D’Var Torah by Rabbi Aaron Philmus
How’s everybody doing this morning? I’m doing alright.
Shofar, so good!… That was a cheap dad joke. You’re gonna have to put up with a lot more of that now that I’m on a three year contract. But seriously, what an honor and a privilege to be part of a kehillah that was founded in 1876 by eighteen Yiddish speaking peddlers from Lithuania.
In Gematria – Hebrew numerology – 18 equals the letters Chet Yud or Chai – which means life – as in “lechayim! To life!”
From this small tree of chai of 18 founders – Ohavi Zedek grew to become a center of Jewish life in Vermont for almost 150 years! As the founders of this kehillah knew the essential ingredient for keeping the Tree of Life alive and flourishing is tending the flame of Jewish memory. This eternal flame tending is a sacred project that we participate in collaboratively across generations for millenia. Even in times of great darkness when people tried to snuff out the flame. We always kept the light of Torah burning. When we learn about our history we are not just learning about our ancestors, we are learning about ourselves.
To be Jewish is to see the world in many layers of past, present and future all at once– a kind of Polyvision. Just like the tree that grows new rings every year, our life is built on the foundation of the layers of tree deep inside the trunk. Just as the old heartwood at the center of the tree has no living or growing cells but provides strength, structure and stability, our ancestors still stand with us and support our efforts today.
When you step into these doors you can really feel the presence of Jewish American history. In the lobby hangs the lost ark mural from the Chayei Adam shul that was across the street from the old OZ building. It’s an incredible relic of the style of art that once graced wooden synagogues in Europe that were destroyed during the Holocaust. The lost mural was discovered behind a wall during a renovation and brought back to life in the heart of our collective Jewish home. And have you seen the stunning copper ark, gold lions, prayer stands and benches from the original OZ building on Archibald street that have also been brought into our home. You can see this historic work in progress if you step into our small sanctuary today. And in our lounge we have a very special sefer Torah that was saved from the gutter on the night of Kristalnacht and was brought here by Harry and Irene Kahn of blessed memory along with the wooden hutch where it is kept. On the eve of Yom Kippur we will hold and kiss this holy Torah as part of our annual Kol Nidre procession. And these brass 7 branched menoras that were separated from each other and hiding in dark dusty corners of our building, who knows how long it’s been since they were actually lit up with real fire. Here they are again illuminating our sanctuary. These most sacred remnants of the Old North End of Burlington, what was once called Little Jerusalem, we have brought them back to life. And now we come together today in the year 5784 as they inspire us to rebuild little Jerusalem of VT for our time.
This has always been the central work of our people. Finding treasures from the past that were lost due to persecution and disintegration – and working collectively to bring the pieces back together in new ways so that they will come to life and bring healing to the world.
In every generation there were times when hope threatened to leave the world. It is told that in such times, the Baal Shem Tov, the great healer and founder of Chassidic Judaism in the 1700’s, would go to a secret place deep in the Karpathian Mountains of Ukraine. He would go especially on Rosh Hashanah when the book of life is open to be written. There he would light a fire in a tree in a secret way and chant an ancient prayer invoking the long-forgotten most sacred name of God. And in doing this, the danger was averted and hope stayed alive.
In later times when disaster threatened, the Maggid of Mezritch, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest on Rosh Hashanah and say, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer.” And again the danger was averted and hope stayed alive.
Still later, in the next generation his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and burst into tears and pray, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer, but I found my way to this place, and that must be enough.” And it was. Hope stayed alive.
And later when Israel of Rizhyn needed intervention from heaven, he sat in his chair in his study with his head in his hands and said, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I no longer know how to light the fire, nor how to say the prayer, we, can’t even find our way to that place anymore, but I can tell the story, and that must be enough.”
And it was.
And now here we are today, the year 5784, and yet again hope threatens to leave the world. We hear the shofar alarm calling us to wake up and take action in the smoke from the forests of Canada that burnt our lungs and clouded our skies. We hear the shofar crying from the catastrophic floods that destroyed Vermont’s homes, farms, and business and also in the record breaking heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and floods around the world.
The shofar is blaring so loudly in our ears and yet we watch ourselves moving in slow motion to respond to a climate crisis which has already created more refugees than all the world wars combined. We can hear the shofar crying when we see that Israelis and Palestinians are farther from a peaceful agreement than ever and the citizens of Israel have never been more divided about how the country should be run. Its enough to make us want to give up. In times like these our Torah – our traditions and our stories are a more vital medicine than ever before.
They help us realize that we are not just living our individual life stories but we are characters in a much larger story of our people that goes back to the beginning of human civilization. As we study the ancient stories we begin to remember why we are here. How we were forced to leave our mother land and felt abandoned by Avinu Shebashamayim our Father in heaven. How for 2,000 years we have been orphans of human history – refugees – wandering the face of the earth. However, the ancient Midrash promises that “Wherever Israel was exiled through the ages, the Shechinah (the Presence of the Divine Mother) accompanied them…” That Divine presence is still here with us today when we gather to study, to pray, to eat together, to grow our community. And we never stopped talking to Avinu Sh’bashamayim our father in heaven.
The Jewish people began as a small family and became a tribal people. We don’t proselytize and try to convert others. The only way we can grow is by learning and practicing Judaism ourselves and teaching it to our children. Islam and Christianity have a universalist strategy and a universal goal “convert everyone and bring the messiah.” Tragically both of these religions were abused by a few greedy and powerhungry people as weapons for colonial expansion that led to the abuse and genocide of native lands and peoples all over the world. The vast majority of the Christians and Muslims today of course are peaceful and at the core their traditions share the same universal human values as we do, so there still is hope for the Abrahamic family reunion.
Judaism also has a universal goal for all of humanity but we use a particularist strategy to reach that goal. We are a particular people from a particular land with a particular tradition. Working tirelessly for millenia toward the universal goal of making this world into the garden of eden. We don’t need anyone to convert to Judaism because we believe that all righteous humans will merit the world to come.
As Rabbi Yossi Klein Halevi put it beautifully: “Judaism has no expectation that humanity will become Jewish. Instead the role of the Jews is to be a spiritual avant-garde, attesting to G-d’s presence not least through their improbable survival, and helping prepare humanity for its breakthrough to transcendence: a particularist strategy for a universal goal.”
The prophets foretold back in the 8th century BCE that the Jewish people are meant to be an Ohr legoyim a light unto the nations. Today we renew our commitment to this holy mission by standing together, singing ancient prayers, and heeding the cry of the shofar.
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world. According to the Talmud, this is the day that human beings were created. So whether you are Jewish or not all of us in this room today, we are all the children of the first humans and so we are all standing here together before our Creator on this day.
Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Hazikaron – Day of remembering, alluding to the idea that on this day all of our actions in the past year are remembered, and with that all of the deeds of our ancestors as well.
On Rosh Hashanah we are not standing alone. Rabbi Simon Jacobson teaches, “We might be small but we stand on the shoulders of giants. Although, we are puny, we can see even farther than the giants, because we are standing on the shoulders of the past generations.”
A few years ago in the Spring, my cousin and I traveled to the Karpathian Mountains of Ukraine to look for the gravestones of our ancestors and restore them after so many years of neglect. We did not know the exact location, but we had their stories to guide us.
Right from the beginning of the journey, we could feel the presence of my great Aunts and uncles, and my Grandpa who grew up there. It was like they were helping us find the missing pieces of our past. Maybe that’s why even though we had never been to these places before, they felt strangely familiar.
I realized then, that we have only been Americans for a few generations. While some of our ancestors were in Europe during the Roman Empire. The Jewish family has grown, and put down roots so many times, only to be torn apart and scattered like seeds to the wind.
Today Jews are only .2% of the world’s population. The vast majority of us live in Israel or America where we make up a mere 2.4% of the US population.
After this journey through the old country I couldn’t help but wonder, How deep are our roots in America today? How many generations will this world last?
We started off in Munkacz, Ukraine. We were in search of the grave of our great great great grandfather Reb Shlomo Gross who was known to be the favorite student of the Munkaczer Rebbe. The Munkacz Chassidic traditions can be traced directly back to the Baal Shem Tov, the great healer in the story I told who lit the fire in the tree and said the prayer that kept hope alive.
As I walked along the river in the center of the city I imagined what it was like there on Rosh Hashanah with crowds of people on the bridge praying that they too would be remembered for good and inscribed in the book of life.
Casting their bread crumbs into the water. Their presence was still there, even if I was the only one to notice. I felt like a walking ghost among the Ukranians. Unlike Germany, most of Eastern Europe has yet to take responsibility or heal from the massive wounds of the holocaust. Our hope was that this trip would help us at least begin some of that healing for our own family. Although I have to admit that Ukraine’s relationship with Jews has improved slightly since a Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy became their president in a landslide victory and has gone on to become one of their greatest heroes.
Just as Burlington’s North End was called Little Jerusalem, Once upon a time, Munkacz Ukraine was known by Jews all over the world as the Jerusalem of the Carpathians. We saw many old photos of the “Jewish street” of Munkacz overflowing with people singing and dancing at weddings. I could feel a glimmer of light in the darkness, only then to be snuffed out by even more photos of Jews filling that same square, when their neighbors gladly volunteered to round them up like cattle and ship them off to Auschwitz. Nobody there wants to talk about the role their relatives played in the holocaust. It’s not that it is too painful, they just haven’t been taught to care. There is no holocaust education in Ukraine so the younger generation doesn’t even know what their grandparents did. This is what happens when a society refuses to do the essential work of teshuvah – repentance, restoration and healing.
On the first two mornings we went to pray at the old shul of the Munkacz rebbe. It felt so good to be around fellow Jews and hear their deep Chassidishe accents, “HallelEEEyah!” and “Aww-MAHyn!” (Amen). I thought, this is how my ancestors must have talked. After davening we ate home fried potatoes, pickled herring, and vodka with the minyan regulars. None of them spoke a lick of English but there was a sense of brotherhood that made us smile at each other and say “L’chayim!”
Then we were off to the old Jewish cemetery of Munkacz where our ancestor, Reb. Shlome Gross Alav Hashalom and other relatives are buried. What we found there was heartbreaking. In the 70’s the Russians bulldozed and destroyed all of the headstones to build a flea market. There were plenty of other areas nearby that they could have picked but instead they saw an opportunity to finally erase our presence from the land. In the next cemetery we looked for Reb Shlomo Gross’ wife Chaya Sora. The grass and shrubs were so high and the ground so uneven that we kept stumbling onto unmarked graves. We never found her either.
It was so hot that day, and the mitzvah of honoring the deceased kept us out there past the point of exhaustion. After leaving the cemetery overheated and emotionally beat up we poured water over our hands and headed up into the Karpathian Mountains to find a place to cool off.
Our guide knew someone who lived next to a mountain stream. I felt a glimmer of peace, maybe it was near that place in the woods where the Baal Shem Tov lit the fire and said the prayer that kept hope alive.
We immersed in the cold pure mountain waters and soon the smiles were returning to our faces. I thought about that story of the Baal Shem Tov in the forest and how every time in history it was the story that saved us and kept hope alive.
Our people were not born in Auschwitz, we were born with the cry of the shofar that came out through the fire on mount Sinai. More powerful than the haters, is the love of the Jews for our tradition, a love that has not failed even in the face of the darkest moments in history.
Those of us who live in a relatively safe world would like to turn away from such horror, but Judaism insists that upon memory hangs the only hope for redemption. As they say, those who cannot confront their past will be enslaved to it.
We drove the next day at breakneck speed on windy narrow potholed roads through the mountains of Hungary and Ukraine to a small town in Romania where my great grandpa Aharon had a kosher butchery and salami factory and raised my grandpa.
We arrived just before nightfall and despite the lack of light we were guided by the incredibly kind family of Christian caretakers to locate his grave which had not been visited for over 75 years!
His epitaph read in Hebrew:
Here is buried a simple, honest and upright man (ish tam v’yashar) who feared Hashem. His home was a place for Torah scholars (chochamim) and was open widely to the poor. Kohen of Hashem, Aharon Zeigelshtein son of our teacher and rabbi, Menachem Nachum Segel, of blessed memory.
Wow I thought, I really am standing on the shoulders of giants! I came to see how my Grandpa and my Aunts were also giants for escaping Eastern Europe and bringing the family to safety in America. Back in Europe they were beaten up for being Jewish. My grandpa left Romania as Nandor Zagelstein. He was in search of the American dream, so he changed his name to Dick Zag, joined the Merchant Marines and played trumpet in professional jazz and big bands.
Now today we’re finally fully accepted as American, but our lives are somewhat empty and we are lost without our Yiddishkeit – our Jewish roots.
Throughout history our people have faced tremendous obstacles and political instability and we have had every reason to despair and give up hope. From slavery in Egypt to the destruction of two Jewish Kingdoms. From the Crusades, to Inquisition and Expulsion, to the pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.
Since its founding in 1948, the Modern State of Israel has had to defend her civilians against constant attacks from neighboring countries, and terrorist organizations. Every adult Israeli is a trained soldier ready to defend their people.
In spite of all this or really because of it all, Israel’s national anthem is Hatikvah – which means the Hope.
The shofar wakes us up and sends a message deep inside us that there still is hope,
but that hope depends on us taking action.
Elie Wiesel of blessed memory used to say, “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.”
Today we ask please God inscribe us in the book of life, in the book of merit and the book of forgiveness.
But in the prayer unetaneh Tokeif, we say “You (God) open the Book of Remembrance and it speaks for itself, for every person has signed it with their own deeds.” As if to say that our life story is a work of art that we coauthor with G-d, each day adding our small part to the pages of those who came before us.
When officiating at funerals I often like to tell the grandchildren about a teaching from the Zohar, the most important work of Jewish mysticism, which claims that when grandparents die they become guardian angels for their grandchildren. Contemporary author and Psychotherapist Rabbi Naomi Levy asks, “What if heaven isn’t that far from us? Isn’t God everywhere? Why should an eternal soul that comes from God be banished to some distant stratosphere? Maybe memory isn’t the closest thing we have to people we have lost. Perhaps their souls are closer than we think. Perhaps they are right here among us in some parallel dimension watching and even participating in our lives in ways that we can only sense but we can’t see.”
One of our congregants, a preschool dad recently shared with me a powerful and mysterious experience he had on his first trip to Israel as a young adult.
He has never been a religious person and still isn’t – he is really more of an agnostic but this experience really stayed with him and continues to inspire him today.
When he described it to me – I was flashing back to my own very similar experience at the Kotel when I was a college freshman.
He said, “I placed my hands and my forehead on those gigantic ancient stones of the Western Wall and closed my eyes
And suddenly I could feel a warm hand on my right shoulder and with my inner vision I looked and saw that it was my grandfather and on the left was the hand of my deceased uncle. And behind them with hands on their shoulders were other Jewish men with hands on each other’s shoulders extending backward in an enormous unending triangle of power, support, and wisdom.”
So as we sing these words that our people have sung for thousands of years
As we enter Musaf service I want to invite us all to enter the power of the first blessing of the Amidah – The Imahot and the Avot – the foremothers and forefathers.
To feel the presence of the ones who came before us, that now stand behind us
I invite you now and while we are praying as well to close your eyes and look back in your minds eye and feel into the darkness
whose warm hands are resting on your shoulders offering you support and guidance? Whose loving bright faces do you see looking back at you? You don’t have to be Jewish, we all have healed ancestors that I believe are waiting just waiting for us to ask for support.
Almost 2,000 years ago “Rabbi Tarfon used to say: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, It is not your responsibility to finish the work, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
What is your small part in this community, in this world?
Rabbi Simon Jacobson teaches, “We do not have to be like the giants of the past. We just have to do what is in our power – stand on their shoulders. When we do so we lay claim to everything they achieved plus we add our own small part – and that small part added to the good deeds of our ancestors, might just be enough to tip the scales and bring redemption.”
We can rebuild little Jerusalem right here on our campus- not just by collecting the relics of the old little Jerusalem, the stones of the old city so to speak. I refer to this place as our campus because along with the Hebrew school, the preschool, the kitchen, the mural, the shuk, the yurt and the backwoods we have a real opportunity-
The little Jerusalem of our time can be built in cooperation with all of our relations including the plants and animals that we share this land with. We have enough acreage back there to develop an ecological village and a permaculture garden that supplies the food pantry. We can establish a new outdoor sacred space and create our own jewish fire rituals like the one the baal Shem tov did.
How will you write yourself into the next chapter of this great story? Contributing your unique passions and talents to the community will not only help others but it will also help you to be happier and live a more meaningful life. I’ve only been here for two and a half months but already I have seen so many inspiring examples of this. I know there are too many to mention right now but each of you has something really important to share and I know that doing this work lifts you up and makes your life more meaningful and rich.
In just a few minutes we will quote from the prophet Isaiah in the Musaf Amidah prayers, וְהָיָ֣ה | בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִתָּקַע֘ בְּשׁוֹפָ֣ר גָּדוֹל֒ “And it will be on that day the great shofar will be blown.” The midrash tells us that this horn belonged to the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac which we read about in today’s Torah reading. The first horn of this ram was blown at Sinai, and the larger one will herald the beginning of the messianic era. We live in an era of time that began with the sound of the shofar coming through the fire on Mt Sinai, and will end with the sound of the shofar in the messianic era when the dream God spoke at Mt Sinai becomes realized: when the world’s creatures are living together peacefully, each with Divine dignity and hope.
The most central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to listen to the sound of the shofar. If you listen really deep, deep within all of the chaos and tumult of the world you can hear that shofar blast of the future approaching slowly from the distance getting stronger and stronger. This year, may we begin to hear the cry of the shofar gadol, the great shofar, the cry of our own souls reminding us to wake up and take a more active role in the story of our people and the story of creation. What new chapter will you help us write in this epic story of Vermont Jewish life?
Shanah Tovah – Next year in the new Little Jerusalem!