It was 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Among the survivors waiting to be resettled was a group of rabbis. They approached the American general in charge and asked if the US Army could help locate a set of the Talmud so that they could resume studying and teaching this critical Jewish work.
They were unable to find a single complete set of the Talmud in all of Western Europe as the Nazis had made a point of burning sacred Jewish works including the Torah and Gemara. They thus imported one from New York and the army commandeered a printing press in Heidelberg to print another hundred copies of this seminal Jewish text. It’s been reported that later on one of these sets found its way to Melbourne.
What is compelling about the story is not only the boldness of the rabbis but their vision and foresight. As writer Sarah Hurwitz suggests: “These survivors had lost their homes, families, communities, and nearly their lives… I imagine there were quite a few things they could have asked for to improve the living circumstances… But these rabbis seem to believe that the key to their survival lay in continuing the sacred conversation with generations past and generations to come.”
The actions of this group remind me of the foresight and boldness of Moses on the cusp of the exodus from Egypt. While his fellow Jews were busy collecting things and Egyptian reparations payments for the journey ahead, Moses is gathering up the bones of Joseph. Moses had the long vision, he looked ahead and prioritised values over money continuity over simple survival. Of course, practical preparations were essential, but in addition to matzah the people needed meaning. This is what the bones of Joseph represented – a link to the past but also the power of the past to shape the future. In ‘dem old bones’was a message for coming generations. Joseph symbolised the ability of Jews to cope and thrive in alien and challenging environments. Joseph was also a model of leadership and a reminder to Jews that we can all be leaders .In the words of this week’s Torah reading we are a nation of priests or leaders-this is our holy mission.
Not for nothing have Jews been leaders across so many fields and disciplines, from artists to Nobel Prize winners. We have been programmed to take the lead, to give rather than just take from the world. This has, of course, made Jews difficult to lead. Moses would lament about their stiff necks and Israel’s President Hertzog would complain about the millions of presidents he was supposed to govern, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say the Lord may be our Shepherd, but we are no sheep!Being a leader of an opinionated Jewish community is not for the faint hearted or thin skinned…
This Holocaust story is also about the priority of learning and education. We have always valued literacy and learning. This was the brilliant master stroke of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Second Temple when he foregoes the centrality of sacred space for the vitality of sacred ideas .We have always been carried by words, spirited words from Sinai, inspired words of our sages, imaginative words of our writers. Our teachers have been our weapons; we prefer the guns of Moses to the armaments of war.
I think it was Freud who said people are only as strong as their ideas. We are living through one of those tenuous and dangerous times for any civilisation. In our Western democracies freedom is under threat, core values are being undermined. A tsunami of individual rights is overwhelming the common good, a tide of ‘me’ drowning ‘us’. Shared ideas about civil language and discourse are being replaced by grievance and anger. I am afraid for the world being bequeathed to my grandchildren.
Covid is sapping the strength of community but it’s also paradoxically strengthening the need for community. Now, more than ever we need to be leaders, to enhance and champion the strong ideas of compassion and justice of our tradition. Now is the time to find a shared language. Now is the time to break down the walls between us, to educate rather rant.
Now let us all be little prophets in the spirit of Isaiah’s ( 25:6-11) eerily prescient vision:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the masks that enfold all peoples,
the masks that covers all nations;
He will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove His people’s disgrace…