A black and white image of a Jew being beaten in the streets of Vienna. Jews being forced onto trains and deported. A column of Jews with despairing faces, forced out of town, herded down a dark street, led by rabbis holding Torah scrolls.
Scenes straight out of the Holocaust. Except that they aren’t.
These are scenes from a silent movie produced in 1924 in Austria, nearly 15 years before Hitler’s Nazi Stormtroopers marched across the border in March 1938 to annex Austria in what became known as the Anschluss.
The film was based on a book written in 1922 by Hugo Bettauer, a Jewish writer, who somehow saw what was coming. It was a huge success and sold a quarter of a million copies, shining a light on a storm of anti-Semitism that was rapidly spreading across Austria and all of Europe. Two years later, Bettauer was assassinated by a Nazi sympathizer, who perhaps did not want the world to see the truth just yet.
The film, shown across Europe for the eightieth anniversary of the Anschluss, is chillingly accurate. One wonders how Bettauer intuited what was coming when so many around him missed what in hindsight was painfully obvious.
This week, we read the portion of Shelach, which tells the story of the twelve men sent by Moshe to spy out the land, and the subsequent debacle that resulted in the Jews wandering the desert for nearly forty years.
Interestingly, as Rav Yoel Bin-Nun points out, the word meraglim, “spies,” does not appear in the entire portion, only later in Devarim, in Moshe’s retelling of the story. The word used here is latur, better translated as “to scout.” Indeed, it is used throughout the entire portion. The spies were meant to scout; they were meant to go and see the land.
Of course, this raises the obvious question: if they did what they were asked to do, why were the consequences so severe?
Rav Amnon Bazak points out a fascinating detail: when the spies offer their report, the verb re’iyah, “seeing,” is only applied to the things that they described as negative. They saw a land filled with giants (Bamidbar 13:28, 32-33), which consumed its inhabitants. It was also a “land of milk and honey” (ibid. v. 27) but the Torah does not say that they saw it; they just shared that it was so.
Perhaps, suggests Rav Bazak, this is an allusion to their tragic mistake: this was how they chose to see. For whatever the reason, they chose to see the land of Israel in a negative light. The life we choose to see is the life we live. Thus, they go so far as to suggest (ibid. v. 33) that they felt like grasshoppers, and thus they were. If you think you are a grasshopper, then you are.
But the tragedy does not end there. There is a second episode in the aftermath of G-d’s decree — the ma’apilim. This group (ibid. 14:39-45), realizing their tragic error, was determined to rise up and conquer the land as G-d had originally intended.
Moshe entreats them not to go, as Hashem had already decreed that this generation would not enter the land. “It will not succeed,” he warns them (ibid. v. 41). But they were stubborn and refused to listen. Tragically, as Moshe warned, they were massacred by the warlike tribes, for G-d was not with them.
And one wonders again: what did they do wrong? They actually seem to have epitomized the Jewish value of teshuvah: to recognize a mistake, to regret it, and to be determined to change in the future. They wanted to make it right and go to Israel. What was their mistake?
A friend of mine recently shared with me the story of a fellow who had just been blessed with his first child, a boy. He was anxious to fulfill the mitzvah of circumcising his newborn son on the eighth day.
The baby, however, was jaundiced and yellow, and the doctor would not give the OK to perform the bris.
The new father, a religious fellow who very much wanted his son to be circumcised on time, was having a tough time accepting this. He exhorted the doctor to take another look at the baby or just sign the medical form anyway. Until a nearby rabbi said, “You are like the ma’apilim. You want to do the mitzvah, but it’s not the right time.”
Rav Tzadok HaKohen, in his Tzidkat HaTzaddik, points out that the verse suggests (ibid. 13:41) that they would not succeed then — but there would come a different time when the audacity and stubbornness to rise up, even against the will of leadership, and retake the land of Israel will succeed.
Writing in Lublin at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, amidst the growing fire of Zionism, Rav Tzadok suggests (paragraph 46) that “this is now that time.”
Interestingly, many great rabbis of the day, even leading up to the Holocaust, remained firm in their belief that the Jews should not follow the Zionists back to Israel. “We are in the exile as part of G-d’s decree and it is not for us to stubbornly presume to retake the land of Israel,” writes the Satmar Rebbe in his Vayoel Moshe.
Indeed, there was a famous adage attributed to the Munkatcher Rebbe, who quoted the verse regarding tzitzit at the end of our portion: “Do not stray after your hearts and eyes” (ibid. 15:39). This means, suggested the Munkatcher Rebbe, “Don’t stray after your hearts: this is Herzl (herz means “heart” in Yiddish); nor after your eyes: this is Kook (“to look” in Yiddish).”
Years after the Munkatcher passed away, as the storm of the Holocaust was reaching Hungary, tens of thousands of his chassidim would not listen to the Zionists who believed it was time to flee to Israel, because the rebbe had said they should not go. Rav Tzadok disagreed.
Usually when an opportunity presents itself, it is a small minority, like Hugo Bettauer, who see the signs and recognize what is coming. Most, however, miss it until it is too late. Are we living in such a time?
This idea is true on so many levels. Imagine if you had recognized Steve Jobs’s brilliance when he was first developing his portable phone or his personal computer, and invested in Apple when it was just getting started! One meets people who look back at the life they feel they never lived, the girl they never had the courage to ask out, the kind word that could have changed everything in a relationship.
But even more critically, it is true on a national level. Eighty years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, a hundred and forty-some years after mobs chased Jews in the streets of France during the Dreyfus trial, once again, Jews no longer feel safe in Europe, and synagogues and cemeteries are targets in America.
But unlike 1935, this time, we have a place to go. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about coming home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at the words of the Tzidkat HaTzaddik.
Maybe, like Hugo Bettauer, we would do well to pay closer attention.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.