of the stories – one of the lessons – from our Torah portion.  It is one I have yet to mention.  It is the account of how Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and how they received them.  According to the Torah text, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he noticed three strangers approaching.  They were angels, but he did not know that at the time.  As soon as he saw them, he jumped up and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home.  Though he had no idea of who they were, still he bowed down before them and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.”  He offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as being a very important one when it comes to Jewish life.  They spoke about it extensively, and from it they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?”  His answer was that he did so in order to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible.  The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch is tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction.  Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.

There is another midrash which is very telling and very powerful.  It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality.  According to this midrash, one of the many travelers who Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man.  This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered.  After he had bathed, and rested, and had eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them.  Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed.  “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man.  The old man simply replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.”  “But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you.  My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.”  “You are wrong,” replied the old man.  “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place were I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here.  They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.”  Well Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way.  Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?”  Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols.  To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man.  Now you have the audacity to toss him out?  If his idol worship has not bothered me, why should it bother you?”  Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man.  When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.

Why were the rabbis so fixated on this Torah story?  Why were they so fixated on this matter of hospitality; of welcoming the stranger?  Perhaps it was because of another statement that appears and reappears throughout the Torah, that statement being, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah is constantly concerned about the well being of the stranger, and therefore so were the rabbis.  That concern is based upon the fact that of all people, we as Jews should know what it feels like, and what it means, to be a stranger.  We know what it is like to be on the outside, looking in.  We know what it is like to sometimes feel excluded or ignored or  evenworse, and we do not like it.

If we do not like being the stranger – if we do not like being treated that way; as somehow less than others – then from our unpleasant experiences we should learn to do better and to be better when we find the tables reversed; when we are the hosts and others are the strangers.  If we do not like to be made to feel unwelcome, then it is incumbent upon us to go out of our way to welcome others.  And, as the midrash about the old man instructs, it should not matter whether or not we agree with those others.  It should not matter whether or not they are like us or dramatically different from us.  For in the end, as different as we may be, they, like us, are still God’s children and should be treated accordingly.

Our rabbis were truly wise because while they understood that this issue of how we treat strangers most certainly has societal, national, and international dimensions – it impacts such issues as how do we as Americans treat immigrants, both of the legal and illegal variety, and how do Israelis in the Jewish state treat the non-Jews residing in their midst – if we are ever to effectively address such issues properly, we must start our efforts, not so much on the big scale but rather on the small scale, the intimate scale, the personal scale.  The rabbis clearly understood that if we ever want our society to be welcoming to the strangers in its midst, then we have start by building homes that are welcoming to strangers.  That if we start by promoting this virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – on a family level then surely it eventually will take hold on a societal level.

The rabbis understood that we need to turn to Abraham as a model of personal behavior.  Abraham lived a world that was not very welcoming.  Twice – once in this week’s Torah portion – Abraham and Sarah found themselves in foreign lands where they were so unwelcome that if they did not conceal the fact that they were married, Abraham most likely would have been murdered by lecherous rulers.  Yet, even so, Abraham decided that his world was going to be different.  His home would be a place in which strangers would feel welcomed rather than afraid.  Therefore, as Abraham’s home was welcoming to strangers, so should every Jewish home be welcoming to strangers.  There should always be at least one seat open for guests at our Shabbat dinner table.  Guests should always welcomed to the Passover Seder, even as we begin that service by stating, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  Nor should we consider these seats to be reserved for people we know.  Rather, when it comes to this, it is the stranger who should enjoy priority seating.

As we welcome strangers into our homes, so should we, as Jews, welcome strangers into our synagogues.  When we see someone we do not know, we should feel it to be our obligation to approach that person, introduce ourselves and help them to feel at home among us.  I am sure that there are among us tonight those who have found themselves in other communities on Shabbat or on holidays.  There are those who, while in those communities, have gone to local synagogues.  In some of those synagogues, we felt left out in the cold.  We were alone, and no one even acknowledged our presence.  It was as if we were not there.  And after the service, we left the building feeling worse than empty; feeling somehow wounded.  Then there are those who, finding themselves in a similar situation, entered synagogues in which people approached them, welcomed them, wanted to get to know them, and tried to make them feel at home.  And that felt great!  The point being that Hachnasat Orchim may start in our homes but should naturally flow into our synagogues.

But in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues.  As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with.  And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.