November 9, 2013
November 9 marks exactly 75 years since Kristallnacht. On that dark night and the following day, November 10, more than 1000 synagogues were set ablaze, Torahs and prayer books were burned, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and more than 7500 shops and businesses were vandalized without intervention by the police, fire department or local citizenry. The streets were littered with broken glass. Ninety-one Jews were murdered. More than 30,000 Jews in Germany and Austria were arrested for the “crime” of being Jewish and sent off to the newly enlarged concentration camps in Dacau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen where hundreds of them perished. To add insult to injury, Jews were blames for the pogrom and had to pay for the damages as well. The Nazis imposed on the Jewish community a fine of one billion Reichsmarks—equal to about 400 million US dollars at the 1938 rate.
Kristallnacht marked a turning point in the Holocaust. The persecution of the Jews became the official Nazi policy of unrestrained violence and murder. And through it all, the world stood silent. Hitler took this as a clear go-ahead signal to proceed with the extermination of all the Jews in every country under his control.
Kristallnacht did not happen in a vacuum. It was a result of years of propaganda and progressive escalation of anti-semitic persecution by the Nazis. Their hatred was initially expressed in words, blaming the Jews for economic woes and marginalizing them in society. Through propaganda, Jews were made “other,” and Kristallnacht became easier.
The lesson that words matter is evident in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze. Those of us who are familiar with the story probably know that there is a lot of tension in the household of Jacob between Leah and her sister Rachel, both of whom are married to Jacob. There is also tension between Jacob and Leah who was the lesser favorite of his two wives. What we might not realize as readily was that there was also tension between Jacob and Rachel, his most beloved wife.
The text tells us: va-teire Rachel ki lo yaldah l’yaakov va-tekane Rachel Ba-Ahotah, Va’Tomer El Yaakov hava li banim v’im ayin meitah anochi. When Rachel saw that she had borne Yaakov no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rahel said to Yaakov, “Give me children, or I shall die.”
Imagine you’re Rachel. You’re barren and can’t conceive. Your sister who is married to the same man is popping out babies. How would you feel? Now, if you were Jacob, how might you respond to your wife? Here’s his response:
Vayihar af Yaakov b’Rachel Vayomer Hathat Elohim anochi asher mana mimech pri baten. VaTomer hinei amati Bilhah: Bo eilehah v’teled al birki v’ibaneh gam anochi mimenah.
So Yaakove became furious with Rahel and said, “Am I to take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?!” She said, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.
The midrash offers the following interpretation of this exchange (BR 71,10):
The Holy Blessed One said to Yaakov, “Is this how you answer people in distress?! I swear by your life that your children [i.e. from your other wives] will stand before her son [i.e. Yoseph]!”
The midrash spells out that Yaakov was wrong. Plain and simple. This is not the way you speak to people when they are upset. Even if Yaakov was correct in the substance of his claim, he had no right to be so cruel to her. For this one moment of speech, this one instance in which Yaakov was caught off guard and behaved wrongly to his beloved Rachel, the fate of his children was determined. We can look forward in coming weeks to that drama.
Words have tremendous power. Things we say quickly, without thinking, without taking the time to notice the situation of the person to whom we’re responding, without considering what that person can or should hear right now—these unthinking comments that we all make now and then can have huge consequences in the world. All the more so when evil words are said with malicious intent to marginalize people like the Nazis did with Jews in Germany.
While words hurt, words can also heal. Imagine if countries had condemned Germany for Kristallnacht and enacted harsh sanctions. Instead, the world was silent. That was a moment demanding people of good will to cry out, and they didn’t. On this Kristallnacht anniversary, let’s of course take to heart the commandment Zachor! Remember the Shoah. Let’s also go a step further that words lead to hatred and hatred leads to violence. God forbid that should ever happen again.