Parashat Naso introduces the laws of the Nazirite, a person who takes a vow of piety for a finite period of time in which the person is prohibited from consuming any grape product, having contact with the dead and cutting hair. The Haftarah for Parashat Naso is from the book of Judges and describes the birth of the most famous Nazirite in history, Samson. He had the unusual especially unusual status of being subject to the vow from birth. He is known for the link between his hair and his physical strength. The hair-care products on this week’s tie remind us of the Nazirite.
This year, America’s observance of Memorial Day coincides with the second day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers in memory of our departed loved ones. We think of them now as on other holidays since they are not physically present to enjoy the festival with us. This year’s convergence of Memorial Day with Yizkor is striking as it comes on the heels of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day when the Allies secured the unconditional surrender of the Nazis. We recall the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the line of service to our country and the Allies in the effort to restore order and justice to the world. We also always have on our minds the six million Jewish martyrs who were slaughtered in the Shoah. Just as we must never forget their death, we also must never forget the brave soldiers who liberated the remnant of European Jewry.
In recent weeks, since the anniversary of V-E Day, I have been reflecting on my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, who served as an Army medic in the European theater, particularly in France and Belgium. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and bore witness to the ravages of war. During his entire period in the service from his first day of boot camp to the day he returned home, he and my Grandma Esther, of blessed memory, wrote letters to each other every day. These letters were preserved, and over the last few years my mother Roberta Bernstein and her sister, my aunt Judy Holstein, have transcribed, edited and organized these letters. I’d like to share a few selections from my grandfather from the last weeks of the War and his reflections on V-E Day as it happened.
14 March 1945 Somewhere in Belgium
For several days now truck-loads of liberated victims of the Nazi monsters have been speeding down the highway. I can’t describe just what happens to one as these trucks whirl by and the scarred, dirty, weary faces break into spasms of joy and tears as they shout greetings to us. It hurts inside of you.
May 4, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium
Today the mail brought me your letter of April 15, a sensitive, poignant expression of your feelings and the nation’s at-large over the death of the President [Roosevelt, on April 12]. Our great loss, however, has become our great gain, our salvation, for the events which are following the complete destruction of Nazism, which should be cause for a Roman holiday — these events, because of our great loss, are being viewed seriously, quietly, as they should be.
Far better that we are bowing our heads in prayerful thanksgiving instead of making a mockery of the death cries of our brothers. There has been no attempt here to start a “celebration” of the great victories which are being announced hourly. Just a few minutes ago we heard the news of the millions of “mighty” supermen surrendering unconditionally. Perhaps the weekend will bring the last and final chapter to their horror. I don’t think anyone will feel very gay. Our feelings about this are so deep and so intermingled with the loneliness that pursues us at all times that we are more likely to utter a profound “thank God” and let it go at that.
V-E DAY 7 May, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium
It was about 5 PM today when we heard the official news. We were at chow. There was absolutely no demonstration because every man of us at that instant thought only of home. What are our wives doing? What are our folks doing? What are our sweethearts and friends doing? There was some handshaking and then we returned to the barracks and sat on each other’s’ bunks. “Gee, I wonder how our families feel?” It was repeated over and over and none of us had an answer. But I know what you are feeling, my beloved. Because I am suddenly frightfully lonely, I will follow the crowd tonight. We will simply move in a crowd toward the town and the thing will gain momentum as we go along. I don’t know what I’ll do or what I’ll say. I know, though, that I must move and with each step I’ll hear the beat of my heart. It keeps saying, Esther, Esther, the worst of this is over. My Darling, there is hope now, a real, joyous hope. I must go now, beloved. The day is glorious. Last night I smelled the fertile earth for the first time, and I remarked on it to Max. It was a strange sensation, suddenly being so aware of the fruitful earth. “This is spring at last,” I said, little realizing the morrow would be truly spring again for the world. This day then, May 7, 1945, is the beginning. While much of the world’s war-weary bow their heads, we raise ours high and say “thank God” for His safe guidance and protection. Tomorrow, my Darling, perhaps I can tell you just how it feels. For tonight and every night, my love, undivided, and my thanks for the child you gave me.
May 23, 1945 Ciney, Belgium
Yesterday, I witnessed a sight that filled my eyes and my heart with tears. For some days now, prisoners of war and political prisoners have been returning to their Belgian homes. The small, shabby Ciney is ludicrously decorated with the “palm of welcome” which are small uprooted trees, stuck in the cobblestones in front of the returning man’s
home. Max and I, walking to town, drifted toward the railroad station where a crowd had gathered. We knew then that a trainload of victims was due. Children, their arms loaded with makeshift bouquets of field flowers, dashed about excitedly. Finally, the train pulled in and stopped. The few who were returning to Ciney jumped off as many others stood in the doorways of the long train of boxcars. There was a rush as fathers
grabbed up their kids, crushing them and their flowers. I shall never forget one little girl who was too young to know such emotion, clinging to her “hero” Daddy as he held her high in his arms. That child was sobbing with the suddenly released emotion that was far too mature for a child. Will men remember those moments of reunion with their children and direct their lives toward a world of peace? Or will they forget again and start fighting each other with the hatred and savagery of wild beasts? Even in this small community, already the seeds of future wars and disturbances are being planted. It is a bitter thing to watch. May God grant them the wisdom to settle their differences without violence. So, until tomorrow, my love, Daddy
My Grandfather’s eloquent words speak for themselves and need no augmentation or interpretation 70 years later. I’ll just add that our festival of Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when the people of Israel collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a community bound together by shared obligation. Our Torah was not only God’s gift to Israel, but a gift to the world as a blueprint for justice and human decency. V-E Day symbolized a moment of hope that the global community would stamp out hatred and enter a new era of understanding and cooperation. In 70 years, our world has grossly fallen short of that vision, as my grandfather eerily predicted in post-War Belgium exactly 70 years ago. And yet, we must never forget the heroism of the American GIs who left behind their families and the security of home to fight and defeat the ruthless enemies of that era who enacted unthinkable death and destruction.
As we recall our loved ones during the Yizkor service, let us salute those who have served our country and are still with us to bear witness to their trials. Let us also recall with special deference those who are no longer with us who served our country and defended our freedom. Some of them died in the line of duty, and some were blessed to return and rebuild their lives and families. We honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they bravely defended. May the memory of our all of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country with the values for which it stands and to pave the way for everlasting peace.
Another numbers tie? Well, that’s because we’re starting to read the Book of Numbers, or Sefer Bemidbar in Hebrew, beginning this week with Parashat Bemidbar. Bemidbar literally means “in the desert.” The English name “Numbers” relates to the census of the people described in the opening of the book.
The Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia was a terrible shock. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the victims, including at least eight victims confirmed dead and dozens more who were injured. Among the dead, at least two were Jewish. Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old wife and mother was CEO of an education startup organization and an active member of the Jewish community. Justin Zemser was a 20-year-old midshipman at the US Naval Academy. I grieve their loss and that of the six other victims. I’m sure many in my circle are within two to three degrees of separation of passengers on that train. Two former USY counselors of mine reported on Facebook that their son was on the train and was bruised, but not seriously hurt.
The derailment and the destruction it caused underscore the randomness of life events. We go about the routines of our daily lives doing things that we often don’t think twice about, and yet we are vulnerable at any time. The tragedy also underscores the human capacity for error and the dire consequences that can result. Hopefully, the investigation will reveal why the train was speeding at over 100 miles per hour in a 50-mph zone.
As authorities conduct their investigation, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom from Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When I was a boy,” he said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”
As we observe the unfolding of this senseless tragedy, it’s important that we focus not only on the loss and destruction, but also those who burst into action to help those in danger. This sensibility is rooted in this week’s Torah reading as we close out the book of Leviticus in Behar-Behukotai.
At the heart of Parashat Behar is the notion that everything in the world belongs to God—ki li haaretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi—for the Land in Mine, for you are but strangers and sojourners with me. The upshot of this is that all of God’s creation, all matter living and not living, belongs to God not us. We therefore must in the words of the prophet Micah, walk humbly before God.
The second half of today’s reading, Behukotai, closes the book of Vayikra with a series of blessings and curses; blessings for being true to God’s laws, and curses for straying from them. I’m not going to address the challenge of reward and punishment theology that this parasha raises. Taking a bird’s eye view of this parasha, it’s not about the particulars of our lives—it’s about life in general. It’s about the good things in life- the joy, the pleasures, the blessings—such as the joy when we celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child. But the parasha also describes the hardship, the suffering and the pain. The Torah is saying welcome to the real world. Life is often good. Yet, life is often filled with great difficulty. The Torah’s mission is to teach us that we are tenants of God’s world and at the same time, we are very much of the world. We are stakeholders in the world, and it’s in our own self-interest to live a just and righteous life.
In the blessings portion, we read: vishavtem lavetach b’artz’chem…v’natati shalom baAretz—You will dwell in your Land safely, and I will give peace in the Land. According to Hasidic teachings, a question is asked: after the Torah has stipulated that “you will dwell in your land safely,” why does it have to state, “I will give peace in the land”? The reference here, then, is to internal peace, within yourselves, between one another, between one party and another, between one faction and another. I don’t interpret this teaching that bad stuff in the world will never happen. I read it to say that human beings will help one another achieve inner peace amidst great challenges.
As the world’s attention is focused on the Philadelphia train derailment, I believe this Hasidic teaching and the wisdom of Fred Rogers call on us to remember the helpers. The Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets reported numerous examples of heroism by first responders, passengers and bystanders.
There were the firefighters who arrived on the scene to pull trapped passengers from mangled cars; police officers who rushed into the train or drove patients to hospitals by the dozens in wagons; passengers who, as their rescuers broke into the cars, asked them to first help the more injured around them. Imagine the presence of mind of these passengers. They’re banged up, they’re bloodied, they may have broken bones. On top of all that, they’re sitting in a train car turned upside down. They are probably frightened beyond belief and want nothing more than to get out. Rescue workers arrive on the scene and, in the midst of this chaos, they directed the first responders towards passengers who needed even more help.
In the midst of human tragedy, it is awe-inspiring the extent to which people can open their hearts to help others in need, even in the midst of one’s own suffering. If human beings have the capacity for such compassion when under such pressure, then all the more so in our day-to-day lives—when we don’t feel immediate danger–we have the capacity for compassion and loving kindness. Today, as we close the Book of Leviticus, let us take to heart its great wisdom for life. As we see today, two of the messages with which the book closes are that we must be humble before God and that we must pursue peace. May God grant us the strength to continue this noble mission.
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land, unto all its inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). This verse, immortalized on the Liberty Bell, comes from Parashat Behar and is the theme of this week’s Parashah Tie. The Torah text is describing the Jubilee year in which all slaves are to be freed and all land to return to its original owner. The Torah’s central message in this chapter is that the land ultimately belongs to God, and humans are but strangers and sojourners before God. The founders of the US had this idea in mind in creating a country of universal liberty, though their vision took many years and a bloody Civil War to be fully realized.
In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the popular film version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka manufactures his product with the dedicated labor of the Oompa Loompas. They provide Willy Wonka with cheap labor to which his competitors don’t have access. In the backstory, they are paid only in cacao beans. In the book and the movie, the Oompa Loompas are endearing characters, even as their labor upon closer analysis appears to be exploited. It turns out that the Oompa Loompas are real. That is, the major corporations of the chocolate industry, as well as the coffee industry, often rely on child slave trafficking to produce much of the world’s supply of chocolate and coffee. These child slaves are not smiling, cuddly figures like the Oompa Loompas. They are subjected to great abuse. On this Shabbat, congregations across the country are participating in Fair Trade Shabbat to raise awareness of child slave trafficking and to promote the purchase of fair trade products.
The following is a D’var Torah connecting this week’s Torah portion, Emor, and Fair Trade Shabbat.
Parashat Emor describes the holidays on the Jewish calendar. While other sections of the Torah describe the holidays, it is in this Torah portion that we read the mitzvah of counting the Omer, the 49 days from the second night of Passover until Shavuot. Believe it or not, you can learn more about counting the omer from Homer Simpson! In the meantime, this tie represents our mitzvah of counting the days from Passover to Shavuot.