Rabbi Rachel Smookler
Sometimes it isn’t one thing that makes us link the myriad of happenings that float around in our lives. Sometimes it is a series of seemingly un-connected events that come together in our minds that make us realize that truly incredible strings are being pulled…
And these truly incredible strings might turn our hearts to believe that there might be some amazing power that exists even with all of the horrors. the misfortune the randomness of it all.
This week for me was that week, that series of events. The last few weeks, really. And it all started with one woman’s story.
Eva Abrams, now nearly 90 years old came to my house on the last day of January of this year.
I went to her home first, and asked her if she would tell her story…if it wouldn’t be too difficult for her…For she is in a lot of chronic pain….Not to mention reliving the emotional trauma…
Would she… I asked…Be able to tell my Hebrew School class about her experience…before the war.. About her family….during the war? About Auschwitz and about liberation?
We had been studying about the Holocaust and I knew that these students would be among the last generation to hear an account face to face from holocaust survivor. I felt so fortunate that Eva said yes.
The day Eva came to my house we assembled in my living room. True. It was for the students in my class. But a neighbor came, as did the parents of the students. My oldest daughter, Talia, quietly entered the living room as Eva began speaking. And Talia stayed there.. throughout Eva’s entire heart-wrenching story.
As I think back on it now, besides my husband’s cousin Jack, who survived Auschwitz and was raised as a brother to my husband’s father, Talia had really never heard a survivor’s personal account.
When Eva began speaking, she mentioned that she was 17 years old when her life totally began to change. Her carefree, teenage existence surrounded by loving family. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked to my left and saw my daughter Talia, I was reminded that she too, is now 17..nearly 18. To my left…and to my right two mirror images separated by time, and by luck.
But as I said, this week marked a series of seemingly unrelated events that found each other. And I believe it was Eva’s words, Eva’s story that started it all in motion.
I know now that you never know how someone will be affected by something. Talia….since the day of Eva’s story has sat simmering with a new found obsession with the Holocaust Watching every Holocaust movie she can get her hands on…
And recently, she came running downstairs with her computer open, on the screen, an 18 or 19 year old Jack..our cousin, holding a sign with his name on it as part of the Yad Vashem archives.
“Look! I found Jack’s picture. I’ve been looking for his family”, she said.. “I know they all were killed.. But I want to find their names. I want to name my kids after them.”
With all of the Holocaust movies it has been a week of questions.. late nights…wondering…How could human beings do this? Why do people hate Jews so much?
And as always….I am on the side..studying the weekly Torah portion..Trying to make my own sense of things, of the world we live in. And so when I came upon the chapter in the Torah portion, Vayakhel about Bezalel fashioning the lampstand, the menorah, seemingly unconnected with the events of this week, I was suddenly overcome with interest in the detail of the Menorah.
“He made the lampstand of pure gold. He made the lampstand of hammered work; Six branches issued from its sides: three branches from one side of the lampstand, and three branches from the other side of the lampstand. There were three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch; and on…”
My mind wandered to the beautiful almond blossom trees outside of our apartment building in Tokyo. The first to bloom, the first to shed their petals. And then my mind wandered to Aaron’s staff, when Almond petals bloomed upon it. I recalled that a later book teaches that Aaron’s staff was actually stored along side the commandments in the Ark of the Covenant. The ark that was built in this week’s Torah portion..
But I wanted to lean more. And so I did some digging. Something was propelling me to find out more about Aaron’s staff, bout Almond blossoms and almonds..
In Numbers 17, God commands that each of the Twelve Tribes provide a rod; and only that of the tribe chosen to become priests will miraculously sprout overnight. Aaron provides his rod to represent the tribe of Levi, and “it put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds” an evidence of the exclusive right to the priesthood of the tribe of Levi.
A Midrash teaches that: the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It is likewise the holy rod with which Moses worked with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath. David left it to his descendants, and the Davidic kings used it as a scepter until the destruction of the Temple, when it miraculously disappeared. When the Messiah comes it will be given to him for a scepter.
It was made of sapphire, and bore this inscription דצכ עדש באחב, detzach adash be’achav which is composed of the initials of the Hebrew names of the Ten Plagues..
Where did the Aaron’s rod mysteriously go? This majestic rod, holding within it our ancestors’ most memorable events. Clutched by the hands of those who changed the world.
Seemingly un-connected, many nights this week, I have been thinking of that rod that bore almond blossoms. As a family..we have spent hours talking about our history. About family names. In talking to Talia about the town in Poland Jack and the rest of my husband’s family comes from, Piotrkov, my husband realized that in just a few weeks he will be at a meeting 30 minutes away from the center of the Piotrkov, Poland. And so he looked it up, to see if there was anything still standing.
The synagogue was restored and is now the town’s library. Although my husband has been to Poland, to the Death camps, he has never before traveled to His family’s town.
And each night, as I study the Torah portion about the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle, I think about how far our families have wandered. About the stories we are now telling our daughter that like the fabrics of the mishkan, we weave together the narrative of her portable mishkan. Her family tabernacle. How all of this talk, all of this research, all of this desire to find our roots is once again, the foundation of the tabernacle.
Building our haphazard mishkan. As I was staring at the Torah, staring at the word Shaked, Hebrew for Almonds, I remembered Jack, who came to Minnesota after surviving Auschwitz. barely 20 years old then. Who later moved out to California and owned Almond tree farms.
Whenever we saw Jack, he came with his arms full of bags and bags of almonds. Different sizes and different tastes. But always almonds.
While Talia became obsessed with Holocaust movies, I became obsessed with finding out whether or not Jack, whose family’s name was Moscowiscz was a Levite. For some reason, I just felt that he should be a Levite. For what he went through. For what he suffered through. I wanted Jack to be the mystical bearer of Aaron’s almond-blossom staff. But who would know? How could I find out? Jack died many months ago. I couldn’t remember exactly how long it has been since Jack died.
I texted my father-in-law and he asked a relative who felt certain that Jack was NOT a levite. I researched the name Moscowitz to see if that held any levitical significance. Moscowitz is derived from Moses, Moshe, moshke, who is of the House of Levi, so I held out hope.
My father in law said he would call Jack’s Rabbi in California. So many people trying to track down a feeling that bubbled up inside me. Later that afternoon, my mother-in-law texted me. I couldn’t believe the words on my phone screen: “The Rabbi said that Jack was a Levite.”
A series of seemingly unconnected events. All tied together with almond blossoms..on the menorah in this week’s Torah portion. In my my mind, Jack, in his lifetime, was the bearer of Aaron’s staff.
But instead of the acronym of the plagues on Aaron’s staff, Jack’s staff had inscribed in it the six numbered tattoo he received at Auschwitz 18781: The same forward as it is backward.
The number 7, the branches of the menorah, in the middle, held up by the number 18 on either side: 18…. a symbol for life
An upcoming visit to Poland…Almond blossoms…Almond farms..Eva’s story to us…A lampstand in the tabernacle, the House of Levi. A vow to name children after names of those who were murdered in the Holocaust…
These are the foundations of my daughter’s portable tabernacle.
As I was finishing my sermon, I went back to look over Jack’s obituary one more time. One more detail made me hyper aware that this past week that Jack has been trying to reach us..all of us from olam haba..the world to come.
The very first line says that Jack died on March 4, 2015. Exactly one year ago yesterday, the day I finished my sermon.