The weight of this week has felt enormous. Among the many things happening in the wide world, this week marks the first yahrzeit of the passing of my dear friend and mentor Ray Fischler, z"l. Ray was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. Born in 1925 in Kazmierza Weilka, a small town near Krakow, Poland. When WWII started he was 14 years old. Ray spent two years in Plaszow, the concentration camp featured in Schindler's List. He spent the last five months of the war on death marches traveling to four different camps, including Auschwitz. After he was liberated on May 9, 1945, he emigrated to the US in 1949 and worked in the garment industry. I met Ray when I was 16 years old on the March of the Living. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of officiating at his unveiling, which was truly like getting an infusion of his incredible spirit.
Some of you had a chance to read his story in his memoir Once We Were Eight. It begins, "I believe that I'm a lucky man." It then begins to chronicle a life of what he calls "senseless loss, a nightmare of death and devastation." But throughout his narrative, there are countless moments in which he could have died. Repeatedly what spares Ray is his capacity for human connection, which is why at the end of it all, he felt to be a lucky man. There is much I want to teach in his honor, but it is this truth which called to me from this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach.
Tomorrow morning we will read the famous story of Jacob wrestling through the night with a being which results in his being blessed with a new name.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃
Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:29)
And skipping but a verse, the Torah explains,
וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (Genesis 32:31)
For me, it is this verse that most highlights the Torah of Ray's life. His capacity to be present with everyone he encountered, to search out their humanity, to struggle, to survive because of the power of being face to face. So many times his memoir says, "I was lucky because I knew X person..." The Russian cook who saved him rations he shared with the 20 other tailors; Sorensen, the Nazi soldier whom he made a special pair of wool pants; Miller, the SS guard who supervised the scientists. He remembers them all by name with the clarity that is only possible when you are truly panim el panim/face to face, completely present.
The unfolding news of this week, the antisemitic violence in Jersey City, Trump's Executive Order, has my set off our personal and collective sirens. On the one hand, I thought to myself, I really should get passports for my children. And on the other hand, I have been thinking of Ray, and the power of real relationship. The newsreel is utterly dehumanizing, it diminishes our sense of self until we are asking, pleading, desperate to figure out, Who are we? What does it mean to be a Jew? Are we a people? A nation? A religion?
I have resisted issuing a statement on the matter, because it is my sense we should heed the wisdom of Jacob and talk about these questions face to face. Which we will be doing tomorrow morning at services. So come with your love and your fear, your questions and your desire to be in community, and encounter these existential questions about identity that have been used against us. That we may reimagine the answers in ways that empower us to see ourselves as whole.
Here are three resources I am reading for those interested in understanding more about what is at stake in the Executive Order:
An article in the Atlantic explaining the Executive Order, the law it addresses and its problems.
Understanding Antisemitism: A resource created by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Reconstructing Peoplehood: A Dvar Torah by Rabbi Toba Spitzer
As the full moon fills the dark winter sky, may you take the time to rest, reconnect, and remember it is the effort, the engagement, the not letting go of the question that makes us Israel, wrestlers with God.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.