It was Vienna in 1955. Leo was meeting for the first time two surviving distant-cousins, Nathan and Rosa. They were the only survivors of a family of 38 that had been wiped out by the Nazis. Leo had grown up in proper British society, utterly unaware of his family history. It is the final scene of the extraordinary Broadway Play, LEOPOLDSTADT.
“I’m sorry you had a rotten war” Leo says to an exhausted, venting Nathan who is rifling through the murderous destruction of everyone and everything. “A rotten war!?” Nathan screeches incredulously. “Yes, I’m sorry” intones Leo. “I’m sorry about your mother and father and…I can just imagine…” “What can you imagine?” Nathan fires back. Then he launches into a graphic litany of tormentors teasing joy, while dispensing wickedness with original cruelty.
The problem wasn’t Leo’s treating Holocaust horrors too lightly. It was his treating them to distantly. Severed from personal attachment. Like a can of Lysol, disinfected from any trace of intimacy.
Thanks to its gifted playwright, Tom Stoppard (who is our Leo), the Play reaches and curves toward a tender and insistent resolution. Its lessons couldn’t be more timely. It’s never too late to learn your story. To take it personally, seriously, and, yes, to take it collectively.
Before I can answer the question, What am I to do with my life? I first need to answer the question, Of what story am I a part? Every one of us has our own life-story. But that’s not all. We are also, each and every one of us, part of a much larger and more lasting story.
Two central Holy Days that enliven our story, Shabbat and Passover, figure prominently in this week’s portions of Torah. Kindling fire on Shabbat, and finding traces of leaven on Passover are firmly prohibited. The injunctions that open and close our portions share a common phrase, in all of your dwellings (b’chol mosh’voteichem) (Ex.35:3;12:20). Perhaps the phrase can apply, not merely locationally, but also vocationally. Not merely where you find yourself, but also when you find yourself. And the time to do so is always (b’chol) the right time.
Passover and Shabbat capture the dynamic of how Judaism’s story meets reality: with resistance and repose; with struggle and ceasefire; facing things as they ought to be and as they are. Living our story fully insists on both modes.
History requires us to do our best and live at our best. We’re not the first generation to face threats. Whether we’re treated as prey for scorn or like royalty among history’s sponsors of resilience, our story pulsates with accountability, reliability, and an unstoppable commitment to mutual flourishing.
May our struggles be stubborn and fruitful. And may we intensify our share in our blessedly-challenging story which has faithfully changed history for the better and is still near the beginning of its career.