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ISRAEL AND UKRAINE:  A CONTRAST IN VALUES - Parashat Sh'mini

03/26/2022 11:11:04 PM

Mar26

Rabbi Weinberg

This morning’s Torah portion begins with the phrase, “Vayihi ba’yom HaShimini.”  The Israelites celebrated the consecration of the tabernacle, the Mishkan, the portable place of prayer for eight days.  Then, suddenly at the height of everyone’s celebration Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu died.  As priests, they had not followed the strict instructions associated with their role as priests.

The Torah text is exceedingly clear about Aaron’s response when it states, rather abruptly and succinctly, “Vayidom Aharon- Aaron was silent.”  Overwhelmed by the terror and shock of the moment he was without words.  He was incapable of expressing his feelings.  He was simply distraught, overwhelmed with pain, and at a loss for words.  In the span of a few minutes he went from being overjoyed with the completion of the community’s place of prayer to absolute despair having suddenly lost two of his precious children.

I cannot begin to approximate the swing of emotions associated with this moment in Aaron’s life but I must share with you the flashbacks I have had over the past month when I recall the Jewish history associated with the war in Ukraine.  When I hear the name of the country I immediately think of the Pale of Settlement, of Jewish Settlement.  This area of land stretching from eastern Poland to the western limits of the former Soviet Union- basically encompassing what we know as Ukraine today- was thriving with Jewish life.  Over five million Jewish people lived in this geographic area at the end of the 18th century.  Many significant cities registered 10-20 percent of their population as Jewish.  A few cities counted a third of their residents as Jewish. 

This was the territory of the shtetl.  So many of our Jewish families were poor.  As much as a third of the Jewish population in most cities and villages was supported by Jewish tzedakah.  In most cities Jews were not allowed to own land.  They could enter into only a handful of professions.  There were some wealthy merchants, but many more members of our Jewish people suffered terribly under the imposed set of laws associated with the Pale. 

Solomon Naumovich Rabinowich, better known as Shalom Aleichem, the brilliant author of “Tevye and his Daughters,” and countless other works was born very close to Kyiv.  The musical we know so very well- Fiddler on the Roof- was derived from “Tevye and his Daughters” and was set in Ukraine. 

Yiddish was the spoken language of our people throughout this territory and Yiddish culture was a fountain of vitality, creativity, and artistic brilliance.  If ever there were a breeding ground for Hollywood, from writers to musicians and actors the Pale of Settlement had the market cornered.  Despite the often, exceedingly poor economic conditions that characterized life for the Jewish community culture- song, literature, theatre, and intellectual dialogue- was alive and well.  In fact, it defined a community brimming with vitality. 

Constantly fearing for their lives, the Jewish community learned to live with anxiety.  At a single moment, the indigenous population would rise up and burn the houses of the Jewish community, often around Easter.  A new Russian Czar would take the stage and the Jewish community would become the scapegoat of his or her inadequacies.  From Warsaw to Minsk, Zhitomir to Odessa our Jewish families lived from day to day with considerable worry yet were able to embrace life with a level of fervor that is hard to imagine. 

I think of the cities cast across the landscape known as the Pale and I think of Warsaw and Lublin, Pinsk and Bialystock, Berdichev and Lodz.  So many of the great leaders of Israel called these centers their home.  Golda Meir, Chaim Weizman, David Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, the list goes on.  They all hailed from this land that was poor in economic terms but so rich in Jewish culture. 

And, then it was gone.  The Jews lived in Poland for one thousand years!  Hitler rather successfully destroyed any remnant of a Jewish presence in that land.  The Cossacks of Ukraine unleashed their pain on our people in Odessa with such brutality that the poetry recalling those pogroms brings tears to every reader’s eyes. 

So, when the Jewish president of Ukraine, (a reality that I still have problems acknowledging) Vlodomor Zelensky addresses the Israeli Knesset as he did a few days ago and castigates them for not responding as aggressively as he would have liked there was a level of outrage expressed by some in Israel. 

I ask you to listen to one response to the statements President Zelensky made to the Israeli government.  Regrettably, I have been unable to identify the author.

Dear Vlodomer,

So, let’s clear a few things up . . .

You’re the underdog here and Israel usually aligns itself with the underdog because the truth is that in every war we’ve fought, we were the underdog because we were out-numbered, isolated, and countries like yours chose to align themselves with our enemies; in your case, more than 35 times in recent years.

Let’s be clear, Israel doesn’t owe Ukraine ANYTHING.  It is our choice to send what aid we feel is appropriate, and we have —vast amounts of humanitarian aid, medical assistance, bullet proof ambulances and more.  You’re welcome.  Your comparison of the Holocaust to today’s fight is abhorrent and historically inaccurate.  The Jews did not have an army, anti-aircraft missiles, 100,000 rifles to distribute to our people and no military training.

No one sent aid and rescue missions, and let’s not even begin to describe how the majority of the Ukrainians treated our people.

You feel that we owe you because you are Jewish . . .your parents are Jewish.

I guess we won’t mention that your children are not only not Jewish but have, with your permission, been baptized.  So, let’s do this.  You stop complaining that Israel isn’t doing enough, start saying ‘thank you’ and next time a vote comes up in the UN, remember how many Arab countries stood by while Israel acted.

 And if you want Israel to CONTINUE to support Ukraine, don’t you dare compare your situation, where tragically over 900 have died, to the massacre of more than six million Jews in World War II, to the victims who lie in mass graves, like Babi Yar.

 We’ll help . . .not because you are a Jew, but because WE are Jews. . .

I found this response to be so very powerful and, to a great extent spot-on.  As usual, Israel is in a precarious position attempting to protect itself while watching the politics that define our world play themselves out. 

In spite of unbelievable daily challenges Israel continues to respond to world chaos scenes like no one.  Israel’s rapid response teams rush to the scenes regardless of the danger.  Guided by its set of values that is second to none, Israel with all of its issues continues to strive to be the very best exemplar it can be.  It isn’t perfect and neither are we.  It isn’t without its blemishes but neither is any other nation.  It isn’t a finished product but what it has accomplished in 74 years is hard to believe. 

I am so proud to call myself a supporter and defender of the world’s greatest promoter of values that attribute dignity and respect to every human being.  Just as this morning’s sedra introduces us to the guidelines of keeping kosher, we are instructed to keep kosher not to be healthy but to be holy, like God.  That is Israel’s call.  That is our responsibility.  May each of us never forget our history and strive to make of our lives a model of holiness.

Rabbi Stefan J Weinberg

Click here for the video of the Sabbath Prayer.

 

Wed, August 17 2022 20 Av 5782