I heard a fascinating and tragic story recently about a young man with a Basque last name and mixed religious background of Catholic and Jewish. When I asked about the mixture of Basque and Jews, he explained that his father’s father was actually Irish, and was a heroic pilot in the Second World War who died during the Pacific campaign after having flown 39 successful missions. When he died in action, his son was a four month old child. This young man I spoke to has a fascination with the war and in a small box keeps the letters written home from his grandfather to his grandmother. In one such letter, he talks about how he can’t wait to get home to finally meet and get to know his son.
There are countless stories like this from war, poignant tragedies bound up with the heroic sacrifices made by individuals in battle and all the more moving when the war being fought was to stop Hitler and end the march of Nazism and Fascism across the globe.
I have my own obsession with Robert Capa’s life. The noted war photographer was colorful, playful, brilliant, and mischievous. Born in Budapest and forced to flee Horthy’s oppressive government at age 18, he went to Berlin and with the rise of Hitler, fled from there to Paris and the United States. He could never settle down, even breaking off a love affair with the actress Ingrid Bergman, who fell fast for the dashing Capa and wanted him to settle down in California. But his commitment to peace, his visceral hatred of war, kept sending him away. He heard a voice that kept saying, “Go forth,” because with his camera, he too had a mission: to document war’s brutality, particularly toward children and the innocent, believing that perhaps his own willingness to bear witness might lessen the chance of future wars.
Like the young man’s grandfather who died on a mission, Capa too was following French troops in Vietnam in 1954 when he stepped on a landmine and died. He’s buried in a Quaker cemetery in Amawalk, New York, next to his brother Cornell, who founded the International Center of Photography, and their mother Julia.
And then there is Hannah Senesh, another Jew from Budapest, who at 18 and against her parents’ wishes, heard a call to be a Zionist. She left for Palestine as soon as she finished high school; learned farming at a collective school in Nahalal, and was among the young idealists who founded Kibbutz Sdot Yam, up the Mediterranean coast from Tel Aviv. Already a poet and an excellent student, one would have thought that the move to build a Jewish state would have been enough to focus on for a young person in such a short life. But when the British Army recruited her to join a paratroopers unit and rescue Allied soldiers behind German lines, she leapt at the chance, hoping to rescue her mother, who was hiding in Budapest.
At 23, Senesh was dropped from a plane over Yugoslavia, captured by the Germans, briefly imprisoned and shot before a firing squad. Even in captivity she continued to write letters and poetry. Her words keep the flame of her memory alive.
Blessed is the match consumed
In kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns
In the secret fastness of the heart
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop
Its beating for honor’s sake
Blessed is the match consumed
In kindling flame.
This week, while studying the Torah portion Lech Lecha with my daily Zoom class (you should join, anytime!), we did a deep dive into this idea of what it means for the Jew to get up and go because we “hear a voice” that says it’s time. “The Eternal said to Abram, ‘Go forth, from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation; and I will bless you; and I will make your name great; and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).
With no map in hand, let alone a GPS, Abraham saddled forth, with Sarah, his wife, and an entourage of servants and followers. It was a journey of trust into a vast wilderness of uncertainty and according to the Torah, Abraham was 75; he and Sarah had yet to have children and so great was his faith and trust, the tradition teaches, that he simply knew there would be good that came of this venture since he was given the promise from God that God would make him a “great nation.”
Rashi writes that travel can take a toll on us. “It is the cause of three things: It breaks up family life; it reduces one’s wealth; and it lessens one’s renown. For this reason, God promised Abraham all three things.”
It’s a neat trick Rashi plays on us, wrapping up neatly, even symmetrically, what I think for most of us is the incomprehensible aspect of visionaries who listen to an inner voice, who feel the call to sacrifice, and who put not only themselves but others at risk in their own quest for service to ideas greater than themselves.
But so sure were Abraham and Sarah to the righteous nature of their calling. Commentators tell us that when the Torah says, “they left with the souls they acquired in Haran,” it means to tell us that they actually converted their neighbors to the new Jewish idea of building a nation and being a blessing which God had commanded. The power of an idea is realized in its ability to move others. The challenge and often the tragedy of history is that sometimes powerful ideas can do enormous good; and sometimes powerful ideas can cause unlimited harm. And the battlefields of history are soaked in the blood of sacrifice to this clash of blessings and curses.
Abraham, as we know, is the first Jew. History will unfold far beyond what he ever imagined. It would be generations before Moses, another leader chosen by God and reached through the agency of fire and a bush not consumed, is so far from a sense of who he is as a Jew that when God speaks to Moses, Moses asks, “What is your name? And what shall I tell my people your name is, since they are suffering in slavery and you are sending me to save them.”
God says to Moses, “Tell them that the God of your father Abraham, your father Isaac, and your father Jacob has sent you.”
It’s a thrilling and profound answer. It teaches us that we have the parents whose homes we are born into and we have parents who teach, inspire and guide us even after we leave home. It teaches us that we have family extending back generations, even though we may have never met them. And it teaches us, by correlation, that should we also choose to “be a blessing,” future generations will call us by our names as well.
It has been said many times in the past few months that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes and that may be true. Frankly, at 57, it feels that way for me but anyone among us with a memory of the Second World War may beg to differ.
No matter: Every election in a democracy such as ours here in America is an election of enormous consequence. We Jews are particularly aware of the uncertainties of the future; of the potential for life as we know it to suddenly turn; and of the necessity to be acutely aware of how and when to act — to act for good, to act for love, to act for justice, and to act for peace.
So let us be aware of the enormous sacrifices made by prior generations to make this nation the great nation it is meant to be; let’s face the uncertain future with the certainty of our deep roots as patriotic Americans and as Jews who believe the words of the prophet Zechariah, “‘Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit,’ says the Eternal.”
As a 23 year old, Hannah Senesh said, “Blessed is the flame that burns
in the secret fastness of the heart.”
Let’s kindle the Shabbat candles tonight and let the sacred commitment to kindness, justice, and peace animate our homes, our city, our nation and our world.