What if… (the Torah portion of Shoftim)

There are many questions for which I have quick answers (‘Ima, did you see my shoes?’) and some which I have to look up (‘how does ra, re’a, ro’e and ra’ayon all connect’?). But recently I was confronted with one of those “quick questions” that are quick to ask and stay with you as you ponder and sort through them.
I was asked, what if there was no holocaust.
Yes, I know. My initial reaction was, this is crazy and who cares. First, what ifs are useless; it is what it is. Second, this one is almost sacrilegious; how dare you? There was a holocaust! Third… I don’t know what third but I am sure there is one. Take your question and go away.
But the question was asked and it gnawed in me. So I thought, it doesn’t cost much to give it a minute; ok, five minutes. I spend much more time on variety of nonsense so I’ll take this time and engage in a little mental exercise. No big deal.
So what if there was no holocaust…
The automatic answer is, there would have been no State of Israel, but considering the Zionist movement of the late 1800 and early 1900 was already in full swing, I believe that Zionism would have continued to grow and work towards accomplishing its goals, although probably at a different pace, support and maybe attitude. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
What else?
In 1900 it was estimated that by the year 2000 the global Jewish population will be around 40 million. 40 million! By the 1930’s, the Jews numbered about 18 million. Today we are around 13 million and no one is sure who is counting who.
True, the estimators of the 1900 could not have guessed the holocaust, but they also didn’t guess what havoc assimilation would wreak in us. I hate to say this, but chances are we lost more Jews to the fact that the “goyim are nice” than to the fact that sometimes they are evil.
But my ‘what if’ went beyond the theoretical number game.
The real realization I owe to a beautiful Shabbat spent recently at Calgary. As we walked past the Jewish community’s (not too shabby) complex which includes a JCC, shul, school, mikveh and more, I noticed there is also a holocaust memorial. I had to stop for a moment. Because on one hand, I’m used to us erecting holocaust memorials everywhere we go; after all, look what they did to us; never again and all. I get it.
Then again. Calgary. I’m sure that for the people who live there it’s the center of the universe (just like Oakland, Sacramento or the Sierra Foothills have been for me), but honestly, from here, it seems really far from everywhere (just like I’m sure Oakland, Sacramento and the Sierra Foothills seem to others…). It’s also strikingly beautiful. And pretty peaceful. Yes, there have been incidences and no, it’s not perfect, but still. At the entrance to the JCC, at a very visible city intersection, tall and proud there are 2 flags waving side by side: that of Canada & Israel. The community seems affluent, stable, secure, integrated and yet exhibiting a strong, proud Jewish identity. It very much reminded me of our communities in Nor-Cal and maybe that’s why it hit me so, how we are schlepping the holocaust with us everywhere we go. We’re so used to it that we don’t even notice anymore how it haunts us, how it hunches our backs, what a long shadow it casts over our heads.
The Talmud makes a connection between the word “sin’a”, hatred, and Sinai, as in Mt. Sinai. Accordingly, the fact that Jews are ridiculed, mocked, mistreated, hated and thus fought against and even exterminated is directly related to the moment we accepted the Torah, the monotheistic belief that there is one G-d, and a value-based way of life. Doing so, we challenge others who believe differently, and those “others” will want to get rid of us, the carriers of these messages.
Having “drunk the Kool-Aid” myself, I understand and even accept this explanation. Partially. At best. Because the great rabbis of old whom I greatly admire, were also humans, subject to years, decades and already then centuries of hatred, and that might have had something to do with the fact that they connected two sound alike words which have different spellings! (Sinai is written with a samech and yod and sin’a with a sin and alef). And, since we probably all have been in love at some point and know what a profoundly euphoric affect that has on us, we can’t deny nor ignore what constant hatred does to anyone. Nationally, the peak of this unfathomable hatred has been expressed in the holocaust.
So what if there was no holocaust…
What if we were not exposed to everything that comes with the holocaust, the mastermind commitment to annihilate each and every one of us?
It’s hard to imagine (which in itself is fascinating-) and granted, when you deal with what ifs, you cut and paste that which you desire, but knowing I’m among friends, please bear with me as I’m going to try and share my risky answer to this what if:
Maybe, just maybe, assuming Zionism continued to grow and strengthen but there was no holocaust, we would have been able to focus on building our renewed homeland, rather than escaping from death. Doing so, we would be more pro-active than reactionary, and doing so, maybe we would have been able to listen better to voices the likes of Achad Ha’am and others who expressed their concerns regarding our attitude towards the people who also (yes, also) lived in the land.
Achad Ha’am was sent to Israel in 1891 by the board of “Chovevei Tzion” in order to write a report on the settlement, supported by the organization. He published a harsh criticism directed at the attitude of the first aliya farmers towards the Arabic population: “They (the olim) were slaves in the their own diaspora and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom, which is the usual case of a slave who becomes a master (in Hebrew known as “eved ki yimloch”), thus dealing with the Arab in animosity and cruelty, achieving what they want, not always in justice”.
Let me pause and make this clear: I don’t think all Arabs are all good or all right. I don’t romanticize about the lovely life in tents in the blowing sands of the desert, and I hope that anyone who has heard even a shred of the recent news from the greater Middle East, is horrified to see to what grand new lows humans can sink. And yet, from my immediate narrow perspective (and my desire to hold conflicting thoughts simultaneously), all this doesn’t matter, because as far as Jewish history goes, today it’s the Arabs; yesterday it was the Romans; tomorrow, the Martians, who know. Not that “they don’t matter” because each human is made in G-d’s image and how we deal with others matters greatly, but because my focus, just right now, is on us, and the only thing I want to romanticize about is us living closer to who we are, who we are called to be.
We often say, ‘it takes two to tango’; and we believe in it, no exceptions. That is, when it has to do with two others who are fighting. Then, “it takes two to tango”. But when we are deeply involved, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a personal matter or a national one, it’s clearly the “them” who are all to blame for whatever it is. At least, that is how it is when I’m involved. That is when the exception suddenly applies. Then, it doesn’t take two. It only takes one, and that one is “clearly” and “objectively”, the other one, and he / she/ it/ they – is at fault. Is that possible? Where are we in this dance??
This is my what if then. The holocaust, like a mega personal tragedy, robbed us of our ability – and our right- to focus on our own future in a non-reactionary manner, and the price is very high. Allowing this to take place means the holocaust did not end in 1945 but is going on and on. And this has to stop. For us and for all. It’s hard, don’t get me wrong, it’s very hard but it’s time to learn new steps; to think much more about what we want to do when we grow up.
The Torah portion of this week, Shoftim, Judges, instructs us to put judges and officers in our gates. The text addresses us in the second person, singular, and the sages asked, if this is about building a society, why not address us all in the plural? The AriZ”l explains that each one of us needs to treat him/herself like we are the city; we are the society. We need a personal judge that is not too harsh and not too merciful. We need watch-persons at our gates so we don’t let everything in, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. We need good and caring officers to patrol our internal streets and make sure there is real peace. And we also need dedicated garbage clean up service to remove the stuff that doesn’t help us grow anymore. This is then our prep for the new month of Elul, the High Holy Days and thus, the upcoming New Year. Shabbat Shalom.


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3 Responses to What if… (the Torah portion of Shoftim)

  1. neskama says:

    Thank you. What a gift you are shabbat shalom

  2. mark says:

    I love Mical and her columns, but must post my concern to the very objectionable phrase “Having drunk the Kool-Aid myself”, a common reference to the concept of “having become a believer”. Do you recall where the phrase comes from? It stems from the 1978 murder/suicide of 1000 young San Francisco kids who drank poisoned kool aid at the urging of Reverend Jim Jones of The People’s Temple — — a morally repugnant reference which should not be adopted into mindless common parlance. I wouldn’t “drink the kool aid” for anyone, and hope nobody would.

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