Friday, April 21, 2017

Shemini: Lessons from a "Lost" Town in Moravia

It is hard to resist the urge to label things - in life - as either "good" or "bad." Sure, it's an oversimplification, but it just makes things so much EASIER! Experiences, memories, books and movies, even holidays; some are "happy," i.e. "good," and some are "sad," i.e. "bad." But we should resist. 
Real life doesn't take place at the black-or-white ends of the spectrum, it's mainly lived in the gray-scales in between. I mention this here, because of two moments I want to highlight in the Torah portion AND because of our Loštice Shabbat. Here at Ohev Shalom, we have a Torah scroll that was saved after the Holocaust. It came from a town in Czechoslovakia called Loštice, and last year we began an annual Ohev tradition of celebrating the Jewish community that once chanted from this same scroll. And yes, I do say "celebrating." With Yom Ha-Shoah right around the corner, we could, perhaps, simply reduce stories like that of the Jews of Loštice to a Holocaust narrative. But please, please, PLEASE, resist that urge!

We used to call this Torah our "Holocaust Scroll," but last year I lobbied the congregation to change the name. Loštice, like all the thousands of towns, shtetls, cities, and villages that were annihilated in the Holocaust, was a real place, not 
just a graveyard or a memorial candle. There was life there - real life - for centuries, and I feel strongly that we are adding to the tragedy of the Holocaust when we reduce their stories to death, destruction, and the Kaddish prayer. To be clear; we SHOULD also say Kaddish for them. The Memorial Scrolls Trust, which gave us our Loštice Torah back in 1980, actually has (and shared with me) the transport lists that tell us what befell many of Loštice's Jews. And this Saturday we WILL indeed say the Kaddish prayer and remember them. But is that all we can do? That, and put their holy scroll in a glass case and gaze at it mournfully? No, absolutely not! Their scroll lives in our Ark, among all its brethren, and on Shabbat we will read from it as part of our service.

The problem is, we're battling a ubiquitous human urge; to see the world in black and white. Take, for example, our Torah portion, Shemini. Included in this parashah is the story of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1) before God and were instantly struck dead. And so, Shemini is often known ONLY for this tragic story. 
But the Torah portion is three chapters long! And it's filled with other material that is often overlooked and forgotten, because it's easier to just focus on this one, peculiar, upsetting (but also sensationalized) story. So I want to, therefore, share with you another verse from Shemini, and also connect it to a DIFFERENT narrative that I'll be sharing on our Loštice Shabbat. Our parashah mainly focuses on the sacrificial rite in the ancient Tabernacle. And early on in the reading, Moses says to Aaron and his sons: "This (ritual system) is what Adonai has commanded you to do, so that the Glory of Adonai may be revealed to you" (9:6). In the ancient world, God was accessed through sacrifice, but today we've replaced this with prayer. But either way, I think it's important to consider that our rituals - ancient and modern - can actually reveal to us the Glory of God. That what we do, and how we pray, MATTERS!

But religion can burn us as well. Nadav and Avihu certainly learned this, as did our ancestors in World War II. Neither story, however, should be reduced to just a cautionary tale of destruction. Loštice actually has many more secrets to reveal, and some truly bring forth the Glory of God. This Shabbat, I'll be sharing with our 
community the story of Fanny Neuda, who was married to Loštice's rabbi, and who composed a book of prayers for women. Her creation, "Stunden der Andacht," became a best-seller across Europe in the 1850s, and was republished in over 18 editions! And just a few years ago, it was translated into English by Dinah Berland, and published as "Hours of Devotion." Neuda's story is only one of many from Loštice. If we insist on labeling things as "Holocaust-related," or reducing narratives exclusively to "good" or "bad," there is so much that we miss! The fate of Nadav and Avihu is not the only lesson about sacrifice that the Torah seeks to tell; we need to also remember that worship can reveal the Glory of God and enrich our lives immeasurably. I hope you'll join us tomorrow to learn more about Fanny Neuda, her incredible and beautiful prayers, as well as the town of Loštice. Not only is it a fascinating, rich, and somewhat mystical story, but it's filled with gray areas and nuance. And don't forget; that is where life is truly lived.


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of the synagogue in Loštice, courtesy of Cheva on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of graves in the Loštice cemetery, courtesy of Cheva on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, also of the synagogue building in Loštice, courtesy of Lehotsky on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of Rabbi Abraham Neuda (Mr. Fanny Neuda) from Dinah Berland's website

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