Our Torah portion this week marks the beginning of Moses’ farewell sermon to the people of Israel and begins with the words:
“Re’ah Anochi notan lifnaychem hayom bracha uklalah. Behold I have set before all of you [the community of Israel] blessing and curse – blessing if you obey the commandments of Adonai which I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
Here, in this week’s Torah reading, the command is given in the second-person plural. Five weeks from now we will read another version of this command, the only difference being that there, in Parshat Vayelech, it is stated in the second person singular. Rather than addressing all of us, in Vayelech it is addressed to each of us. In both places the message of the Torah is that our actions matter. Both our communal and each person’s decisions regarding the performing of mitzvot can lead to blessing, and every violation of mitzvot can have negative consequences.
Our Torah reading certainly is relevant to the chaotic events and death and destruction that are permeating the Middle East. The terror attacks on Israelis in Bulgaria this summer, the massacres in Syria, the instability in Egypt, and the choice of evil over good, hatred of their neighbor over love of their children by the rulers of Iran and the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah are each examples of how the choice of a few to do evil can veto the desire of the many for a better life.
However, this Shabbat, which is also Rosh Chodesh Elul, I want to ask all of us to take a few moments to think about the flip side of this message – when we choose to do good we can make a difference.
One example is the amazing difference taking place in the re-emerging Jewish communities in Ukraine (see page 8). My son Jeremy served as a Peace Corp volunteer in Ukraine for 27 months and will be returning there after Rosh Hashanah to work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the arm of the Jewish community (funded primarily by our Jewish federation allocations) that does relief, rescue, and rebuilding efforts in Jewish communities around the world.
Ukraine is a place where Jews for the last millennium have been both blessed and cursed. It is the birthplace of Sholom Aleichem and Golda Meir and thousands of other Jewish luminaries. It is the place where my grandparents and so many of your ancestors left in the late 19th and early 20th century to come to America. It is also the place where 70 years ago nearly 1.5 million Jews were murdered in what one Catholic priest has called “The Holocaust by Bullets.”
Ukraine is therefore a place where the Jewish people have, over the course of the last century in particular, truly been blessed and cursed. It is an area of the former Soviet Union from which nearly 500,000 Jews left 20 years ago as part of the mass exodus of Soviet Jewry. Therefore, the last thing that I expected my son to find in Ukraine was an emerging community of Jews seeking to connect to Judaism and live as Jews.
Our community has been blessed with the wonderful opportunity of being paired with our new sister city of Lviv, Ukraine. We will have the chance to help rebuild a historic Jewish community, one which is now on the verge of a Jewish renaissance, as I have witnessed with my own eyes. Blessings and curses, life and renewal – these notions leave us with questions to ponder.
1. What does this resurrection of Jewish life have to teach us about the indomitable spirit of Judaism?
2. How do we deal with the contrasting images of Babi Yar and the other mass graves and the dynamic, vibrant Shabbat services at Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues in Kiev?
3. What are the opportunities for us to help our new sister city of Lviv and to learn more about our personal and communal Jewish roots in Ukraine? What blessings can we Bergen County Jews give and receive from an interactive relationship with small communities of self-defined Jews there, almost all of them intermarried and many led by lay leaders, who gather to celebrate, affirm and confirm their relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people?
Ukraine is indeed a land of Jewish life as well as Jewish death. The living Jews we met, especially Jeremy’s contemporaries, have challenged my lifelong belief that Jewish life could never again arise in this part of the world. The thousands of Ukrainians who are coming out in search of ways to affirm their Jewish identity have indeed challenged me to look at the opening words of this week’s Torah portion in a new light.
“Behold I have set before all of you [the community of Israel] blessing and curse – blessing if you obey the commandments of Adonai which I enjoin upon you this day and curse if you do not.”