Bechuchotai 5781 – My Bar Mitzvah Parashah – We Are All Letters in the Scroll

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Janusz Korczak was the pen name for Henryk Goldschmidt. He was an author of children’s books in Poland before WWII. He eventually ran an orphanage in Warsaw. He, the social workers and all the children were gathered by the Naziis and sent into the Warsaw Ghetto during the war.  He was given the opportunity to leave, since he had been in the Polish army, but he refused. He chose to stay with the children and ultimately accompanied his 192 orphans to Treblinka, never to be heard from again.

The opening verses of today’s parashah begin with the promise of how we will be rewarded if we follow Gd’s laws. The Israelites are implored to accept Gd’s invitation into Gd’s mitzvot as a means of traveling along a journey – a personal and collective path, just as we are on our own journeys. And Gd tells the Israelites in the Torah portion today that if they perform Gd’s work, “I will be your Gd and you will be my people.”

Still, as with Janusz Korczac, bad things happened and continue to happen to very good people. Many cultures and religions encourage and praise the acceptance of the tragic human condition. Be stoic. It was meant to be. Have faith. Indeed, maybe it will all make sense at some point in time. But to me, there is nothing rational or inevitable about hope and optimism. No one promises us that this optimism and hope will be justified or that a bright future awaits. And stoic? Oy Gevalt!! No one ever accused Jews of being stoic in the face of adversity!

Although our people has faced untold persecution and prejudice through the centuries, we continued to have faith and hope. We continued to have children no matter the circumstances in which we found ourselves. We acted in an entirely irrational way, teaching our children in makeshift schools in the ghetto of Warsaw. Even in Siracusa, Sicily, which Nancy and I visited in 2016, in the days leading up to the Inquisition, Jews tried to hide their mikvah on their way out by pouring sand in the bath and hoping they would return one day!

Theodicy – the reconciliation of a fundamentally good Gd with a world that is so bad in so many ways – has been the subject of more books than we can count.

 In today’s parashah, we read of the terrible fate that awaits us at the hands of God if we do not follow all of Gd’s mitzvot. But the parashah does not end there. After all of this hardship that may come our way, Gd says, “I will remember them. I will not reject them. I will remember my covenant.” The lesson is clear. No fate is so bleak as to preclude all hope and optimism. No defeat is final. Our ultimate fate is not cast. Tragedy need not be the end of the story.

So is the justification for the Holocaust that the people rejected Gd’s ways and lived in sin, and they were collectively punished? Even those who were observant? Even those who clothed the naked and fed the poor? Even children? Please. It’s enough to make one downright secular. No, for me there is no quid pro quo. Do good and you will be rewarded? Do bad and you will be punished? I can’t abide by that. So where does that leave me?

The three cornerstones of my belief are: belief in a creator, the miracle of Jewish survival, and the fundamental truths and teachings of Judaism that have endured and have been incorporated by other peoples throughout history. All three of these foundational pieces mandate that I – we – have a purpose, and that purpose begins with helping make the world better by becoming Gd’s partner in the unfolding history of humankind.

And even If it winds up that I am wrong, I would still not feel as though my life was spent in vain. Oh, I will perhaps wish that I could have enjoyed shrimp scampi or a BLT sandwich, but still, still, I would not have given up these Shabbat mornings here at the kehillah with friends, and I would not have regretted learning Torah to the extent I have, because those things have given me much joy and sense of purpose. So if all this Jewish and Gd stuff turns out to be a delusion, as delusions go, this is a pretty good one. And in fact, it’s so good, that I believe it may really not be delusional at all.

Well, 57 years have come and gone and I’m still coming to shul. Still trying my best to fulfill Gd’s commandments and my people’s teachings and to do what Gd has set out for me to achieve in my life. In the writing of our most sacred book, the Torah, if even a single letter of the book is missing or misshapen, it must be corrected, or the Torah is considered treif. I am a  letter and my letter as part of the book of the Jewish people must not be missing. And it must not be misshapen. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: “I am just a single letter in the words that are our community. Our community is just a sentence in the chapter about today’s Jewish people. And this chapter is part of the book of the history of the Jewish people.”

In a section of Sacks’s book which I read every Passover, at our sedar, he says, “I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I, and my people, have a past, and this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know a more powerful one.”

As I read at our keheillah sedar, I will conclude with this: On January 1, 2000, the NY Times ran a millennium edition to celebrate the paper’s 100th anniversary. The special edition ran 3 front pages. One was a replica of the 1/1/1900 edition; one was actual news of 1/1/2000, and one contained the projected headlines from 1/1/2100. On that page, in addition to such items as whether robots should have the right to vote, a small item at the bottom informed New Yorkers of the Shabbat candle lighting time.  The production manager, an Irish Catholic was asked about this item, that seemed so out of place. He responded, “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100. It’s impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain. In the year 2100, Jewish women will be lighting Shabbos candles.”

Am Yisrael Chai.


Shabbat Shalom