Talk 30 Jan 2015
East Denver Orthodox Synagogue
Several individuals have asked me to post a copy of a talk I gave at EDOS on Shabbat Shirah. I am grateful to Dr. Phil Mehler for asking me to speak, and to my wife for insisting I write out my thoughts.
It’s hard to imagine saying anything this Shabbat without recalling our late friend, Rabbi Yisrael Rosenfeld, zichrono livracha, who died earlier this week–only a few days shy of the 70th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz.
[My colleague, friend and former student Kobi Penland has written beautifully about remembering Auschwitz and its liberation this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in her blog; click here.]
The Russians liberated Auschwitz on the Sabbath—it was the 27th of January, corresponding with the 13th of Shevat, Shabbat Shirah; Rabbi Rosenfeld used to recall his liberation by giving a Dvar Torah every year on this date.
10 years ago, after a large gathering of survivors to mark the 60th anniversary, an Israeli proposal to have the date remembered annually as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was adopted at the UN. This year, the 70th anniversary of the liberation, was marked around the world; you all read the accounts that speculated that this may be the last time a “round number” anniversary will have any significant gathering of survivors.
Permit me to offer my own remembrance of HaRav Rosenfeld. His studies at Herzliyah Hebrew Teachers Institute, back at a time when it was one of the four ranking such Institutes in America, (together with the Teachers’ Institutes of Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Teachers College of Boston). Rabbi Rosenfeld knew that I worked briefly at Herzliyah in a much more difficult period of its existence, when the Hebraist-Zionists of Herzliyah had combined with the Bundists of the Arbeiter Ring and the Yiddisher Lehrer Seminar (or “Samovar” as one of my senior colleagues at that time used to call it) and it was a shadow of its former self.
Rabbi Rosenfeld was a student of one of the more unique Hebrew educators of America, Daniel Persky, who perhaps most eloquently represented Herzliah’s Hebraist tradition. He spoke a pure, correctly accented but Ashkenazi Hebrew, wrote textbooks and columns, including for the Hebrew Labor paper HaDoar, and among other things translated the US Constitution into Hebrew. He was famous – and feared—for demanding standards, and for his motto Eved HaIvrit Anochi. “I am the slave of Hebrew.”
Rabbi Rosenfeld uniquely combined this strain of Maskil-style Hebrewism, the attention to standards, ready publication of essays and Hebrew textbooks, and broad Jewish education—with knowledge and a strict commitment to Torah and Mitzvot. A rare combination, and much to rare today. May his memory be a blessing יהי זכרו ברוך.
Shabbat Shirah takes its name from the Biblical poem—the Shirat Ha-Yam (Song of the Sea, Ex. 15) that is recited in synagogue the Torah reading—and Shirat Devorah (Song of Deborah, Judges 5) is the Haftarah. Today it is the occasion in many synagogues in Denver and throughout the country for musical programs. For example, at the BMH-BJ-The Denver Synagogue, the Cantor and the men’s choir will grace services tomorrow. There is a program at Rodef this weekend, a concert at Congregation Sinai tomorrow night, and much more. Tomorrow at the Kavod, I’ve prepared a transliteration to help the seniors there join in singing E-l Adon, Sim Shalom, Alenu and some of the other prayers.
But if we are to honor Shirah–“poetry” as well as “song” –by going beyond the reference to the Shirah in the Torah and Haftarah, and recall the liberation of Auschwitz on Shabbat Shirah, perhaps we should spend some time with poems and songs associated with the Holocaust.
I attended services on the East Side in New York, just after the attack at the Hyper Cachere in Paris. The Rabbi there referenced Bialik’s famous poem Al Ha-Shechitah, written some forty years before the Holocaust, after Bialik visited Kishinev. Rabbi Skydell picked out the final verse for special attention in the aftermath of the Paris attacks:
וְאָרוּר הָאוֹמֵר: נְקֹם
נְקָמָה כָזֹאת, נִקְמַת דַּם יֶלֶד קָטָן
עוֹד לֹא-בָרָא הַשָּׂטָן –
וְיִקֹּב הַדָּם אֶת-הַתְּהוֹם
יִקֹּב הַדָּם עַד תְּהֹמוֹת מַחֲשַׁכִּים
וְאָכַל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ וְחָתַר שָׁם
כָּל-מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ הַנְּמַקִּים
And cursed be the man who says:
Avenge! No such revenge – revenge for
the blood of a little child – has yet been
devised by Satan. Let the blood pierce
through the abyss! Let the blood seep
down into the depths of darkness, and
eat away there, in the dark, and breach
all the rotting foundations of the earth.
Those who survived Auschwitz took Bialik’s advice by and large. They knew in their guts that it was impossible to fathom the evil that had destroyed their world—they focused not on revenge, but on rebuilding new lives, in Israel, in America, and elsewhere—on teaching, on preserving, on Jewish continuity.
The most famous song associated with surviving Auschwitz is probably the Ani Maamin. It is most often ascribed to R. Azriel-David Fastag (1890-1942), one of the two most prominent developers of the songs for which the court of the Modzhitzer Rebbe was famous. Fastag deported from Warsaw to Treblinka in 1942. The story goes that he began singing this song on the cattle-car—and gradually everyone joined in. He challenged those in the car to volunteer to try to bring this song to the Modzhitzer Rebbe, reportedly offering “half his portion in the world-to come” to anyone who would do so. Reports about how and where Fastag’s melody came to the Modzhitzer Rebbe’s attention differ in details—and ultimately its fame may have much to do with his influence and the stories of how the song survived—but the melody quickly gained recognition, and was sung in America and Palestine in remembrance ceremonies. It eventually gained a place in the liturgies developed not only for Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) but also for Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day.
Time does not permit much elaboration; a small part of my research agenda has include research into cultural production during the Holocaust, or the way it is remembered in Song; particularly the Zog Nit Keinmol and other anthems from the period; and the songs and poems from the camps and ghettos gathered by Schmerke Kaszerginsky. (who, together with his friend the poet Avraham Sutzkever, had been instrumental in saving the immensely important cultural and historic archives of YIVO first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets, reuniting them with the YIVO after it had moved to New York.
This slot is dedicated to a dvar Torah, and I would like to return to suggest, very briefly, how this concept of Shirah fits into a paradigm suggested by Torah.
A few days after our ancestors left Egypt, they felt surrounded on all sides. The Divine advice was simple: Moses tells them “God will fight for you, va-atem taharishun and you will be silent.” Sometimes, we should not say anything, presumably, this was not even a time for prayer. Indeed, God rebukes Moses for crying out, and tells him to get moving—and the Midrash supplies a famous example of action though: Nachson ben Amminadav enters the Red Sea as an act of faith.
After our ancestors realized they were freed from slavery to the Egyptians, they sang a hymn of praise to God.
But while this Sabbath is named for this hymn, the Torah Reading does not end there. Instead, it ends with Moses on the top of a hill, with Aaron and Hur holding his hands. As long as Moses held his hands up, the Israelites were successful. In the end, Vayahalosh Yehoshua et Amalek v’et amo lefi harev. Joshua subdues Amalek and his people by means of the sword. The verb Vayahalosh indicates not complete conquest, but “weakening”—Amalek, epitomizing evil and cruelty, survives (unlike the Pharaonic army that drowned a few days before).
Then what happens?
There are three responses at the very end of the Torah reading:
- We remember, by writing and speaking: God tells Moses to write a memorial in a book, speaks to Joshua “in his ears.”
- We are reassured: God assures Joshua—and all of Israel—that He will wipe out the memory of Amalek.
- We build: In this case, Moses builds a mizbeah, an altar.
So too—we must always remember, and always speak, although what we speak about is unspeakable; perhaps this is why shirah, poetry and song, help us to articulate, help us write down in books, and keep the memory alive in our speech.
We must reassure each other that in the end, God will ensure that the wicked will be wiped out, not merely weakened.
And, like Moses, we must build—places of memorial, places for growth.