RE:VERB FORTY-TWO / EKEV / THANK
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
It took 63 years, but my uncle finally got to thank, publicly, the family of the man who helped him survive the Holocaust. In the middle of what was already an intense and emotional week in Israel, esp. with the aftermath of the shooting in Tel Aviv -and for me personally as I prepared to leave Israel after a year, not to mention the August heat - I joined my uncle, father, family members and guests at the synagogue of Yad Vashem for a long but moving ceremony honoring the courage and kindness of my uncle’s long lost and now deceased protector, Fyodor Mikhailichenko, the 164th Russian citizen recognized by the State of Israel as "Righteous among the Nations."
My uncle, Rabbi Israel Lau, is an incredible orator, and to hear him retell his own story of childhood in the camps was as always, a haunting experience – but it was even more inspiring this time, and even more moving. When the ceremony was over I walked to get the car, crossing the vast sculpture garden of Yad Vashem, (complete with horrors of all kinds) walking quietly for a few minutes, overlooking the vast Jerusalem forest, grateful for the opportunity to express gratitude - for the kindness of strangers, for the possibilities of humanity overcoming its destructive patterns - even in the midst of, especially in the midst of, days of great hate and unspeakable sorrow and simple stress. I pause to take a deep breath of thank you, recalling the tune to the prayer that little A. loves to sing: Modeh Ani.
Expressing gratitude should really not be something one waits 63 years to do, although in this case, there was no other way. My uncle’s full story is HERE, but here’s the gist and my takeaway and link to the Torah tale of this super dramatic week:
Fyodor, a Russian prisoner of war, possibly a soldier, was 18, and my uncle Lulek, a Jew, was only 7, when fate brought them together inside Block #8 in Germany’s Buchenwald Concentration Camp, during the winter of 1945. There’s a steel sign, in German, still hanging at the entrance to the camp: “Each to his Own Fate.” Perhaps it was fate, combined with stealth and determination that helped them meet and survive: Lulek was smuggled into the camp and into the safer block by his older brother, my father, Naphtali who was 19 at the time – and known as Tulek. My father knew that the boy would be safer with the Russian Prisoners of War than with the Jewish inmates, and so he got somebody to extract a diamond that was hidden, years earlier, in one of his teeth and with this blooded gem bribed one of the kapos and got the kid into the better block. Fyodor apparently took pity on the boy, gave him extra potatoes, made him ear muffs from a dead man’s sweater, threw him down to the ground when there was shooting everywhere. On April 10th, burning with fever and presumed dying, my father went to find his little brother and give him a final message: "if you survive this hell – and they ask you where you want to go – say Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. And repeat after me – so that you won’t forget: Eretz Yisrael – it is the one place where they don’t kill Jews." And then they said goodbye, and my father collapsed and Lulek was whisked back to Block 8 by Fyodor and the next day, April 11th, Buchenwald was liberated by the Americans and they were free.
Fyodor wanted to adopt Lulek and take him to Russia and Lulek agreed. But Tulek, barely conscious but alive, got his pals to guard the boy and make sure he stays with them. Lulek and Fyodor said goodbye a few days later and never knew each other’s last names, and apparently kept looking for each other for all those years.
Fyodor died in 1993. Two years ago, through a complicated twist of events and archival discoveries, his identity was finally revealed and my uncle got to meet Fyodor’s two remaining daughters. There they were, in short sleeved summer suits, standing at Yad Vashem representing their father, receiving a medal and a certificate from the little boy they had always heard their father talk about, the boy he loved. My uncle, now the chairman of Yad VaShem, got to say “thank you” and help them unveil the plaque honoring the memory of a kind man who took pity on another.
With Oscar Schindler and Raul Wallenberg as celebrity icons, the roster of gentiles who are honored for saving the lives of Jews during WW2, includes some 23,000 men and women of all nationalities. A government minister, in his opening remarks at the ceremony, explained that this is Israel’s highest honor for Non-Jews. The Russian Ambassador, in response, expressed a wish that more than 164 of these countrymen would be remembered and honored in the future. There were clearly some political subtexts going on in this media-heavy event, but for me, the real story here was the triumph of kindness, and the reminder to take stock of that which is worthy of honor and gratitude. It isn’t every day that an entire room full of people rises to such an occasion, rising to honor human honor. To say thank you.
Gratitude is not just good manners – it’s among the highest of human laws. But it’s so easy to forget.
Open this week’s Torah tale, Ekev, and there, too, is the reminder for gratitude. It’s tucked in the midst of the reminder, much like my father’s presumed-last-words to his brother – that there’s no place like home. Moses, in his last speech (for real) to his people, praises the land of milk and honey that he has never seen, and reminds them to appreciate it – to always remember to acknowledge the bounty and thank the Creator for such favorable feed.
"When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land which God has given you." (D’varim 8:10)
Eat, Fill, Thank. This biblical verse is the formula that predates ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and serves as the original inspiration for the Jewish custom to say Grace After Meals (and possibly, I assume, for the Christian tradition of saying grace before food is served).
This text is a reminder not to take life for granted. And, also, a reminder that we are fed in many ways, and it’s not always delicious and not always kind, but always worthy of appreciation.
What does one do when all the food one gets is a slice of a rotten potato stolen by a fellow prisoner? And how does one thank life when one suffers or shared the suffering of loved ones? Or how does one still say thank you to the world after turning on the radio to hear of a terrible murder of innocent lives?
Not even a week has passed since a mysterious gunman opened fire in Tel Aviv and rewired the narrative of the Gay-Lesbian Israeli experience. The aftermath is tragic loss of life, grief of family and friends, the fear of so many young GLBT youth to come out and express themselves, the worry that violence is so rampant in Israel – all this is real. But, also – and maybe something worth thanking for here – is the sense of community that has reemerged, the coming-together-because-of-great-crisis that is another bonding element for the GLBT community – in Israel and worldwide.
Maybe sometimes it does take time to see beyond the speechless rage and pain, to glimpse a sliver of a silver lining that can penetrate pain and be something that is worth thanking for?
Earlier in Ekev, Moses reminds us: “Remember everything, the entire path” – there are no good times without the bad.
All this as I finish packing, and say goodbye, and take a long stroll around the park that is near my parents house, and thank the paths, and the playground, and the trees, and the ravens, and the benches – for sheltering me this whole long year in Jerusalem. I’ve taken long walks here with my father this past year, recalling his horrible Holocaust memories, talking about God and faith. I played with my daughter on these swings. I watch now as the moon, full, rises over Jerusalem’s summer, and I say thank you to a year full like a full meal, with so many surprising appetizers and side dishes and drinks and desserts and companions and conversations.
‘Bring texts!’ is one my brother’s favorite hilarious expressions, reserved for the end of meals when the Grace After Meals is called for and the little booklets with the liturgy are brought to the table (it’s funny in Hebrew). Later during the same day as the Yad Vashem ceremony, up in the Galilee, in my brother’s beautiful garden, our entire family gathers to eat and to celebrate little E’s first birthday and bid me farewell. I am there with my parents, and siblings and their children and grandchildren, and my children, and their mothers, and an even fuller moon rises above us and a very full heart swells inside me, and the words, familiar, that need no printed reminder and are addressed to the moon, and the sky, and the fates, and my parents, and family, friends, and if I had an agent – my agent – and whatever God is: Thank You Very Much.