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If these pages could talk

A holy Jewish book gives hope to a kid in a DP camp, and a legacy of unity to his grandchildren

A number of years ago, my parents began preparing to leave the home they’d lived in for decades. But at a certain point, my siblings and I realized that nothing was being packed. My father would open a drawer, look at what was inside, and a groundswell of memories would surface. Nostalgia and reminiscing would overtake the packing process, as my parents decided again and again that these items were too precious to pack, and they would move on to something else.

With the house already sold and a moving date fast approaching, my parents’ children and grandchildren sprang into action and descended upon the home. My sisters divided the house into parts; I received the task of going through my father’s library with him. We split the books up into four stacks — one of those stacks being books that were old and should probably be discarded.

But for some reason, as we were packing them up, I felt compelled to open and examine them (like father, like son?). Amongst the books, I found several sefarim (Hebrew books), and amongst the sefarim were talmudic tractates that my father had learned in the DP camp when he studied with other children who had also survived the Holocaust.

I also found a copy of Mesilat Yesharim — an ethical, spiritual self-help text composed by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an influential rabbi of the 1700s — which had also been studied and passed around in the DP camp. I lifted the volume and thought to myself, imagine if the cover and pages of this book could talk? What hidden stories might they reveal of the men and women who engaged with it 70 years ago when they had been liberated, but were not yet free? Men and women drenched with visions of the suffering they had endured, struggling with the fact while their loved ones had perished they had not. What insights these pages could convey!

The first words in chapter 1 read, “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is for a human being to clarify and come to realize as truth what is his/her obligation is in this world.” A profound note was struck within my soul; I had begun that day with the aim of helping my parents, and instead found myself, once again, in awe of their perseverance as survivors, with the courage to search for renewed obligation and purpose in this world.

My father was given hope in the form of this Mesilat Yesharim at the Ulm Sedan Kaserne DP Camp when he was just 12 years old. The camp existed as a partnership between the Joint Distribution Committee/Federation, Vaad Hatzalah, and the American army. It represented the power people can have when working together — power that made it possible for a devastated pre-teen to once again study the immortal texts of our people in the wake of World War II.

This week, 71 years later, this copy of Mesilat Yesharim accompanied me on my aliyah journey to be part of a thriving Jewish nation in the modern Jewish state.

My wife Ruchie and I brought our 13-year-old — my father’s grandson — to settle in this land. Here we have been reunited with our two children who had already made aliyah. One has served in the IDF and the other is raising our sabra grandson together with his lovely wife. They will also study from this sefer, Mesilat Yesharim. And as we embark upon this joyous, long-awaited homecoming, I ask myself and my new community (and the one I will never really leave behind), the same question raised in chapter 1: What is our obligation in this world? How will we make this world better than we found it? How will we work together with the help of God to ensure the safety of all Jews around the corner and around the world?

How will we work toward a reality in which the State of Israel is the homeland of all Jews and for us as a community to speak out against vitriolic rhetoric that is repeated by people calling themselves Jewish leaders against our brothers and sisters who practice differently?

We, Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, are a community that understands what it means to be immigrants and refugees and therefore, as Klal Yisrael, as a nation, we must act on behalf of oppressed people anywhere in the world. We must work to ensure that the Jewish state remains strong, safe and secure.

As I walked off the plane as a new immigrant, I held in my hand my father’s sefer to remind me of the work left to be done. We must work to educate our young people in the values that have united our people for thousands of years.

* * *

This is the central mission of Ohr Torah Stone, the network of institutions I am proud and privileged to be joining. Our students are men and women, striving to become Torah luminaries, willing to engage with the opportunities and challenges of modernity, while viewing them through the prism of Torah values. They are soldiers in a Jewish army, who stand on the front lines (for the first time in 2000 years) in order to protect the Jewish homeland and to protect Jewish people around the world: in Sderot and South Beach; Petach Tikva and Paris; Jerusalem and Johannesburg; Tel Aviv and Texas; Modiin and Monsey.

The State of Israel changed the definition of Knesset Yisrael — the community of Israel — and postmodernism continues to redefine the concept of community, but there is a greater need than ever for the protective and empowering cloak of “kehilla,” community, that the State of Israel provides. We must all engage in the drama of our people’s story. There is no better way for us to do that than to celebrate the gift of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, to know our own story and to realize what being Jewish means to each one of us. We must strive to help all Jews find their spiritual wings through love, not indoctrination.

If my father’s Mesilat Yesharim could talk, I imagine it would remind me that the outside world never divides us into sects. What is our obligation in this world? I believe it is to help ensure that we walk as a people together and not divided. That the answer lies in our own hands. That each of us makes a difference, and that together, we are unstoppable.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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