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The Servant of The People

A post was going around again recently on social media, based on a thought many have had in recent days, weeks, and years. It said some variation of: “I’d really like to live in some precedented times.”[1] When we read and study the Torah each week, we encounter stories from which precedent flows. Each year reading the same text, turning it over and over, even when we reach the end of a book of Torah like we will with Exodus next week, we know exactly what’s coming after. A new book, Vayikra, or Leviticus, will begin but before it does, we say what we always say in our congregation when finishing a section of Torah. Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik![2] Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another!  Though we have come to a gap, an abyss without text, we summon the strength for ourselves, and our strength fortifies our friends and neighbors who study along with us.

When the clock struck midnight on January 1st of this year, the world looked much different than it does today. When the secular year began, some in the world saw Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, based on his past as an actor and comedian, as quite literally, a fool who entertains but you wouldn’t trust to battle corruption or confront fascism. An entertainer, and not someone who could match up with the cold, calculating, geopolitical chess master Vladimir Putin.

Since then, the world has learned that President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, working in unison with the Ukrainian people, is a hero and a mensch. Courage abounds as he transmits messages to his people and the world from the streets of the capital, Kyiv. He outruns Russian assassination teams while taking the time to remind the free world that his people are fighting for the values that his European neighbors and the United States represent. Freedom, liberty, democracy. The Ukrainians have tasted 30 years of sweet independence and are unwilling to sacrifice their national identity or sovereign soil to the Russian fascist regime.

One of the most interesting aspects of today’s conflict is that President Zelenskyy is Jewish. There are only four countries with a Jewish Head of State, one in Israel and another in Ukraine. Considering the history of Jews in Ukraine, you might consider it something of a miracle.

Jewish history in Ukraine can be traced back to the 8th century CE.[3] Inexorably linked to that Jewish history in Ukraine is the memory of persecution, from the Chmielnicki Massacre in the 17th century, to the pogroms in our shtetls in the Pale of Settlement under the boot of the Russian Tsars, to the Ukrainian participation in the crimes of the Holocaust, to the erasure of Jewish faith and quota systems that limited Jews in Ukraine during the Soviet period, Jews have endured much suffering in Ukraine.

And yet, as Gal Beckerman pointed out in a recent essay for The Atlantic, “The 44-year-old former comedian turned president has exhibited great patriotism and bravery, joining his fate with that of his countrymen on the streets of Kyiv, refusing to leave despite Western offers of an airlift. If he is now, as he put it, “the No. 1 target” for the Russians, it is because he is the No. 1 Ukrainian. And what is remarkable…is that his Jewishness has not stood in the way of his being embraced as a symbol of the nation.”[4] He encourages strength in his people by setting an example. His defiance and dramatic speeches to leaders all over the world strengthen the Ukrainian people and their resolve. It is, simply put, what a leader does.

In a joking manner, some have posted online that President Zelenskyy has set an unrealistic expectation for Jewish men, or men in general, to live up to. I disagree. President Zelenskyy is merely living up to the words of our tradition. Pirke Avot teaches us that “in a place where no one acts human, you must strive (or “make an effort”) to be a good human being.”[5] Our obligation, especially when faced with lies, threats, and violence, is to represent the best of our values. More and more in our world, we see excuses where instead we could and should be brave in confronting evil and inhumanity.

We excused China for their genocide of Uyghur Muslims and played games like curling with them in Beijing, even though we know the evil their government commits every day. Countries like Eritrea, India, China, Iran, and more[6] practice what the U.S. State Department calls modern slavery[7]. We don’t talk about it, we don’t speak up when military dictators take over countries like Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, and Burkina Faso, and those have all occurred in just the last 18 months [8]. We allow madmen like Putin to wage imperialist wars against their neighbors when we could have done more to prevent it or respond to it.

President Zelenskyy, as proud as I am of his Jewish heritage, is someone I admire because he is teaching such an important Jewish lesson to the world. In a place where no world leader stands up to despotic criminals like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Alexander Lukashenko, Ayatollah Khamenei, or Bashar al-Assad, one man marshaled the morale of a nation. And strengthened, the Ukrainian people have survived the onslaught of what was thought to be one of the most powerful militaries in the world. I don’t know if that will be enough, on its own, to win. But already, the people of Ukraine have inspired the world to remember two things. First, the aggression of dictators must be confronted. And second, a united people are a strengthened people, and we can all serve each other by being good human beings, even in unprecedented times.

[1] Many Twitter accounts. I’m not sure who first posted it. It could have been @keithedwards, @DJROE95, @AhmedBaba_, or others.

[2] This is a tradition in Ashkenazi communities. Many Sephardic communities may say Chazak U’Barukh (Be strong and blessed).

[3] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ukraine-virtual-jewish-history-tour

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/02/zelensky-ukraine-president-jewish-hero/622945/

[5] Pirke Avot 2:5

[6] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/countries-that-still-have-slavery and please see the report of the International Labour Office, and the UN Migration Agency: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf

[7] https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/tip/what//index.htm

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/article/burkina-faso-africa-coup.html

About the Author
Samuel Stern is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Topeka, Kansas. Ordained by HUC-JIR in Los Angeles in 2021, Rabbi Stern has participated in numerous fellowships, including with AIPAC, the One America Movement, and the Shalom Hartman Institute, and has been published in the quarterly journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
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