Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Psalm 27 - ה', אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי

A thought on the first verse: "The Lord, my light and my help."

Is there any significance to these opening words?

Perhaps the Psalmist is capturing the dual nature of man's relationship with God.

On the one hand, we can relate to God, in times of trouble, as the source of help. As a cynical friend of mine once joked: "God, I know you don't exist, but I'm in a spot of trouble here...". When we are in trouble, we instinctively pray.

On the other hand, in times where we might not feel troubled-- when one can focus on spiritual matters -- the Psalmist recalls God as his light.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heda Margolius: 1919 -2010

I'm reading her amazing story, Under a Cruel Star. Just one excerpt, thanks to Kindle's copy and paste...
Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, “Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?” And the friends would say, “You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!” And they would seat him in their parlor where his carpet lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother. The survivor would thank them, sip his tea, and look at the walls where his paintings hung. He would say to himself, “What does it matter? As long as we’re alive? What does it matter?” At other times, it would not turn out so nicely. The prewar friends would not make tea, would not suggest any mistake. They would just laugh and say in astonishment, “Come on now, do you really believe we would store your stuff all through the war, exposing ourselves to all that risk just to give it back to you now?” And the survivor would laugh too, amazed at his own stupidity, would apologize politely and leave. Once downstairs he would laugh again, happily, because it was spring and the sun was shining down on him. It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies. He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in a corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about. Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, “You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off – not even Hitler could manage it. Every day there’re more of them crawling back, like rats...” And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing. On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz. Friends from the country would send an invitation: Come see us! We want to feed you. We have plenty of everything! The survivor would arrive at the village, unable to believe his eyes. The farmhouse would be twice its prewar size. A refrigerator would be standing in the kitchen, a washing machine in the hall. There would be Oriental carpets on the floor and original paintings on the walls. The sausage would be served on silver platters and the beer in cut glass. The old farmer would stroke his whiskers and worry, “No sense denying it – we did very well during the war. People had to eat, you know, and with a little thinking... But now things are different... Just as long as the Communists don’t take over...” It took me some time to muster up the courage for a trip to the village of Hut where we used to spend our vacations. Our country house there was as much of a home to me as our apartment in Prague had been, maybe even more so for all the happy memories it held. To return there all alone, the only one of my family who was left, was hard. On the way out the train seemed to be moving too fast, the air was hot and stifling, my head throbbed, and my stomach ached. In Beroun, where I had to change trains, I was seized with such anxiety that I almost returned to Prague. At last I reached Hut and made my way haltingly from the station to the village, glimpsing from far away those windows where I used to see my mother looking out, alive and happy. The trees in our orchard were past their bloom and no one seemed to be about. The door of our house was locked. I rang the bell and, after a while, a fat unshaven man opened the door, stared at me for a moment, and then yelled, “So you’ve come back! Oh no! That’s all we needed!” I turned around and walked into the woods. I spent the three hours until the next train back to Prague strolling on the mossy ground under the fir trees, listening to the birds.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Horror of Divine Silence

This weekend we lit Hanuka candles without the usual festive spirits. The memory of 41 lives, lost in Israel's most dreadful event in recent years seemed to darken any room lit by candles.

For all their political incorrectness, those religious leaders who rushed to give their own theological interpretations to the senseless loss of life weren't really that far off the mark - at least from the mood of the people. It's natural to ask why. It's also dangerous to answer that question. But just because there is no answer doesn't mean there is no question. And perhaps all one can truthfully do is meditate on the question. 41 public servants, doing the right thing, family members, representatives of the law and the order that ultimately justify our State's continued existence. Why? It is painful to ask.

Of course, some will answer that this is proof of God's uninvolved role in the world. His non-intervention policy. That is certainly a perspective that has grounding in traditional Jewish sources. The Midrash about the palace burning is the most prominent example.

But some religious people aren't satisfied with a world view of man as the only actor in history. The Bible certainly tells us God gets involved, (e.g. the Exodus) and so there is also solid ground for a religious person to reject that view of God as uninvolved in history.

Perhaps silence is the best response a religious person can give when confronted with tragedy. But if we do say "Baruch Dayan Emet", at least to ourselves, as our tradition tells us we should, we must remember to do so with tears in our eyes. We must not turn away from the suffering of those 41 families when we say those words. Those words shouldn't be an escape from their suffering.