Last year, I spent a week in Poland with Orayta, and had an experience I still cannot get out of my head. The wind was howling as we walked into the forest of Zvilitovska Gora, a suburb of Tarnow, but we could not have imagined what awaited us there.
How do you make a people die? You kill all the children.
We came to a clearing in the forest and saw a mass grave surrounded by a blue fence with a Magen David, where 800 children lie buried, brothers and sisters forever.
Eight hundred children below the age of 10, because of what use were children in the German empire? They would not have even made good slaves...
We all fell silent. The trees swayed as if in mourning, and you could hear the moaning of the wind. We had no words.
Our incredible guide, Rav Yitzchak Rubenstein, helped us fill in the picture. He showed us a family photo from a Tarnow family before the war and pointed out a beautiful four-year-old boy named Benny. Benny’s family heard they were rounding up Jewish children, so they told him to stay inside.
But four-year-olds are naturally curious. He heard something interesting and went outside. He was never seen again. Four years old, he is now buried with 799 other children, none of whom were more than 10 years old.
And then Rav Yitzchak read us a moving letter a mother had written the night before she gave her two-year-old daughter away. Not knowing if they would ever see her again, she sewed it into the girl’s undershirt. The girl kept it with her forever as an adult; it was all she had left of her mother.
How do you share a lifetime of love in a few pages? What do you write to your two-year-old daughter who you will likely never see again and who will probably not even remember you?
All this, as you wonder who will take her in — will they love her? Could anyone ever love her as much as her own parents?
The mother explained that they had put off this decision, but this was the last child rescue, and word on the street was that the last big roundup would be happening the next day. And as she described holding her daughter one last time, our eyes filled with tears.
The letter was simply signed “Mama.”
Three times, they had a chance to get some of their children out, but how do you give your child away? And yet you have seen so much already. Deep inside, you know they are killing all the children, even as your mind cannot bring itself to grasp this reality.
Why do we vacillate? They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but why not? Why else would you have your cake, if not to eat it? Why do we try so hard to keep all our options open?
This week we read the portion of Ki Tisah, which tells the tragic story of the Golden Calf. And, possibly because its central point concerns the worship of idolatry, we also read the haftarah of the prophet Eliyahu’s famous battle with the prophets of Baal (Melachim I 18), when Eliyahu confronts the fact that the majority of the Jewish people seem to be worshipping the Baal.
So Eliyahu challenges the prophets of Baal to a duel. Just as he is about to perform the greatest miracle of his career, bringing fire down from the heavens to consume his sacrifice, he exhorts the Jewish people: “How long will you vacillate between the two opinions?” (ibid. v. 21) In other words, how long will you straddle the fence and try to keep both G-d and the Baal as open options?
One wonders why Eliyahu did not just lambast the people for worshipping idolatry. What does it mean that they vacillated? How can a person worship idols and G-d at the same time? What is the difference between worshipping idols outright, and vacillating between idolatry and belief in G-d?
The Rambam makes clear that the essence of idolatry is to confuse the means and the ends (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:1). The sun, moon and stars were magnificent manifestations of Hashem’s greatness, but if they themselves are worshipped, awe becomes idolatry. And when we see a mere vehicle and make of it the goal, it is essentially idolatry.
Money, as an example, can be a magnificent tool for good in the world, but if it is the goal then it becomes a form of idolatry.
Perhaps, then, when we vacillate between G-d and such idols, it is because we find it difficult to let go of them as the real purpose. Deep down we know that money and power, honor and success, should not be the goal, but it’s hard to let go of what we seem to get from them.
And perhaps that is actually worse than the pure idolater. After all, if you believe money or power are the goal, or the worship of nature for that matter, while you are living a life based on a flawed perception, maybe you just don’t know any better.
But the person who vacillates between G-d and the Baal, or money and spirituality, deep down knows the truth. We know money should not be the goal. It’s just hard to let go.
How many times have we heard stories of those who deep down knew that something was wrong, but it was too hard to leave Poland, to let go of everything that had been built up over centuries of Jewish life there?
Interestingly, this connects as well to the festival of Purim. As Mordechai taught the Jews of the Persian Empire, there comes a time when you have to take a stand; you have to decide who you really are.
One of the most powerful moments I had in Poland was with our son Yair, who joined us for a few weeks before drafting into the IDF (he now serves in a Special Forces unit in the paratroopers).
We stood in the main square of the city of Tarnow, an hour east of Krakow. Tarnow had a Jewish community since the early fifteenth century, and before the Holocaust nearly half of the 45,000 people who lived there were Jewish.
Tarnow was the same story that happened town by town, city by city, and village by village all over Poland. First they discriminated against Jews and humiliated them by forcing them to perform menial tasks in public streets and squares. Then they were made to wear yellow stars. Then they were forced into the ghetto.
And eventually, broken, starved and beaten, with no fight left in them, they were rounded up in the central square and sent off in waves to Auschwitz and Belzec.
And in this same square, Yair thanked his great-great-grandfather Moishe Shmiel Schiff for getting off the fence and making the decision to leave while the going was still good. Moishe Shmiel was from Tarnow. We were standing in the exact place where all my Schiff cousins had been sent to their deaths.
In life we often struggle to let go of one path and choose another. Eliyahu was teaching us, all those centuries ago, that sometimes not choosing one path leaves us without any path at all.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.