No More Ashes

On July 15, 1937, 69 years ago, Nazi officials processed the first of what over the next eight years would eventually amount to just shy of a quarter million prisoners at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  On January 29, 1945, Elie Wiesel arrived with his father.

While in the clutch of Nazi hands, young Elie witnessed firsthand the slaughter of countless innocent lives.  Among them, where his mother, his sisters, and, yes, his father, too. With his own eyes, he saw the ashes of fellow prisoners exit the smoke stacks and cross the sky. Even if he himself did not yet know it, from that moment on, his destiny was set.  Elie would live the rest of his life amplifying the voices of those with no voice, bringing light to darkness, and purifying the polluted.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered in February of 2002 by Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Jews around the world were touched and inspired by his final words, which were, as you may remember, , “I am Jewish.”

With these three words, Daniel’s parents, Judea and Ruth, were moved to ask 148 Jewish leaders from across the spectrum a single profound question: “What does being Jewish mean to you?”  The result was I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, winner of the 2004 Jewish Book Council National Jewish Book Award.

One of the contributors to this extraordinary collection was Elie Wiesel, who wrote:

“Daniel Pearl's last words are those of a Jew who was assassinated only for his Jewishness. They will resonate in many hearts. They are meant to be the answer to his murderers’ questions: Why are you here? Why do you oppose terrorism? Why do you denounce injustice? “I am Jewish,” answered Daniel Pearl.

...[I am Jewish] means for the Jew in me to seek fulfillment both as a Jew and as a human being. For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish is to recognize that every person is created in God’s image and thus worthy of respect.  Being Jewish to me is to reject fanaticism everywhere.

As a Jew, I must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. To remain indifferent to persecution and suffering anywhere... is to become an accomplice to the tormentor.”

From Chukat, this week’s Torah portion:
1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 2 This is the law of the Torah that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. 3 You shall give it to El’azar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.... 5 The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned.... 7 The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening....  9 A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing...

This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you.

As I read these words today, on the anniversary of Buchenwald’s opening of all days, less than two weeks after the passing of Elie Wiesel, and following one of the most difficult weeks in recent American memory, I can’t help but believe that this, of all Torah portions, is the one we need at this very point in time.

The relevance to events of 60 and 70 years ago is clear: The red cow to be burned to ashes was entirely innocent of wrongdoing. Just as the red cow was to be transformed into ash in the presence of our biblical leader El’azar, so to were the Jewish innocents transformed to ash in the presence of our modern leader, Eli’ezer.  Just as the ashes were to be collected and deposited in a clean place after the burning – in order that they may be used for purifying purposes in the future – so too did Eli Wiesel take it upon himself to do the very same. 

On a spiritual level, the Holocaust represents a generational death — a death of the millions of victims, of course, but also of the perpetrators.  The end result of innocents being loaded daily into the Nazi crematoria ovens was — on a practical level — nothing more than ashes. But if Elie Wiesel taught us nothing else, he taught us that those ashes, which came at an inordinate price, are also of incalculable value. We cannot let them go to waste.

The tragic episodes of last week tell us that we are living through another generational death of spirit once again.  No, it is not even close to being on the same magnitude as the Holocaust. Not even close. But we cannot deny that it is a spiritual death nonetheless.
 
Dallas Police Department Senior Corporal, Lorne Ahrens, 48
Falcon Heights, Minnesota Citizen Philando Castile, 32
Dallas Police Department Officer, Michael Krol, 40
Dallas Police Department Sergeant, Michael Smith, 55
Baton Rouge Citizen, 37 Alton Sterling
Dallas Area Rapid Transit Officer, Brent Thompson, 43
Dallas Police Department, Patrick Zamarripa, 32
All dead. None deserving of such punishment.

Whether the facts hold that there is more racially motivated violence today than there was fifty years ago, or even twenty-five years ago, I do not know.  Statistics seem to show that we are actually living in a more peaceful country today than we were back then. But that is not the point.  Because what I do know is that awareness of injustice, and with it an increasing refusal to accept the status quo of racial tension, is growing at unprecedented rates. 

It is abundantly clear that the overwhelming majority of America’s police officers show up, day in and day out, for their dangerous work with noble intentions.  It is both a disservice to them, as well as dangerous for us, to let the miniscule portion of officers who fail to uphold the ethical responsibilities of their position to discolor the entire profession.  Still, in those proportionately rare instances – no doubt amplified both by social and traditional media – where racially-influenced violence is indeed perpetrated by the police, we as a country have no acceptable choice other than to speak out and demand change. 

The same is true of Black Lives Matter. By all reports, the Dallas protest was peaceful and productive, right up until the moment of obscene terror.  Lest we forget, though, it was a single terrorist, acting alone, that perpetrated the violence. The same can be said of the vast majority of those now familiar, even if few in number, acts of unacceptable violence that have been committed in the name of Black Lives Matter. Like the police officers who serve with honor and grace every day, so too is it true that those who risk life and limb by standing up for the dignity of minority life do so with noble intent and noble tactics. We cannot let the few who act otherwise reverse the progress that truly has taken place over the past half century. To do so would be to do a disservice both to the forward progression of American racial justice and dangerous for the minority community who, with disproportionate need for the police to maintain peaceful neighborhoods, still live with significant and unjust challenge. Yes, we have indeed come a great distance since the days of Jim Crow, but who among us can deny there is still so far to go?  

As 90-year-old Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer writes: “I came from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”

We already have more than enough innocent ash stored in the bank.  6,000,000 contributions is quite sufficient.  Of course, that is just the ash that was collected from Jewish offerings. To this number we can add perhaps 5,000,000 more.  Our vaults are bursting at the seam. We have run out of room. 

So I finish with this challenge: What is it that we are willing to do?  Who among us is willing to take a stand of Jewish principle?  As your rabbi, I am here to work with you, but this is a job that demands the force of an entire community.  And it is a job that cannot wait.  

I do not stand here tonight with the answer. I do not have a simple magic solution that will bring about the shleimut, the wholeness, that we so desperately need — and deserve.  But this I do believe, and I believe it with perfect faith: People of good will who set out to do Good in this world are capable of miracles. Yes, it requires the help of God, but it must begin with us.  

As we are now on a summer schedule, it will be a full month before we come together again for Shabbat services.  A month is a very long time, long enough, I would say, for at least a group to coalesce to voice their commitment to come together.

“The opposite of love,” Eli Wiesel taught us, “is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of sacred is not profane, it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

The time has come for the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey to make our collective voice heard. 

While it is not upon us to complete the task, neither are we free to keep from doing what we can. And if not now, when? Let us be indifferent no more.

Shabbat Shalom  

— Rabbi Dr. Andy Dubin
Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey

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