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The Quixote Principle: A Sermon for Hanukkah

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

But Don Quixote, the man, is far from mad. Yes, he is a figment of his creator’s feverish imagination, but his sense of fairness, equality and justice are far from wrong. Aldonza, the woman who, in his fantasy, transforms into the fair Lady Dulcinea, is taken, abused, and demeaned by men who are attracted to her beauty and gender. Is rescuing her from her tormentors such a mad thing to do?

And perhaps he did see giants that he felt needed to be felled. Does that make him mad? I’m not even speaking of modern-day, giant corporations that prey on human frailties—for example, the food and beverage industries that tell us that sugar is yummy, that Coke is “the real thing,” and that you, too, can turn from a common geek into a sexy hunk if you just quaff the right beer. And I am not referring to supersized ego politicians who would have you believe that, if only you voted for them—no matter how bad or even criminal their past and present behavior might be—the world would be a better place. But aside from them, there are other, real, giants in the world—disease, ignorance, prejudice and terrorism to name a few. Does it make a person mad to fight these giants and defeat them once and for all?

Maybe Don Quixote was mad. Maybe all the evil he saw around him did affect his brain. No matter how many times he fell, he rose and rose again—“To right the unrightable wrong,” until he could rise no more. Maybe that is a kind of madness.

Cynics would have us believe that reality cannot be changed. Things have always been bad. There is, and always was, immeasurable cruelty in the world. And there has never been, anywhere, a time of peace longer than a decade or two, and that only due to one side having superior military strength.

You might as well be tilting at windmills if you think otherwise.

In Greek mythology, heroes fall because it is their preordained, unavoidable, fate to fall. Trying to change anything is useless. One of the most famous myths tells that, at his birth, Oedipus was abandoned to die on a barren cliff. Why? Because a soothsayer foretold that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. I know—gross. But that’s exactly what happened, at least according to the myth. The message of Greek mythology is that defying fate and the will of the gods can only lead to misery and pain. We might as well give in right from the start.

But in another land, at just about the same time, other stories were told. These taught that there can be change; that justice should be—must be—pursued; and that all people deserve the benefit of dignity, equality and respect. The stories that we the Jews told were about freeing slaves and feeding the hungry. The Bible—the written record of that vision—is all about people who do argue with powerful men—the Pharaohs and emperors of the world; it’s about simple men and women who defy fate, who confront evil, who demand justice even from God, the almighty Creator of the Universe.

That the two cultures were headed toward a violent clash is therefore no surprise. The clash took place in the second century BCE, in the form of the Maccabees’ Rebellion. More than it was about control of Israel—then called Judea—this revolt was actually about two opposing world views: On one side, the Greek system, which demanded unquestioning submission to gods and kings. On the other, the Jewish view, which upheld that freedom is an inalienable human right. More than the Maccabees fought for a piece of land, they took up arms to fight for religious freedom, for freedom of thought, for the freedom to question, to doubt, and to make real once-impossible dreams.

The Maccabees accomplished their mission. They defeated the mightiest army of the day. Under Judah the Maccabee, freedom was restored; and the Temple in Jerusalem—the temple that the Greeks had defiled by placing a golden statue of Zeus in it—was rededicated. The Maccabees then instituted an annual celebration to commemorate the amazing victory of the few against the many, and they called it Hanukkah—the Hebrew word for “dedication.”

Two hundred years later, it was the Romans’ turn. The Romans went even farther than the Greeks: They destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple that stood in its heart. Forbidding the Jews to ever rebuild, they tried to make us forget our national roots and our history.

But like Don Quixote, we rose, and we rose again. For two thousand years, nation after nation tried to destroy us, but without success. And a mere three years after the Holocaust, which saw one half of the world’s Jews annihilated, we rose yet again, and we established a new state in the land of Judea, the State of Israel. And even though the Temple has not been rebuilt—there is a Moslem mosque standing on its ruins today—the city of Jerusalem is once again Israel’s capital, the seat of its government and the center of Israel’s spiritual, political and cultural life.

I can see the appeal that Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote, had for my father. From a letter that he received at the end of the Holocaust, my father learned about the tragic loss of his entire family. Though he never quite recovered, like Don Quixote he never abandoned hope. Dedicating his life to rebuild that which the Nazis destroyed, he started a family, built his own home, and became an educator for hundreds if not thousands of pupils—me among them—teaching Jewish history and literature, Hebrew and The Bible. Throughout his life, my father kept before his eyes the vision of the frail old man of La Mancha, a man who truly believed that, “To fight for the right/Without question or pause/To be willing to march into Hell/For a heavenly cause” was a mission well worth dedicating your life to.

So tonight, on the very day that my father would have turned 101, I want to say, Happy birthday, Abba; I hope you know that I have not given up the quest, that I have dedicated my life to the same ideals you held high: freedom, justice and the undying love for our people; that Hanukkah for me is more than about a miracle that happened two thousand years ago. Like you, tonight I celebrate a long string of miracles, the wondrous miracle of our People’s survival against all odds, despite all our oppressors.

And truly, I believe that the world is better for this.

May the lights of Hanukkah continue to shine brightly throughout the long, dark nights of this season; may they inspire us never to lose hope, to continue to dream, to carry on our noble quest for what is right, fair and just, and, hopefully, in our own day or in the days of our children, “To reach the unreachable star.”

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November 29: A Day to Remember

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

They called themselves Nasza Groupa—“Our Group”—a simple name that belies the complexity and greatness of who they were and what they did.

Three other members of this group were Emil Brigg, Danuta Firstenberg and Olek Gutman. They were higher up in the group, and their mission was to contact members of the Haganah—the organization that later became the Israel Defense Force. By then, the Haganah had set up a cell in Budapest, and from that secret location its members were coordinating rescue and resistance operations throughout Eastern Europe.

Along the way, however, the three comrades, Emil, Danuta and Olek, were given another assignment, with fateful consequences.

There was a man by the name of Victor Janikowski, a Jew who, along with another Jewish kapo—or Nazi collaborator—tricked Jewish refugees into giving him as much as $2000 a person (!) to lead them to safety. Janikowski, however, pocketed the money and secretly delivered the refugees to the German police. Soon his actions became known to members of the Groupa. Emil, Olek and Danuta (with assumed Aryan names and forged papers), were assigned to find and kill Janikowski.

It was a dangerous mission, and though they ultimately succeeded, the three were soon discovered and arrested by the Gestapo. They were brutally tortured for twenty-one days, but did not break and did not give away what they knew about the Haganah cell in Budapest and about their other contacts. Had they betrayed their friends in the Groupa, there is no doubt that only a very few would have survived. Only three weeks later, when they were sure that everyone else had managed to escape, did the three finally give up the information sought by the Nazis.

“You will all die tomorrow,” a Nazi officer informed them. They were even shown chalk marks drawn along a brick wall, where they would be made to stand and be shot the next morning, the morning of November 29, 1944.

But that was not to happen. Around midnight, these Jewish heroes of the Nasza Groupa heard the rumble of tanks driving past the prison. A few hours later, more tanks, going in the other direction. Then a complete silence, broken sporadically by scattered machine gun fire. As morning broke, still more tanks arrived. Looking through a window set high up in the cell, Emil saw that these were Russian tanks. They were saved. It was November 29, and it also happened to be Danuta’s birthday.

A day designated for sorrow had turned instead into a day of liberation and celebration.

But the story of this date does not end here.

Exactly three years later, a vote was held in the United Nations. On 29 November 1947 (70 years ago almost to the day), the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states: A Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish government accepted the decision; the Arabs rejected it, but the State of Israel was now on legal footing, and half a year later David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, would declare its independence, reestablishing for the first time in 2000 years a Jewish homeland, in its historical birthplace, for the dispersed and dispossessed Jewish People.

Perhaps—as some believe—certain days were designated by some higher power to be special days. If so, then November 29 must be one of them.

On the political stage, the Partition vote is still source of debate and contention, perhaps even more so now than it was then. But the date is also marked annually by survivors of the Nasza Groupa and their descendants, who for several decades now have been gathering every year on or around November 29th to celebrate and retell the miracle of their survival.

There is an epilogue to this story: After making his way to Israel, Emil Brigg joined the Israel Defense Force and, following the 1948 War of Independence, was awarded the army’s highest award, Gibbor Yisrael, “A Hero of Israel.” He passed away in 2002. May his memory be a blessing.

For two years, Olek Gutman, who changed his name to Alex Gatmon, conducted revenge operations against SS officers. Later, after serving in the Israeli Air Force, he joined Israel’s fabled secret service, the Mossad, and helped capture Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Nazi Holocaust. He also was instrumental in the clandestine rescue of 35,000 Jewish refugees from Morocco, bringing them to safe harbor in Israel. He died in 1981. May his memory be a blessing.

Dina Gilboa—the Hebrew name Danuta Firstenberg adopted in Israel—lived a long life and established a thriving family. She died last year. At this year’s Nasza Groupa reunion and commemoration, held just earlier today in Tel Aviv, Israel, Dina’s daughter, Shuvit, spoke about her mother. May her memory be a blessing.

L’havdil—to make a thousand separations— with God’s help we will celebrating my mother’s 95th birthday this coming January 1. Last month, her eldest great-granddaughter, Opal, now 17 years old, went on a school-sponsored trip to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The airport she landed in was—of all places—Katowice, my mother’s hometown. Way to close a circle!!! She—fourth generation survivor—also spoke at the commemoration today, relating her experiences and reactions to what she saw, heard and learned.

And so it was that a day, the 29th of November, had turned from sorrow to celebration, from devastation to renewal. It could have ended otherwise, but instead it became the beginning of a new life—not only for me, but also for the State of Israel and for the entire Jewish People.

On Purim we hail Esther as the great hero who saved our people from imminent destruction. The truth, however, is that we are here today because of so many heroes, so many who gave their lives so that we could be here; so many men, women and children who endured untold torture and suffering to ensure the survival of our people. May their lives and deeds become a testament to human endurance in the face of devastation, and may we be worthy and deserving to carry forward the great responsibility they passed on to us: the continuity of the Jewish People and its epic legacy.

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Israel: A Force of Progress and Change

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

In its first few years, Israel was famous for its agriculture. It exported Jaffa oranges, Carmel wines, and flowers. Slowly, manufactured goods replaced these; and then, as in a storm, hi-tech took over. There are few orange groves left, all have given way to high-rise apartment and office buildings.

Israel’s national character changed just as rapidly. In its early years, Jews from Russia founded kibbutzim and communal villages and established Israel’s social and political system. After the Holocaust, refugees poured in from all over Europe. In the 1950’s, almost a million Jews, expelled from hostile Arab countries, made Israel their new home. In the 1970’s, a million and a half Russian Jews left the land where the term “pogrom” originated, leaving behind a system that still refused them the right to live as Jews. In the 1980’s and 90’s, close to 30,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown into Israel in stealth, so as not to upset a secret agreement with the government of Ethiopia.

Kibbutz Galuyot—the ingathering of the exiles—was not an easy process. Each group brought its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Absorbing so many people in such a short time was an almost impossible task—yet Israel persisted and found ways to adapt, to change, to absorb, and to integrate. In those years, Israel’s highest goal was to give shelter to the homeless, to provide safety and security to those who were persecuted, and to ensure that the Jewish People would never again be helpless victims.

Survival in the new land brought new demands and more changes. Never permitted to own land, Jews had to learn how to till the stubborn ground and make it fertile again. Then they had to learn to be soldiers and do the unthinkable—stand up and fight to defend themselves, their families and their homes. With each war that Israel fought, it had to change tactics. From an invasion of seven Arab armies in 1948, to cordon and blockade in 1967; to a surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973; to an unending barrage of missiles and rockets; to terror and kidnappings; to murder and assassination, Israel has stood firm and—not without the help of our brothers and sisters in the United States—was able to fend off the attacks. When our enemies changed their strategy and turned to legal and diplomatic warfare in international courts, in economic unions and even on college campuses, Israel responded in kind.

Through all its wars, Israel developed not only one of the strongest and most moral army in the world—the Israel Defense Force—but possibly also the best espionage and secret service organization of modern times—the legendary Mossad.

But Israel hasn’t had to adapt only to external stimuli. Internal issues continue to demand its attention. Bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel was nothing compared to bringing them up to speed with the 21st century. This was a population whose family, educational and social structures back home were completely different from what they encountered in modern Israel.

Israel has had to contend with the emotional and psychological effect of almost daily loss of life on the battlefield as well as in horrific terror attacks. Yet rather than weakening our resolve, the tragedies only resulted in Israel becoming one large family and a tighter, united community. Whenever tragedy struck, everyone, everywhere, mourned. When Sgt. Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Southern California who volunteered to serve with the IDF, was killed during the Gaza War in 2014, 30,000 Israelis came to his funeral. When Sean Carmel from Texas, age 21, fell, 20,000 came to show their love, thanks and respect. When Staff Sgt. Major Hadas Malka, a border police officer, was stabbed and killed in a Jerusalem terror attack, hundreds of young women from all over the country volunteered to serve in the Border Police Unit. The change Jews had undergone, from weak, defenseless victims, to strong, resolute and determined fighters, is one of the greatest transformations of all time.

Today, however, Israel faces even greater challenges.

Israelis are evenly divided today over Israel’s control of the West Bank. Following the 1967 Six Day War, hundreds of thousands of Israelis streamed into land that had previously been under Jordanian control. With the establishment of new cities and settlements, however, new problems arose: What to do with the vast, impoverished Palestinian population that had been kept in miserable conditions for two decades in UN-financed refugee camps. What had previously been Jordan’s problem became Israel’s problem. For a time, coexistence seemed possible, but more and more it seems that Israel is going to have to find a way to disengage from some of these lands, probably sooner than later.

Israel’s religious identity is also a vortex of change and contention. Israel was established as a Jewish state, but the meaning of that term has never been clear. Even as David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence, he made the decision to let Orthodox religious parties join the government. Since that time, the religious parties have enjoyed disproportionate power and influence. Despite the fact that 2/3 of Israel’s Jewish population considers itself secular, their rights to marry, divorce, convert and even worship have been controlled and curtailed by the ultra-Orthodox. Whether the struggle to change this system will be successful or not is still to be determined.

Other social changes modern Israel contends with include gay rights. Though in many aspects Israel is one of the most progressive and gay-friendly countries in the world, there are some glaring exceptions. Gay marriage is not recognized in Israel, and child adoption by same-sex couples is prohibited by law. Yet here, change is in the air. This past summer, the government presented its opinion that single-sex parents “load additional baggage on an adopted child, already burdened by the presumed stigma of adoption.” This statement provoked outrage in the LGBTQ community in Israel and in the US, and within days, the government backed down from this position. Even though this law has not yet been changed, it now seems to be moving in that direction.

Overarching all of these changes, Israel today is redefining the larger meaning and purpose of its existence. Whereas once Israel saw as its primary objective providing shelter, safety and security for all Jews, it has now set a new goal for itself. Our ancient prophets spoke of Israel as being a light unto the nations. With this ideal in mind, Israel today is positioning itself as a benefactor of humanity. It does not save its medical or technological advances for itself, but rather uses them to help impoverished nations around the world. From empowering women to providing solar energy technology; from teaching new water- and soil-conserving farming methods to tackling poverty and disease, Israel focuses its efforts on enabling governments, communities and individuals to improve their own lives. Whenever and wherever disaster strikes—a hurricane, earthquake or epidemic—Israel is among the first to send medical and technical teams to help. Today, Israel is at the forefront of improvement and progress, willing to share lessons it has learned the hard way with whoever is willing to sit and learn.

Change is inevitable. In the last few years, public opinion of Israel worldwide has changed dramatically. The Jewish community in the United States is no longer as supportive as in previous years. Today we see American Jews who refuse to support Israel financially or politically. I was fortunate enough this past summer to visit an Air Force base somewhere in Israel. As I watched an F-16 taxi, take off and roar overhead, I learned that just the maintenance cost of this newest and most powerful jet in Israel’s arsenal is $40,000 an hour—let alone the human factor or the cost involved in installing the most up-to-date hi-tech enhancements that benefit not only Israel, but also the United States.

It’s OK to choose which specific organization in Israel one prefers to help, from ecological and environmental, to religious, medical, cultural or educational institutions. But what we American Jews must never lose sight of is that there is a high price to pay for our hard-won right to live as free and proud Jews.

Today, a new generation is growing up: a generation that has not known pogroms or discrimination; a generation which never saw Israel as a dream, and does not recognize the need for Israel as a safe haven. Many of today’s young, confident and poised Jews do not feel that they need Israel’s protection. Some of them are turned off by what they see happening in Israel and the West Bank and do not take the time to understand the history behind events. It is essential that we teach them the meaning and purpose of Israel. They must learn its history, both ancient and modern.

The Jewish People have always striven to move culture and civilization forward. Today, we must all recognize and cherish the modern State of Israel not only for what it has been, but also for what it still is. Today, in a world where everyone wants change but is afraid of it, in a world where no one wants to be a leader and move towards change, Israel stands alone, tall and unafraid, still and as ever a powerful force for progress and development.

An Israel that is safe and secure within its borders, living peacefully alongside its neighbors, is still a far-off dream. But, as the visionary prophet of the modern State of Israel, Theodore Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, said over a century ago, “If you will it, it is no dream.” It will take our collective will, and the support of each and every one of us. Still, I have no doubt that if we put our backs to it, this wonderful vision can and will become astonishing reality. May this time come soon and in our own day.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. G’mar chatimah tova—may we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year of health, love joy and peace. Amen.