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Masei 5779 - "In Honor of Steve Sussman's 90th Birthday"

A boy came to visit me this week.  Actually, the first day back from my vacation.  He’s 11.  “I’ll be 12 in October,” he was quick to add.

While his friends were enjoying the long summer days, catching up on YouTube videos and sharing secrets behind camp bunks, his family went to visit his grandfather.  I’ve met his grandfather.  Good guy.

Back home, here in Massachusetts, the boy had a question.  He said he’s wondered about the question for a long time.

“Why,” he wanted to know, “did Hitler hate the Jews so much?”

Vacation, officially over.

If I’ve learned anything working with kids, it’s that when they ask questions — especially the big questions — it’s sometimes best not to answer too quickly.  Instead, do some investigating.

“Have you heard anyone else’s answers?”

He said that he heard a theory that Hitler had Jewish relatives, and he didn’t like them, so he tried to hide being Jewish.  But that answer didn’t really make sense.

So I asked him to tell me more about his grandfather’s life.

He told me that when the Nazis came to his grandfather’s town, they lined up all the men and boys 7 and older, to take them to death camps.  His grandfather was small enough that he could pretend to be a five-year-old.

His grandfather’s father, meanwhile, had to line up in the other line, the line of death.  But, somehow, he snuck out of that line, and found his way back home — crawling the whole way on his belly.

I asked him if it was hard to wonder why people would hate Jews.  He said it was.  Did he ever wonder if there was something wrong with him?

His eyes moistened.  He nodded.

We sat for a moment.  Sitting in the pain of the moment.

This week’s parasha is Masei.  It’s the last portion in the book of Numbers.  For the most part, the narrative part of the Torah is coming to an end.  The last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which starts next week, will mostly be a speech from Moses to the Israelites.  This week, Numbers ends with a few final mitzvot. 

We know from the earlier parts of the Torah that the priests, the Levites, are not allowed to own land.  Since they have the spiritual power of offering sacrifices, it seems that they shouldn’t have economic power as well.  But they can’t live at the Temple their whole lives — though, perhaps, it might feel that way!

So the Torah assigns them cities to live in, and a bit of pasture.  Where do they get the land from?  From the holdings of the rest of Israelite tribes.  But the Torah, being the Torah, is careful to be fair.

Me’eit ha’rav tarbu, v’me’eit ha’maat tamitu — ish k’fi nachalato.  “From the large [holdings, take] a lot, and from the small, a little — each according to their inheritance.”[1]  In other words, we might say, a wealth tax.  (But, perhaps, I digress.)

These cities, though, aren’t just for the priests.  Each city is to be an ir miklat.  A “city of refuge.”  These cities are specifically designated as places for people to flee if they’ve killed someone unintentionally.  The specific example given, later in Deuteronomy, is that of a person who is chopping wood, and the head of their axe flies off and kills someone. 

The cities are provided as a place for such a killer to run, in the words of the Torah, so they don’t get killed by vengeful relatives, without the benefit of standing lifnei ha’eidah l’mishpat — before a court of justice.[2]  Even for killers, the Torah provides protection from mob violence. 

Jews know, from our text and our history, how dangerous a mob can be.  Especially for us.  And so, when justice needs to be done, we don’t follow a mob.  Everyone gets a trial.  Even when confronting a Nazi monster like, say, Adolf Eichmann, we say — justice must prevail.

We don’t follow mobs in bloodthirst.  Even Eichmann got a trial.

This is something to be proud of.

We can also be proud that the Jewish idea of refuge has spread far beyond our little Jewish people.

There’s an old American folk gospel song called, depending on the version, “You Better Run,” or "(I'm Gonna Run to) The City of Refuge."  This being a predominantly Christian country, some versions envision the city of refuge to be the kingdom of Jesus.  But other versions make vague references to “the days of madness/My brother, my sister/When you're dragged toward the Hell-mouth.”  Some music scholars postulate that these lyrics represented secret codes for slaves trying to escape on the Underground Railroad — like some of our grandfathers, crawling on their bellies — to escape their masters to Northern “cities of refuge.”

And, of course today, the modern Sanctuary movement takes its name from our arei miklat, our “cities of refuge.”  Begun in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict, it’s now a movement to protect immigrants here in our country.  Mary Ann Lundy, an early Sanctuary leader, explained that the idea comes from the Jewish people’s Torah, the “concept of Sanctuary, where persons fleeing the law could go to places of worship and be protected."

OK, so she got it a little wrong.  The priests’ houses weren’t “places of worship.”  But think of the power of our people’s Torah.  The spiritual teaching of our tiny people, a scrappy little crew bopping around the Ancient Near East three millennia ago, have inspired millions of people to extend the borders of their homes, the borders of love, all across the world. 

It’s not surprising that little 11-year-old boys tear up, wondering why the world has so much hate.  So much hate for us.  It makes me tear up too.

But what do we tell our kids when they ask about a world that seems so dangerous?  When they wonder if there’s something wrong with being a Jew?  What do we tell ourselves?

I told the boy in my office that nobody can really explain why something so terrible as the Holocaust happened.  But I had a theory.  Did he want to hear it?

He wanted to hear it. 

I was careful to say I didn’t really know, and there’s nothing that can rationally explain something so evil, but I think it has something to do with Jews having an invisible God.  Refusing to serve idols.  Back in the day, idols were statues and rocks.  But today, I said, idols can be flags, or countries, or crazy ideas about some people being inherently better than other people.

But, like Mordechai in the story of Purim, Jews refuse to bow down to idols.  And when Jews don’t go along with people’s idols, sometimes, it makes people mad.  Like Pharaoh.  Or Haman.  Or Hitler. 

But, I told him, that’s just a guess.

Something I don’t have to guess about, that I know for sure, is that he’s a great kid.  And that his grandfather is a mensh.  And he has every reason not to be.  I said that his grandfather has every reason to be a jerk, to be mad at the world, to be mean, to be nasty.  But he’s not.  He’s awesome.

Which is something to be proud of. 

And we can also be proud that, given everything we’ve been through, we have a Torah that says that everybody — Jew and non-Jew — is created in God’s image.  I told him that the Torah teaches us 36 times to love and respect the stranger, the immigrant, because we know what it was like to be a stranger in Egypt. 

Which, if you think about it, is the opposite of being a Nazi.

I told him that, because we’re Jews, sometimes we go to the immigration office to say that it’s not OK to be mean to people who weren’t born here.  I asked him if he’d ever want to go.  He answered right away.  “Yeah.”

For the first time, he smiled.

To do the right thing, to be Jews in the world, can feel like a burden, can give us tsuris.  But it can also give us naches.  It can give us pride.  It can give us meaning.

Of course, not everyone is a protester, or an activist.  But as Jews we can be proud of other things, get meaning from other work that we do.

Yes, we have been hated, been refugees in this world.  It can make us wonder why we bother.

But we have so much to be proud of.

As a Jew, I’m proud that we haven’t just survived but thrived, taught the world about the divinity of all humans.

As a Jew, I’m proud that we’re raising new generations of menshes like the one who came to see me in my office this week.

As a Jew, I’m proud that Jews come together to form communities like this one.  Beth Elohim is its own city of refuge, a sanctuary of love in a world of conflict and cruelty.

As a Jew, I’m proud that Steve’s friends came together tonight to celebrate his life, giving — like they often do, like so many others like them — of their time, their talent, their love.

As a Jew, I’m proud of Jews like Steve Sussman, who have seen the worst in people, and are still menshes.  Steve, we celebrate not just your birthday tonight, but your neshama.  Your spirit.  We love you.

A sweet 11-year-old boy in our congregation, God willing, will be 12 in October.

And then, God willing, he will become a bar mitzvah here in this wonderful community.

May he learn to make peace with his fears — about being Jewish, about anything else. 

May he grow to be a sweet and loving soul like our brother Steve.

May we remember what a blessing it is to create this community where he can do so.

And may we learn, from his brave questions, the beauty and glory and pride of being Jews, even in a scary world.  May we work, together, and keep working, until that world is transformed into a place of justice, a home of justice, a worldwide city of refuge and compassion and peace.


[1] Numbers 35:8

[2] Numbers 35:12

Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782