75th Commemoration of Kristallnacht (Vayetzei)

This morning, many of my colleagues and friends were commenting on an article in the New York Times. It was the front page of the New York Regional section. It begins with an upsetting headline: Swastikas, Slurs and Torment in Town's Schools. A student informed her teacher that someone had painted a swastika onto a picture of President Obama. The picture was in a classroom, and it remained there for over a month after the student told her teacher. Jewish students are being pelted with coins, and are the recipients of taunts, threats, and shouts of "white power."

It's painfully ironic for us to speak of this 75 years after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. In early November, 1938, Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria were terrorized. Stores, synagogues and homes were burned, ravaged and destroyed. 91 Jewish residents died, and over 30,000 were arrested and taken to concentration camps. On November 11, the New York Times wrote: No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday. This tragic night was named Kristallnacht named after the shards of broken glass that filled the German streets, a result of this devastating anti-Semitic pogrom.

Jews are filled with painful memories. And as we know, our tragedies did not begin 75 years ago. During our 4,000 year history, we have been exiled, excommunicated, killed, jailed, taunted, hated and feared. Even so, this night of Kristallnacht burns vividly in our memory; it was part of a process that led to the killing of 6 million of our brother and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters.

Judaism does indeed have painful memories. I've always found it fascinating is that our religion does not shy our minds away from thinking on these painful events of our history. It's quite the opposite in fact; our religion actually forces us to confront these painful memories. We observe Tisha B'av, in which we cry at the Western Wall and read Lamentations, bereft at the destruction of the Temple. We dip vegetables into salt water on Passover, forcing ourselves to recall the tears of 420 years of servitude to Pharaoh. And tonight, Jewish people around the world recall this 20th century tragedy of Kristallnacht.

I often comment that there is no verb that is repeated more often in our Torah than the verb to remember, zachor. The act of remembering is a holy act. There are so many of our prayers, most notably the Mourner's Kaddish, which highlight this utter importance on the mitzvah of remembering.

But why? On this day of Kristallnacht, our memory causes sadness and pain and anger. Why do we make special effort to feel pain, when there's enough to feel without even trying?

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In this week's Torah portion, Jacob has run away from his home of Beer-Sheva. He has just swindled Esau out of the blessing that was meant for him. Jacob and his mother tricked his dying, blind father Isaac into thinking that the younger Isaac was his older son Esau. Fearful for his life, Jacob ran away. After a bit of a journey he stopped at sunset, and laid down on a pillow made of stones and went to sleep, and had the strangest dream.

He dreamt of a ladder that reached the entire span between the earth and the heavens. Angels were climbing up and down the ladder. God was on the ladder and blessed Jacob, continuing the covenantal blessing that started with Jacob's grand-father, Abraham.

Jacob wakes up and says: God was was in this place, and I did not know.

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God was in this place and I did not know. This may be the most powerful verse of our entire Torah.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav used to ask his students where they find God. After hearing their various answers the students of course wanted to know the answer from their master. Nachman would answer: I feel God ... whenever I allow myself to feel God.

Our Torah, our religion and perhaps most importantly, our lives - these all remind us that holiness and blessing can be found anywhere and in any moment. We only need to recognize it. We only need to see it.

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Jacob ran away from his painful past. But it was exactly his past that started him on another journey. Of all people in the Torah, his life was perhaps most-filled with pain and hurt. But those angels moving up and down caused Jacob to realize that pain and sadness, loss and tragedy ... these are holy too. Or at least, they can be. Like us, Jacob too followed the commandment of remembering, as he recalled his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca. And through this, he transformed. He went from being Jacob to our namesake of Yisrael.

God is in this place, and God was there amongst the shards of broken glass 75 years ago. God was present in a father that went hungry while giving his daughter a piece of bread. God was present in the many heroic non-Jews that sheltered Jews from the storm of hatred and intolerance. And God is present in the comfort that we give ourselves amidst painful memories from years ago. Midrash suggests that when human beings are persecuted, God cries along with us.

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On this night of Kristallnacht, we go to sleep on a pillow of painful memories that are stuffed with lost childhoods, broken lives and the infinite loss of human potential, as each life is worth more than the entirety of the universe. And as we remember, we are also pained that for some, present reality lies dangerously close to what happened 75 years ago.

But when we wake up ... when we remember and reflect, we can choose to be a blessing. We can choose to say, Never again. And our actions can create a reality of Never again.

God was in this place and I did not know.

For the sake of our painful memories, and for the honor of those whose lives were shattered starting on this night of Kristallnacht, let us know that yes, God and holiness are in this place ... and we do know.

I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me (Vayigash)

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