March of the Living. Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover
Will this Shabbat signal a new custom in this congregation with regard to the youth? Shortly three of our teens, Elaina Urato, Ariel Shatz and Alex Wynne, will commence a journey that will lead them to the gates of Auschwitz Concentration Camp and then to the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem. March of the Living is an international program of Jewish youth who will experience the modern day exodus from the Holocaust to the redemption of the Jewish people in the founding of the State of Israel. This program has been in existence for over thirty years.And now Congregation Beth Yam’s students have the privilege of participating in this great adventure. So tonight we will give them a blessing before their journey.
What brought this all about here at Beth Yam? A few members of the congregation suggested this program and have generously funded it for the next few years along with the participation and financial support from their parents. These individuals, in the spirit of Maimonides, seek no recognition. All they want is that our teens see first hand the remnants of genocide of the Jewish people in Europe and the rebirth of our people in the land of Israel. It is a journey that reminds me of the Haggadah’s message which describes the narrative of the Exodus as a story that begins by referring to Israel’s degradation but ends in the joy and praise of our redemption especially when we conclude the Seder with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
This Shabbat’s Torah portion,Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover, in other words, refers to the intermediary Sabbath in the week of Passover. We read in Exodus 33,about the dialogue between Moses and God right after the Golden Calf incident. Moses is appealing to God to accompany the people upward towards the Promised Land from the Sinai desert. Moses says to God, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other peoples on the face of the earth?”
Our youth will consider this question of whether God was with us not only in the desert but at Auschwitz as well? They will ask questions they never considered before as they walk the terrain of this notorious concentration camp. They will grapple with the theological consequences of such hard questions. They will learn that being a victim did not mean that Jews did not resist. Just to survive was a means of resistance every day. They will soon learn that what distinguished us in this horrible chapter of our history was that we did prevail in the end and those who survived were distinguished not only with the tattooed numbers from their taskmasters but that they did not give up the journey to their freedom. Next Year in Jerusalem- Not so different from the ancient story of the Exodus?
After a visit to a Concentration Camp one typically emerges with more questions than answers that they can share with their fellow travelers. They will take those questions with them as they fly to Israel to celebrate Independence Day.
The Torah goes on to say in this special Torah reading for Passover that God will not let Moses see his face but will cause God’s glory to pass by him and will show compassion to the people. Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
I like to imagine that the land of Israel is that rock which all would one day feel God’s presence. Most of Israel today call themselves secular which does not necessarily mean that they don’t believe in God, although many will say that, but it may mean an awareness of how God’s presence flows through the waves of history and that is exactly what we hope our kids will sense by the time they are about to return. That realization of Jewish history, the exile in modern times from the Holocaust and the return to Israel, is what we seek for our teens.
Finally, as we drink the last cup of wine at the Passover Seder we say quoting from Exodus 6:7-
I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” Whether it was the Egyptians or the Nazis we found our way to the Promised Land. And to witness it with our own eyes and our hearts, our students will, hopefully, return with a renewed belief and commitment to the enterprise called the drama of Jewish history. My prayer is that history will run through their veins and in their souls. This program hopefully will solidify our Jewish future. Is that not one of this congregation’s main purposes-to educate our community’s youth?
(Call up the students)
We beseech you to send your blessings upon our students who shortly will begin this pilgrimage into the Kingdom of Night and who will conclude their mission by arriving into the Kingdom of Light. Be with them and let their eyes behold the history of our people, embrace it and ultimately to cherish it in their lives as Jews in the modern world. See them through this journey to safety and return them to us safely with a renewed spirit and commitment to the values and vision of Judaism and the Jewish people who have fought against injustice and prejudice. As they shall sing the songs of mourning let them raise their voices to the hope, HaTikvah, of Israel’s mission to the world as a light to the nations. Inspire them and teach them to know and understand the privilege of being a Jew today. Enable them to share their experiences here upon their return and to inspire us as well. May God be with them in all the works of their hands and their spirits.