One of the saddest “what might have been”s of the Holocaust was the story of Joel Brand.
In the spring of 1944, the Jews of Poland, Western Europe, Belarus and the Ukraine were largely gone, and Germany set its sights on the last great Jewish community on the European continent: Hungary. As the Nazi recipe of ghettos and deportations began to unfold, Joel Brand, an accomplished politician, was desperate to avert the inevitable. He devised a plan to save the Jews of Hungary by negotiating a deal between the Allies and the Germans.
At the time, Germany was being overrun on all fronts. The largest problem was their overextended supply lines: the Allies were bombing rail tracks, and many trains were busy transporting Jews to Auschwitz.
Brand was summoned by Adolf Eichmann, who proposed a simple deal: 400 trucks for 400,000 Jews. To prove he could deliver, Eichmann stopped the gas chambers for two weeks in August of 1944, at a time when 10,000 Jews a day were being gassed in the mass extermination camp.
Brand eventually snagged a visa to neutral Istanbul and traveled to Palestine to meet with the British and propose the deal. He met with Moshe Sharett in Syria, along with British intelligence. But when the plan reached the ears of the Allied high command, they viewed him as an agent. He was arrested and imprisoned, and spent the remainder of the war in a cell, never given the opportunity to meet with the Allied command. After the war, when the extent of the massacre became clear, Brand was a broken man.
In 1960, Eichmann was captured and put on trial in Israel. He admitted that he had taken Brand’s failure as a sign that the world was not interested in saving Jews. Ultimately, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the summer of 1944.
If 400,000 Jews are not worth 400 trucks, then 1,000 Jews are not worth even one. So what was one Jewish life not worth in the summer of 1944? A steering wheel? A tire?
f ever there was a time when the Jewish people got the message that we are all alone, it was during the Holocaust.
The source of that idea is in this week’s parsha, Balak. Tasked by the Moabite king Balak with cursing the Jewish people, the world-renowned sorcerer Balaam cannot help but bless them, heeding the will of G-d. Among other things, Balaam prophesizes that the Jews will forever be an am levadad yishkon (Bamidbar 23:7), a people that dwells alone.
But Balaam is an unlikely source of blessing. Though his plan to curse was thwarted, he ultimately devises a plan that did the Jews great damage. The Talmud further suggests that almost all of Balaam’s blessings were left ambiguous and will turn to curses. Which leaves us with an interesting question: is it good that we are alone? Is this a blessing or a curse?
Early in its development, the Reform movement seems to have viewed it as a curse, part of the punishment of exile. It exhorted followers to consciously assimilate into European, and later American, society. Early Reform rabbis were encouraged not to wear kippot, and all mention of Israel was removed from their prayer books. On the other hand, there are many Jews today who believe that being apart is an ideal, with distinctive dress and separate communities viewed as a goal rather than a necessary evil.
So which is it? Should we aspire to be apart, or to unite with the nations that surround us? Is assimilation an ideal or a failure?
Interestingly, Torah seems clear on the nature of being alone. It is the only thing described as “not good” in the entire Torah. Introducing the creation of Eve, the Torah says, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” (Bereishit 3): it is not good for man to be alone. In Shemot 18, Yitro exhorts Moshe to appoint judges, because it is not good to sit and judge alone all day.
The leper is forced to sit alone as part of the consequence of his actions. In describing the Temple’s destruction, Jeremiah laments, “Eicha yashva badad” — how does the city sit alone?
Clearly, to be apart is far from ideal. And yet the Torah does not describe being alone as ‘bad.’ It merely says it is not good.
But if G-d creates Eve as the solution to man’s being alone, why was Adam created alone in the first place? Furthermore, on the sixth day, “G-d saw all he had done, and it was very good.” So which was it?
Perhaps initially, being alone is good. Only later on does it become “not good.” One might suggest that it was originally good for man to be alone so he could appreciate what was missing, like a person whose loneliness better enables him appreciate the joy of marriage when it comes.
Thus, loneliness depends on how you handle it. When you are alone, you learn to be independent. You learn that the only person you can always count on is yourself. And while this is not necessarily always good, it is often reality.
For thousands of years we dwelled alone and apart, in just about every country we found ourselves in. It wasn’t necessarily the ideal, but it was reality. Today, in a more modern world, we have convinced ourselves we no longer need to dwell apart. We assume, especially in Western democracies, that we have finally arrived at a better reality when Jews can assimilate and be completely together with the nations around us.
But the Jewish people have something beautiful to share with the world: an ethical standard to which the world should aspire. To be such a role model, we need to be distinct.
Jews today are fighting a battle with those determined to make us a pariah in the world, encouraging boycotts, spewing venom and hatred across the streets of Europe and North America, and all over the world.
As we fight yet again for the right to be accepted, we would do well to remember that there is still a value to that which sets us apart.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.