Prominently displayed in the Beth Shalom lobby is a display case containing three panels of burnt parchment that came from a Torah scroll deliberately set ablaze by the Nazis during the Holocaust. This burnt sefer Torah has always served as a painful yet powerful reminder of the Shoah.
The scroll was long thought to be destroyed beyond repair, and so it remained tucked away on display as a poignant Holocaust memorial. But as it turned out, the heavy layer of soot from the fires of the Shoah actually preserved much of this very old Torah scroll, and only three burnt panels needed to be replaced and rewritten. The rest of the Torah, scribed in a rare Kabbalistic style, could be salvaged.
And so our congregation embarked on the sacred task of bringing this beautiful Torah scroll back to life so it could take its rightful place in our holy ark.
For our community, restoring this scroll was about much more than simply repairing a beautifully written Torah. This Torah was emblematic of the story of the Jewish people.
We too had managed to survive the flames of an often brutal history, and we too had nearly been destroyed. Yet, as G-d and fate would have it, Am Yisrael Chai: The Jewish people have persevered, just as this rare and precious Torah scroll managed to survive the flames of its cruel and not-too-distant past.
The horrific fire that enveloped this Torah scroll decades ago was fueled by fanatical anti-Semitism and fanned by an unabashed hatred that we had all hoped was only a relic of a bygone era.
After the Holocaust, we had hoped that humanity had finally learned the painful lessons of its savage past. But as we begin Rosh Hashanah 5778, it is painfully clear that the scourge of hatred and fanaticism has yet to be driven from our world. We are still beset by intolerance and the forces of destruction that strive to tear us apart.
Who would have thought that the hateful ideologies of neo-Nazism and white supremacism would again resurface to plague us, as we recently witnessed in Charlottesville, Va.? Who would have thought that anti-Semitism would arise from the ashes, often masked in the guise of anti-Zionism, seeking to demonize Jews and delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state?
When we proclaimed “Never again!” we knew deep down that such entrenched hatred would not easily dissipate and that this struggle was one that would have to be continuously waged. If we were surprised about anything, though, it was about how soon humanity would forget.
In the 1960s, Abraham Joshua Heschel went to Selma to march alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Why did he do it? Because his Jewish neshama told him that as a Jewish leader, he could be nowhere else. Humanity had to be reminded to regard others as equals and to fight injustice wherever it was found.
And humanity still has not internalized this lesson. We have not been outraged enough at the brokenness and brutality we still witness today in places like Syria and elsewhere around the world. Even Europe, which should know better by now, has not yet shown enough outrage to the rising anti-Semitism that is spreading through its countries.
Our internal Jewish divisiveness is equally distressing. We are divided by politics and even by how we express our Judaism.
Looking back at photos of the pre-1948 Kotel, I was struck by the sight of Jewish men and women praying peaceably side by side. There was no mechitzah (the partition separating men and women) back then, and certainly none of the infighting we see today. When Israeli soldiers uttered the famous words “Har HaBayit B’Yadenu,” nobody imagined that the liberated Kotel would become a place for Jewish enmity and strife.
Therefore, a mitzvah we should all work to embrace this Rosh Hashanah is to make 5778 a year in which we come together in mutual love, recognition and respect, a year when Jews and all peoples come together to rise above the differences that threaten to pull us apart.
May we see a 5778 where parents, teachers and students work together to help create a more educated and responsible Jewish community. Where Jewish liberals and conservatives can disagree respectfully without being disagreeable. Where Israel recognizes each of our denominations’ weddings, conversions and gittin (divorce decrees). Where secular and religious Jews in Israel learn tolerance for each other’s way of life. And where humanity finally sees the benefits of living together in peace. Amen.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom