Friday, September 17, 2021

Parshat Re’eh

This week’s haftarah is familiar to us from both Parshat Ki Teitzei and Parshat Noach, and, as a result, I wondered whether I could find a new idea to share with you. But, as we learn in Pirkei Avot, “Hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’kula bah,” if we review and revisit the text we will find everything in it!

And I believe that I did.

Throughout the 40-plus years I served in the rabbinate I have been blessed with lasting relationships and impactive experiences. This is especially true of the last 37 years that I spent in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I was privileged to lead a congregation that included many “nitzolei Shoah,” Holocaust survivors. Among them was a most remarkable individual who, even as he approached his 90th year, was the first to arrive at the 6:30 morning minyan, unlocking the shul for all of the attendees. He was particular in remembering each member of his family who perished (read: “was murdered”) in the Shoah and reminded me each year how the rav of his community was shot before his very eyes—and he observed that yahrzeit as well.

One quiet evening, he told me how he felt upon his liberation. He was relieved, he was joyous, but he was upset and he was angry. So when the men gathered to daven in their first minyan after liberation in order to thank God for saving them, this man, brought up as a Belzer chasid, refused to join them. After the losses he suffered he found it difficult to turn to God, and we certainly understand why. After the service, a former inmate said to him: “So, will you give H***** the victory he cherished? Will you destroy the remainder of our people by erasing our past and traditions?” He was stunned—and he was changed. He told me then, “Rabbi, that’s why I come to every minyan. I will never give that horrible fiend a victory.” And after seeing his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren living now in Israel, he commented: “You see, Rabbi, these are my answers to that monster!”

Nice story—but what does it have to do with the haftarah?

Both in last week’s and this week’s haftarot the nation cries out to Hashem for comfort. Last week we read that they believe that Hashem had abandoned them. Yishayahu responds with the magnificent vision of the future geula—a vision that comforted Israel, reaffirming the fact that Hashem would never abandon them. Yet, as we begin this week’s haftarah, we hear “aniya so’ara LO nuchama,” that the “afflicted one” was not comforted!?

HaRav Moshe Lichtenstein addresses this very question and explains that Israel suffered from two effects of the galut. On the one hand, she felt an emotional and spiritual distancing from God, that feeling of abandonment that the navi successfully addressed in the haftarah of Parshat Ekev. But exile also affected the nation in a different way, a way that also caused a feeling of estrangement from Hashem. And that was the physical torment of poverty, hunger and physical pain that an exiled people often suffer, challenging their long-held beliefs.

Our history teaches us that there are Diasporas during which the Jews are targeted as scapegoats to be attacked, oppressed and killed. Often, it brought the people closer to God with a need to shelter beneath His protective wings. But at times it had the opposite effect, angering the people and causing them to wonder where He is and even to doubt if He is there at all (ch”v). And then there are Diasporas during which the Jew flourished, succeeded and even excelled in their professions, businesses and achievements and, in such an exile, Jews would turn to Hashem in thanksgiving. Too often, however, that type of exile experience led the people to a different reaction, seeing in their successes a proof that they no longer need God to help them, thereby encouraging them to reject any connection to Hashem and leading them to assimilate.

Sadly, however, there are those galuyot in which both “abandonments” are experienced.

The promise of Hashem bringing us back to the land in the haftarah of Ekev addressed Israel’s fear of being spiritually distanced from God by assuring them that Hashem would never abandon them. But Israel still felt that the terrible oppression of galut was an indication that they still had not fully repaired their relationship with God and remained distanced from Him. It was this fear that Yishayahu addressed in this week’s haftarah predicting that, upon the geula, Hashem would remove them from their poverty, “I will lay your floor stones upon pearls…and make your sun windows of rubies…” which comforted those who were troubled by the suffering of the exile.

So what say I, who was blessed to know those survivors who were challenged to believe despite the unmatched cruelty and pain they experienced and the sense that they were abandoned by God and yet continued to open the shul’s doors each morning?

I say that I am so blessed and so thankful to have met these amazing survivors, who overcame their anger and doubts—perhaps by understanding and internalizing Yishayahu’s message from this haftarah—and, by doing so……

….they lived to see the words of the navi come true through their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren!

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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