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Reasons to wake up before dawn

Tyranny can't grow without being fed and Nazism indeed grows in silence, but the smallest voice of resistance will interrupt that silence for good (Vayikra)
Police face demonstrators during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/ Dmitri Lovetsky)
Police face demonstrators during a protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/ Dmitri Lovetsky)

In the dawn hours of what was to be a hot Israeli summer day in 1994, I was sleeping in an air conditioned hotel room in Tel Aviv. My family was on a synagogue trip to Israel; I was 6 years old and it was my first visit. I remember hearing the alarm ring and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father getup and leave. It must have been four in the morning, so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Several hours later, I groggily woke up and asked my dad where he had gone so early. He had that American tourist look with a baseball cap, high socks and sneakers, and a snazzy white t-shirt with blue writing and an illustration of a plane that said “Flight for Freedom.” He relayed that some of the adults had gone to Ben Gurion airport to meet and welcome Soviet Jewish immigrants who were coming to Israel for safety and for a new life. American Jews, back then, were extraordinarily dedicated to this cause and I, as a young child, was extraordinarily dedicated to getting one of the t-shirts. 

That memory stayed with me, as did the t-shirt. I realized that apparently there were reasons to wake up at the crack of dawn.

On Pesach in the years to follow, I would think back to that morning every time we would recall being slaves in Egypt at the seder. Who were those people? What had they been restrained by? What were they leaving? Who were they running from? What were they running towards?

As we stand on the precipice of perhaps one of the darkest times in modern history, I am beginning to understand; at least a bit more that no one is removed nor untouched by the plight of the human experience. Despite trying to convince ourselves otherwise, history repeats itself again and again.

The scenes in Ukraine over the past weeks have been mind-bending and devastating. Endless sirens. Decimated cities. Bombed hospitals. People leaving their homes in droves. Men signing up to fight and protect. Women and children leaving to an unknown reality. People sleeping with their pets in the metro. Nothing is certain. No place is safe.

No place is safe.

But, when all hope seems lost, crisis has a way of bringing people together. In the empty pantry of humanity, people seek crumbs of hope and solidarity to survive.

The pain produces the strength to resist. And in an act of pure selfless resistance, thousands of Russians took to the streets with signs that said to the likes of, “I am Russian, but I stand with Ukraine. I am opposed to Putin’s war. I am sorry for the actions of my people. I am sorry.” Thousands of protestors (including children) were arrested for vocalizing their truth and THE truth. They were detained for demanding that their leadership take responsibility to be better and to do better. Even in the echoed halls of a prison, their calls can’t be silenced.

Our tradition demands that we never stand silent as absolute power corrupts absolutely. Leaders are not meant to be self-serving; their very purpose is to work for and on behalf of the people. And when they don’t, they must be held accountable for their actions by the people whom they serve. Such a precedent exists in our biblical narrative which subjects leaders to technical and spiritual review.

In Parshat Vayikra, the book on “how-to” worship God, there is an incredibly detailed description of the different offerings, why they were given and to whom they were to be given on behalf. There was the olah (burnt offering,) the mincha (meal offering,) zevach shelamim (well-being offering,) chatat (sin offering,) and the asham (guilt offering.) 

Within the category of the sin offerings there was the sin offering on behalf of the priest, on behalf of the entire community (interpreted by commentators as being the Great Sanhedrin,) the leader (Nasi,) and the ordinary person. The sin offering was made for both greatest and the smallest transgressions with or without intent. The asham offering was used for the harshest of transgressions. In other words, there is an infrastructure and an internal dialogue that is built into the ancient tradition which involves revealing transgressions and trying to identify who transgressed and why it happened.

In Rabbi Mary Zamore’s commentary on Vayikra she says “Holding our leaders accountable for their actions is intrinsic to the biblical design of ancient sacrificial cult and the accompanying priesthood.” 

Our sidra echoes in Leviticus 4:3 “If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he will offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without a blemish as a sin offering to the Lord.”

אִ֣ם הַכֹּהֵ֧ן הַמָּשִׁ֛יחַ יֶחֱטָ֖א לְאַשְׁמַ֣ת הָעָ֑ם וְהִקְרִ֡יב עַ֣ל חַטָּאתוֹ֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר חָטָ֜א פַּ֣ר בֶּן־בָּקָ֥ר תָּמִ֛ים לַיהֹוָ֖ה לְחַטָּֽאת׃

But what is this L’ashamat Ha’am? Does the priest take responsibility for his role in creating collective sin? Are the people culpable for the mistakes of their leaders? Where do the checks and balances exist in this system?

In the midrash, Vayikra Rabba, it is explained that L’ashamat Ha’am means that Cohen’s transgressions would make the nation guilty of sin as well. Meaning that the leader who has transgressed has brought them down by proxy. When the leader doesn’t set a standard for best practice, this can easily lead to the people lowering themselves to the new low standard.

Another interpretation of this verse is offered by the 15th century Italian commentator Sforno in which he asserts that the Cohen’s mistake is because of the standard set by the people. Essentially that the people receive the leader that they deserve and that the wrongdoings of a person in power reflects the shortcomings of the nation.

We are not and cannot be removed from our leadership. Tyranny doesn’t grow without being fed. But what are we to do in the face of despotism? What are we to do when to rise up would be to be stomped down? 

The Alter Rebbe of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv explains that L’ashamat Ha’am to be that “if they noticed him acting improperly but failed to hold him to account, thus allowing him to continue, they are at fault. The people could have protested, but out of respect for his status, they remained silent…” People’s complicated relationship with power tends to put the notion of status on a pedestal so high that it cannot be reached nor challenged.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reminded the world, though, that “Nazism is born in silence.”

We know that. We have lived that. Our brothers and our sisters and our mothers and our fathers and the entire people of Israel knew it.

Silence makes abuse possible. It allows for abuse and corruption in every which way. It creates space for the oppression and repression of women, of nations looking for their voice, of minorities, of children. It paved a way for one of the most morally corrupt regimes to host the Olympic games without international resistance. It allows the systematic and societal neglect of protecting women in danger. It provides the opportunity for those in positions of power to manipulate the weak. Silence is a breeding ground for evil to grow and flourish and sometimes it is so deafening that it pierces the soul.

Just as silence lurks in the shadows, revolution and change can creep out of hidden places too. All it takes is one peep; one tiny action; one person to be inspired. Because when silence is interrupted, it can’t be shushed down again.

As the war rages on and the world finds itself in a refugee crisis, I hope that I will have the continued strength to stand up, to take societal responsibility, to demand that our leaders lead by example, and to teach my children that evil won’t rise on their watch. And perhaps, we will wake up at the crack of dawn together to meet people fleeing silence and they too will know that there indeed are reasons worth getting at the crack of dawn.

About the Author
Leora Londy-Barash is a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. She works is originally from New York and now lives outside of Tel Aviv. She is an educator a congregational rabbi and a burgeoning writer.
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