Acharei Mot – “After Death, Congregants & Rabbis”
The parshah’s name this week couldn’t be more apt: after death. It refers to the deaths of Aaron’s sons the priest Nadav and Avihu, and it refers in our time to Yom HaShoah which was this week, but also to the murder of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, HY’D, who died last Shabbat at the end of Passover when her synagogue, the Chabad House of Poway, CA was attacked by shooter. She died saving the life of her rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. That shook me.
I’m moved to share a story with you that has shaped my thinking on this matter. When I was a young and new rabbi, I had a colleague who sat on the Rabbinical Assembly Bet Din in Los Angeles named Rabbi Henry Krauss. As I taught Introduction to Judaism, I took many candidates for conversion before the Bet Din and got to know Rabbi Krauss because of it. He was in his nineties, very sharp, and he himself had been a young, single rabbi in his late twenties just like I was then, in Hungary in the 1940s. I got a kick of hearing about the large parsonage house the community insisted he live in, including a housekeeper, and how negotiations for his contract sounded just like the things we had to deal with, too.
Rabbi Krauss also told of what happened to his congregation when the Nazis took control of Hungary late in World War II. Hungary had been an ally to Nazi Germany but had treated its Jews differently than had been the case elsewhere in Europe. When the Germans took over the country as it sought to exit the war independent of the other Axis Powers, all the Jews were quickly rounded up to be sent to their deaths.
The congregation had the ability to save their beloved rabbi and help him escape, but Rabbi Krauss decided he would stay with them. Sure enough, he was loaded onto a truck to be taken away. As it happened, his parents, who were still living, had yet to be taken and he knew they were likely to make their escape. Thinking quickly, he wrote on a postcard he had on him to their address with a brief note, “went with my congregation” – pinned a few pengo bills to it and tossed it over the truck to a passing Hungarian girl hoping she’d deliver it. Then the went to Auschwitz.
He showed me the postcard, which had been duly delivered to his parents who had been able to flee and who gave it back to him when he returned after the war. You could even see the two holes on it where the pin had been. That to me, was what a rabbi’s dedication to his congregation should look like.
But Lori Gilbert-Kaye’s story doesn’t contradict this lesson, it adds a beautiful new realization to it. That the rabbi need not be only the protecting parent. Perhaps even that’s not the best thing, and that it spoke to me as much as it did because of my age at the time, though the story still moves me. Again, God forbid it ever happen, but we, rabbis and congregants, are all in this together – equally committed to each other and to Jewish tradition and its continuing legacy; equally full of a desire to be brave and loving and courageous and do the right thing.
Let it not be a tragedy then that proves it for us. Let us instead find ways of spreading and strengthening Judaism in our community working hand in hand as the way in which we honor these stories, these deaths, and the many brave souls among our people.