Rosh Hashanah II 5783: We Can Be Angels

In March of 2020, I boarded a plane to join 20,000 fellow Zionists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. I had come to appreciate this annual gathering for giving me opportunities to learn, to reconnect with colleagues and friends, and to reenergize me. At that time, we began to hear the earliest stories of Covid-19 cases in the United States. Hand sanitizer was completely sold out locally, and I hoped I would be able to get some in Washington D.C. If you remember, the first documented case of Covid-19 in the State of Ohio was someone who was at this conference with me. In general, there was an air of strangeness and confusion in our country.

At the opening plenary of the conference, AIPAC marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps in Europe. They did so in a most unique way. Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter took the stage. If you don’t know of Rabbi J.J. Schacter, he currently serves as the Senior Scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future as well as a professor of Jewish History and Thought. For 25 years prior, Rabbi Schacter was a prominent rabbi in Orthodox congregations in Sharon, Massachusetts and New York City. Rabbi J.J. Schacter’s father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, was also a prominent Orthodox Rabbi. Among many other notable accomplishments, Rabbi Herschel Schacter served as an Army Chaplain in World War II. He was the first chaplain to enter and participate in the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in April of 1945. I recommend watching the video of Rabbi J.J. Schacter’s presentation to AIPAC on YouTube. It was uploaded by Yad Vashem. Rabbi Schacter arrives on stage and tells a bit of his father’s story. In particular, he tells the story of a child his father met in Buchenwald, amongst the dead and the dying. In that moment, a man joins Rabbi Schacter on stage. For a moment, they are both quiet before the man speaks, “I was that child.” The man was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and former Chairman of Yad Vashem. Rabbi Lau then tells the story of his liberation by Rabbi Herschel Schacter and his going on to become a 38th generation rabbi in his family dynasty. Rabbi Lau’s journey from Buchenwald to the Chief Rabbinate began with Shavuot services led by Rabbi Herschel Schacter in Buchenwald. A picture, the original now displayed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, appears on screen. In the picture, Rabbi Herschel Schacter is leading Shavuot services. The small child sitting in the front row is the young Yisrael Meir Lau. While the video of this presentation is powerful, it is nothing compared to the energy in the room that day as these two greats poured their pain and memories out upon that stage.

I share this story today because it has become a bit of a bookend for me. You see, just a few weeks ago I once again found myself at an AIPAC seminar, this time in New York City. After recovering from two Covid infections in the past nine months, traveling felt much less daunting. At this seminar, I once again had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter. He, once again, shared another stunning story from his father’s time in Buchenwald. I hope you will be patient with me as I look forward to sharing that story with you in just a bit. First, I’d like to reflect upon the two and a half years that have passed between my hearing these stories.

My sense is that most of us are still traumatized by the loss of the pre-Pandemic dream that we are in control and that the world makes sense. Certainly, many of us knew this was not true before the Pandemic, but Covid surely rid of us of any remaining illusions we may have had. I think it is safe to say that we have all had more than our fair share of anxiety, nervousness, uncertainty, loss of control, a sense that we are standing on loose ground. My sense is that we are all carrying some amount of grief. In a way, your being here today is a response to these feelings. Prayer, connection, and community, serve to provide perspective when things feel out of control. Or, in the words of our Mahzor, “U’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezayrah.” Return, prayer, and charity have a way of relieving the pain of our burdens.

Return, prayer, and charity allow us to focus on what we can control in uncertain times. It may not seem like much, but re-centering, crying out to God, and considering how we lift up those around us is actually quite a lot. These tools place an immense amount of power and responsibility in our hands, especially when they are so desperately needed in our world. This season serves to remind us that we have the capacity to illuminate the darkness, for others and for ourselves.

Michelangelo, the sculptor not the ninja turtle, famously said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” We have a similar concept in our mystical tradition, known as the kelipot. The kelipot are representations of impure forces that get in the way of our seeing Divinity all around us. They are the gunk, the plaque, that keeps us from realizing our true potential. In fact, the origins of the Tashlich ritual come from the idea of shaking off the kelipot so that we may enter into the New Year unburdened by them. I think, we will find, that if we can unburden ourselves from the weightiness of the world, we will see that we have more power to make positive change than we may think.

The Bible gives us a wonderful example of this from chapter four of the Second Book of Kings. The story is about a woman who seeks help from Elisha, the prophet. Her husband has died and she is in debt. She is terrified that if she does not find some way to repay her loans, the creditor will take her two sons as slaves. On the surface, it seems that Elisha performs a miracle for this women. For a short period, she ends up with a never ending supply of oil. She borrows vessel after vessel from her neighbors to fill with this oil.  Then, she sells the oil to repay her creditors. There is even enough left over for she and her sons to live off of the remainder. The wonderful thing about this story is Elisha’s conversation with this grieving woman. He does not ask her, “Do you have anything you can sell to repay your debts?” Rather, he says, “Hagidi li, mah yesh lakh babayit?” Or, “Tell me, what have you in the house?” The question is not really a question. It presumes that the woman has what she needs and just needs to find it.

A similar question is asked by God of Moses. God tells Moses to go and free us from our slavery in Egypt and Moses asks, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The LORD did not appear to you?” God simply responds, “Mah zeh b’yadekha?” “What is that in your hand?” (Ex. 4:2) Moses is already holding on to the staff that he will use to prove to the Israelites and the Egyptians that he is doing God’s work.

Of course, my favorite example of this thinking comes from yesterday’s Torah reading. Abraham sends away Hagar and Ishmael at Sarah’s request. Sarah is concerned that Ishmael will usurp her son Isaac. Hagar finds herself in the wilderness without water. She distances herself from Ishmael, lest she have to witness his death. But God hears Ishmael’s cries and speaks to Hagar. The Holy One directs Hagar’s eyes so that she can see the well that was there all along. (Gen. 21:17)

In May of 2020, SUNY Stony Brook Associate Professor, Megan Craig wrote a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review reflecting upon the early days of the pandemic. She quotes a William James essay in which James writes about a Robert Louis Stevenson story in which a group of young boys form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation. Professor Craig wrote, “James was writing about how hard it is to see someone else’s inner light – the thing that keeps them illuminated in dark times – especially when we are fixated on our own lives. We pass one another, intent on ourselves and our own problems, never imagining the burning fire under the dark coat.” (“The Courage to Be Alone” 5/3/2020) Like the woman in the story of Elisha the prophet, like Moses gripping his staff, like Hagar by the well, and like these lantern bearers, we experience ourselves and each other as being covered by an overcoat. However, if only we would open up, we would see that we have light and warmth within. We have light to give and light to receive.

As I mentioned earlier, a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear another wonderful story from Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter about his father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter. This time, the story does not involve another great rabbi, but a tailor. The tailor’s name is Martin Greenfield, who today at 94 years old is the owner of Martin Greenfield Clothiers in Brooklyn, NY. He famously tailored suits for six United States Presidents as well as an impressive list of politicians and celebrities. His 2014 memoir, “Measure of a Man” tells of his journey from Shoah survivor to presidents’ tailor. On April 20, 1945, Martin Greenfield was 17 years old. Rabbi Herschel Schacter conducted the first Friday night Shabbat service after liberating Buchenwald and young Martin was in attendance. The next day, Rabbi Schacter was mulling about and encountered Martin Greenfield. In Yiddish, Greenfield said, “Rabbi, I attended your service last night. It was very beautiful. But may I please ask you a question?”

“Of course,” Rabbi Schacter replied.

“Rabbi, I must know: Where was God?”

Rabbi Schacter stood still and silent.

“Look what happened!” Greenfield pleaded. Where was God? Where?”

“There are no answers to certain questions,” he said staring off in the distance. “That is a question for which there is no answer.” Greenfield lowered his head and cried. Rabbi Schacter wrapped his arms around him and held him.

Forty years later, in 1985, Martin Greenfield and Rabbi Herschel Schacter were reunited at the groundbreaking ceremony for the United States Holocaust Museum. At the ceremony, Rabbi Schacter told the story of a young boy who, after liberation, asked him a question he could not answer: “Where was God?” After the ceremony, Martin Greenfield found the rabbi and said, “Rabbi Schacter, my name is Martin Greenfield. I was at Buchenwald. I was the little boy who asked you the question.” Once again, the men held each other. In his book, Greenfield wrote, “To experience once again that connection, to stand with the man who had held me as a boy when my spirit had been shattered by the Nazis and their lust for death and darkness – I felt as though I’d been kissed by an angel.” (Measure of a Man p. 198)

In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel addressed the Jewish Federations of North America’s 34th General Assembly in Montreal, Canada. He opened his remarks with a reference to a teaching from Pirke Avot that when we fulfill a mitzvah, we acquire a single defending angel (4:11):

You all know, I’m sure, the ancient Jewish belief that a person who carries out a mitzvah brings an angel into being. That angel joins him and escorts him wherever he goes. A person who has done numerous mitzvot is surrounded and escorted by a crowd of angels. You, ladies and gentlemen, who are involved in doing such a multitude of mitzvot, have brought together in this hall so many celestial beings that I am utterly overwhelmed. I have never spoken to such a vast assembly of angels. How does one deliver an address to such a group? In fact, I feel as if I were in heaven.”

Looking out at our kahal, I see so much angelic potential. Like Hagar, Moshe, and Elisha, we have the tools necessary to make our community and our world a more heavenly place. When Rabbi Schacter was approached by a young man who had witnessed unfathomable evil, he did not wax poetic nor did he attempt to teach a lesson in theology. He simply gave that young man a hug. Forty years later, he again gave that young man a hug. Remember what Martin Greenfield said as he reflected upon his reunion with Rabbi Herschel Schacter in 1985? He said, “I felt as though I’d been kissed by an angel.” Each of us has the capacity to bring angels into this world. Each of us has the capacity and the responsibility to be angels in this world. The opportunities to be and create angels present themselves when we open our eyes and our hearts toward them.

For the two and a half years between my learning from Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, we collectively witnessed so much uncertainty, so much anxiety, and so much loss. So many of us have retreated and continue to struggle inwardly with a world that rarely feels like it makes sense. Yet, like the Lantern Bearers in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, we each have an inner light within. We simply need to remove our overcoats and let it shine. What can we do to act in such a way that someone might say that an interaction with us felt like they were being “kissed by an angel?” As we begin 5783, I invite all of you angels present today to ask yourself what you have to give to those standing around you. If you haven’t been so present in our community in the recent past, think about how you might do so in order to give to and receive from this holy community. Perhaps it is your presence, perhaps it is your expertise, and perhaps it is just a hug.

In fact, my heavenly angels, let’s start right now. Turn to those around you. If you consent to receiving an angel kiss in the form of a hug right now, stand up and open up your arms. If you would prefer a handshake, extend your hand. If you would rather a fist or elbow bump, ball up your fist or stick out your elbow. As consent matters, if you would rather remain seated and watch as our sanctuary fills up with angels, that is perfectly acceptable as well. May these sweet interactions be the first of many for our sacred community in 5783. May we angels help each other to lift ourselves up from the darkness of these pandemic years toward the lights of love, blessing, and community. AMEN!

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