Remembering where weve come from &mdash and where were going

Numbers 30:2-36:13
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4

I’m sitting in a lovely outdoor café in Kiev, Ukraine, lost in thought. For the past eight days, I’ve been leading a group of 18 people from my congregation on a pilgrimage through Poland and the Ukraine.

We have come on this journey not just to visit the sites of our people’s destruction, but in large measure to understand the world of Jewry that existed before the Holocaust, to connect to the lives of our grandparents, and, maybe, to find ourselves along the way. Now, in these few quiet moments, I’m trying to make sense of what we have seen.

To help frame my thoughts I turn to the Torah portion. As the book of Bamidbar comes to a close, the Torah begins a lengthy travelogue, listing the 42 stations where Israel camped on their journey to the Land of Promise: “These are the encampments of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt … Moshe wrote their journeying to go forth in accordance with the word of God.” Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch taught that some people “go forth” to relieve their present condition; Israel, however, went forth for the purpose of transformation and growth.

So has it been for us. We traveled from Krakow, the intellectual capital of 16th-century Ashkenazi Jewry, to Auschwitz and Birkenau, where our people were gassed and incinerated. We drove to Tarnow, where once 6,000 Jews lived. Now there aren’t any Jews, yet a klezmer band of non-Jewish musicians played the melodies of our people for Polish teens in a bombed-out synagogue.

We went from Lancut to Lvov, in the Ukraine, where the entire population of 136,000 Jews was murdered. There we spent Shabbos with 20 Jews who gather in the remains of a 17th-century synagogue to pray and welcome guests for meals, and the local Chesed committee runs daycare for the elderly.

We traveled east to Busk and Brody, to Radzivilov, where 6,000 Jews were marched into the forest and shot down into open pits and where one Jewish man still lives with his daughter. From there we went to Zhitomir and Berditchev, where among the hundreds of graves a great tzaddik is buried, and to Kiev, and Babi Yar.

In Kiev we played chess with sweet (and very skillful) Jewish children and listened to a Jewish chorus of teens practice in the Children’s Center, and read the stories of Sholom Aleichem. In every place we went we saw the faces of our grandparents, the rich fabric of Jewish life, and, from ashes, a Jewish life reborn. It boggles the mind.

What am I meant to learn from this pilgrimage?

Commenting on the Torah’s travelogue, Rashi says that the story means “to inform us of God’s great love.” Perhaps he wants to suggest that only when we can see the journey in its totality can we begin to understand how cared for we were in the desert.

In Poland and the Ukraine, too, we are required to see the entirety of Jewish experience — the extermination, yes, but also the religious fervor of early Chassidism, the intellectual rigor of the yeshiva, the pleasure of Yiddish theater and literature, the endless arguments as to whether universalist socialism or Zionism will bring redemption to the Jews.

Rashi offers a second explanation of the Torah’s travelogue, quoting from the Midrash: “It’s like a king who took his ill son on a long journey to heal him. As they returned the king would say, here we slept, here we were treated well, here not.”

Ours, too, is a journey of healing. For all the beauty and the suffering, this history is our history, these places our places, these stories our stories. We have come to the birthplace of our Jewish experience. And, if nothing else, we can stand on the edge of the pit, with heads raised toward heaven, and cry: “We are still here!”

Rabbi Lavey Derby is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.