Between Two Sermons – From Rage to Redemption, Revenge to Reconciliation

In Memory of Rabbi Everett Gendler

There is a tension in the Exodus narrative between Israel’s celebration of its own liberation and a triumphal response to Egyptian suffering. As that tension plays out in time, the fullness of liberation depends on the way of its resolution. We feel the tension in ways collective and personal. How to celebrate our collective liberation as a people without gloating over the destruction of those who harm and oppress us? More mundane, but essential if we would soften the rough edges of the world, how to celebrate our personal accomplishments without finding smug satisfaction, in the way of schadenfreude, in the failures of others? On the journey to freedom, there are times when pain flares into rage that for some leads in extremis to revenge. For others, pain becomes the impetus for seeking reconciliation and wholeness with those who have harmed us. In a world riven by hate and violence, it is ever more essential that we come to see the human in the doer of evil, however, masked it is in a given moment in time, a reminder and warning of how far humanity can fall. Only through such recognition can we begin to restore the fallen sparks of a broken world. Seeking the way, from rage to redemption, revenge to reconciliation, our tradition gently guides us toward healing, helping us to keep alive the human spark.

Still enslaved, we had been told to stay in our homes during the tenth plague, each as an individual, none to gloat or participate in the killing of the firstborn of the oppressor’s children. It is the way taught by Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931)  and given voice in English and in spirit by Rabbi Everett Gendler, his memory be a blessing (“A Passionate Pacifist,” p. 87, Ben Yehuda Press, 2020). And later, we watch from the far shore, dumbstruck as we see “a great camp of humanity cast upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the not [yet] dead…” (Sefer Chochmat Ha’matz’pun, vol. 2, p. 200). The musar writer has noted a delay in the Torah from the time of our crossing the Sea to the moment of giving voice to our Redemption Song. Only then could we sing, only after a stunned pause, “Az/Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to God…” (Ex. 15:1). The writer of tender soul notes, “for they were greatly pained,” and then asks: “for all of this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy…?” (ibid). In the horror, the rage, the relief, and the gratitude, all prayerfully held in the initial silence, these are the tensions upon whose resolution the likelihood of ultimate reconciliation depends. It is the tension between celebrating our own liberation and the way of our response to the oppressor’s downfall, whether to delay our song in deference to God’s creatures drowning in the sea, however, debased in their own twisting of God’s image, or to sing from the first moment in unbridled joy?

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These are the tensions held in the space between two remarkable sermons, the tensions each struggles with or doesn’t… One is a sermon of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, known as the Tzitz Eliezer (with appreciation to Rabbi Claudia Kreiman for her citation of the Tzitz Eliezer’s sermon). The sermon is nearly buried in his massive compendium of legal responsa by whose title he is known, “Tzitz Eliezer” (part 22, paragraph 35). The other is a sermon of Rabbi Avraham Yehudah Chein, “Four Kinds of Redemption” (arba’a minim shel g’ulah) that is found in his work, “B’malchut Ha’yahadut” (vol. 2, p. 75). Each sermon had been given in the years immediately following the Holocaust, that of Rabbi Waldenberg in 1947, just before the founding of the state of Israel, in Netanya; and that of Rabbi Chein in 1949, just after the founding, in the Beit Ha’kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. Each was given on a holiday, the former on Simchas Torah, the latter on Pesach, when we can assume each shul to have been filled with worshippers. Explicit in the sermon of Rabbi Waldenberg, implicit in Rabbi Chein’s, each is addressed to communities in which there were undoubtedly many survivors present to hear their words. The two d’rashot are as different as could be in the emotions they express. While each of the rabbis is carrying the pain of our people, neither is a survivor himself, one gives voice to rage, to hate, to violence against the destroyers, the other struggling to find a path through the sea of hate and revenge toward deeper healing.

Rabbi Waldenberg (1915-2006) lived his entire life in the Land of Israel. He was primarily a legal scholar, remarkably progressive in many of his rulings, a foremost authority in matters of medicine and Jewish law. His way of healing is sharp and bitter, hoping to build up the broken souls before him, it seems, with a thunderous love of his people and a brutal attack on all who would harm them. He shares the familiar aggadah that holds the tension between liberation and destruction, of God telling the angels not to sing, “my handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you would sing a song before me…?” (Megillah 29a, Sanhedrin 39a). His words then scream out, as though denouncing God for silencing the angels, “concerning the destruction of accursed ones such as these, are we still to be pained? And further, to call them by the precious name, ‘work of my hands’!?” Calling for revenge, he turns the aggadah on its head, turning the “work of my hands” to refer to Israel, whom the Egyptians drowned in a sea of suffering, even throwing their sons into the river. He then has God, in effect, say to the angels, “and all you can do is sing a song…?” That is God’s complaint as given voice by the Tzitz Eliezer, as though to say, “how can you sing a song of words before me, when a song of fire is needed?” Rabbi Waldenberg recalls the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib (701 B.C.E.), as described in Isaiah (37:36-38) and II Kings (19:35) and laments that the angels did not do to the Egyptians what they would later do to the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem, devouring them with holy fire spit from their mouths. It would certainly be clear to the congregation where he is going as he brings his words to the moment, “so it is with the ‘Hitlerian’ people of our generation/kacha im ha’am ha’hitleri shel dorenu….

Rabbi Chein (1880-1957) was born in Chernihiv, Ukraine, scion to a prestigious family in CHaBaD chassidism. He was a teacher and educator, a thinker and writer, and a congregational rabbi who served communities in Europe and later in the Land of Israel, emigrating in 1935. He challenged antisemitism with a fearless eloquence while constructing a remarkably universal critique of all violence and brutality. He wrote in passionate defense of Mendel Beilis and the Jewish people in response to the medieval blood libel leveled at Beilis in 1913 Kyiv, in the Russian empire (B’malchut Ha’yahadut, vol. 1, p. 13, “Judaism and Blood”). His writing conveys richly consistent pacifism that is rooted in the wellsprings of Jewish tradition. In a pivotal paragraph of the sermon, seeming to reflect the torment in his own soul, he speaks of the inner struggle, the “frontal battle”/milchemet metzach, of the pacifist, patzifistan, struggling with how to forgive those who have done the unforgivable. He is desperately seeking a construct through which to offer a place in the community, reconciliation, if not forgiveness, to those Jews who had been “kapos” in the camps, collaborators who had abetted the slaughter of their own people. His horror is palpable, and so is his struggle to break the cycle of violence that comes with revenge. Rabbi Chein describes what these people live with as the worst slavery: “b’emet eyn avdut eleh zu shel ha’mo’ach, v’ha’lev, — shel ha’nefesh/in truth, there is no slavery such as this, of the mind, of the heart, — of the soul.” To see such debased people as oppressed is its own expression of compassion.  Near the end of his sermon he looks ahead, beyond the pain of the present moment, “mah yi’hi’yeh l’machar/what will be tomorrow…?” Seeming to gently raise the question of means and ends if we would get there, his plaintive question becomes our own, “But, how shall we live now/v’ulam, b’mah nich’yeh ach’shav?” 

It is hard to imagine how the people of these two congregations might have responded had they heard both sermons, that of Rabbi Waldenberg and that of Rabbi Chein. In their publication, both sermons became available to a much wider congregation that now includes us. Addressed to a people worn down physically and spiritually, the two sermons reflect part of the struggle to find a way forward in the aftermath of the Holocaust. From the vantage point of history, the dynamics reflected in the very giving of these sermons are not limited to one period in time. It is particularly instructive that in such a time of extremism, both sermons could be delivered and heard as part of a larger dialogue of struggling toward renewal. The two rabbis, very different from each other in background and temperament, were both prominent and respected figures, neither regarded as beyond the pale for the words they spoke. While it is not for us to judge the way survivors respond in the now of the late forties, still in the immediacy of their pain, it is for us to weigh our own ways of responding to violence and hate, to perpetrators and victims, and to each other in the aftermath of conflict. The tension that plays out through the Exodus narrative and that is held in the space between the two sermons is similar to the tension that inheres between means and ends. As the end is reflected in the means, as actions in the present shape future outcome, the way and timing of our redemption song and the way and timing of our response to the downfall of enemies inform the moral character of the struggle and the ultimate fullness of liberation.

Rabbi Chein’s simple question, “how shall we live now?”, speaks to the present in which every generation lives, challenging each in its own time to clarify the vision that informs the path forward. The ultimate paradigm of human brutality and hate, the Holocaust is the backdrop against which our own responses to brutality and hate are given moral standing. In the stark difference of tone between the two sermons, difference is given legitimacy, even in the most painful realms of moral struggle and response, as a model for Jews and all people in the fraught climate of discourse today. Taken together, the two sermons become part of one whole. Holding them both and feeling within ourselves the tension between them, we can acknowledge that the raw response of the Tzitz Eliezer may reflect our own initial response, our own raw desire for revenge against those who hate and brutalize others, then and now. Rabbi Chein helps us to look beyond the raw pain, as with his poignant question, “what will be tomorrow?” From rage to redemption, we cannot get there if we stay in the place of raw response. How shall we hold the rage and the pain of what has been done to us and yet channel it toward enduring healing? One of the rabbis is speaking of Germans, the other of Jews. The words of each are graphic, their torment palpable. Each is drawing on different strands of the tradition, on different facets of themselves, touching different parts of ourselves. We don’t know how the words of these rabbis were received by those who were present on that Simchas Torah in Netanya and on that Pesach in Beit H’kerem, Jerusalem. Held together, the two sermons reflect the tension that courses through the Exodus story, how to respond to our own redemption/liberation and to the accompanying destruction of our oppressors? At what point shall we sing for our liberation, even as it entails the downfall of our enemies, perhaps even to hear their song above the crashing waves? At what point to refrain from singing, as the angels were told to stop, “how can you sing while My handiwork drowns in the sea?” 

I think of two stories. My father, as a young soldier at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington, rejoiced when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As he struggled through the years with that initial response, weeping at our seder one year as we spilled drops of wine for the plagues, he came to realize that his joy was surely not for the horrific loss of so much life, but for his own liberation. Already having spent several years as a soldier in Europe, all he knew then was that his imminent deployment to the Pacific theatre would be obviated by the war’s sudden end. In a very different context of that time and its horrors, I think of a beloved friend, of blessed memory, Mr. Jack Gardner, a Holocaust survivor. Eschewing revenge for the sake of renewing life, he would tell of the time in the Displaced Persons camp, Foehrenwald, near Munich, when an American soldier offered him and others a gun to go into town and take revenge. With a depth of feeling, pride, and pain welling up, Jack recounted their refusal; not one would take the gun, for that was not the Jewish way, not the way to begin again, to renew life.

In the now of given moments, we are drawn to one side of the tension or the other on the path to renewal. We struggle, we are human, when to sing, when to be still? The tensions held between the two sermons are given expression in liturgical choreography. As Moses and the people sang on the far shore celebrating their liberation, as Miriam danced with the women a dance of release, the way we sing the Song at the Sea (Ex. 15:1-21) in the annual Torah reading cycle and on the seventh day of Pesach tells of the tensions we are meant to feel. When Israel stood at first in stunned silence, there was in that silence a prayerful holding of horror before the loss of life. In their silence, they recognized the tragedy for God and for people of God’s image so twisted by human brutality that it would come to this. So for us in telling of that time and rehearsing its lessons in the way of our singing of the Song at the Sea. The verses that tell of our liberation are sung in a joyful tune, the verses that tell of Egypt’s destruction in a quiet undertone. The tensions are held similarly at the Seder table. In the drops of wine spilled for the plagues, my father found ritual release in the co-mingling of joy and horror, in the mingling of tears. In the saltwater, all the tears are gathered together, the tears of our ancestors, and ours, and those of the Egyptians too, grieving for their firstborn and for their soldier sons not to return. And on the latter days of Pesach, we sing fewer psalms of praise with a shorter Hallel, as we learn from the context of the aggadah, the telling in which the angels are told not to sing…; how can we, then, sing songs of unmuted praise in the days that mark the drowning of the Egyptians, even though marking our liberation too? Over time, as for my dad, we become like the angels, from a place of remove no longer to sing for the destruction of the oppressor, nor without recognition of the fierce tensions as held between two sermons — from rage to redemption, revenge to reconciliation. Weaving a thread in time, then we shall sing with unmuted joy… “But, how shall we live now…?”

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