In our cycle of Torah readings this time of year, we read how for 40 years our ancestors trekked through the wilderness, far from cities and civilization. They trudged along without the luxury of interstates, service plazas, or travel agents. So it should come as no surprise that throughout their journey there were also endless complaints, arguments, and rebellions.
How different travel is today! I recently returned from leading a synagogue trip to Eastern Europe. We took planes, trains, a motor coach and even an old turbo-prop. (I was a bit nervous about that last part.) But it all went off without a hitch, traveling thousands of miles and an ocean away with ease. Such are the miracles of modern life.
Compare that to the short hike our ancestors took from Egypt to Israel. That was a journey of even less than 300 miles, and it took them 40 years to complete! You could make that flight today in under an hour. And yet, we are so spoiled by the conveniences of modern travel that we kvetch even when our plane is delayed just for a couple hours, or when we are stuck taxiing on a runway waiting for a gate to open up.
But we should never lose sight of how lucky we are to even experience the marvels of modern travel, or the myriad of other blessings we usually take for granted.
Traveling to Eastern Europe this summer was an eye-opening experience in so many ways. It underscored for me how fortunate we are just to be among those Jews who survived the horrors that befell our people during the last century. We traveled through countries and towns that were once filled with bustling Jewish communities. In many of them, all that is left now are synagogues turned into museums, memorials emblazoned with the names of families who perished, or a few remaining inhabitants struggling to keep their shul and communities alive. Sure, there are some places in Europe experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life (ironically, like Berlin), but they are only shadows of their former glory. And for every one of those communities, there are hundreds of decimated cities and villages throughout Europe where Jewish life once thrived, but remains no longer.
You feel that most deeply when you visit Auschwitz. One can never find the right words to describe what Auschwitz is, or what the horror of that place represents. As we walked into the one remaining gas chamber, and then casually walked out — you are haunted by the stark realization that right where you stand, so many of our fellow Jews had their lives brutally snuffed out.
And yet in the midst of that terrible darkness, some stories of bravery, heroism, and perseverance managed to emerge. A few attempted to fight back. Others somehow managed to survive the terror and hopelessness of the shoah. And a few of these survivors even decided to return to the very communities from which they were driven out — though it is difficult to fathom the how or why.
One such community we visited was Bratislava. Only a mostly empty shul remains where a few elderly Jews struggle to hold Shabbat services each and every week. And while remaining there would probably not have been my choice, I can understand the painful decision the returnees faced. Move somewhere else and allow another Jewish community to perish? Leave and watch another shul close down and be turned into a museum? Or stay and struggle to keep Judaism alive in your hometown, even if only for a while longer.
Then you realize how fortunate and blessed we are. We take our shuls and even our Jewish community for granted. We feel self-assured, believing that if we don’t support our synagogues, someone else will step in and do so. But of course that isn’t the case at all. By maintaining and supporting our shuls and other important institutions, we work to ensure that Jewish life will continue here for generations to come.
This is the time of year when we think about where we will be for the upcoming holidays, which synagogue we will attend, and whether we will continue to be a supportive part of our shul community. If Bratislava has taught me anything, it is that we should never take our shuls or our community for granted. By supporting them, we are not just enriching our own lives; we are giving back to our community by showing gratitude for the myriad of blessings that we — as the survivors of Jewish history — have been so fortunate to receive. May we never lose sight of that privilege and sacred obligation. Amen.