Torah Reflections – August 16-22, 2015

Shof’tim

Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

 

The Healing Power of Self-Awareness  

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day. Elul is a month of preparation ahead of the High Holy Days, a time of personal inventory. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past; a way which ultimately supports our reclaiming our own inner wisdom.

But how do we enter into such a process? Because we are so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year, how do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-righteous flagellation which can easily turn into an ego trip down the I-am-the-worst-evil-person-that-ever-was road? The first verses of this week’sTorah portion—which inaugurates the month of Elul each year —give us instructions in regard to this inner process:

         You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take
bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that
the Eternal your God is giving you.
[Deut. 16:19-20]
Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take-on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused, and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion of its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings, the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones, and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness. The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are what divert us from the truth; the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to ignore some of the character flaws that come with being human, unavoidably stuck in ego.

And when this ego traps us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection, Torah tells us that it is “Justice” we are to pursue instead. The word translated as “justice” is tzedek in Hebrew, but tzedek also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow; and, at another level, affords us the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal [our] God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously gift ourselves the pursuit of Tzedek, the gift of Right View.

Torah Reflections – August 9 – 15, 2015

Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Blessings — OK, Bring Them On; But Why Curses?                  
This week’s Torah portion is close to my heart. It was the Torah portion of the week of my wedding, sixteen years ago, and is called Re’eh, which means “See!” It begins:
See! I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you hearken to the path of mitzvot of the Eternal your God, that I enjoin upon you today; and the curse if you do not hearken to the path of mitzvot of the Eternal your God, and turn aside from the way that I enjoin upon you today… [Deut. 11:26-28]

I place before you today a blessing and a curse,” an interesting injunction to launch a marriage! But as much as the ego is fine with blessings, why does God have to also place curses in front of us?

Note that both blessings and curses are linked here to following (or not) the path ofmitzvot. Typically in the Jewish world, we tend to think of mitzvot as “doing good deeds.” And that’s fine, but in relating only to the “doing,” this limited understanding misses an entire dimension of what mitzvah truly is about. To access the richer understanding we look to the Aramaic root of “mitzvah” which means “connecting.” The path of mitzvot, therefore, is a spiritual practice or discipline which aims at connecting or reconnecting us to God, to the Source of Being that we are. Yet why does embracing a spiritual practice bring blessings and not following one unleash curses? If we consider this to be not so much about outer consequences, but rather about inner awareness, then deeper layers of meaning can be extracted from this injunction.

Often, when we neglect our spiritual practice, we find ourselves caught in the world of the mind, stuck in the chaotic life of the ego. The nature of the ego is to be dissatisfied, to perceive and often dwell upon what is lacking, what is not right, on how things should be and are not. The ego worries, complains about its needs not being fulfilled, its expectations not being met. It looks out at the world and sees violence, devastation, ecological disaster. It lives in anger and resentment about yesterday and in fear of tomorrow, continually trying to manipulate and control today to make it different than it is. And so it is not so much that a life devoid of spirituality brings curses upon itself; rather, it may be that such a life is one where one is only able to see curses. As the first word of our portion may be hinting at, this is about what we are able to “see,” to be present to or aware of. Collapsed in the ego, one sees mainly lack and fear.

When we make spirituality an essential part of our existence, however, what we are able to see is radically different. Because our spiritual path serves to reconnect us to Source, it expands our awareness beyond the tunnel vision of the ego. In removing our blinders and opening our eyes it also opens our heart. As we become spiritually aware, we are able to also see the essential goodness of the world, the miracle of life, the unfathomable gift of our own birth, and the preciousness of relationship. We are able to hold the pain and suffering, the struggling and the fear with acceptance, understanding and compassion. The existence of love brings up feelings of gratitude, the wonder of aliveness, feelings of pure joy. In such awareness the other is no longer seen as a means to satisfy one’s needs; one is able to leave the past in the past, welcome the future with an open heart, and be fully present to one’s experience in every moment, just as it is. When awareness transcends the ego, one can’t help but see abundance and love.

The perfect wedding gift of a portion after all!

Torah Reflections – June 28 – July 4, 2015

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Happiness Beyond Thought

 

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is king of Moab. As the parashah opens, his kingdom is threatened to be invaded by the Israelite armies encamped at his borders. He and his soldiers have learned of the neighboring powers already defeated by the Hebrews tribes; and they fear that they are next. Balak figures that he will need a trump card to shift the odds in his favor, so he hires Balaam. Balaam is a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, as Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [Num. 22:6] The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not “work” on the Israelites; but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of his own troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.

 

This is the power of a curse–or the power of a blessing for that matter: it only works on those who believe. Words are words; they are empty shells that point to things, ideas and concepts. They only have power over us if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can only trigger a reaction in us if they echo inside of us the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings, and the (many) ways we are unlovable, unworthy, not tall, thin, smart, beautiful (etc…) enough. So that when our beliefs in our own self-worth get confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when it is our own self-curses that are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” it is our sense of worthlessness that gets reinforced; and we get wounded, resentful and angry.

 

So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like us to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that, would be if we had control over our thoughts. And we don’t. We wish we could only think positive thoughts, only pronounce blessings, but we can’t. We can’t because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.

 

But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents; and in so doing, dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator — to name but a few — and of course, the professional critique: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it, recognize its nature, its role, and — most importantly — remember that, since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says, or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.

 

This kind of practice supports our realizing that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, therefore, leading more peaceful and equanimous lives. This is what our teachers called real happiness; Happiness with a capital “H”: Happiness beyond thought.

Torah Reflections – June 21 – 27, 2015

Chukat

Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

 

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth                                    

                   

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

 

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother — replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings: “Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15] Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886) Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies — those we hold grudges against, those we dislike — into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families.

 

Perhaps what they were touching upon goes even deeper than that, and has to do with the essential nature of our enslavement. In their years of spiritual exploration they had come to realize that the essence of what keeps us stuck in our own Egypt, is the self-talk that convinces us that we are harsh and bad, deserving of all the evil that happens to us, and certainly not deserving of freedom. All these years our inner Pharaoh “made us seem harsh, bad” to ourselves as a way to keep us enslaved, stuck in this self-defeating reinforced inner story. We have come to believe in the myth of our separate sense of self and in all the limitations we have placed upon it as a consequence of our own unworthiness narrative. Moreover, we have completely identified with this mythical self and, consequently — like with a Golem — given it a life of its own. This myth of a fixed, permanent, independent self has been layered upon the Light of our True Self, keeping us in the darkness of its lie. What we most suffer from is a case of mistaken identity, believing ourselves to be this sinful, broken, undeserving, mythical creature we call “me.” Our stories are like the armies guarding the entrance to the Promised Land. Some we will have to fight and defeat. Some we will have to outmaneuver. Some will simply yield and offer us safe passage. But we will have to face each and every one of them and shine upon them the dissolving power of the light of Truth; for the only way in is through.

Torah Reflections – June 14 – 20, 2015

Korach

Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

 

When Korach Takes Over                                  

                

We left the Israelites at the edge of the Promised Land last week. Twelve tribal leaders, who had gone to scope out the Land, had come back. Ten against two, they advised not to enter into the Land, opting to remain in the wilderness. They argued that more time was needed to prepare. The people weren’t ready to let go of the spiritual retreat that the wilderness afforded. They wanted to stay in that wilderness state a little longer. Above all, they didn’t want to reenter the world, have to raise kids and go to work every day. They wanted spirituality divorced from everyday reality. They wanted more highs, more miracles, more ecstatic moments.

 

But these were the voices of Mitzrayim, of narrow consciousness, of addictive behavior; the voices of ego that always want more. These voices had turned the wilderness, their spiritual retreat itself, into another narrow place; because when the ego gets attached to wanting more highs, more spiritual experiences, the attachment itself becomes an insurmountable obstacle to experiencing them again, a new place of stuckness.

 

In the biblical myth, God understands that though He had taken the Hebrews out of Egypt, He didn’t succeed in taking Egypt out of the Hebrews. Therefore, He decrees that the generation of Israelites that were slaves in Egypt will have to die off in the wilderness; for only beings who had never known slavery could settle the Promised Land. You can imagine how pleased the Israelites were! As we open this week’s Torah portion a revolt erupts led by a member of the Levite tribe: Korach.

 

“The Hebrew root k-r-ch means ‘division’ or ‘split,’ and our Sages associate Korach…with these tendencies;” writes the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Likkutei Sichos. Korach is the quintessential splitting and dividing energies of ego. But, for the ego, it is “divide and conquer.” Not surprisingly, Korach and his followers attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron — who represent the higher levels of our awareness. The ego wants to take over; to go beyond what it is designed to do, and let its need for control spill over the many facets of our being. In Torah Moses answers Korach: “Hear me son of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart… and given you direct access to perform the duties of the Eternal…and to minister to the community and serve them? Now…you seek the priesthood too?” [Num. 16:8-10]

 

In Torah it is the voice of Moses that eventually wins the day. Korach ends up being swallowed by the earth at God’s command, and 250 of his followers consumed by Divine fire. But for most of us it is still the voice of ego that speaks the loudest in our lives, and which — most of the time — obscures the light of our True Self, our inner Moses. Our journey to the Promised Land takes work and takes time (though hopefully not 40 years). We, too, have to practice constantly and persistently to get Egypt out of ourselves. But if Torah is any measure of truth, spiritual practice will inevitably lead us back to that Land, the Land of our soul.

Torah Reflections – June 7 – 13, 2015

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Why The Spies Were Wrong

 

This week, in Torah, we meet again the story of the twelve elders, leaders of the Hebrew tribes, whom Moses sends to spy upon the Land of Canaan ahead of the Israelites’ invasion. Returning after forty days and forty nights, their report to Moses and the people is overwhelmingly despairing: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The land that we crossed through and scouted is a land that devours its settlers.” [Num. 13:31-32] Only Caleb and Joshua, two out of the twelve, disagreed and “hushed the people before Moses and said: ‘Let us go up, yes, up for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it!‘” [Num. 13:30]

 

I’ve always wondered; why would these ten elders — wise and discerning individuals especially selected by Moses — be so pessimistic in their report? What did they fear? After all, they had seen God destroy the mighty armies of Pharaoh; how could Canaan’s stand a chance? They had witnessed miracle after miracle ever since the plagues of Egypt: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Revelation at Sinai. Miriam’s traveling well had sustained them with water, and the daily manna falling from heaven provided them with food; all their needs had been taken care of by God day in and day out. How could the Canaanite be stronger than them? In truth, their claim was even more ominous than that. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah, 35a) offer a different translation of the Hebrew: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than Him… [this] is a land that devours its settlers.” Despite continued Divine providence in their journey through the wilderness, they not only feared that the people of Canaan would be stronger than God, but that settling the land itself would lead them to their doom.

 

The elders’ argument was that because of the unabating Divine providence, the Israelites were not ready to enter the land. In the wilderness they became accustomed to God providing for them. Going into the land meant that the manna would stop, and the well disappear. The Children of Israel would have to grow up and provide for themselves, while contending with a foreign people and its competing religion. Being busy with a thousand material preoccupations and new responsibilities, they would forget about God. The elders’ real fear was not of external threats, but of internal ones-indeed, the deepest internal ones; threats to the very soul of their people. They feared that the materialistic world and its daily concerns would consume their energy — leaving no time for Spirit — and that God would eventually be defeated by the harsh settler’s life which was bound to “devour” them, overtaking every minute of every day. It was best to remain in the secluded peace of the wilderness, where all material needs were provided for, and where they could continue to deepen their newly acquired spiritual path. And who could blame these elders? Anyone who has ever experienced the peaceful quiet of a complete Shabbat, or of a meditation retreat, knows the attraction of spiritual seclusion. They argued that the best way to find God, the best way to stay connected to the Divine is to remain separated from the physical, materialistic world. God, they claimed, is to be experienced in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel. Entering the land would disconnect the people from the spiritual realm.

 

But as far as Judaism is concerned, they were wrong. Without denying the importance of wilderness experiences, seminal to our spiritual unfoldment, Judaism insists upon recognizing God’s Presence in every event. We are to remain aware of God’s acting through our acting, God’s speaking through our speaking, and to remember the holy in the mundane, the miraculous in the seemingly insignificant. That’s what Joshua and Caleb said when, twice, they urged the people to “go up.” It is one thing to “go up,” to ascend the spiritual path while in the wilderness; but the real “going up” is to remain aware of Spirit’s Presence in the world itself, within the everyday reality of human interactions with that world, in all its light and shadow. Yes, we are to carve time to meditate or pray every day; to immerse ourselves daily in this “wilderness.” But that grounding space needs to infuse, in turn, who we are and how we show up in our world; our remembering the holiness of every being, of every thing, and every moment, in order to transform our world into the holy place it already is.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rabbi Olivier

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day 12: Lodz

Before you start reading today’s post below, I must admit that I didn’t think I would write another blog entry about yet another difficult place to be. I was feeling pretty done. I was looking forward to sharing the other side of Poland, its sheer natural beauty, its youthful people filling the streets and the cafes, its incredible museums etc… But, once again today, a mournful place connected to the Shoah surprised us by its simplicity and its power. Though I share some of my thoughts about “tomorrow” at the end, I confess that the place I find myself in reaction to being in the camps, the Ghettos or (as in this case) the deportation stations in particular, or to talking about the Shoah in general is a resounding “I don’t know.” The meaninglessness of it all, the emptiness one is left feeling within, have yet to allow any kind of conclusive “next step” if such a thing is even possible. It is from this “not knowing” that I write the following few words.

 

It would be easier to hate. When I was in my early teens growing up in France and started to learn about the Shoah, the Holocaust, I became angry and hateful towards the Germans. I promised myself never to go east, never to visit Germany, Poland or all these other countries with peoples I held responsible for the atrocities of the Shoah. Every time I met a group of German tourists of a certain age, I wondered about their role during the war. I hated them. I took this hatred all the way to Israel when I emigrated there from France (France didn’t have a clean record when it came to its Jews either) and channeled it into a virulently right-wing Zionism. I know that a lot of my French friends in Jerusalem felt the same way. I have found in my aging, however, that this capacity for hating was, at some point, left behind. Hate and the desire for revenge make things easier. It paints a more black-and-white picture of our interpreted reality about who the bad guys and the good guys are, and gives the hatter the illusion of control and power, which in the reality of the absence of both is deeply satisfying. A part of me wishes that I could revert back to my impassioned youthful hateful self, right now. It would have made being at the Lodz Ghetto deportation train station simpler and, perhaps, more tangible.

But I can no longer hate the Nazis. I am the Nazis. The Nazi part of consciousness that allows for this train station is part of my own make-up and, under the right circumstances, could easily be re-activated. I can’t hate the Poles either. I don’t know what I would have done living in fear under Nazi rule all these years. Besides, so many of them risked their lives and their children’s lives to save Jews. Additionally, I felt in all our traveling and being in so many places where the events of the Jewish mass murder took place that they have done an incredible job making sure monuments are built, sites are preserved and schools take their students there. I wonder what it would look like if, in the good US of A, we would have done half as good a job commemorating the native-American genocide or African-American slavery.

This remarkably preserved train station had a little museum inside its walls about the history of the Jews of Lodz in part but, mostly, about its WWII Ghetto. Around the deportation station was a tall concrete wall with different commemorative inscriptions engraved. The concrete wall behind the station was in the shape of a series of giant Jewish tombstones each bearing the name of one of the camps those who came through this space were sent to. All that I missed at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw was here in Lodz’ Umschlagplatz: the platform where Jews were gathered before climbing onto the train, the rail tracks themselves, as well as three well-preserved war-era cattle cars still waiting. One of them was left open and the public was welcomed to step into it. For some irrational reason my first reaction at the site of the open cattle car was fear, and the impulse to run away. “I could never do that,” I thought to myself, “that’s beyond where I am willing to go.” But I looked around and, this time, there were no yelling Nazis and no barking German shepherds. A few of our group had already gone in and were able to come out unharmed. Now I wanted to get in, I wanted to wrap myself in the four wooden walls of the rusty car. I went to one of the corners of the car and began to look at the beautiful green grass on this rainy day through a little whole between its wooden slats. In a moment as more and more people would crowd around me, the car would begin to move. I could still see, through my little hole, on my way to death, the green grass of life continuing to grow without me. Soon I would be naked in a cold barrack awaiting my faceless assassination. I could hear them around me stepping on each other in this too small a car with their heavy bags full of hope or denial. Two hundred plus of us, squeezed into the 21.3 m2 car, standing here suffocating with no room for our body to find rest. There are places like this one, where you can hear the past.

I wanted to hate the Nazis. I really did. But I couldn’t. The Shoah is both horribly human, and completely beyond human understanding at the same time. To me it represents the darkest expression of the conditioned ego; this same ego which, especially at such times as these, is also capable of expressing as the greatest human light. A part of me naively believes that “never again” can only be true if most of humanity manages to wake up from ego-consciousness. Our tradition calls this the messianic age, when most of humankind will reach Messiah-consciousness. But short of that, as this might take us many more generations, at the level of your and my everyday life of ego-consciousness, we need to begin telling a different story about what defines us as human beings: a story of collaboration instead of competition, a story of preservation instead of destruction, a story of oneness instead of separation, a story of recognition instead of exclusion, ultimately a story of pluralism instead of racism, prejudice or intolerance. This is the story we need to tell, the story our world is in dire need to hear. The narrative that currently guides our decision both locally and globally, is leading us down a path of planetary destruction. It is barely a notch above Nazi consciousness. But it is just a narrative. We don’t have to subscribe to it any longer. The Shoah demands of us that we evolve our human story.

The Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau whom we remember each year at our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, used to sing a song our group sang when we were there: “Ani Ma’amin. I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messianic-consciouness; and even though it may be delayed, I will wait for it with every day that comes.” May we find the strength to write anew, and before it is too late, the human story of tomorrow.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – day 10: Treblinka

Treblinka is an impossibly beautiful memorial. Absolutely nothing is left of the camp that once stood there. It is hard to imagine it being the case, but we have to remember that the Nazis were masters of deception and made a point of dismantling these camps to allow for possible denial later on. In the same way, no one was supposed to leave these extermination camps alive, in order to prevent any kind of potential testimony at a future time. We only know about Treblinka because the Nazis didn’t succeed in eliminating all witnesses, precisely because these witnesses—namely the Jewish inmates they kept around to run this impeccably oiled death machine—figured out that the Nazis would never let anyone survive and staged a successful revolt on August 2nd, 1943, where they overtook the guards and escaped. At the end of the war about 50 of them were still alive. They had made a pact to testify once freed, which was the motivator for their rising, and so a few of them did. Without them, without their act of incredible courage, we would know nothing about Treblinka. In extermination camps where not one person survived, like Chelmno, all memory has been erased. To the point where many have never even heard of Chelmno at all.

The memorial that is Treblinka consists of a large clearing carved out of the forest the Nazis had planted to cover up their ignominious crime. It was designed by a non-Jewish Polish artist in the 60’s under Poland’s communist regime. A couple of concrete blocks made to look like two panels of a half opened gate welcome you into the space. The path on which you walk is made of uneven stones sticking out of the dirt, made to keep you off balance as you walk and slightly twist your ankles with each step. On the right of the stone-path are a series of concrete slabs aligned to represent the train track’s sleepers leading to the recreated platform where the cattle cars were emptied and men and women separated before being ushered into the undressing rooms at the end of their voyage.

From the platform we walked toward the main monument of stones towering at the center of the main clearing and made to look like the Jerusalem Western Wall with tortured bodies rising from its top. This concrete monument stands where the gas chambers once stood. As you walk toward this monument, a dozen or so stones lined up to your right have the names of the different countries from which Jews were taken to Treblinka engraved on them. As you approach you then discover a sea of stones (like burial stones), of every size and shape as far as the eyes can see. 17,000 of them. 17,000 to commemorate the 17,000 Jews per day who were killed there at the peak of Treblinka’s lethal efficiency. No word can describe how beautiful and emotional seeing such a sight is; a reaction you were not prepared for that completely overwhelms you. You are compelled to begin a slow, deeply meditative, wandering walk between these stones many of which have the names of the towns and villages the Jews who died here were taken from. My mind began to tell the stories of these stones, of these lives. The small ones were the children; the tiny ones were the babies. The taller ones were mothers and fathers, those that looked more tattered were the grand-parents. It was shockingly beautiful because its vastness, the thousands of stones spreading forever in front, next to, and behind you, gave you a concrete visual idea of what 17,000 lives standing side by side that one day represented. And then, the next day, another 17,000 “stones” would be brought in to be murdered. Reading or saying “17,000” will never capture the reality of it. Five digits can’t conjure up in our mind the physical reality they poorly attempt to represent. But to walk between these 17,000 rocks and then sit down at the base of one of them and meditate for a while in their presence is the most moving experience one can ever have.

I didn’t know what visiting the death camps would be like, and it has been a different experience for each of us. I must admit that I had reservations, maybe even concerns about being in these places. Often when I talked to people about going to the death camps before the trip, I found their negative reaction to only add to my ambivalence. Who would want to go to what we pre-judge being dark, dreary, awful places? But being in Auschwitz, being in Birkenau or in Treblinka have been nothing but. They each in their own way reach down to previously untouched places in our soul, bypassing all the ego stuff that gets in our way, and leaving us naked and raw in facing the human experience that they are. We come too late. There is nothing we can do about the death and the suffering. The part of us that wants to jump in and help, that wants to fix things, finds itself utterly defeated. All that is left is to acknowledge our powerlessness, bear witness and honor the countless lives that were lost by, perhaps tomorrow, living our lives a little better, a little more lovingly, a little more compassionately and, most importantly, with more integrity; vowing to never let our voice be drown in the silent majority of the self-centered cowards. Silence kills.

One last note. It took my mom a good couple of hours before she was able to speak again, after leaving Treblinka. The two of us went for a walk through the streets of Warsaw’s gorgeous old-city as soon as we got back. I had noticed that in the bus, during the two hours of our drive back, she had been capturing some of her thoughts on her phone’s “notes.” She, too, had been upset at first by the meticulousness with which the Nazis had dismantled and erased all traces of the camp. She noted, however, that compared to Auschwitz-Birkenau where most of the camps’ structures were left standing, the desert that the Nazis left in Treblinka allowed for a memorial a hundred times more powerful to rise from its (and our) ashes. The presence of those they attempted to erase from humanity’s memory could never be felt more powerfully than amidst the sea of stones of this incredible memorial.

I will be posting pictures of Treblinka on my Facebook page.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Eight: Warsaw

Warsaw is a city straddling several worlds and several eras. It encompasses, displayed in its make-up, the whole history of Europe. What is striking about its architecture is the mix of century old buildings (some original to their era, some rebuilt), communist era box-looking apartment blocks and unnecessarily wide boulevards (used for the infamous gigantic communist military parades,) and the modern Western-like towers of aluminum, steel and glass. Often those three architectural eras will be represented in building standing side by side on the same street. You’ve never seen a city like this. I must admit, I miss the old-Europe feel of Krakow and Prague. That being said, the rebuilt old-city of Warsaw is absolutely gorgeous and there is something unique and paradoxically endearing about this architecturally-mixed layered city.

Our Day 7 was spent traveling by train from Krakow, checking-in at our Warsaw fabulous hotel and visiting with Dr. Staszek Krajewski, a professor of philosophy in Warsaw, old friend of Gerardo and major player in the creation and sustaining of Jewish underground life post-WWII during the communist era. It was a privilege to be able to spend over an hour with him and ask as many questions as our time allowed. Nothing can replace meeting those who were the principal actors during these troubled times. Truly a great gift for our group.

Today started with a deeply emotional tour of the major monuments dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto of WWII. We stopped at one of the red brick walls of the Ghetto that is still standing today between two currently inhabited apartment buildings, creating a kind of cul-de-sac or walled-off courtyard between the buildings. One of the inhabitants was sweeping around with a broom as we stopped. It was just another Friday morning for him. Then we travelled to the Umschlagplatz, the departing platform for the 300,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who boarded the trains to Treblinka, the death camp where their life expectancy would be about forty-five minutes. Gerardo reminded us that he had been present when the monument which now stands there with 300 Jewish names on its wall (representing the 300,000 other names) was dedicated. He remembered singing a Yiddish version of the Kaddish during the dedication ceremony. As prayers weren’t allowed in communist Poland, this was his way to circumvent the authorities and still share something that would make evident (to those who knew) that the Kaddish had been said that day. As his voice was rising in that place, tears started raining down all our faces. My legs became weak. I couldn’t remain standing. I sat at the foot of the monument, closed my eyes and tried to meditate. I was transported back in time. Breathing in I thought of all those who once stood in this place bags and suitcases in hand, pushed and shoved into these cattle cars. Breathing out I heard the tumult of the place, the shouts and the cries, and the birds singing in the glorious trees around just like they did today. Breathing in, I felt my ancestors, long-lost family members from Warsaw breathing in as well, in this very place so many years ago. Breathing out, I felt their fear and their sadness. I wanted to stand up and climb in the train with them. So I did. I stood up and went behind the monument where there is a little patch of green grass with a tree in the middle, across from which the rails and the trains once waited.

Today it’s the yard of an all-girl school. How does one go to school there? How does one broom around in front of the old Ghetto wall? How does one live in a house a hundred yards from the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau? I have been unable to reconcile this for myself. And no, the answers that: “life goes on” or “it’s a proof that life always wins,” do not satisfy. They verge on feel-good affirmations we tell ourselves to help ourselves cope. Life doesn’t go on. The life that was before is forever broken, and we are no longer the person we were before the violence took place. Israelis, among whom I lived for a decade, have mastered a certain level of “healthy” denial in a land scarred by death and violence. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t live with the wounds of every loss, every act of terror, every war. To live amongst the ghosts of Poland’s darkest history has to impact one’s psyche. Personally, I would find it impossible to build a home in these places. But let me close this parenthesis and take us back to Umshlagplatz.

I couldn’t climb into the train. I couldn’t even see the train tracks that were now gone. I decided to sit on the grass instead, as close as I imagined the train to have been. I remained silent for a while, cross-legged. Suddenly I felt the urge to touch the grass, to touch the earth. I wanted my hands to not just lay flat on the grass, I wanted them to pierce through the earth and get underneath. I wanted to lie down and let the earth surround me, cover me; to be one with this place. I felt sadness, I felt anger, I felt completely inadequate, unable to even begin to comprehend what this place was, what this experience was. I was angry at myself for that. I closed my eyes again, my hands firmly on the grass, grasping at every blade as if for dear life, and I simply let the flow of all these emotions wash over me. I can’t do this! My cousins, great aunts, distant nephews, I will never be able to know the beating of your heart when you climbed up onto this train car, when you handed your little child to the person already in before climbing in yourself, or when the sliding door of the wagon slid shut. All I have is your silence merging with my silence and the beating of my heart echoing yours perhaps. I cry for you, I cry for me, I cry for humanity. I just cry. Your breath is my breath. Your prayer is my prayer. I am so sorry.

The hardest part is when the guide gestures it is time to leave. It feels impossible. It feels disrespectful. It feels as if we were abandoning them again, as if because of us they were going to be utterly alone again, forsaken again. And so you make a promise to yourself that you don’t know if you can keep, perhaps to alleviate your guilt of having spent too little time there: I will come back to Umschlagplatz.

Jewish Heritage Tour of Czech & Poland – Day Six: Krakow

Krakow is a gorgeous city, especially the old-city and—as a separated quarter within it—the district of Kazimierz where the Jews lived from the middle-ages. This is the region of Galicia in Poland, the birth place of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism in the 1700’s. As I often identify as post-modern neo-Chasidic Jew personally, this region is of major significance to me. I was, in fact, reminded of this being the birth-place of Chasidism by a small group of Chasidic men we encountered in front of one of the synagogues we visited and who were on their own pilgrimage from one grave of a great rabbi to another throughout this foundational region.

Beyond touring between all the beautiful sites and learning about so much of the city and its history from our guide (who defies any superlative I could dream up to describe how good he was) one of the places that inspired me most was our quick stop at the 7 year-old Krakow’s JCC. Yes, believe it or not, there is a JCC in Krakow (and Warsaw as well) and it is called JCC here too, and not, as you might expect, the equivalent in Polish. There was a group of about 50 people, a few Jews but most no Jewish, working toward the renewal of Jewish life in Krakow. The rabbi there is an American Jew living with his family in Israel, who spends two weeks per months in Krakow. We met a young woman from NYC, sent by the Joint, who is posted for a year to support existing programs and emerging efforts. It seemed that the rest of this bare-bone staff and a large group of volunteers were all non-Jewish Poles. The interest of non-Jews in matters of Jewish nature seems to stem from people coming to the realization that, though they live in Polish cities filled with Jewish landmarks, they know close to nothing about the how’s and why’s of such obvious Jewish presence. Their need to understand their own history and identity as Poles, they feel, is incomplete without learning about the Jewish Polish history. However much this made sense to me (and one could wish this to be done at the national level through, at least, primary and secondary education,) this is the farthest from being a widespread trend in non-Jewish Poland. Yet 50 of these people were interested enough to volunteer at the JCC.

Some roles of the JCC here in Krakow (beyond and differing from what we traditionally know it to do – i.e. organize Jewish educative experiences, classes in Hebrew, teaching about and celebrating Jewish holidays and Shabbats) has been to support non-Jewish Poles interested in conversion and be a resource for Polish Jews interested in reclaiming a long-time buried Jewish identity or Jews-by-surprise who don’t know where to turn to with the thousand questions they have. Jews-by-surprise is a growing category of Jews who are learning late in life that they were Jewish children rescued from the Nazis by families who adopted them as their own when their biological parents didn’t return, or biological Jewish parents who suddenly acknowledge being Jewish after years spent in fearful silence. Not every one of these Jews-by-surprise decide, however, to act on that knowledge and many ignore this piece of information to continue their lives as the Polish Roman Catholics they always knew themselves to be. And who could blame them? Some, however, find their way to the JCC that act as a resource for the beginning of their often difficult journey of re-discovery. Though there also is Chabad in town and as well as a woman Reform rabbi, the JCC provides a more neutral ground religiously which makes it more inclusive for those who are just taking their first initial steps in their new-found Jewish life. As I said earlier, I was inspired by the staff of the JCC, their work and their mission.

With that, one need also to bear in mind that even though the war has been over for 70 years, and the communist block fell some 25 years ago transforming Poland into a thriving capitalistic democracy, there are only 600 self-identifying Jews in Krakow. And that’s after the many years of diligent efforts from the JCC and other Jewish organizations in the city. 600 Jews in the city of Krakow speaks of the devastating impact of the Shoah on the Jewish community of Poland which was decimated to the tune of 90% of its total population. The few hundred thousand (out of 3.3 million) who managed to survive, never came back after the war, and those who dared coming back found themselves so badly persecuted by the communist government that thousands fled or were expulsed in the decades that followed the war.

And so, though I admire and understand the work the JCC is doing, believing it to be a needed resource space for those Jews-by-surprise, I find myself questioning the motivation behind their mission. Should we try and revive Jewish life in Krakow in particular, in Poland or even in Europe in general? And if we should, why? Anti-Semitism is on the rise again everywhere, with Western Europe leading the charge. My own mother is preparing to leave France in case the far-right fascist party comes to power in the next elections. Herzl, at the end of the 18th century already, prophetically warned that Europe no longer was a safe place for the Jews; that it was time to leave. After 70 years since the end of the Second World War it seems that the lessons from the past have faded from global consciousness; that the memories of the camps have receded from public discourse. The world has closed its eyes to the annexation of Crimea by Russia (pretexting similarity of language and culture to invade) and in the interest of “appeasement” and fearing broader conflict the West remained silent. The resemblance to the Nazi’s invasion of the Sudetenland under the same pretext and the silence of the Western World, is more than eerie. Even the propagandist language is the same. Ukraine is bracing for more take-overs and Poland is extremely concerned (to put it mildly) with an imminent invasion of Russia. When one sees with one’s own eyes history repeating itself, one must choose a different path in response. If Herzl was right decades before Nazism, and European Jews didn’t listen then, we might be wise to heed his call today when our brothers and sisters of Europe seem to be suffering from short term memory loss.

I don’t have an answer to these questions. To be honest, I could—at this junction—argue the other side as well and find a dozen reasons for the re-establishment and development of a Jewish community in Krakow. For one, there are Jews living here; and that’s as simple as that. But the sense I got from listening to the staff at the JCC was more than it being a resource for Jews wandering back home, but to be a platform from which to grow a Jewish community like a missionary organization would. That they kept the “JCC” as their name, defining themselves as an American institution in Poland, struck me of such missionary-like mentality. But there was more. Staff members who talked to us, for example, mentioned two brothers who were Jews-by-surprise and had come to the JCC with inquiring minds. One of them ended-up choosing to practice Judaism again—and they were clearly proud of that—the other decided, as many do, to remain a practicing Roman Catholic and not concern himself with his Jewish heritage. While they emphatically called the first brother a Jew, they called the second a “potential” Jew. This hidden agenda made me feel greatly uncomfortable because the intention I perceived went far beyond simply acting as a resource center for disoriented people wrestling with a major identity crisis. I read this kind of remark as connected to the age-old fear of the dwindling of the Jewish population worldwide. We need more Jews, the voice of fear goes, because inter-marriages and the disaffection of Jews from the Jewish communities in droves threaten the continuing existence of the Jewish people as a whole. Reviving the Jewish community of Poland adds Jews to the tribal roster. I, unfortunately, suspect that the hidden agenda as more to do with that than anything else. Now I may be grossly projecting here, but in my darkest moment of suspecting the worst in people, it has also crossed my mind that, in the Jewish unconscious, a need for “winning by re-population” could be the ultimate—though unavowable—motivation for such an effort in Poland. Hitler wanted Europe—and especially Poland—to be Judenrein (empty of Jews). Rebuilding Jewish life in Poland might be a way to say “Hitler didn’t win. We did.”

Food for unfolding thought and enlightening conversations.

Tomorrow we will be in Warsaw, birth-city of my grandmother (z”l). I am thrilled beyond words to be sharing these days with my mother. Our group is doing extremely well and we all feel deeply touched and enriched by what we have lived together so far. I am looking forward to the last few days of our trip.