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From Silence to Defiance: Profiles in Chutzpah from Warsaw to Wiesel
The Jewish imperative to stand up for justice, which I learned - as a rebellious youth - from Aaron's sons
I share here audio of the sermon I gave this weekend on the portion of Sh’mini, commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 37th anniversary of Elie Wiesel’s Bitburg speech to President Reagan, which speaks to the theme of audacious defiance, or what we call (in the most positive sense) chutzpah. Those two acts were among the greatest examples of chutzpah in all of history. An adapted text of the sermon, which speaks to my own act of chutzpah, inspired by a similar action of Aaron’s ill-fated progeny, is below. The audio is above.
March of the Living group of Jewish teens at the remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto wall, 2010
One upon a time, I was a teenager. Yes, it’s true. Where I grew up it wasn’t unusual for lots of teens to be at services every week. We had USY of course – but we also had a weekly service run by and for teenagers, which was called Junior Congregation.
One time every year Junior Congregation led the main service. You have to understand, this was a BIG deal. We always had hundreds of people at the main service – every week. This was the mysterious inner sanctum that we never entered as kids and as teens only entered with a real sense of awe.
Now it was customary for the president of the Junior Congregation to deliver the sermon at the Teen Service. And this was 1975, a time of real generational ferment in this country. When it was my turn to give the sermon, it was for this portion of Sh’mini.
Here is a vintage recording of that sermon:
I’ve always found the story of Nadav and Avihu’s catastrophic and instant death to be very troubling. Here they were, Aaron’s eldest sons, and here it was, the inauguration day of the priesthood, Aarons’ most glorious moment, filled with pomp and ceremony, miraculously topped off by divine fire. But then something incredible occurs: Nadav and Avihu come forward with an offering that was not sanctioned – going above and beyond the divine requirement, some would say, showing extra passion for God, extra love – the excesses of youthful effort – or, most commentators would say, showing disrespect, trying to one up their dad, trying to one-up God, being rebellious, egocentric – some said drunk even – as later in the portion we read the commandment to the priests in chapter 10 verse 9, “You shall not drink wine or beer when you come into the tent of meeting.”
The point is, we don’t know why it happened – but we do know what happened – the two sons were obliterated in a catastrophic flash fire. And we know something else, Aaron their father reacted with utter and complete silence. That’s all it says: “Vayidom Aharon.” “Aaron was struck Dumb – Aaron was silent.”
So as president of the Junior Congregation, a long-haired 70’s teen, you can imagine what I said. I came down on the side of Nadav and Avihu and I came down hard. I said they were misunderstood and that the grown ups had refused to let them make what would have been a priceless contribution to the worship. They had been treated unfairly – God had been unjust – and Aaron hadn’t raised a finger to defend his two sons. Then I turned to the congregation – a packed house. I was a senior in High School, just about to take off for college – as rebellious as they come – and they knew it – but they all had watched me grow up; my father was the cantor, after all, so in many ways I was still their little Joshie. I really couldn’t tell if they were taking me seriously. So I went the next step…
I turned to them and said to my elders – it’s time for you to recognize what we have to offer. We might pray differently from you, with all our little meditations and Israeli songs … you might think it is all so cute, but this God seeking thing we are doing is serious business – and we need to do it our way.
Then I pulled a classic Nadav and Avihu – I said, “and this service doesn’t speak to us. Face it – it’s a show.”
I don’t think the rabbi appreciated that last line. The old ladies, who had spent the better part of 17 years pinching my cheek, sat there aghast. The rabbi nearly keeled over, collected himself, and at the end pulled the microphone his way and assured all that it was not a show.
Want to hear something funny though – my father loved it! He was sitting in his chair smiling…I guess it might have been his way of getting back at the rabbi. But he also was very proud that I had the courage to speak my mind. He had a little of the instigator in him, coming from a long line of Stoliner Hasidim. We Hammermans love to play with fire – it’s the only way to cleave to God – something the Hasidim call “hitlahavut” which means to ignite a flame. The flame is passion. The flame is courage. The flame is the gift of speaking out.
So I’ve been defending Nadav and Avihu for my adult entire life. There’s a difference between speaking out and talking back. It’s important to speak out respectfully – but never to be afraid to do it!
This week on Yom Hashoah, we recognize the need to speak out, even when it is inconvenient.
Elie Wiesel understood that need when speaking to President Reagan in 1986, just as Reagan was about to visit an SS Cemetery in Bitburg. Wiesel had just won the Nobel Prize and was invited to the White House on that occasion. You are in the presence of the President of the United States – WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
Here’s part of what he said:
Today is 19 April, and 19 April, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto rose in arms against the onslaught of the Nazis. They were so few and so young and so helpless. And nobody came to their help. And they had to fight what was then the mightiest legion in Europe. Every underground received help except the Jewish underground. And yet they managed to fight and resist and push back those Nazis and their accomplices for six weeks. And yet the leaders of the free world, Mr President, knew everything and did so little, or nothing, or at least nothing specifically to save Jewish children from death. You spoke of Jewish children, Mr President. One million Jewish children perished. If I spent my entire life reciting their names, I would die before finishing the task.
Mr President, I have seen children, I have seen them being thrown in the flames alive. Words, they die on my lips. So I have learned, I have learned, I have learned the fragility of the human condition….
Mr President, we are grateful to the American Army for liberating us. We are grateful to this country, the greatest democracy in the world, the freest nation in the world, the moral nation, the authority in the world. And we are grateful, especially, to this country for having offered us haven and refuge and grateful to its leadership for being so friendly to Israel.
…But, Mr President, I wouldn't be the person I am, and you wouldn't respect me for what I am, if I were not to tell you also of the sadness that is in my heart for wheat happened during the last week. And I am sure that you, too, are sad for the same reasons.
What can I do? I belong to a traumatized generation. And to us, as to you, symbols are important. And furthermore, following our ancient tradition, and we are speaking about Jewish heritage, our tradition commands us ‘to speak truth to power.’
So may I speak to you, Mr President, with respect and admiration, of the events that happened?
We have met four or five times. And each time I came away enriched, for I know of your commitment to humanity.
And therefore, I am convinced, as you have told us earlier when we spoke, that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we all are aware.
May I, Mr President, if it's possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site? That place, Mr President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.
This speech may be one of the top five speeches in Jewish history. If not, then surely it is one of the top five acts of chutzpah. It’s right up there along with Moses telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” Esther revealing Haman’s plot before Ahashverosh and Natan Sharansky, who, when ordered to walk straight across that bridge to freedom by his Soviet overlords, walked in a zigzag. Come to think of it, just about everything he did during his time in the Gulag was a supreme act of chutzpah.
But Aaron was silent in the face of atrocity and injustice, albeit in his case the evil was not perpetrated by a totalitarian state but by God. Still, his reaction mirrored that of many survivors, including those of the Holocaust, whose silence, however understandable, needed to be suspended while they were still able to bear witness. It took over a decade for the word “Holocaust” even to be mentioned. Wiesel’s chutzpah was a helpful catalyst to the testimonies that have come forth, through his writings and through this speech to the American head of state.
He taught us that we cannot afford to be silent.
This coming week not only marks Yom Hashoah, but the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the secular date when, so many years later, Wiesel and Reagan met.
The ghetto uprising was the ultimate act of chutzpah, where the silence of the Shoah was met by the cacophony of a full-scale revolt. When you walk through the area where the ghetto once stood and imagine the courage that they displayed against such long odds, you cannot but be awestruck.
In his last letter written from the burning ghetto on April 21, 1943, 80 years ago, Mordechai Anielewicz the great hero of this fight, wrote,
What happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto… I feel that great things are happening, and what we dared to do is of great, enormous importance.
He could not have been more correct.
Because while everyone understood that the German forces were overwhelming and most of the resistors would die, the ultimate victory would be theirs.
Wiesel wrote years later in his memoirs:
The Jewish soul was a target of the enemy. He sought to corrupt it, even as he strove to destroy us physically. But despite his destructive force, despite his corrupting power, the Jewish soul remained beyond his reach.
This was a victory over genocide and a victory over silence. This was a victory of chutzpah, of audacity. The Jewish soul would emerge triumphant, and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu would speak once again.
That’s what I should have said that day as a teenager addressing my community - that I, like Nadav and Avihu, and like every member of my generation, the first to come of age following the Holocaust, was there to announce that defiant victory. And - in a dramatic passing of the torch that was absolutely not a show - I stood humbly (ok, maybe not so humbly) with my fellow teens, before my elders, as the reignited flames of that Jewish soul.