Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses exhorts the Children of Israel in an unusual way. He skips from tense to tense. First, he calls their attention by using the word “behold.” Then, he speaks to them in the singular. And yet the word “you” is plural.
Moses knew Hebrew well. The commentators say the leader wanted to stress that he was speaking to each member of the flock. Each Jew ready to cross the Jordan River to the Land of Canaan must know the critical fact of national and personal survival. He must know that a blessing and curse awaits him and he must choose. Unlike other nations, there is no middle ground for the Jews.
The blessing stems from following the Torah, the word of G-d. Many prefer other books, perhaps of German or Greek philosophy. Others might gravitate to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. They no longer see.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen lived about a century ago in the Polish town of Radan, now in Belarus. Known as the Chafetz Chaim, or the Seeker of Life, he turned down numerous offers to marry the daughters of rich men and eventually earned a living by operating a grocery store.
Long before the ascent of Hitler, the Chafetz Chaim discussed the prophecies in Scriptures, particularly that of Gog and Magog. The rabbi said their campaign against the Jews would be divided into three parts. The first was World War I, which decimated the young generation of Britain and France. The second stage would be another world war that would make the first seem like child’s play. The third assault by Gog would herald the Messiah.
In 1932, the Chafetz Chaim warned of the rise of Adolf Hitler, then an uneducated, unemployed boor, known for screaming invectives toward the Jews. The rabbi envisioned rivers of Jewish blood coming from Hitler’s takeover of Germany. The only way to stop the calamity was repentance.
Some listened to the Chafetz Chaim, who died in September 1933. Most continued as if nothing had changed. In the rabbi’s words, the sinner doesn’t see or feel his predicament. He doesn’t spot the persecutors created by his own sins. He focus remains on pleasure.
Even when World War II erupted and the Germans began killing Jews en masse, there remained a strange calm outside German-occupied Europe. In Lithuania, Abba Hillel Silver was born into a traditional home filled with Torah. In 1902, he arrived with his family in New York and adopted the American dream. He was ordained a Reform rabbi and became a leader of major Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal, United Palestine Appeal, Zionist Organization of America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. His oratorical skills became the stuff of legend as he lobbied for a Jewish state.
Silver fought his rabbinical colleague Stephen Wise tooth and nail for control of the Zionist movement. But the two men agreed on one thing: The rescue of European Jews would not mark a priority. Even in May 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being shipped to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Silver counseled calm.
“We should place increased emphasis on fundamental Zionist ideology,” Silver told the American Zionist Emergency Council.
Like Wise, Silver was not blind. He knew early in the war that Hitler was killing hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union. In his 1941 book “The World Crisis and Jewish Survival,” Silver acknowledged German extermination, but expressed confidence that it would remain limited, perhaps only to Germany and even there die down.
“The annihilationist policy of the Nazis is not likely to become the norm which will fix the actual relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the days to come,” Silver wrote. “Such policies never assume world-wide dimensions. The Jewish dispersion is too far-flung for one policy to embrace it all. What should, therefore, concern us today is not whether the Jewish people will survive, but how.”
Wise and Silver ensured that the Reform movement opposed rescue initiatives. This included a resolution by Congress in late 1943 to save the remaining Jews of Europe.
The Chafetz Chaim would not have been surprised. Drawing from this week’s Torah portion, he linked Torah observance to our ability to see the divine blessing. When the Torah is abandoned, the curse awaits.
But the curse can vary. Sometimes, it is clear to the victim that he has been punished. His fortune has disappeared; he fell from grace. He was deposed from positions of prominence. Actually that happened to both Silver and Wise, removed from leadership positions in the Zionist movement, the former by David Ben-Gurion with the establishment of the State of Israel.
Other times, the Chafetz Chaim says, the one who turns away from G-d doesn’t feel a thing. He might even die a respected man, but soon his punishment is felt even in this world.
The Chafetz Chaim did not witness the Final Solution. Yet, his love for Jews and the Torah imbued those around him with a fearlessness that the Germans rarely encountered. In October 1941, the Germans occupied Radon and set up a ghetto. The killings began three months later. In May 1942, the Germans grabbed 100 Jews and ordered them to dig pits outside town.
Unlike those in other ghettos, these Jews could see. They attacked the guards with their shovels and fled. Seventeen managed to escape. The breakout, which prompted a German massacre, encouraged the survivors in Radon, and an additional 300 Jews managed to flee for the forest — nearly 20 percent of the entire ghetto. Most of them were given shelter by Soviet partisans. They had not succumbed.
Keep and hearken to all these words that I command you, that it may benefit you and your children after you, forever, when you do what is good and proper in the eyes of the Lord, your G-d.