Message 90, “Finding Spiritual Truths from World Religions: Jewish Hope”, 4-1-12
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Most people can understand, on some gut level, the deprivations and horrors of what it must be like to be a slave. One’s work, happiness, life and very soul are not one’s own. It is a form of degradation we can easily imagine – another human telling a fellow human she or he is somehow less worthy, less valuable, less human. For us as Americans, we are still confronting the sins of that institution – white Americans coming to terms with past and present racism in their ancestors and within themselves. African-Americans still struggling to emerge from the lasting consequences of slavery – the cycles of soul stealing violence visited upon them simply for the color their skin. The Travon Martin shooting death is a recent example.
Too often, we forget that escaping from slavery and dealing with millenias of violence against their race is also a hallmark of the Jewish people. While most historians cannot say with certitude that ancient Egyptian slavery of the Jews is fact, the Biblical story of it as recounted in the Book of Exodus, however, is THE defining event of Jewish identity. Moses led his people out of bondage and into the promised land – despair and triumph all wrapped into one story that literally embodies Jewish heritage.
As Jews the world over begin this week to celebrate Passover, the holiday is a celebration of that story and of the larger theme of Jewish hope. Indeed, the story is a symbolic metaphor for all of Jewish history – how Jews time and time again suffer oppression, abuse, and murder simply for being Jewish – and then their almost miraculous rise from such defeats time and time again.
During the 1930’s and early forties, the Jewish race was nearly wiped out. As we all know, nearly six million of their number were exterminated. Irene Zisblatt was one of the fortunate survivors of that time. She is the only one out of her family of 8 to live to tell her family’s story – one that she continues to tell even today.
She grew up in a small town in Hungary. Nearly three hundred Jews lived in the town of about a thousand. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, the horrors began. She was thrown out of school along with other Jewish children. Her father’s business was confiscated. They were forced to wear a yellow star of David patch and were relocated to a cramped and dirty ghetto in Poland. Soon after, they were sent to Auschwitz. Irene’s mother was determined to hold onto what little of their former life she could save. She gave four diamonds to young Irene and asked her swallow them – and to repeatedly do so in order to keep them out of Nazi hands. “The strength and the sacrifice that the diamonds carried were so strong,” Zisblatt said. “It was much stronger than the Nazi hatred, so I couldn’t throw them away. I often thought, ‘I can’t die today, I have to save the diamonds.” In doing so, Irene became the very embodiment of her mother’s hope.
Young Irene was soon selected by the infamous Dr. Mengele to undergo medical experiments of a gruesome nature. After multiple and painful procedures, she was picked with five others to have dye injected into their eyes to try and change the color. Five of the six went blind – but not Irene. Even so, all were sent to the gas chambers to die. By some twist of fate, Irene was saved by a compassionate gas chamber worker – a fellow Jew who was himself scheduled to die a few days later. He took pity on Irene and hid her. He later put her on a train out of Auschwitz. As he was about to leave her on the train, Irene asked him who he was. He told her that his name did not matter. He would soon be dead. But he begged her to live her life for him and the others. “If you make it to safety,” he said, “live a little for me.”
Irene later made it to safety and soon caught the attention of a wealthy American Jew who was bringing surviving concentration camp children to the U.S. At the age of 16, she settled into a farm in New Jersey and began her new life. Her mother, father and five siblings did not survive. She is the only Zisblatt left. Irene still has her mother’s diamonds – symbols of the determination her mother had given her. “Use these to survive,” her mother told her. Irene never sold them – instead using their power of hope to sustain her. They are her symbols of hope.
Irene Zisblatt’s story is just one of thousands. But it is representative of the holocaust stain on human nature. The assembly line of death perpetrated on the Jews by Nazi Germany is the single greatest act of cruelty and mass murder in human history. The indifference of average Germans to what was going on around them, the look the other way attitude even of Americans and British who knew of the atrocities while they were happening, is astonishing. But such cruelty and world-wide indifference to their plight did not extinguish Jewish hope. In a poetic book on the Holocaust and how God did not abandon Jews, Marcus Zusak writes in his novel The Book Thief, “When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.” God did not abandon the Jews during the Holocaust and in that love, they were saved.
Barely twenty-five years later, at the conclusion of the so-called six day 1967 war between Israel and a host of Arab countries, young Israeli soldiers – children of Holocaust survivors – openly wept with joy as they marched triumphantly to the Western Wall, or “wailing wall”, of the Jewish second Temple. Not since 78 CE – nearly two-thousand years earlier – had Jews controlled their holiest spot on earth, the place believed to be where Yahweh dwells, the repository for the Arc of the Covenant, the closest point any Jew can come to his or her God. The sublime power of that moment for Jews, after centuries of struggle and oppression, cannot begin to be imagined.
From the depths of utter despair and the ashes of millions came historic jubilation. Israel had not only been born in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it had thrived and beaten back multiple armies of much greater numbers. The dreams of countless Jews since the time of ancient Rome were realized. Jewish hope was once again shown to be more than idle religious myth. Hope is the distinctive identity for any Jew – hope in a better life, hope in the promise of God, hope in a world that will one day live in peace, hope that all lands – not just Israel – will overflow with milk and honey for all people.
Indeed, the realization of the nation of Israel in 1948 and its return to Jerusalem in 1967 seemed to confirm Biblical prophecy which Jews have read countless times over the centuries of their oppression – from Egyptian slavery to Babylonian conquest and destruction of their nation to Roman rule and obliteration of Israel and their Temple, to the scattering of their people all over the globe, to Medieval pogrom campaigns to intimidate and kill Jews as the Jesus killers, to the ultimate horror of the Holocaust………the prophet Jeremiah’s words were recited millions of times:
“Fear not thou, O Israel, My servant, neither be dismayed; For, lo I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of captivity and tears. Israel shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make her afraid.”
Such Biblical words and others like them have been a comfort to Jews for they express the hope of their faith. From the earliest words in the Jewish Pentateuch – the first five books of a Christian Bible – God promises Abraham and all Jews that they are Her chosen people and She will bless them and their descendants forever. The value of that assurance is immense. In it, Jews have been able to see their distress and pain in the context that all will eventually be well – God’s Messiah or Chosen One will save Israel and all creation from their tears, heartaches and fears. A glorious realm of peace, goodwill and perfect existence will reign on earth again – when the Messiah comes. And so Jews the world over wait and rest in the comfort, not of naive faith, but in the tangible belief that by never giving up on God, She or He will never give up on them. Their hope is real. Their hope is powerful. It gives them almost unbelievable strength to endure any hardship, any hatred, any setback and to NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up.
In our current series on finding spiritual truths from world religions, we cannot ignore the power of Jewish hope. Such hope for Jews is unique to their identity – much like contentment is to the Buddhist or daily devotion is to the Muslim. But hope is a universal ideal that all humans share. What is it? How can we use it, like the Jewish people, to help us endure and ultimately thrive?
Oscar Wilde, the famous nineteenth century gay writer and poet, once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” For a man who was put on trial for loving another man and then imprisoned for it, he refused to allow his spirit to dwell in the gutter. There is a latin proverb which says, “Dum spiro, spero.” “While I breathe, I hope.” That is the essence of what it means to hope. It must never die. It must never be extinguished even as the proverb says – up until our last breath. With each breath, we cherish the hope of life, the hope we invest in our families and friends and the hope we have worked for to build a better earth. Such hope is our resurrection and our assurance of life ever after. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said near the end of his life, “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to BE, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”
Hope for Jews and, indeed, for any survivor or person who overcomes a struggle, incorporates a mindset that remains determined and positive. It is a well-known truth that people who survive near death experiences, when others around them give up and perish, are those who looked death in the eye and made a conscious decision to fight. Hope, as many experts assert, is not mindless optimism or fantasy. It is grounded in reality and observes the possible while choosing not to give up. It accepts the fact that nothing in life is a guarantee but such a fact cannot allow one to be a pessimist. Using hope to one’s advantage, a person must refuse to be defeated by setbacks but rather to learn and be encouraged by them. Hope is not mindless but is rather strategic and rational – one uses the mind to analyze a situation and then plan the best way forward. A person incorporates his or her values into hope – am I yearning only for self-gratification or does my hope aspire to something greater than myself – to be alive and thus empowered to do more good for others? A person with realistic hopes heeds the advice from other people and does not allow pride to stand in the way of listening and accepting appropriate wisdom. Such assistance gives hope added substance and power. As much as good hope is not rooted in pride and gladly accepts help, one must also concentrate on helping oneself. This involves actual work to realize what one desires. It also involves continual efforts to eliminate barriers to growth and learning. What can I do to actively create the hope I have? How does my negative thinking hold me back from positive hope and positive action? How can I change my negative thoughts and, instead, look ahead with realistic dreams? Finally, hopeful persons are creative and adventurous. They see possibilities around every corner: they are curious and excited about new opportunities in life.
I have said before that one of the most satisfying perks of my work is the privilege to get to know many people in deeply personal ways. The stories I hear inspire me and give me hope in the goodness and beauty of all humanity. From a mother who is back at college and cares for challenged children – determined to create a good life for them, to one who fights great health challenges with grace and peace, to those who are emerging from the closet into a brave new world of gay identity, to one who is resolute about finding a new and exciting job, to activists who fight for the rights of prisoners, animals, students, addicts, gays and lesbians, the homeless and poor, to parents who tirelessly yearn and work for the health and well-being of children, partner and family – such people are hope personified. Indeed, a message about hope could simply be a recital of yours and other’s life stories.
Too often I lose sight of the hope I have within me – to make a difference, to live with joy, to leave this world at peace. I can despair and I can mourn petty challenges. But the few dark days of my very blessed life – when I was fired for coming out as a gay man, when I lost too many good friends, when I have parted ways with those I still deeply love, the pilot light of hope harbored in my soul was somehow never extinguished. In time, such hope burned bright again and I was restored, I survived. In working through a few minor struggles even today, I must hold onto that hope. Life is too precious. Life is filled with too many good and caring people. It offers new adventures every day. Life challenges us to do the work of building better selves and, a better world. I must remind myself that as long as such truths are self-evident, there is hope. In the midst of any darkness, we must yearn for hope’s bright flame and then we must help light it. No matter the difficulty, no matter the pain, no matter the sorrow, the loneliness, the loss, or the nearness of death – may we never give up, never give up, Never……Ever……Give Up!
I wish all of you much peace and even more joy.