Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke by Rabbi Zell

True, two weeks have passed, since Jews throughout the world sat down to the Pesach Seder, with Haggadah in hand. Nevertheless, I should like to recall an all too often overlooked biblical quote in the Haggadah, that immediately precedes our recounting of the Ten Plagues. I do so because taken out of context, this biblical quote may very well have foretold, our bringing to mind as well as to heart the travesty of the Holocaust, mere days after bidding farewell to the Festival of Matzah. Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke exclaims the prophet, Joel. Close to three millennia later, that threefold vision would evolve into an unfathomable nightmare, that was to plague the world – in particular the Jewish world – arguably making for the darkest period in our people’s history.
“For most Gentiles, Jewish meat is cheap, cheaper than beef, even cheaper than herring,” said the fictitious Ari ben Canaan (played by Paul Newman) in the movie Exodus. Ari ben Canaan could just as easily have substituted Jewish blood for Jewish meat, in that Adolph Hitler was obsessed with purifying Germany of Jewish blood. Accordingly, Hitler spared no effort and expense when it came to tracing Jewish blood. Aryan blood was pure. Jewish blood was debased and would compromise the purity of Aryan blood. With the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, German citizens with three or more grandparents born as Jews were considered Jews irrespective of belief, practice, or having abandoned their religious roots. By law, any individual with three or more grandparents born as Jews, was no longer regarded as a citizen but would henceforth be defined as a stain on the German people, as well as their much-coveted culture.
To be sure, one can find both positive as well as negative statements concerning fire espoused by our rabbinic sages. Among the latter, we find: “The fire known to us in this world is one-sixtieth of the fire of hell (Talmud: Pesachim 57b). On November 10th and 11th Jews living in  Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland understood this statement only too well. It began with the burning of objectionable books. It didn’t take long for the fires set on Kristallnacht to spread to synagogues. And when those Jewish houses of worship erupted in flames, firefighters quickly arrived on the scene… to make sure nobody attempted to put out the flames. People – at least in our culture – appear to be mesmerized by burning buildings. Once upon a time in America, people would chase firetrucks to the scene of the fire, only to stand and watch. Apparently, it served as a form of entertainment.  Did the same hold true for non-Jews watching the “Fires of the Fuhrer”? Were they also entertained as they watched deliberately set fires engulf Jewish buildings, especially Jewish houses of worship?
Irene Safran, a survivor of the Holocaust met Josef Mengele, the German physician known for his barbaric and torturous medical experiments performed on Jews in Birkenau (adjacent to Auschwitz) in mid-1944. “Good afternoon, ladies. How are you? Are you comfortable?” he asked us cordially. “When will I see my little girl?” one woman finally mustered the courage to ask. “In a few weeks, don’t worry,” Mengele answered politely and pleasantly.  Of course, the sadistic Mengele meant that we’d see our loved ones in a few weeks when we joined them as we went up in smoke in the chimney of the crematorium.
No doubt, I am in the minority. But when white smoke emanates from the special chimney placed atop the Sistine Chapel, signifying that a new pope has been chosen, I cannot help but contrast it with the smoke rising from the “special” chimneys at Auschwitz. For Catholics, smoke rising from the chimney at the Sistine Chapel represents godliness; for Jews and hopefully, for the rest of mankind, smoke rising from the chimneys at Auschwitz represented nihilism. It was the prophet Joel, who horrifically envisioned the pillars of smoke at Auschwitz, as he foresaw pillars of smoke together with blood and fire.
The prophet Joel’s three plagues proceeding the ten plagues in the Pesach Haggadah provide for a striking contrast. The ten plagues were just desserts visited upon the Egyptians. The three plagues visited upon the Jews should have made mankind sick to its stomach. The ten plagues came from G-d. The three plagues were an affront to G-d. The ten plagues restored human faith in G-d. The three plagues caused G-d to lose faith in mankind. Come Yom HaShoah, let us make an effort to remember as well as to memorialize and help G-d rebuild His faith.

Going Against the Grain by Rabbi Zell

Anglophones have an edge, come the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Thanks to the English Language with its plethora of aphorisms, Anglophones are able to describe Pesach as a Festival that goes against the grain. An integral part of the human race is the need to see that justice has been served. As such, our ancestors in Egypt would have every right to protest slaughtering a sheep or goat, daubing the doorposts and lintels with blood, and roasting that sheep or goat. What about the Egyptian taskmasters as well as those who engineered the entire system of subjugating and enslaving the Children of Israel? What about their just desserts? The slaying of the Egyptian firstborns was hardly comeuppance for a grave injustice committed against G-d’s chosen. Why are the taskmasters not receiving what is due them? Oddly enough,  never is heard a questioning word from the Children of Israel, as they carried out one of the first commandments handed down to them as a nation. Instead of harboring hatred, they were handling hyssop! Doesn’t such behavior defy human nature? Doesn’t such behavior go against the grain? But perhaps going against the grain was the primary requirement of meriting being delivered from enslavement. Perhaps true freedom is recusing oneself from retribution.
Although most of us are unaware or oblivious to the fact that once we became a nation, we were given a phrase word that was intended to mold our behavior as a people.  Nary a day goes past without “Zecher L’Tziat Mitzrayim” being brought to mind. “Zecher L’Tziat Mitzrayim” is translated as “in remembrance of exiting Egypt”. Those three Hebrew words go against the grain. We are neither enjoined to remember the slavery nor adjured to recall the suffering. Other than reading about the suffering of the Children of Israel in the Haggadah at the seder, rarely, if ever, do we give thought to the pain and suffering our people were forced to endure as an enslaved people. Human nature would have us dwell on man’s inhumanity against man. But because we are a people encouraged to rise above human nature and go against the grain, we do not dwell on suffering in Egypt, but rather exiting from Egypt. As G-d’s chosen, we are directed to dwell on liberation rather than subjugation. Perhaps this helps us to understand why in recent history, the government of Israel chose to accept the offer of reparations from Germany. Rather than become ingrained with bitterness and vindication, the government of the then nascent State of Israel knew that it had to go against the grain. Unlike individuals, we as a people, guard against being drawn into feuds.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood teachings found in the Tanach is the phrase “Vengeance is mine”. Over the centuries, that phrase provided much fodder to anti-Semites who were only too happy to contrast Judaism with Christianity, particularly when it came to divine behavior. While anti-Semitwas touted the benevolent behavior of their savior, they denounce the vindictiveness of the G-d of Israel. Little did those anti-Semites realize, that “vengeance is mine” is divine reassurance that we, the Children of Israel did not let injustices consume us. Ultimately, injustices against us will be addressed. G-d will choose the time, place, and method. And so it was, as far as punishing our Egyptian enslavers. G-d chose the time. It took seven days, the exact same amount of time G-d devoted to creating this world. It took place at a body of water. Just as redemption began at a body of water with an Israelite infant floating in a wicker basket, so too would redemption come to fruition at a (albeit different) body of water. As far as the method?
G-d repays in kind; G-d rewards in kind. The Children of Israel were able to go against the grain when they gained freedom, by occupying themselves with fulfilling G-d requests instead of settling all accounts with their enslavers. The Children of Israel were encouraged to go against the grain by focusing on the leaving from Egypt rather than the suffering in Egypt. G-d chose to repay and reward in kind by having the waters of the Sea of Reeds go against the grain and divide and save the fleeing Israelites only to come together again to drown the Egyptians. In doing so, the Egyptians were served their just desserts while the Children of Israel experienced a phenomenon that would last for all ages.

Toasting and Tasting by Rabbi Zell

In all likelihood, New Year’s Eve will be celebrated differently this year, if at all, given the importance of social distancing. For Jews, New Year’s Eve being celebrated differently, should not in any way be linked to a pandemic, but rather should be viewed as a perennial issue. There are those among us, who are adamantly opposed to Jews celebrating New Year’s Eve, so much so, that they regard those as having worshipped the golden calf. Hyperbole aside, there is much to be learned about celebrating New Year’s Eve, provided one is prepared to make a comparison between Rosh Hashana and the secular New Year.
The Hebrew word for new is Chadash. Nowhere in our  High Holy Day liturgy, do we find the term Shanah Chadashah. Furthermore, the term Rosh Hashana means the head of the year or the beginning of the year. Neither “new” nor “old” receive much play in Judaism. If anything, old – typically referred to as elders, rather than old people – is looked upon positively by our tradition. In Judaism, there is no “out with the old, in with the new”. In Judaism, we profit from the past and build on it. It was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of what was to become the modern State of Israel, who reminded us: that which is old will be renewed; that which is new will be sanctified. Close to 35 years ago, during his visit to the Rome Synagogue, Pope John Paul II, with more than a modicum of respect, remarked to his Jewish hosts “you are our older brothers”. Hopefully, Pope John Paul II’s words to us were accepted with more than a modicum of honor.
  No doubt, Hallmark, along with other Greeting Card companies, have only the best of intentions in designing their product for Rosh Hashana. But traditionally, Jews have never wished one another a happy New Year. Traditionally, Jews have wished one another a good year. “Good” and “happy” are not, nor have they ever been synonymous. Judaism, being a religion of mitzvot, asks that we focus on doing a good job at living our lives, not a happy job. Happy is a reaction; good is an intention. Other than extending a wish or sentiment that the year that is coming to an end be summed up as having been a happy year, other than extending a wish that in 365 days from now one be able to look back and express happiness, it is beyond me, how one can wish another, a year of happiness. In Judaism, sameach was a wish initially reserved for the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. All three were also harvest festivals. Wishing another person, the ability to be happy because of a bountiful harvest is a beautiful sentiment. Jews don’t wish one another a happy Shabbos (Shabbat Shalom), a happy week (Shavua Tov), or a happy month (Chodesh Tov). It is therefore simply beyond me, why we would wish one another a happy year.
Can you imagine concluding Rosh Hashana services with a cacophony of “Shanah Tovah” replete with horns and streamers? Can you fathom supplanting or augmenting the Rosh Hashana finale of HaYom Te’Amtzaynu by turning to the person next to you at services, extending your hand, and asking that he or she give you his or her hand, so together, the two of you can hoist a mug for times long past? Rather than spending time to toast the past, our tastes tend toward the future. Jim Beam and Jack Daniels may be perennial guests at the end of December, but come the beginning of Tishri, Rosh Hashana tables host slices of apple and scoops of honey.
Other than behaving in an unacceptable way, because of too much imbibing, as well as becoming swept away in the frivolousness of the festivities, my main concern, come December 31st, is that those who celebrate, fail to contemplate. The message of Rosh Hashana is crystal clear. For us,  New Years’ is the time to recognize the creation of the world, as well as the opportunity to acknowledge G-d as King of the universe. In all too many cases, come December 31st, people are already too fuzzy to recognize anything other than an invitation of “how about another one?”. 
I pray that the day comes, when a heartfelt L’Chaim of sobriety, supplants cheers of inebriety, and where the shanda of intemperance is replaced with naches of reverence. 

NOW IS NOT THE TIME

Not that I’ve conducted any studies, but I can’t help but feel that there will be topics that any number of rabbis in this country will address in their sermons. Unlike so many other rabbis, the rabbi of Tiferet Israel wouldn’t touch these topics with a ten-foot pole. To borrow a cliché: “Now (Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) is not the time.”

Now is not the time to talk about the state of the world, the state of this country, or the state of this state… Unless, of course, some high elected officials are present in the congregation. And even then, why not have a private conversation with that high elected official? Unless it is election time and the rabbi is foolish or reckless enough to speak politics from the pulpit, the average congregant can do precious little, if anything, to change the world, this country, or the state or city he or she is living in. You may disagree, but I was always under the impression is that the High Holy Days are all about changing oneself. Please understand, I rant and rave about North Korea, Qatar, Syria, and the Myanmar Rakhine exodus as much as anyone. However, I’ll do my ranting and raving at the breakfast table.

Now is not the time to talk about social action. Come to think about it, rarely, if ever, does the rabbi at Tiferet speak about social action. The rabbi at Tiferet leaves that to other clergy. Let other rabbis talk social action from their pulpits until their hearts content. When it comes to social action, the rabbi at Tiferet is occupied with not talking, but undertaking social action on the other side of Fair Park, Tuesdays at lunch time. The rabbi at Tiferet must be doing something right, because from time to time a Tiferet congregant joins him in this mitzvah of social action. And that’s in addition to the regulars who accompany him on an ongoing basis. Isn’t Rosh Hashanah a time to focus in on oneself? What better social action is there than giving oneself a sense of worth? What better social action is there than getting oneself to establish a stronger connection with HaShem? No different than charity, shouldn’t social action begin at home?

Now is not the time to harangue congregants. Quite frankly, the rabbi of Tiferet sincerely doubts that any time is the time to harangue congregants. Can you imagine any salesperson at Sanger’s department store haranguing a customer? Can you fathom a Liberty Mutual agent haranguing a client? Why then should a rabbi reprimand a congregant? Shouldn’t the very opposite be the case? Isn’t the role of a rabbi to welcome a congregant and embrace that congregant? Why must “you are loved” be the sole domain of televangelists? Why should “love” be a concept that when mentioned in connection with a synagogue makes Jews feel so uncomfortable? If “teshuvah,” a word so typically attached to the High Holy Days, means “return,” shouldn’t “teshuvah” apply to the synagogue as well? Shouldn’t every congregant be reminded, time and time again, that he or she will always be most welcome and will be embraced with outstretched arms and a loving heart at his or her spiritual home?

Let’s leave this year’s High Holy Day sermon topics a secret for the time being. Be assured that they were prepared with you in mind in the hope that they reach your hearts and souls.