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The Survivor Template (Noach – 11/02/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Survivor Template
Eighty-one years ago, synagogues, homes, and businesses across Germany were attacked, burned and defiled for no reason other than being Jewish-owned. This coming Friday night, 11/8, we’ll be commemorating Kristallnacht with the daughter of a survivor who will be recounting her father’s tale of destruction, flight, and rebirth.[1] It’s a strange coincidence, for our Torah reading this past Shabbat morning spoke of the same three things.
Parshat Noach, which details the epic story of the Flood, opens with a verse describing Noah’s good character (Genesis 6:9)
אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נח
“These are the chronicles of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; with G-d, Noah walked.”
The Torah usually speaks economically, rarely wasting or repeating words. Here though, Noah’s name is mentioned three times in one verse.
The Midrash takes note of this repetition and says that it alludes to the fact that Noah is an individual who had the distinction of living through three different worlds:
“He saw the world when it was settled;
he saw the world when it was destroyed,
and he saw the world when it was settled once again.”
One can only imagine the terror, dread, and anxiety that Noah faced in all these phases of his life. He was a righteous man living among a wicked generation knowing that they were heading towards eradication.
He witnessed their destruction; can we possibly understand his degree of survivor’s guilt? He then leaves the ark with the responsibility to rebuild the world, hopefully, better than the one he left behind.
Noah though is not alone in these challenges; we could say that the Holocaust survivors shared his lot as well. They saw classic Jewish life in Europe, a multifaceted culture that thrived under harsh conditions. They witnessed these communities become Judenrein and all their peers killed in labor and death camps. Yet to survive, marry, have children and build up the land of Israel or communities in the diaspora is to have seen the Jewish world in its rebirth.
I knew one rabbi who lived through all three phases. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman was born in Europe before the war and studied as a young man in the Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania. He escaped to America in 1941, but all of his family and friends were brutally murdered.
In the United States, he decided the only way to rectify such devastation was to rebuild institutions of Torah learning, He facilitated the opening of yeshivas and days schools in Detroit and Los Angeles.
My first shul in Santa Barbara was a direct outcome of his outreach efforts on the west coast. When he was living in LA, every week he’d drive up to Santa Barbara and teach in a person’s home. He taught with care and love and without judgment. His effect was so strong that he convinced many to commit to living richer Jewish lives. They eventually founded my synagogue, the Young Israel of Santa Barbara.
In his later years, he settled in Israel and established a thriving Yeshiva there as well; he saw a world resettled once again.
Rav Simcha Wasserman once commented that he gained his wide perspective and strength to see life in the long term from one summer night when he was walking through Telshe. Since Telshe is in Lithuania, in the summer the days are extremely long and the nights are exceptionally short. He looked to the north and saw a sky that was pitch black and full of stars. As he looked to the southwest he saw a beautiful red sky in which the setting sun’s rays were still visible. As he turned to the east he could already see the rays of light before the moments of sunrise.
In one moment, he saw the closing of one day, the pitch darkness of the night, and the sunshine of dawn.
Having witnessed the fullness of life in pre-War Europe and its destruction, he knew he’d also see its rebirth.[2]
What did Noah do when he got off the Ark? He offered thanks to G-d and he started planting once more.
The story of the Flood is then the model for all rebuilding.
We give thanks for being alive and then work hard to make a brighter future.
The Holocaust survivors whom we will honor Friday night followed this model to rebuild communities in Israel, America and across the world.
Yet, the story is relevant to all of us as well. It’s a message of hope to those who have suffered a broken marriage, the loss of employment, survived a severe illness, the loss of a loved one and so on: we can rebuild our lives.
Some of us remember when schools felt safe, when the weather was relatively predictable, and our government was able to work in a bipartisan manner.
Hopefully, we can return to those times as well, but it will only be through gratitude for what we already have, and great resolve and tremendous effort to forge a better future.
As Kristallnacht approaches, we give thanks to the survivors for rebuilding Jewish life. We will learn from them to see our lives, country, and world rebuilt as well.
[1] 8 PM at MHJC. Guest speaker Deborah Schenkein
[2] Experiencing 3 Worlds by Rav Yissocher Frand,

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