William Hamilton

Moral Discipline

Tom Beurgenthal was reportedly the last survivor to walk out of Auschwitz at age 11. I urge you to read this moving tribute to his 89 extraordinary years, in the wake of his passing and burial two weeks ago. 

Here’s just one story that I find so compelling. Having survived Mengele’s amputating two of his toes, and a searing memory of a 6-year-old girl being led out of the room at gunpoint, pleading “Why must I be shot?”, Tom would go on to become a law professor, an internationally respected Judge in the Hague, and one of the world’s leading authorities on human rights. 

As fate would have it, a case was brought before the World Court by neo-Nazis who sought to prove that the Holocaust was a fabrication. Listen to how our tribute to Tom’s life describes what followed.

“In one of the most devastating recusal decisions in history, Tom removed himself from the case, since he felt it would be improper for him to judge the existence of the concentration camps as a survivor of one. The recusal was a riveting moment for the court, and his colleagues quickly dispensed with the frivolous claim.”

Now feels like as good a time as any to acquaint ourselves with stories of towering moral discipline.

This week’s portion of Torah tells of the spies’ failed-mission to preview entry into the Promised Land. It begins with the instruction to select one person from each of the 12 Tribes. There’s an uncommon way in which the text says one from each Tribe. The Hebrew phrase ish echad, ish echad is repeated twice. Why? 

Perhaps the first hints at an earlier appearance of ish echad that calls back to the Joseph story. Joseph’s ten brothers are startled by his stinging accusation that they were spies (Gen 42:11). False accusations, however mistaken they prove to be, can still fling our mental energy in a reeling state. Dizzying us, as when we’re trying to walk straight after being spun in circles. 

The second ish echad can remind us of a maxim of the sages, “When masses are misbehaving, strive to behave handsomely (li’hiyot ish) (Pirke Avot 2:5). When most of the herd are bottom-feeding for dirt, you should strive to rise and help others rise. Your head isn’t in the clouds. And it’s not in the sand. Rather, you see clearly what’s happening, what it means, and what’s to be done. 

Once upon a time, Caleb and Joshua did this. As did Tom Beurgenthal. May each of us (ish echad) feel their clarity of purpose guiding our steps in the week ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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