as we mark Shavuot and recite yizkor memorial prayers, I’d like to
discuss three hearts with you. The heart of Sinai, the heart of King David and
the heart of Fania Feiner.
According to the Torah,
בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃ On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.
וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃ Having journeyed from Refidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.
All of the verbs in this sequence of activity are in the plural form, except for וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל, Israel encamped there.
Echoing Midrash Mekhilta, Rashi comments on the use of the singular form of the verb: כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד, like one person with one heart. That is, the sense of unity of purpose and peoplehood enabled them to receive God’s revelation, the Torah that continues to guide and govern Jewish life. כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד, like one person with one heart.
Recently, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, came to Canada to receive Torahs to be transferred to the Israel Defence Forces. Our Congregation made a similar gift a number of years ago and my family was privileged to bring the Torah scroll into the headquarters of the IDF at the time. UJA Federation convened a group of people to meet Rabbi Lau and he spoke about his efforts to build unity among diverse groups within Israel and the Diaspora.
However, his responses to questions raised by those in attendance indicated that he did not really comprehend Jewish unity or comity. Shoel Silver, who moderated the occasion, asked what is being done to aid the 300,000 former Russian Jews who are citizens of Israel but not Jews according to halakhah. Rabbi Lau responded that many want to remain Christians and others have problems because the government won’t allow the Rabbinate to properly investigate background. He failed to mention the opposition of the Rabbinate to the conversion program initiated by the Jewish Agency.
Fredelle Brief spoke about how she and others don’t feel at home in some places in Israel and specifically mentioned the Western Wall. The Rabbi replied that everyone is welcome, giving an example of his assisting a visitor from Nigeria, but added that those who are at the Wall regularly have a greater claim than those who show up to use the Kotel for political purposes. He neglected to mention that the proposal to build an equal and recognized access to the Robinson’s Arch area for egalitarian prayer was opposed by the Chief Rabbinate.
I followed up on Rabbi Lau’s willingness to facilitate the determination of personal Jewish identity by telling of a young man from our Congregation who wanted to marry an Israeli woman. I provided a letter affirming his mother’s Jewish identity, his grandmother’s Jewish identity and even provided a photo of the tombstone of his maternal great-grandmother. The Orthodox Bet Din refused to consider this evidence, telling me that it would not be acceptable to the offices of the Chief Rabbi. He assured the gathering that the denial of my evidence was not because I am a Conservative rabbi; there are Orthodox rabbis whose evidence is also not accepted. He went on to say that because the Rabbinate’s decision was considered to be determinative, these matters are treated with great care and with high standards.
Rabbi Yael Splansky of Holy Blossom shared a bit of personal history: her grandfather, Ernest Lorge, was a German-born American Reform rabbi who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with an American-born Orthodox rabbi at the time of the liberation Bergen Belsen. Her grandfather was part of the team that rescued Rabbi Lau’s father who was then just seven years old. Rabbi Splansky asked what message did the Chief Rabbi have that she might share with her congregation about the importance of klal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people? Without reflecting at all on the link between his family history and hers, without acknowledging that Rabbi Splansky is his partner in building a Jewish future, Rabbi Lau indicated that the Chief Rabbinate was working with Israeli Jews to ensure that in addition to Jewish grandparents there also would be Jewish grandchildren. As for Diaspora Jews, he is deeply concerned about assimilation and intermarriage and would pray for her community.
Rather than a unified people to embrace Torah, כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד, like one person with one heart, Rabbi Lau presented a weak heart of limited capacity. If the Torah is given to the entire people of Israel, not only to Haredi Jews, we must look elsewhere—to those who seek an inclusive Torah shared by all Jews. In Masorti Judaism, working to bridge these differences, we find our true partner.
In addition to reflecting today on the spiritual unity of the Jewish people, we must take note of the ongoing conflict at the edge of Gaza. The IDF is committed to protect and defend the citizens of Israel, whether the violence comes from rockets, tunnels or storming the border. We should mourn human loss and pain, but recognize that within the 40,000 people there were those with weapons for a planned and deliberate effort to attack nearby Israeli homes.
We also recognize that this has been a special week when Jerusalem was recognized by the United States as the enduring capital of the State of Israel. Just as the weekly Gaza actions were planned to undermine the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, the dedication of the Embassy of the United States was intended to celebrate that momentous occasion.
In addition, the opening, which took place prior to Shavuot, paid homage to Jerusalem as the capital city of King David. The Book of Ruth, to be chanted this afternoon, celebrates David’s birth and lineage, identifying Ruth as his great-grandmother. King David is remembered on this Yom Tov because of a rabbinic tradition that he was born and died on Shavuot (Talmud Yerushalmi, Hagigah 2.3).
According to the Bible, a frail and dying David is warmed by Avishag and carefully reminded by Batsheva to designate their son, Solomon, as king. David summons the strength to declare the succession and to tell Solomon to take care of some unfinished business. Yet rabbinic midrashim, which both embellish and subvert the Biblical text, imagine other aspects of David’s dying. One portrays David reviewing his life. As he prepares to die, David seeks teshuvah, wanting to remedy some of the pain that he caused, repenting for the Batsheva and Uriah affair.
Another tradition imagines the poet warrior as a student of Torah:
Every Shabbat David would sit and study. On the day that he was to die, the Angel of Death came to him but could not kill him, for his [David’s] mouth never stopped words of Torah, [of which it is said, “It is a Tree of Life to those who hold it”]. [The Angel of Death] wondered, what shall I do to him? [David] had a garden behind his palace; so the Angel of Death made the trees rustle. David interrupted his study to see [the cause of the noise]. As he descended the stairs [to the garden], he slipped, was silenced, and his soul departed. (Shabbat 30a-b)
I find the Biblical narrative to be more compelling than the rabbinic revision.
My colleague, Rabbi David Wolpe, has published a wonderful book about King David, titled David: The Divided Heart. Rabbi Wolpe writes:
We wish our heroes to be attractively flawed. … A minor crack in character makes the vessel seem that much more precious. … David confounds such simplicities. ... [His tale] is laced with passions, savagery, hesitation ,betrayal, charisma, faith, family … He is capable of great acts, expressions of lasting piety, and of startling cruelty. ... Surviving rebellions, fraternizing with the enemy, committing public adultery and proxy murder, David dies peacefully in bed. ... We read of his uneasy relationships with wives, children, his warriors, and the people…. You can choose to see him as hero or knave. ... The explanation of traditional piety is simple and elegant: God is with him. The modern reader suspects that while trusting God, David is a man careful to secure himself a little earthly insurance nonetheless.
“Fissured and flawed,” David becomes the progenitor of the Messiah, precisely because of his weaknesses, his transgressions, his artifice, his divided heart. ... David is a man of contradictions, noble and base, lyrical and brutal, all of which coexist in a quieter state in each human breast. We see ourselves in this man, and we see this man in ourselves.
Similarly, Krista Tippet observes,
If we wait for clean heroes and clear choices and evidence on our side to act, we will wait forever. … people who bring light into the world wrench it out of darkness and contend openly with darkness all their lives. ... Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day—none of them were simple, unsullied heroes in a storybook way. They were flawed human beings, who wrestled with demons in themselves as in the world outside. ... The spiritual geniuses of the ages and of the everyday don’t let despair have the last word.
This is how I understand King David and that is how I understand my loved ones. As we remember people whom we loved and still love, we should do so recalling them with all their flaws and fissures.
According to the Book of Samuel, when the prophet dismisses Saul as King, Shmuel tells him, “בִּקֵּשׁ֩ ה ל֜וֹ אִ֣ישׁ כִּלְבָב֗וֹ ~The Eternal has already sought out a man after His own heart. Rabbi Wolpe makes a startling claim:
After God’s own heart: David in character is like God in action. The inexplicable amalgam of good and evil is filtered through human hearts that embrace the totality of God’s world … daring, volatile, dangerous, and epic. ...David stands … an epitome of earthly experience, raging, beset, the one who feels most deeply, the one who has God’s heart. Perhaps David is the forerunner of the Messiah because this is the man who enacts what God wishes—in his sinfulness and sublimity, he is the most human of all.
Today we remember people who carried their own contradictions, whom we love in their terrible totality and wonderful wholeness.
Another tradition about David is found in the midrashic collection,Yalkut Shimoni (B’reisheet 5:41), embellished in the mystical text of the Zohar(B’reisheet 91d), as well as in the commentary Shnei Luhot Habrit, the Two Tablets of the Covenant, written by Jerry Grafstein’s ancestor, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz.
God passed all the forthcoming generations before Adam, and Adam saw that King David was only allotted three hours to live.
Adam asked: Master of the World, is there a remedy for this?
God replied: This is what I planned.
Adam inquired: How many years of life have I been allotted?
God answered: One thousand years.
Adam asked: May I give a gift?
Adam requested: Give seventy of my years to him.
He brought a parchment and wrote the terms of his gift on it, and it was sealed by God, [an angel] and Adam.
Adam stated: Master of the World, great will be [David’s] kingdom and the songs that will be given in this seventy-year gift. He will make music before You.
While we, as ordinary people, might not have be able to share our years with others, this midrash wants us to learn from this imagined example of generosity.
And that brings me to Fania’s heart. During our Tikkun Lel Shavu’ot, Prof Bellary Hyman Zatzman taught some of us about Fania’s heart. Bellary shared with me this small reproduction. It is a heart-shaped artefact about the size of a butterfly. It has a purple fabric cover with an “F” embroidered in orange thread. Inside, itsfolded paper-cut pages open like Shavu’ot roizelakh, origami-like, to reveal four hearts on each page. The sheets were bound together withapaste of bread and water. On these pages are birthday wishes. Fania received this heart on her 20thbirthday, December 12, 1944, in Auschwitz.
The paper heart from Auschwitz is as fragile and as strong as a human heart. It was fashioned by Zlatka Snajderhauz who used her bread as glue. Eighteen other women imprisoned in Auschwitz wrote messages in Polish, Hebrew, German and French. Unsure they would survive, not knowing whether they would celebrate their own birthdays, andaware that if the booklet were discovered, they would face beating or death, they penciled messages of heroism, hesed and hope amid hell. "May your life be long and sweet," wrote Mazal. "Freedom, freedom, freedom," inscribed Mania.
The heart was given surreptitiously to Fania in a small loaf of bread. She hid it from Nazi guards in the camp and carried it under her arm during a death march in January 1945. Fania survived the winter cold, starvation and random shootings. The heart survived with her.
The heart is now in the Holocaust Museum of Montreal. Museum curator Julie Guinard commented, "If human beings can create Auschwitz, I am happy to know that human beings can also create a little heart inside Auschwitz. If these women, in Auschwitz, were capable of having so much courage and empathy for one another, then maybe there is hope for the world.”
The whole heart of the Jewish people at Sinai, the divided heart of King David and Fania’s heart from Auschwitz remind us of the importance of responsibility for others even during challenging times. We want goodness and kindness to prevail in spite of reasons to despair. We depend on each other giving to one another. We have an obligation to pay it forward so that future generations — our grandchildren and others — will continue to live and carry on the traditions and practices that are so memorable and so meaningful to us.
David Wolpe, David: The Divided Heart. (Yale, 2014)
Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters — and How to Talk About It. (Penguin, 2007)