I was honored to offer the invocation for the Sonoma County Yom Hashoah Commemoration on April 19:
Good afternoon. Shalom aleykhem.
Good afternoon. Shalom aleykhem.
We meet here today, as we do every year, to remember, to reflect. To honor those we’ve lost and those we are blessed to have among us. To crack open our hearts to all who were subjected to the ordeal of the Shoah and all who have lived in its wake, trying to repair the irreparable.
This year we have been asked to give special attention to the quality of gevurah, the strength, the heroism, of our people and others who shared their fate. We will honor resistance, whether large or small, whether organized or impulsive. We will honor the non-Jews who could, perhaps, have tiptoed through, but instead risked their lives to help. All of these acts: gevurah.
But in Judaim the concept of gevurah is even broader than those descriptions. We use the word to mean strength, but it is not always an obvious kind of strength. In our mystical tradition, certain qualities are associated with particular biblical figures. And you might expect gevurah to be represented by Moses or Joshua or Deborah or even Judah Maccabee. But no. The poster child for gevurah is Isaac. Isaac, whose big moment in Torah is not the tumbling of walls or the parting of waters. It is being bound to a rock while someone more powerful raises a hand to kill him.
This story from Torah is etched into our psyches. But it is short on detail. We don’t know if Isaac struggled. If he bargained. If he strained against the fetters or quietly tried to untie them. We don’t know if Isaac prayed or planned or just made peace. Or if he simply didn’t know what to do. Still, our tradition chooses him to represent this quality that we call gevurah.
And he is a good choice for it. Because sometimes your heroism lies in strength of arms. And sometimes your hands are tied. Sometimes your endurance, your presence, is all you have to offer.
As a people we call ourselves Israel – Jacob. But in the Shoah we were, so often, Isaac. Our hands were tied. We were bound, staring up at the knife or closing our eyes against it. Our world of options shrank to tiny choices, all of which had unspeakably grave consequences. Turn left or right. Leave by yourself now or with loved ones next week. Step to the front of the line, or hang back. Speak up for another, or play it safe today in the hope of making a difference tomorrow. In an impossible situation, every choice, every action, including just holding tight: gevurah.
At Chanukah time we sing Mi y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael. Who can count the g’vurot, the heroic deeds of our people? If we look deeply to the impossible world of the Shoah, a world of action and restraint and endurance, then our people’s acts of gevurah would number millions upon millions upon millions.
So today let us honor our acts and our limitations. Our strength and our fragility. Let us honor those who rebelled and those who resisted. Those who hid and those who hid them. Those who escaped and those who could not. Let us honor those whose strength was in the fight. And those whose strength was in enduring. And those whose strength was taken from them. All of them. All of it. Gevurah.