This was my Hanukkah sermon for today (but don’t let that keep you from reading it :-) ). The book I refer to is The Rabbi of 84th Street by Warren Kozak. I’ll be reviewing the book soon.
Rabbi Besser is an octogenarian rabbi in Manhattan. The Maccabees are a family from almost 22 centuries ago. It might seem their stories are separate, unrelated. Yet in the hands of God stories run together and have meaning not only individually but as part of the Great Whole.
Rabbi Besser’s story, in short, is of a young man from a religious family who escaped Poland in WWII. 3 million of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews died in that war. So Rabbi Besser was one of the mere 9% who escaped. Yet still his is a story of loss. Because from his beach home in Tel Aviv during the last years of the war, when he was 17 and engaged to be married, there was little rejoicing over being a survivor. Families on his right and left got news that their children, their wives, their mothers and fathers were gone.
The story of the Maccabees, in short, is of a family who became militant in a time that called for militancy. Families to the right and left of them were willing to allow betrayal of God rather than face the prospect of war and killing. Fear was more powerful than faith. Then the Maccabees stood up and said, “Whoever is for God come and join us.” There would be little rejoicing in that war as well. But moments of victory came, such as the liberation of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple, which we celebrate today.
What do their stories have in common, this aged rabbi in Manhattan and the family that led a rebellion against betrayal? The story of the Maccabees begins with the Syrian Greeks. They were ruled by a megalomaniac named Antiochus who called himself Epiphanes, the manifestation of God. Antiochus wanted to be another Alexander the great. Though he lived 160 years after Alexander, around the year 165 B.C.E., Antiochus was expanding his empire. And he wanted to make the peoples he conquered uniformly Greek in culture. He wanted to be their hero, one who brought the light of Greek civilization to the world much as Alexander had done. And one stubborn group stood in his way.
These were an ancient people too. But Antiochus cared nothing for their history. These people were pledged to their God to strange customs, such as circumcising the foreskins of their sons. They read their holy books in Hebrew and not in Greek. They turned their noses at the nudity which was so artistically pleasing to the Greek mind.
But not all of them were so difficult. In fact, Antiochus wooed the very leaders of this people to his cause. Jason the high priest became an advocate of Greek change. Antiochus wanted Zeus and not the God of Abraham on that Temple mount. Jason said Zeus could be another name for the God of Abraham. Antiochus wanted circumcision to stop. Jason said it was an outdated custom anyway. Antiochus wanted pigs slaughtered on the Temple altar. Jason said pigs were made by God as well and why not.
For the common man this was all a very dangerous time. Some wanted to be caught up in this new movement. Some young men had surgeries to reverse their circumcision. Some young men participated in the nude Greek games that are the forerunner of our modern Olympics.
Others wanted to be faithful to the 2,000 year old covenant with God through Abraham. But there was fear everywhere. Antiochus had mighty armies of mercenaries.The rich and powerful were on the side of change. What could the common man do?
But one family in Modi’in in particular started a revolution. They were not the only Hasidim, not the only Pious Ones. But they were a family who especially could not stand by and let Israel be wiped out by assimilation. They could not allow Greek life to erase Jewish life. They could not sit by and let parents bring their children up in a non-Jewish way.
They remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and with Moses. These were not things to throw away.
God’s covenants are not simply the fashion of the time. God’s covenants are eternal.
He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations (Gen 17:12).
This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever (Exod 12:14).
You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations (Exod 31:13).
Well, that is one story. And we will come back to it before the end.
But shift forward 2,000 years to the time of WWII. Shift forward to the story of young Heskel Besser, son of a Hasidic family in Poland. His family was Hasidic but was also open to education, modern things, and art. They were not a family closed off from the world like some ultra-Orthodox can be.
And this family got out before the killing of Jews began. They saw the signs. In stages they got visas to go to Tel Aviv, Israel, which was then called Palestine and was ruled by the British.
The British let very few Jews in. It was Haskel’s father’s wealth and influence that made it possible for them to escape.
But that does not mean Haskel did not face danger. It does not mean the Holocaust left him unscarred.
Haskel was 17 and he was the last one to get out. He stayed to take care of some family business. When Haskel did leave, it was an emergency and he had to get out right away. Relatives met him with money.
They bought him two things since he did not have them with him: a raincoat . . . a set of tefillin, so he could pray.
Haskel’s family had money, so he traveled in a second-class train car. The only other second-class passenger was a Catholic priest.
The priest could see that 17 year old Haskel was headed all the way to the border of Austria. He could see Haskel was leaving before the Germans arrived in Poland. He asked if Haskel was going to Palestine. When Haskel said yes, the priest said, There has been tragedy in Palestine. Jewish bombs have been killing Arabs. It’s terrible when Jewish bombs kill innocent Arabs.
Young Haskel replied to the priest, It is always a tragedy when innocent civilians who are not involved are killed.
At the next station a group of Polish soldiers got on the train. They saw Haskel and one of them said, Hey, there’s a Jew-boy sitting here. They harrassed young Haskel and the priest looked on. Finally, one of the soldiers opened a train window and said, Let’s throw the Jew-boy out the window. The train was moving 60 miles per hour.
Then the priest stood up and started yelling for the conductor. One of the soldiers, respecting a priest in this Catholic country, got the conductor for him. When the conductor came, the priest said, Are these men second-class passengers?
The conductor said, No, Father, but they are soldiers and we always let them travel second-class.
The priest said, I object. I want only second-class passengers in my car. That is why I paid for the ticket.
And with that, Haskel’s life was saved. The priest said to him, Someone who is against the shedding of innocent blood, I will not let his blood be shed.
And even once he got to Palestine, Haskel saw the tragedies of the war every day. He said, We were free but our hearts were bleeding because of everything that was going on in Poland. In Poland 3 million out of 3.3 million Jews were exterminated.
The tragedy of the war for Haskel focused on one cousin and childhood friend, Israel Chaim. Israel was an intelligent and pleasant boy. When Haskel was 13 and Israel 10, the boy came to visit and announced very excitedly, I have met Haskel’s future CHOLLEH (bride). Haskel was surprised.
He said, Oh, and who is she?
Israel smiled and said, Every girl I have seen would like to be your CHOLLEH.
A year after his Bar Mitzvah, Israel was dead at the hands of the Nazis. The now aged Rabbi Haskel Besser says he still misses him.
When you listen to Rabbi Besser tell stories of the Holocaust, as the author of his biography did, you will be surprised by something. He mostly tells stories of the little good deeds people did. Some were great and very risky. Others were small things, but they were small things that helped save lives.
A Gestapo officer tipped them off they should leave Germany.
A priest spoke up and saved Haskel’s life.
A German officer looked the other way so a woman in Haskel’s family could escape.
A father, being sent to the gas chambers, reminded his son as he was being led away what page they were studying in a Torah commentary.
If you are familiar with Post-Holocaust Theology, then you know that Christian and Jewish writers have said the Holocaust may have killed 6 million Jews along with others such as Gypsies, the mentally handicapped, Poles, and homosexuals, but there was one other important death. These theologians say the Holocaust killed God.
People have said to Rabbi Besser, Surely if the Holocaust teaches us anything it is that there is no God, and there is no God watching over the Jews.
Rabbi Besser says just the opposite, What happened to the Jews is more proof that there is a God and we are his people.
For Rabbi Besser it is stories like the father who reminded his son to continue reading in the Torah commentary while the father was being led off to die that prove God. There are stories like a group of men who smuggled in a set of tefillin and took turns praying in secret with them.
Rabbi Besser sees a religious reason behind the Holocaust. Hitler wanted to believe that there was a higher power, he didn’t say God, who favored the Aryan race. What really infuriated Hitler was not Jewish wealth. In Germany, industry was not controlled at all by Jews. Only 1% of the German population was Jewish. It was for a religious reason that Hitler killed Jews.
It was because Aryans could not be the Chosen Race if the Jews were God’s Chosen People.
The Holocaust was the Jews being slaughtered because they were the Chosen. Rabbi Besser says, I would never condemn anyone who suffered and lost faith. I feel sorry for them because religion can make life much more comfortable. Not being religious offers a life that can be filled with doubts, worry, and pessimism about the future. I never doubted God’s devotion to the Jewish people, but that doesn’t mean I understand everything.
So here we have two stories. Both involve the possibility of the end of Israel. Both involve the possibility of faith disappearing from the earth. Both involve the struggle to remain faithful to God in the face of overwhelming odds.
When Syrian Greek soldiers order you to sacrifice a pig to Zeus, what will you do?
When German Nazis exterminate your family and friends despite Torah’s insistence that God loves Israel, what will you do?
The greatest lesson of Hanukkah, I think, is faithfulness.
The Syrian Greeks could not erase God. They could not erase God even though God did not unleash a Biblical style miracle and vanquish them. In the Hanukkah story, we do not see a miracle like the days of the Kings of Israel. The Syrian soldiers did not die of a plague overnight.
God has his reasons and his ways. I could give you reasonable theories about why God did not simply destroy the Syrian Greeks. But theories matter less than God.
God uses people to do his will, almost all of the time. Angelic destructions and plagues have their place. But mostly God demands faith in a world of faithlessness.
And then God shows his faithfulness in more quiet ways. 165 years after the Maccabees stopped the Syrian Greeks, God did something rather unspectacular and yet overwhelmingly beautiful. To a nation with many sins, and yet to a nation that remained faithful to God’s covenant, God did something that the faithful can see and rejoice in.
165 years after the Syrian Greeks were first defeated, God brought Messiah to Israel.
And without the Maccabees and without Jews who stood up and remained faithful, who knows? Would there have been a people for Messiah to be born to? If all the Jewish boys were left uncircumcised and became Greeks, if all the Torahs were destroyed, if Zeus was worshipped and not the God of Israel, would Messiah have come?
God’s faithfulness is in the historical record. It is there for us to see, but it will never be enough to prove anything to the faithless.
And God showed his faithfulness after the Holocaust as well. The ashes and bones of Auschwitz live just as Ezekiel foretold. These bones will live, God told Ezekiel.
And so they have. If you visit the Yad VaShem today you will see it. After walking for hours through the displays of death you come out on a balcony overlooking a great valley. And you see the new neighborhoods of Jerusalem where children play in the streets again.
And while I did not find Rabbi Besser saying it, there is another way the Holocaust shows us God is real. How does such a tragedy show us God, you ask?
It is because we all care so much. The death and destruction of a people feels so wrong. And it is not just wrong to Jews. The world says it is wrong.
Hindus say it is wrong.
Buddhists say it is wrong.
Christians say it is wrong.
Atheists say it is wrong.
But why? Why is it wrong? It is because we know God made us. It is because we know life is sacred.
And life is not sacred if God is not there. And human suffering does not matter if God is not there. But we all know it does matter. Thus, admit it or not, we all know we are special, made by God, loved by God, and our lives matter.
The Hanukkah story is about being faithful in spite of danger. The Rabbi Besser story is about being faithful in spite of loss.
There are covenants from thousands of years ago. Do they matter anymore? Who cares if Jews remain Jews? Who cares if Christians follow a Jewish Messiah?
What matters, some say, is the way I feel right now. I don’t feel like God is real. He isn’t helping me with my very real problems at the moment. Who needs him? If God doesn’t make me feel good, why believe in him at all?
And the lesson of Hanukkah and the lesson of the Holocaust is just the opposite. God is real when we do not feel him. God is real when Temples are defiled. God is real when a people is nearly exterminated.
And a Jewish prophet said it best. It was Habakkuk, who foresaw a tragedy much like the Holocaust. He foresaw the Babylonians killing Jewish children and starving the elderly and wiping out the city of Jerusalem. And he struggled with faith. And he said,
Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines,
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields are barren,
though the flock is cut off from the pasture and there are no herds in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in Adonai and I will joy in the God of my salvation.
Adonai, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer,
he makes me tread on high places.