D’var Torah for Friday, November 5, 2021

This week we will be reading from parashat Toldot. Toldot, which refers to the “line of Isaac,” is the story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. It is a story filled with parental favoritism that, unsurprisingly, results in sibling rivalry. However, there is another underlying theme in Toldot, and that is the clash of worldviews. In the Torah, Esau was a hunter, a man of violence, and a man prone to rashness and anger. Opposite him was Jacob. An ish tam, a homespun man, who was dedicated to taking care of his family as well as their flocks and herds. He was a man who was deliberate and dedicated, but also a bit of a trickster. 


The rabbis, in the midrash, expand upon this contradiction by explaining that Esau was boorish and only interested in worldly pursuits, whereas Jacob, from whom we are descended, was more focused on matters of the mind, heart and spirit. To them, Jacob was the epitome of what it meant to be Jewish, whereas Esau became the embodiment of all enemies who sought to destroy us. Esau became tied to Edom, the euphemism for Babylon, Assyria, Persia and eventually Rome. Under this interpretation, our suffering as Jews is not only historical, it is also biblical, which has continued through to modern times.


I mention all of this because on this Shabbat we will be commemorating Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which begins Monday evening. Kristallnacht occurred on November 9, 1938. Though not the beginning of Jewish persecution in Germany, it represented a significant ramping up of violence against Jewish communities in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland region Czechoslovakia. 


According to the United States Holocaust Museum, “Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.”1


It is now the 83rd Anniversary of Kristallnacht, and sadly, with each year, more and more witnesses are no longer with us. And though the history remains, the impact of that night grows more and more remote. However, there are ways we can still remember. Jewish communities in many parts of the world will be hosting the “Let there be light” initiative by lighting up their synagogues that night. Here in Rockland, our Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education will be hosting a “Bridge Walk to Remember” on Sunday at 9am. You can find the link attached to sign up. And at RTR, we will be commemorating Kristallnacht at our service this evening.


Just because we have suffered at the hands of our oppressors over the generations does not mean we have to give into despair. It is a cycle that can and must be broken. But it can only be broken by remembering the past, learning the lessons from the past, and teaching those lessons to secure a better future. A better future not just for us, but for all those who suffer because of who they are and what they believe.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff


1 https://www.ushmm.org/collections/bibliography/kristallnacht