Autumn is always bitter sweet for me even though I no longer have a schedule-children long gone from the nest and I am blessed with the opportunity to go at my own speed without onerous responsibilities. But I still experience it as “a time between” the long, lazy outdoor days of summer, and the return of winter, the lengthening shadows, and impending darkness. A time best for reflecting on our “paths strewn with promises like fallen leaves.” It is a liminal time: a time for which our Jewish calendar, our communal life, prepares us.
This year we have a lot to ingest, to internalize. Gratitude for the continuing existence of Israel. And a lot of hurt and anger. We have been attacked again-for being Jews. If there had not been the kidnapping of our Jewish children and the bombs falling on Israel that finally led to Operation Protective Edge, the anti-semites would have found another reason to blame Israel and world Jewry for all things evil. The hate is ever-present-it’s just a matter of finding a “reason” upon which to hang one’s hat. Always in search of root causes for terrorism, I await the day when the Jews are accused of being that “root cause.”
In the end, though, we suffer doubly. First, the loss of our children; always painful-how many millions of worlds have the Jew-haters destroyed by killing our people. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” And then there is, I fear, the residual hate that lurks in our hearts that can destroy entire worlds. We are only human.
We have spent the past few weeks cleansing our souls. Scrubbing the hate from our memories. Reminding ourselves of the importance of forgiveness; first I believe for ourselves-our own sanity-and then forgiveness of others. How many ways are we told in our sacred books that vengeance belongs to God and that God forgives us to teach us to forgive others?
But this year, this year gives rising hate for us. But this time is different. There is something different in the air with this round of anti-semitism. The barbarians have taken over a vast swath of land in the Middle East and Africa and have brought their hate to the West and yet, and yet, it is antipathy for our people that leads the headlines. And it is coming from the highest levels of Israel’s “stalwart” ally-The Americans. Hard to ingest that.
Yet, we must immerse ourselves in the mikva of forgiveness and come out ready to start again, anew. And so I share wiith you with a story that has engraved itself on my soul. It is the story of moral courage that haunts me. Would I be like these brave souls?
In 1940, in the early onset of World War II, it took Germany a mere six weeks to conquer France. For two years the country was divided between the Northern occupied half and the Southern “Free Zone.” Thousands of Jews who lived or made their way to the south survived in relative peace for two years. About 5000 Jews, mostly children, made their way to a small Protestant village, Chambon-sur-ligne, located in the mountains 350 miles south of Paris. In 1942 the Germans went into Southern France and began to round up the Jews to send them to concentration camps where they would be murdered.
There were approximately 5000 residents in the village of Chambon-sur-ligne. They were proud descendants of the first French Protestants, the Huguenots, who had been persecuted for their beliefs. The village was also a place of convalescence for the Germans soldiers. The Nazis were the neighbours.
Now, add to this the culture in which the residents of unoccupied France lived. They were well aware of the German attitude toward the Jews. In Germany of the late 19th century, the “Jewish conspiracy” was the explanation for everything that had gone wrong in the world. Jews were described as an alien people endangering the German citizens. These views carried forward into the 20th century. Anti-Semitic propaganda was everywhere. Hatred of Jews was in the water and the air. In October 1940, Marshall Petain, chief of state of Vichy France, the unoccupied south of France, the location of Chambon-sur-ligne, decreed that foreign Jews were to be rounded up and interned in special camps. Local prefects could send Jews to concentration camps for any reason at all.
Yet, the families of Chambon-sur-ligne sheltered every Jew who came to their village. They did this knowing full well that they were defying the French government which was collaborating with the Nazis. The villagers provided the Jewish refugees with food, an education, forged identification papers, and escorted many to Switzerland, to freedom.
I have often asked myself what I would do in that position. Would I put myself in danger? The answer to the question I pose is important. But it is in reading this story that I am reminded of the greater story-the meta-story. The gift that has been given to our people and that our people shared with the world. Torah: the story of how to become a mensch and live in a society that elevates care for the stranger.
The residents of Chambon-sur-ligne, which became known as “that nest of Jews in Protestant Country,” didn’t hesitate in their actions. I think of these people-these most righteous citizens of the world-when I am faced with a moral conundrum. Will I have the courage to do the right thing? Will I act or will I make excuses and justify turning away?
Their leader, their pastor, Andre Trocme had taught them well the ethics of our fathers and mothers. Despite the view of the majority, they held on to their moral compass, the compass that we delivered to the world 3500 years ago.
This is the gift we received, first as students, and then we shared as teachers: The road map to becoming human and living in a world that dignifies humanity through the belief in the sanctity of all life.
This is the gift that will help us with our roiling emotions. This is the gift that we need to remember during the liminal days of fall: The Days of Awe. The Days of Reflection, Repentance and Return.