Reuven Spero

Pesah, Shoah, and Wonderment

Over the past two weeks, I was immersed first in traveling to Poland with my class, and then immediately afterwards, celebrating Pesah with my family. It was perhaps my 15th or 20th trip to Poland, and I wondered if perhaps visiting and teaching in these places of Jewish despair and destruction was beginning to wear thin, becoming simply another place to teach. The truth is that something about going to Poland is so moving, so overwhelming and cataclysmic that I see Israel differently when I return home, I see my life as a Jew differently. The obvious thematic and historical connections between our redemption from Egyptian slavery to freedom, from Nazi Shoah to Jewish independence made my seder, where half of the 27 people sitting around the table were under 6 years old (my grandchildren! Imagine!) more powerful and poignant.

I want to draw out these thoughts a little before I lose them. These thoughts concern the idea of what Jewishness is, at its essence, and how we as a people try to achieve our national mission. These thoughts are framed by my recent reading of a book by Ruth Wisse, Jews and Power.

Ruth Wisse begins her book with a story brought down to us by, among others, Shmuel Zygelboim. Zygelboim was the head of the Bund in Warsaw, and was smuggled out of the ghetto to join the Polish government in exile in London. In 1943, he committed suicide in protest of the world’s indifference to the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population, and so also to join his people in death. In any case, he passed along this incident that he heard from a friend of his, an incident from the early days of the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. A young boy playing in front of his house was being harassed by two German soldiers. His mother, seeing what was going on, came out to the street, replaced her child’s cap on his head and pushed him inside the door saying, “come in and za a mensch (be a mensch).”

Wisse picked this story to introduce her book, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, although there is nothing overtly religious about this story, it is very Jewish and, arguably, very religious. What I mean is that the idea of being a mensch, which I think we can define as being what a human being ought to be, is a primary goal of what the Jewish tradition comes to teach. And undeniably, the idea of being a mensch is derived from being created b’tzelem elohim,in Hashem’s image. “Be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy.” And the sages define practical holiness as imitating Hashem’s ways: just as I visit the sick, so should you visit the sick; just as I clothe the naked, so should you clothe the naked. The Ramban goes perhaps even further. Don’t think, he contends, that by fulfilling the laws of the Torah that you are fulfilling the Torah. You can do all the Torah commands and still miss the point of the Torah entirely if you are not reflecting the holiness of the Torah through your actions. In other words, the Torah is not an end in itself. It is a tool to teach you how to come inside and za a mensch. And this idea is derived from our faith that Hashem, too, is a mensch.

Further, I think she picked this story because she wants to make the point that the Jewish striving to be a mensch occurs in a world where menschlekeit is rare. If cruelty is ubiquitous on the individual level, how much more so on the historical level. And what nation has been on the receiving end of that cruelty, historically and personally, more than the nation that so celebrates and enshrines the opposite? To relate this reality to the story above: with a level of certainty that approaches 100%, within two years both the mother and her child were dead, either of disease and starvation in the ghetto, or in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Such is the end of our mensch, and of our menschen through history. Andre Schwarz-Bart summed it up: luftmenschen were turned into luft. (luftmensch is a word impossible to really translate. Luft is air and mensch is man. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has “an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income,” which in some way is right on the money and misses the point. Substitute “Jew” for person, put some Torah and a bit of Talmud and maybe even some Spinoza in his mouth, humming a Hasidic melody or a measure of Mendelssohn walking down the street in Warsaw, or sitting in the village market in some shtetl, and then replicate his simplicity, sweetness, and a certain ineptitude in the physical world and place it to varying degrees upon 4/5ths of the Jews of Europe, and you get closer. Turning luftmenschen into luft….well, you see both the destruction of a special Jewish type and the contrast to Germans, who were not luft but land, and deadly efficient, and you start to grasp to turn of phrase.)

One obvious conclusion is that our devotion to menschlekeit is some kind of quixotic and self-defeating, not to say self-destructive, obsession. Darwinian processes have been at work to uproot this strange and unproductive weed through exile and destruction and genocide. It would be easy to come to the same conclusion as did some in the camps: one is either a predator or prey. Prey are killed, predators may live. Menschlekeit is no more than Nietzschean slave mentality drilled into us so as to repress any notion of physical or political power, a lesson learned well in our repeated revolts against Roman tyranny. Menschlekeit: as in “wear the Jewish star with pride,” of soup kitchens in the ghetto, of singing Hatikva on the way to the gas chamber, of having good manners even when bad manners are called for because otherwise, “what would the goyim think.” We refuse to let ourselves be dehumanized as we live lives that dogs would not agree to live. Menschlekeit helps us feel good about dying bad.

Or, perhaps menschlekeit makes us feel good about living good. What has been pounded into us was not Nietzschian slave mentality, but a transcendent dedication to the transcendent. The idea of tikkun olam, of finding meaning in life by increasing the world’s store of goodness, has found modes of expression through Jewish society and history. Jews are drawn to professions like law and medicine and education not simply for monetary reasons, but because these are roads to tikkun, worthy of one’s life-work. The Jewish people are legendary for their philanthropy and the State of Israel is a world leader in giving, be it through IsrAID, Save a Child’s Heart, or private initiatives that are dedicated to transcendent goodness. One of the most striking statistics about Jews is the international recognition accorded to so many Jews with profound achievements in the sciences and literature: the Nobel Prize. To quote:

The ~210 Jewish-born science winners (from including those of half and three-quarters Jewish heritage) is equivalent to around 10 winners per million. By comparison, the US has 1.0/million, while the top country with more than 2 winners is Switzerland, with 2.5/million. The top non-Jewish religious denomination is probably Lutheranism at 0.5/million (extrapolated from 100 Years of Nobel Prizes by Baruch Shalev). The top US states by birth are New York and Massachusetts, both at around 3.0/million, while DC has 6 winners at 9.3/million (possibly confirming that urbanness is a significant factor).

Jews make up around 1.5% of the First World population, 2% of the US population, 3%-10% of some of the more successful US states, and 3%-10% of some of the more successful US metropolitan areas such as NY, LA, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. Historically these numbers were higher, but not massively so. Jews also comprise around 23% of all science winners and 33% of US science winners.

And why is that? Because furthering the wealth of human knowledge gives us, humankind, more control over nature’s dangers, longer life, better lives. Because revealing order and wisdom in the world is another way, even a secular way, of revealing something transcendent in the world. And at the bottom of it all is the idea that life is meaningful, that it has purpose, that we have the ability and responsibility to infuse life with purpose.

Isn’t that enough of a foundation for our nation’s mission? Isn’t that a mission statement by itself? We exist to teach the holy mission of menschekeit! We exist to help our students understand the practice of it in their daily lives. To make them conscious of their power to change lives, to change the world, and that even in a world that is characterized by the hard and the harsh, the evil and the salacious, the cruel and the greedy, the arrogant and the self-serving, that even in this world they have the key to creating small but not insignificant pockets of light, of holiness, of goodness, and that it is precisely these small acts of hesed that connect us to the transcendent tradition of goodness that is Judaism.

But there is something alse. Emil Fackenheim calls it astonishment. Perhaps a better word is wonder. We live in a jaded world, where wonder does not live. We tend to believe that science can explain anything, nature is mechanical, reality is cold, objective and impersonal, and the events of our life random.

Jewish history is wonderful, in the sense that it recounts a story that engenders wonder, astonishment, and awe. A thesaurus of relevant synonyms: admiration, awe, bewilderment, confusion, curiosity, fascination, fear, reverence, shock, surprise, incredulity…. Stop for a second and think of each of these terms individually. Think of each of them in terms of the narrative of the Jewish people. As a story that infuses us with wonderment, it connects us to a transcendent and spiritual reality that belies the mundane reality that too often fills and kills our lives.

I saw a video testimony, an edut, at Yad Vashem recently that is such a perfect example of this. Sinai Adler was talking with a few of his fellow yeshiva students in the squalor of the Mauthausen camp when one of them mention that is was Pesah that evening. Each must have been struck by the memories of seders gone and not to be recreated. We should say the Hagada, one suggested, and each remembering what they remembered, they recited the ritual. But what did they have, Rabbi Adler asked? Wine for kiddush – for that they had water so filthy not even an animal would drink it. Bread of affliction? Afflicted yes, but the bread they received was of sawdust and flour. Avadim hayinu? Recite the story of being slaves to Pharoah? Could it be worse than our situation. Rabbi Adler paused, and continued: the real slavery was a spiritual slavery, is a spiritual slavery. He paused again and recalled that when he said “Next year in Jerusalem!” he said it with particular passion and devotion. And then, this beautiful expression mixed of joy and wonderment came over his faice. “And so it was, for me. The following year for Pesah, I was in Jerusalem.”

So this becomes the mission statement of our people: we educate for an appreciation and internalization of transcendent Jewish menschlekeit within a context of understanding and internalizing the transcendent wonderment of being a Jew, possessing its story, and experiencing the astounding wonderment of being a Jew now, in these times.

And the eternal paradigm for this educational foundation is the Pesah seder itself, which teaches us the undying menschlekeit of Hashem and infuses us, each of us every year, with the wonderment of the Jewish story, a story that by commandment and by choice, we internalize year by year, not “as if” we came out of Egypt, but that yes, we really did, you and I and my noisy lovely grandchildren and my noisy lovely students, all of us together, making that trek from slavery from freedom, from Shoah to rejuvenation.

About the Author
Reuven is a refugee from Kentucky, where his family lived for 200 years. A teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Reuven and family are now rooted in the Land of Israel, living in Shilo.