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Machshavot | Parashat Yitro

January 28, 2019 Andrew Shaw
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It was an image I will never forget.

The picture of Holocaust survivors with their hands on a small coffin. A small coffin that bore the remains of six victims of the nightmare that they had survived.

For those survivors, just think of the emotion of the moment. Over 70 years ago they witnessed the slaughter of our people and there was no time, no place, no ability to bury or mourn, or pay respects to the millions slain. Yet here we were, a lifetime later walking to bury the past in safety, security and according to Halacha.

The Chief Rabbi gave a most beautiful hesped, if you haven’t watched or read it, I highly recommend it.

To me the most stirring part of his hesped was this:

There is one other person here whose presence is of particular significance. You would be amazed that such a post exists. He is the Ambassador of the State of Israel. When you went to your deaths there was no light at the end of your tunnel of suffering. And yet, barely three years after the conclusion of the Shoah, the State of Israel was created. Had Israel existed only ten or fifteen years beforehand, your fate and the fate of so many other Jews might well have been different.

However, the tragic thing about Sunday is that hatred for the Jewish people did not die with Holocaust, it has remerged over the last few years in a very real and shocking way. At a reception of the Holocaust Education Trust, which I am proud to work for, they heard from Rachel Riley whose passionate speech focused on the return of anti-Semitism to the mainstream through the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. As she says, ‘I thought that that the horrors of the Holocaust would mean that antisemitism would never rear its ugly head again. Sadly, I was wrong.’

Rachel began her words with honesty about her own confused Jewish identity ‘My own identity as a Jew has been a confusing one. As I often joke, my mum’s Jewish and my dad’s Man United, and we’ve worshipped far more often at the Theatre of Dreams than I’ve ever been to shul. As a child, I knew not to sing the Jesus bit in the assembly hymns but the bacon sandwiches mum would feed us meant I didn’t quite know where we fit into all of this.’

However, this crisis had brought her Jewish identity to the fore.

As always all these thoughts coalesce with ideas from the Parsha.

Yitro actually begins in the aftermath of the first anti-Semitic attack on the newly formed Jewish people. Amalek. In fact according to Rabbi Yehoshua (Zevachim 116a) when it says at the start of the Parsha ‘Vayishama Yitro – and Yitro heard’ – what did he hear? He heard about the war with Amalek.

As the Chief Rabbi said this week, what made such an impression on Yitro about the attack by Amalek? His answer was that Yitro, like many after him, could not fathom why on earth Amalek would attack this special nation and made it his point to stand side by side with the Jewish Nation. In the current crisis we are strengthened by the many coming to our side to show solidarity both with Israel and the Jewish people.

Of course, the Parsha doesn’t finish there and we then have the monumental giving of the Torah on Har Sinai.

It is this moment, Matan Torah – which brings it all together.

The Gemara (Shabbat 89) cites the source of anti-Semitism using a play on words: The Torah – our source of laws, values and moral standards was received at Mount Sinai. “Why was the Torah given on a mountain called Sinai?” asks the Gemara. “Because the great sinah – the tremendous hatred aimed at the Jew – emanates from Sinai.”

At Sinai we were explained that there is one God, Who makes moral demands on all of humanity. Consequently, at Sinai the Jewish nation became the target for the hatred of those whose strongest drive is to liberate mankind from the shackles of conscience and morality.

As Hitler once said ‘‘The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind, circumcision on its body and conscience on its soul. They are Jewish inventions. The war for the domination of the world is waged only between the two of us – between these two camps alone- the Nazis and the Jews – everything else is but deception’.

Hitler knew for his world view to win through he had to completely annihilate the people who stood in his way – us.

The final solution was all of us, (conceived at Wansee in 1942 on exactly the same date that we buried the six last Sunday) religious, secular, if you had a Jewish soul – you had to be destroyed.
As Rabbi Raphael Shore says, ‘At Sinai the Jewish nation was appointed to be “a light unto the nations”.’ There are those who embrace Jews and the Jewish faith because of that light; but there are also those who want the world to be a place of spiritual darkness. They object to morality. Those would-be harbingers of darkness attack the Jews as the lightning rod for their hatred.’

In a week when the martyrs of the past were buried accompanied by the heroes of the present. We must redouble our efforts to fight the hatred emanating from the left and the right. We must realise that the mission Hashem gave us 3400 years ago is the reason for our existence as well as the reason for our hatred. Due to this we must possess a strong inner sense of why our being Jewish is meaningful and worthwhile, and why it is worth the effort, despite the hatred.

Believe me – it is.

Shabbat Shalom.

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