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Ta Shema: September 27, 2022

Every Small Detail is Significant to the Story

(The following is Rabbi Bender's sermon from Rosh Hashanah Day 2)

When I was a second semester Junior in high school, I transferred schools. For anyone who has moved schools, let alone mid-year, you know this transition can be quite a lot. Not only was it a new school, but I had moved from Atlantic City High School, with 1500 kids in my class, to an orthodox day school, with 6 in my class. The first day of second semester, we are reminded to submit our applications to March of the Living the following week. One short piece of paper and a scholarship later, I was enrolled on what would be a trip of a lifetime.

For those of you who do not know what March of the Living is, it is a trip for students to visit the two opposite poles of recent Jewish history, the horror of the death camps in Poland, and the thriving state of Israel. On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, people from around the world gather in Poland to silently march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence day, there is a loud and celebratory march through the old city of Jerusalem to the Kotel, the Western Wall.

You might think that this dance through the streets of our Holy City is the image that most sticks out in my mind. And while I will always cherish that first visit, and every subsequent visit to Israel, a smaller moment from the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau stands out.

When you are Marching, there are students and adults from around the world, and it is hard to not be caught up in the moment and want to learn everyone’s life story. While people on the march try their best not to talk, there is a lot of swag trading. I gave my “March of the Living, America”, hat to a young French woman named Corynne. She signed my hat in French, “In Friendship” to me with the date and her name. 

Then I met a nameless Polish ally. He was not Jewish, I remember that much, but I do not remember anything else about that interaction, because he did not sign what he gave me–which was an Israeli flag.

This man had known this March was happening, and bought who knows how many Israeli flags to give to these students as they made this silent march of remembrance. 

He simply handed me a flag, gave me the faintest smile, and kept walking ahead.

I wrapped myself in this flag and wore it the rest of the way to Birkenau.

To this day, it still has some brown dirt spots on it, and I never dared to dry clean it to get back into mint condition.

That man, that flag, those dirt marks, and that place, are all important parts to making up the significance of that moment.

Every small detail matters. 

If I were to have received that flag from my trip leader, an orthodox man from Lakewood, it would of course be meaningful, but wouldn’t have been burned into my memory like the interaction with the Polish Ally. If I had dry-cleaned the flag in order to hang it up pristinely, it would look like any other flag. It would not be stained with the mud that so many of our family members walked on. The connection to those countless innocent souls would simply be washed away. And of course the memory of where I received this flag. Walking those steps. In that dirt. Knowing I would have a hot meal, a shower, and a hotel bed waiting for me when it was all over. Walking with a flag through any street is always a symbol of my pride, but it will never replace walking to Auschwitz. 

Every small detail matters, and without even one there is no more story.

Washing over any of those details turns the experience more generic, more universal. The particulars, the complexity, the interwoven story that needs to be unpacked layer by layer–that is where the significance lies. And sharing these complex stories, and unpacking them layer by layer with others, that is how we truly tell our stories in order to fully see and effect lasting change.

Today we read of an incident in which every detail mattered, and if one small detail would have been missing, the story would not be the same.

Abraham is called to by God to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. The next day he loads up his donkey, takes along two servants and his son to begin the journey. Three days of journeying later, he sees the spot where he must sacrifice his son and leaves the donkeys with his servants. He tells them that they are going to go pray together. Abraham and Isaac continue onward, Abraham holding a knife and flint in his hand. Isaac gathers the wood and asks where the sheep is. Abraham tells him the sheep will come from God. They build the altar together, and Abraham ties his son to the altar to sacrifice him. It is at this point that an angel of God has to tell Abraham twice to stop the sacrifice. The angel calls out “Abraham, Abraham.” Abraham responded Hinei, Here I am. God sent a ram to be sacrificed instead. Abraham names the place “God sees” since God saw all that happened. And Abraham gets blessed to be as numerous as the sands of the shore and the stars of heaven.

Every detail of the story mattered. The story we read in the Torah today is terse. With the terseness you get the sense that if one small detail would have been out of place, the story would have fallen apart. 

There is an initial call by God and then three days of traveling. There is not one word spoken in the written text, which leads us to perhaps imagine that no words were spoken in all that time. No questions as to where they are going and why there is no animal being brought with them.

If the two servants had insisted on going along with them, if an animal happened to walk out of the bushes any time before the angel of God showed Abraham the ram in the thicket.

If only anything, then this story would not have happened. Then Abraham wouldn’t get his blessing. Then we would not be sitting here today.

All of it–the silence, the ram, the servants, the bushes, the call–equally significant to the story.

Washing over any of those details turns the experience more generic, more universal. To a story of the beginning of our peoplehood to that of a man sacrificing a sheep with his son and servants. The particulars, the complexity, the interwoven story that needs to be unpacked layer by layer, just as we unpack this story year after year on this holiday–that is where the significance lies. And sharing this complex story, and unpacking it layer by layer, that is how we truly tell our origin story in order to fully see what was and effect lasting change today.

In the chillingly named book, People love dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, by Dara Horn, we are again faced with the small details mattering for the significance of the moment to remain intact.

But first a word on the title for those who have not read the book, and I strongly urge everyone to do so.

From her interview with the Times of Israel article written by Renee Ghert-Zand: 

“It’s not dead Jews, as in people wanting to see Jews die,” Horn explained in a recent interview with The Times of Israel from her home in New Jersey.

Rather, she said, "it’s about the insidious ways in which non-Jewish societies — including contemporary America — pressure or gaslight Jews into modifying, glossing over, or erasing their own identity altogether.”

She gives many examples from docents being told to not wear kippot at the Anne Frank house to the media picking up less and less on recent attacks against the Jewish people on American soil.

In one essay, she talks about an exhibit on Auschwitz put together by the same company who made the famous Human Bodies exhibit that used cadavers to teach visitors about how human bodies move below the surface of the skin. 

This exhibit they put on was called Auschwitz: Not long ago, not far away. Horn describes the exhibit as doing everything an exhibit on the Holocaust should do. It shared background history, explanation about different stages of the war, videos of interviews with people who survived, as well as many artifacts gathered together from other Holocaust museums around the world. Despite doing everything that can be considered proper form for a Holocaust exhibit to have, Horn never wanted to see the exhibit again.

Her main critique is that the museum did not teach the greater population something to really take hold of in order to effect change in the world. The main message she took from the many hours she spent in the museum is that the Holocaust happened from lack of love.

To quote Horn, “The Holocaust drives home the importance of love is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. [BUT] It is entirely objectionable. The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented–who always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world–the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

In contrast, this is how she speaks about her own experience at March of the Living when she was in High School, “It is the sort of trip the clever people can easily critique, but I was 15 and found it profoundly moving. Being in places with thousands of Jewish teens felt like a thundering announcement of the Holocaust’s failure to eradicate children like me.”

Our stories matter, and every detail in them matters, and to take any detail away reduces the story to something that is not ours.

Thousands of people from around the world have seen the exhibit Horn went to as well as many other, much more well done museums. Yad VaShem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, are both giants in the world of educating both educators, as well as perpetrators of anti-semitism by inviting them to tour the halls of their museums–each are highly impactful programs. And we know that antisemitism is on the rise, nationally and internationally.

We as Jews are taught the story, the whole story. The personal and political, the camps and the war front, the millennia of anti-semitism leading up to and the attempts to recover from that exist until this day. We are taught the horror, the complexity, and at times, the simplicity, the simple acts of hatred and non-action, that led to and perpetuated the Holocaust.

Every detail matters. Every single one. Every single life. Every single story. And one museum trip, no matter how wonderfully curated, can’t give you the entire story.

Only life-long-learning can do that. Only the expectation that there is more left to learn than you have already been taught can lead you to a life where you can’t simply hate someone for one factor that offends you. You know that the story can never be that simple.

You know that the particulars, the complexity, the interwoven story that needs to be unpacked layer by layer–that is where the significance lies. And sharing these complex stories, and unpacking them layer by layer with others, that is how we truly tell our stories in order to fully see and effect lasting change.

Here we are today. On the last day of our Jewish New Year, reflecting on all of Jewish history that came before us that led us to this point.

In our more recent history: returning to our sanctuary, removing our masks and seeing each other's faces, moving from electronic prayer space to in person prayer space, removing any barriers or distance between us as we pray, handing out candies during the Shabbat morning Torah readings, gathering together for Passover seder, our dedication weekend, the cookout, Friday night membership dinner, and Rosh Hashanah dinner. We can acutely see that all of the details mattered. Every small detail that makes up this shul matters.

Every face. Every voice. Every Jew in the pew. Every attendee of every going on. Every simcha. Every loss. Every story. Every journey.

These are all the small details that we see aren’t so small. With a single detail missing, it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be home.

Every single one of us is a part of the significance, the holiness, the home-iness of Bnai Israel.

Your part in the greater story of Bnai Israel is a life-long commitment, and your Bnai Israel family will be with you along that journey of life.

The next time you think, God forbid anyone should think, that you aren’t wanted or needed here, that you won’t be missed, that you don’t need to attend or be a part of something going on here at Bnai Israel, remember that you are that significant element that keeps the story going. 

May this year be one where we can come together in our greatest numbers yet since even before the pandemic. May this year everyone in our family feel at home. May each of us feel that we are needed and wanted, and truly know that we are what is most essential to writing this story of Bnai Israel well into the future.

L’Shana Tova, May this year be one where we pay attention to and cherish every single small detail in our lives. As we already know, the impact will be significant.

B'Shalom, 

Rabbi Chaya Bender

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784