Friday, October 18, 2013

Parshat Vayera: A View from Without and Within

This Parsha is very applicable to Jews in Poland. It contains within it destruction, ultimate sacrifice, loneliness of restarting, but also kindness, hospitality and even revelation. Destruction of a population comes with no divine warning (as opposed to the story of Noach and Jonah). Destruction comes not without a philosophical fight as Abraham uses very strong words to defend mankind (something Noah and Jonah did not do!) חלילה לך מעשות דבר כזה—it is ‘sacrilegious’ of You to do something like this…God here does not condemn Abraham for his choice of words but enters into dialogue.

Abraham as an outsider fighting for humanity despite its flaws brings with it strength and weakness. On the one hand he has no selfish interest; he is not looking out for his nephew, his family, or anyone which will help him. He simply acts based on justice! השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט will the judge of all lands not mete judgment? He, from afar, can call out God for destroying righteous with evil להמית צדיק עם רשע to kill righteous with evil. In this way Abraham conducts a negotiation with God on behalf of the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Here is where the ‘outsider’ perspective limits Abraham’s ability to finish the job. He stops at ten righteous men. Less than that it is hard for Abraham to justify that judgment is being perverted. Yet, one who lives in the city, one who struggles and experiences the complexity of life in a city where evil pervades, he would fight until the last one! The fact that the angels come to Lot to remove him from the city teaches us that even one ‘righteous’ soul is worthy of salvation. An ‘insider’ fights for his home, his family, his history, his community without giving up! He knows exactly what is transpiring and he is aware of the complexity of a situation.

This week I visited the Schindler factory Museum. For anyone who saw the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ they might expect the museum to be about one man and his heroic story of saving over 1000 Jews from the inferno of the holocaust. Actually the Schindler part is perhaps 20% of the exhibition which is more about the history of Krakow prewar and during the occupation of the Nazis up until the invasion of the Red Army. Jews and Poles were subjugated, abused and killed.
Clearly the singling out of Jews for ghetto and eventually for murder makes our story uniquely horrifying and singular; yet for Krakow it is part of a bigger story of the ugliness of war, the oppression of a ruthless enemy, and the forcible constriction of rights, terrorizing of innocent citizens, turning them very inwards and insulated. At the end of the exhibit there is a room which defines the polarity and complexity of the Polish experience in Krakow. There were two books side by side with names of Non Jewish Poles living in Krakow during the war. One book was filled with 3000 names of Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save their own humanity, to save their neighbors and friends. Alongside that book is another one with the title ‘hatred’. It tells of a list of 4000 names of collaborating Poles who helped plunder Jews, abuse them even kill them.

I looked at these two lists and shook my head. For most of the Jews the narrative is straightforward—terror, dehumanization, concentration in ghettos, liquidation. For Poles it is more complex filled with some good, some evil, much chaos, fright, and the lesson learned of ‘keep your head down and perhaps you will be okay’.

Just as Schindler himself was a controversial figure and a reluctant savior, Poles themselves were embroiled in a complex web of selfishness, fear, and some with a desire to do the right thing. I emerged recognizing that my views as an ‘outsider’ from the US or Israel were quite different from how it appears to me here in Krakow. Krakow was an example of anywhere in Poland undergoing a terrible destruction and dealing with it in a complex and muddled way. And just as the war concluded another regime took over preventing these individuals from considering what just transpired.

Abraham and Lot both saw the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. One from the outside who fought for the salvation of a city; one from the inside who lived through the complexity of this city and somehow managed to just survive though not un-singed, both are presented in our parsha dealing with imminent destruction of a world and being forced to reckon with the consequences of that horrible event.