Friday, January 28, 2022

Two Sermons - - From Rage to Redemption, Revenge to Reconciliation

A thread of tension wends through the Exodus narrative, for us to weave on the loom of time until its resolution, when swords are turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. We feel the tension in personal ways and collective, how to celebrate our own liberation without gloating over the destruction of those who harm and oppress us, until there are no oppressors and oppressed. Pain runs deep, at times flaring into rage that in extremis would lead some even to revenge. For others, how to find grounding again, to ease the soul's torment in the way of our living now. Seeking the way, from rage to redemption, revenge to reconciliation, our tradition gently guides toward healing, helping us to keep alive the human spark.

Still enslaved, we had been told to stay in our homes during the tenth plague, each as an individual, none to gloat or participate in the killing of the first born of the oppressor's children. It is the way taught by Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares and given voice in English and in spirit by Rabbi Everett Gendler ("A Passionate Pacifist," p. 87, Ben Yehuda Press, 2020). And later, we watch from the far shore, dumbstruck as we see a great camp of humanity cast upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the not [yet] dead...(Sefer Chochmat Ha'matz'pun, vol. 2, p. 200). 

The musar writer has noted a delay in the Torah from the time of our crossing the Sea to the moment of giving voice to our Redemption Song. Only then could we

sing, only after a stunned pause, Az/Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to God... (Ex. 15:1). The writer of tender soul notes, for they were greatly pained, and then asks: for all of this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy...? (ibid). These are the tensions we hold, whether to delay our song in deference to God's creatures drowning in the sea, however debased in their own twisting of God's image, or to sing from the first moment in unbridled joy?

These are the tensions held in the space between two remarkable sermons, the tensions each struggles with, or doesn't.... One is a sermon of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, known as the Tzitz Eliezer (with appreciation to Rabbi Claudia Kreiman for her citation of the Tzitz Eliezer's sermon). The sermon is nearly buried in his massive compendium of legal responsa by whose title he is known, "Tzitz Eliezer" (part 22, paragraph 35). The other is a sermon of Rabbi Avraham Yehudah Chein, "Four Kinds of Redemption" (arba'a minim shel g'ulah) that is found in his work, "B'malchut Ha'yahadut" (vol. 2, p. 75).

 Each sermon had been given in the years immediately following the Holocaust, that of Rabbi Waldenberg in 1947, just before the founding of the state of Israel, in Netanya; and that of Rabbi Chein in 1949, just after the founding, in the Beit Ha'kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. Each was given on a holiday, the former on Simchas Torah, the latter on Pesach, when we can assume each shul to have been filled with worshippers. Explicit in the sermon of Rabbi Waldenberg, implicit in Rabbi Chein's, each is addressed to communities in which there were undoubtably many survivors present to hear their words. The two d'rashot are as different as could be in the emotions they express. While each of the rabbis is carrying the pain of our people, neither a survivor himself, one gives voice to rage, to hate, to violence against the destroyers, the other struggling to find a path through the sea of hate and revenge toward a deeper healing.

Rabbi Waldenberg (1915-2006) lived his entire life in the Land of Israel. He was primarily a legal scholar, remarkably progressive in many of his rulings, a foremost authority in matters of medicine and Jewish law. His way of healing is sharp and bitter, hoping to build up the broken souls before him, it seems, with a thunderous love of his people and a brutal attack on all who would harm them. He shares the familiar aggadah, a telling, of God telling the angels not to sing, "my handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you would sing a song before me...?" (Megillah 29a, Sanhedrin 39a). His words then scream out, as though denouncing God for silencing the angels, "concerning the destruction of accursed ones such as these, are we still to be pained? And further, to call them by the precious name, 'work of my hands'!?" Calling for revenge, he turns the aggadah on its head, turning the "work of my hands" to refer to Israel, whom the Egyptians drowned in a sea of suffering, even throwing their sons into the river. He then has God, in effect, say to the angels, "and all you can do is sing a song...?" That is God's complaint as given voice by the Tzitz Eliezer, as though to say, "how can you sing a song of words before me, when a song of fire is needed?" Rabbi Waldenberg recalls the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib (701 B.C.E.), as described in Isaiah (37:36-38) and II Kings (19:35) and laments that the angels did not do to the Egyptians what they would later do to the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem, devouring them with holy fire spit from their mouths. It is certainly clear to the congregation where he is going, bringing his words to the moment, "so it is with the 'Hitlerian' people of our generation"/kacha im ha'am ha'hitleri shel dorenu....

It is hard to imagine how these two congregations might have responded had they each heard both of the sermons, hearing one and then the other. So it is for us as we try to take them both in, holding all the rage and pain, trying to find hope in the tension between. Rabbi Chein struggles with the torment of how to go on in a way that will somehow bring healing, essential to him if we shall bring redemption. He is desperately seeking a construct through which to offer a place in the community, reconciliation, if not forgiveness, to those Jews who had been "kapos" in the camps, collaborators who had abetted the slaughter of their own people. 

Rabbi Chein describes what these people live with as the worst slavery: b'emet eyn avdut eleh zu shel ha'mo'ach, v'ha'lev, -- shel ha'nefesh/in truth, there is no slavery such as this, of the mind, of the heart, -- of the soul. To see such debased people as oppressed is its own expression of compassion. 

Rabbi Chein (1880-1957) was born in Russia to a prestigious family in CHaBaD chassidism. He was a teacher and educator, a thinker and writer, a congregational rabbi who served communities in Europe and later in the Land of Israel, emigrating in 1935. He challenged antisemitism with a fearless

eloquence, while constructing a remarkably universal critique of all violence and brutality. His writing conveys a richly consistent pacifism that is rooted in the wellsprings of Jewish tradition. In a pivotal paragraph of the sermon, seeming to reflect the torment in his own soul, he speaks of the inner struggle, the 'frontal battle'/milchemet metzach, of the pacifist, patzifistan, struggling with how to forgive those who have done the unforgivable. Near the end of his sermon he looks ahead, beyond the pain of the present moment, mah yi'hi'yeh l'machar/what will be tomorrow...? Seeming to gently raise the question of means and ends if we would get there, his plaintive question becomes our own, But, how shall we live now/v'ulam, b'mah nich'yeh ach'shav?

It is not for us to judge the way of survivors' response in the now of the late forties, still in the immediacy of their pain. Held in the  space between the two sermons, there is a timeless tension in which Rabbi Chein's question speaks to their now and to ours; how to hold the rage and the pain of what has been done to us and yet to channel it toward the most lasting, liberating healing possible? One of the rabbis is speaking of Germans, the other of Jews. The words of each are graphic, their torment palpable. Each is drawing on different strands of the tradition, on different facets of themselves, touching different parts of our selves. We don't know how the words of these rabbis were received on that Simchas Torah in Netanya and on that Pesach in Beit H'kerem, Jerusalem. Held together, the two sermons reflect tensions that course through the Exodus story, how to respond to our own redemption/liberation and to the accompanying destruction of our oppressors? At what point shall we sing for our liberation, even as it entails the downfall of our enemies, at what point to refrain from singing, as the angels were told to stop, "how can you sing while My handiwork drowns in the sea?" In the timeless unfolding of these tensions, my father, as a young soldier at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington, rejoiced when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

As he struggled through the years with that initial response, weeping at our seder one year as we spilled drops of wine for the plagues, he came to realize that his joy was surely not for the horrific loss of so much life, but for his own liberation. Already having spent several years as a soldier in Europe, all he knew then was that his imminent deployment to the Pacific theatre would be obviated by the war's sudden end.

These are the tensions we hold and that play out through time, rising to the surface when we are under attack or feel set upon as Jews. In the now of given moments, we are drawn to one side of the tension or the other. We struggle, we are human, to rejoice or not to rejoice? The tensions held between the two sermons are given expression in liturgical choreography. 
As Moses and the people sang on the far shore, as Miriam danced with the women a dance of release, the way we sing the Song at the Sea tells of the tensions we are meant to feel. The verses that tell of our liberation are sung in joyful tune, the verses that tell of Egypt's destruction in a quiet undertone. The tensions are held similarly at the Seder table, in the drops of wine spilled for the plagues, my father having found ritual release in the co-mingling of joy and horror, in the mingling of tears. In the salt water, tears gathered together, the tears of our ancestors, and ours, and those of the grieving Egyptians, too, for their firstborn, for their soldier sons not to return. And on the latter days of Pesach, we sing a shorter Hallel, as we learn from the context of the aggadah when the angels are told not to sing...; how can we, then, sing songs of un-muted praise in the days that mark the drowning of the Egyptians? 

Over time, as for my dad, we become as the angels, from a place of remove no longer to sing for the destruction of the oppressor, nor without recognition of the fierce tensions as held between two sermons -- from rage to redemption, revenge to reconciliation. Weaving a thread in time, then we shall sing.... But, how shall we live now...? 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

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