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Yom Hashoah Sermon - Parsha Kedoshim

Bernie Farber

At the very beginning of today’s Torah reading we are provided


with an example of how one should make an offering to Hashem,
and one of the conditions under which such an offering may be
considered to be inadequate. These are referred to as rejected
offerings, or piggul.

In the course of this discussion our Sages make the very


common-sense observation that it is not enough to carry out the
commandments mechanically; one must perform them with the
right intentions. No big surprise, But here is the further thought
that really made me think:

The Talmud teaches that a rejection of an offering based on


piggul only occurs when the outward form of observance is
perfect, but the intent is flawed.

In other words, not only does intent count but so does the
alignment of inner intent with outward practice. It is almost as if
Hashem is saying “You act perfectly because people can see
what you do, but you don’t give a 100 per cent when only I can
see what’s going on. How can such service be acceptable?”
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We are being told something very important here. In our everyday
lives we speak of observing the spirit and/or the letter of the law
as if these represent two separate and viable choices. The Torah
begs to differ: outward observance without inner intent is a sham;
the spirit and the letter must coincide.

I must tell you my friends that this is a daunting message,


especially so since we are only a few days away from Yom
Hashoah, and my heart is full, as it always is at this time of the
year, with the stories that my father told me of his experiences
during the war. It is at this time of the year that I feel the
heaviness of history upon me, and reflect on the truth of the
adage that “we may sometimes feel that we are done with history,
but that history is never truly done with us.

Tomorrow, in Toronto, 3000 people will come together at Earl


Bales Park for the community’s annual commemoration of Yom
Hashoah. I do not have to tell those of you who have attended in
the past how meaningful this event is. For those who have never
attended I encourage you to do so.

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Held as it is in the shadow of the Holocaust Memorial, literally in
the shadow of the chimney, it represents a precious opportunity
for reflection, meditation and mourning – both public and private.

But it also represents a challenge for us, the very challenge that
Parsha Kedoshim sets out for us in the form of piggul. I can
assure you that every element of the program has been
considered and implemented with the proper degree of
commitment and sensitivity. But what will we bring to the service?
Will we see this as an opportunity to honour our precious
survivors and our perished brothers and sisters or will we fret
about the cold (or the wet) and shake our heads because the
sound is to loud or too soft. Will we bring the proper intent to this
moment? It is an opportunity to transcend the moment, to rise
above the moment, and to be in the moment. It requires a
supreme act of concentration that we do not always achieve.

The Torah understood – understands - that we are not perfect.


One of the ways that our all too human nature reflects itself is
through a consideration of the Hebrew word for “holiness”. We
speak of “Kodesh” – holiness – but we must contrast it with
“Kadaysh” – immorality.

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The similarity of these words suggests to me that holiness and
immorality are not simply opposites but rather they exist at
opposite ends of the same continuum.
The difference of a few vowels explains the ease with which we
can slide from one extreme to the other. But what it also suggests
to me is that while we can never take our current status for
granted, we can also hope and work to improve our status. We
can renew ourselves and perfect our service in both letter and
spirit.

But there are challenges to be faced. Our very language gets in


the way.

Primo Levi spoke about the failure of language to fully convey


what was experienced by the men and women who found
themselves trapped within the Nazi’s Kingdom of Death.
Just as our hunger is not that of missing a meal, so our
way of being cold has need of a new word. We say
'hunger', we say 'tiredness', 'fear', 'pain', we say 'winter'
and they are different things. They are free words,
created and used by free men who lived in comfort and
suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a
new, harsh language would have been born; and only this
language could express what it means to toil the whole
day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing,
wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and
trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness hunger
and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.

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The profundity of this statement was brought home to me just a
few weeks ago when I attended the funeral of Esther Freiman, the
mother of our National President, Mark Freiman.

Mark told his mother’s story, from her youth in Jaroslav to her
desperate survival in Sambir, and the life that followed here in
Canada. What struck me about Mark’s eulogy was not that he
was repeating the story that his mother had told to him, but rather
that he was recounted a story that his mother had never told him;
one that he had only over the years been able to piece together
through chance comments and his own research. In the Book of
Job, a servant comes to Job and tells him of a terrible disaster:

Thy sons and daughters were eating and drinking


in the house of their eldest brother, when there
came a mighty wind and beat upon the corners of
the house, and it fell upon the young people and
they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell
thee.

In the Shoah there was no tale to tell. Those who had seen knew
that there were no words to truly describe what had befallen them,
leaving those who had not seen with imperfect words to describe
what they could not possibly understand.

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And those who survived the darkness must ask, as did my father
a survivor of a small Polish shtetle, How could this have
happened? Why me? What does it mean? What lessons can we
learn?

Almost 2,000 years ago the poet Ovid sadly observed “how much
blind night there is in the minds and hearts of men.” The
observation is true, yet it takes us no closer to the truth of the
matter. Perhaps Elie Wiesel brings us closer when, in one of his
essays, he suggests that there is little point in asking the question
“where was G-d” when a far more important – and answerable –
question is “where was Man?”

This is a question that has occupied me for my entire life. My


father, Max (of Blessed Memory) was one of two Jewish survivors
of Botchki, a small Polish town whose Jewish inhabitants were
transported by rail to Treblinka, and to oblivion. Included in that
transport was my father’s first family, including two half- brothers I
would never know – Yitzchak and Sholom.

I mention their names today, in your presence, because at times


such as these it is important, beyond my ability to describe, to
replace numbers with names.

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Each victim of the wider Kingdom of Death, of the European war,
had a name, felt love, was loved. Laughed. Cried. And ultimately
was murdered by the Nazi hordes. Were all the names of these
victims known I would say to you, let us sit on the ground, pour
ashes on our head, and read these names until, weary with
speech and parched of throat, we would fall into silence. And in
that silence, in that absence of speech, we would come to
feelingly know what it is that has been stolen from us.

I stand here before you, and I am deafened by the silence. The


silence of a murdered generation. 1.5 million Jewish children.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietsche, once observed that


you needed to be careful when staring into the abyss, because
sometimes the abyss would stare back. This emptiness is all
around us. It is in the shoes at the Auschwitz museum that wait
for their owners to reclaim them, in eyeglasses that lie in tangled
piles without human sight to animate them. It is in places like
Treblinka, the death-place of my Father’s family, where nothing
remains but a simple monument and a field of jagged stones set
into the earth like the broken teeth of a mouth forever held open in
a silent scream.

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Stand in Treblinka or in Chelmno or Auschwitz or any other
outpost of the Kingdom of Death and you will feel the silence
press down on you, robbing you of speech.
The Shoah is the triumph of Nothingness. We perhaps cannot
realize today how nearly complete that triumph was. It was only in
1993 that I finally learned the fate of my father’s family, and the
approximate day of their death at a chance meeting in Bad
Arolsen Germany with the director of the International
headquarters of the Red Cross. It was there where I found my
father’s DP Camp file with bits and pieces of information I never
knew before. A few years later I was overwhelmed when casually
browsing through the London Jewish News Book Review to find a
book on my father’s shtetle written by a former Jewish inhabitant
who left Poland years before the Holocaust began. The postscript
to the book written by the author’s daughter after his death and
just prior to publication reads as follows:

“Wellie Farber has not figured by name in this book, but was
one of Dovid’s English students in the late 1920's. He and
one companion jumped off a transport train on the way to
Treblinka and hid in the forests for the remainder of the war
after which he obtained a visa for Venezuela, together with a
brief transit visa for the United States. While there, he
managed to locate my father in Washington and told him of
the fate of the Botchki Jews. All had been transported to
Treblinka on November 2nd 1943. So far as he knew all had
gone immediately to the gas chambers. There were no other
survivors.”

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Wellie Farber was my father’s nephew. While foraging for food
outside the Ghetto that fateful November night they were captured
by the Gestapo and put onto the cattle cars to death. He and my
father were the only two Jewish survivors of the Bocki ghetto.
Sadly, Wellie lost much of his memory of that horrible time and
was never able to tell my father his story of survival after they lost
each other in the woods of the Bielski forest. When my father
found him years after the war living in France he was no longer
the man he use to be.

With this information I was able, finally, to mark the yahrzeit of


my unknown brothers, indeed all the Jewish inhabitants of the
village, with the ancient words of the Kaddish. Can I even tell you
how painful it was for my father to carry the memory of his family
in his heart for his entire life and have no day on which to pray, no
place at which to kneel, no stone to lean against and weep?

It is too late for the murdered Jews of Europe. The world had its
opportunity to save them and did too little, too late. The deeds of
the righteous among the nations, represent a flickering spark of
humanity in a world gone dark, and offer a sharp rebuke to those
who say “we had no choice” or “we did not know” or “it was not
our business”.
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No words of mine can bring meaning or sense to the Shoah. But
commemorating the Shoah can bring hope to those who survived
and those who remember. We do not have to hate. We do not
have to kill. We do not have to destroy. We are not, as individuals
weak. We are not, as individuals, powerless. We can, as
individuals make a vital difference in the world around us. And in
so doing, we can at least show the victims of the Nazi madness
that their deaths had some effect on us, caused us to reflect,
reconsider, and dare I say it, hope?

We must honour the graves of our parents, our brothers, our


sisters and our neighbours. And we must do this with forthright
action and with a commitment to ensure that never again will
murderers walk so freely among us. Never again will the demons
of the human spirit gain ascendancy. Never again will we turn a
blind eye to the torment of others. Only then will our words of
regret and hope be heard by our G-d and by the spirits of those
who surround us.

And today as we remember I am honoured to say that many


survivors, like my dear father, found a haven in Canada.

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They were and are the true heroes of this sad epoch in history.
Through their courage they found the strength where little was left
to start over again; to build new families and to leave a legacy of
hope, love and determination for their children and their
descendants to follow. To you I say thank you. To you I say Kol-
HaKavod. May your spirit and strength be as a light unto the
nations and a clarion call for all of us.

In the end my friends, we must show a fidelity to history and


memory - we must ensure that the mitzvah of Tikun Olam - the
exhortation for Jews to strive to “repair the world” remains
steadfast. We do this for ourselves, we do this for those whose
echoes were so murderously silenced - we do this for the
Yitzhaks and Sholoms - whose still small voices call out from the
grave Zachor - remember.

Shabbat Shalom

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