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The Man with the Tattoo and the story of Abraham

Friday, 26 October, 2012 - 3:05 pm

Tattoo.jpgGrowing up in England I used to meet Holocaust Survivors all the time, although back then I didn’t appreciate the full nature of what they experienced as the full horror of the Holocaust was still beyond me. I remember one particular individual who would come and pray every morning at the 7am Minyan in our synagogue. I vividly remember watching him roll up his sleeve to place his Teffilin on his arm each morning only to expose the tattooed number that he had received at Auschwitz as he would recite the blessing in his high-pitched voice. Every day when I would see this person’s arm I couldn’t help but think back to the horrors that he might have experienced and would be humbled by seeing him come each morning to the synagogue carrying his black briefcase with his Talit & Teffilin to say his daily prayers and say thank you to G-d.

In my own community there were others too who also stood out in my mind when I was growing up, as there were about seven or eight families who originated in Russia, who all had unique stories of determination and survival in the face of communist oppression. One particular gentleman, Mr. Bentzion Shagalow, would sit on our table each Shabbos and in addition to putting up with an occasional fight from my siblings and myself and sometimes even getting caught up in the crossfire of our kicking under the table, would also give out candies to well behaved children in the synagogue. I remember that for many years he never knew when his father’s Yahrziet was, as his father had been taken away by the Russian authorities and shot, but the family had never been filled in with what happened. It was only after the fall of communism that he was able to find out the actual date of his father’s execution.

His father was not a murderer, or someone who committed treason, rather his father was known as the Mohel of Moscow, the Jewish circumciser of Moscow who risked his life to continue helping his fellow Jew be able to perform this age old Mitzvah. He often told his family that he may not come back one day and he may be arrested,  but when the dreaded day came when he never returned, it didn’t make it any easier for his wife and seven children who were left alone in this world.

There were several others in my community who had been imprisoned for similar crimes of being true to their Jewish heritage or having helped spread the Jewish faith in Soviet Russia, and each one had their own unique story. As I grew up, these individuals and their experiences made a big impression on me when I thought about what they stood for and what it is that they were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Abraham and Sarah the first Jews, who went through ten major challenges in their quest to serve and form a relationship with G-d. They too came close to paying with their lives several times, as they faced famine and hunger, remained childless for many years, and had to sometimes stand up and fight for their identity and values. Their story is the amazing tale of the first Jews who had the determination and resilience to stay true to their course despite the many hardships and pitfalls that they faced along the way. Besides being people who found G-d and spread the idea of monotheism to the people who were around them, it is perhaps this trait of devotion to G-d and to a righteous path in life despite the many hurdles that they faced, that was the cause for their being defined as the first Jews.

These traits of determination, strength, devotion and resilience which Abraham and Sarah lived by, have become part of the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people. Throughout our long history, we have been able to utilize these values to maintain our mission and identity in helping make the world a better, more moral and more spiritual place and a place that lives up to the mission statement given to it by G-d.

At times in Jewish history both in ancient and in modern times, many have had to live up these values in a very real way, they have had to be the Abrahams and Sarah’s of our generation, as they helped ensure that the beacon of Judaism was carried onto the next generation. We too, who thank G-d live in times of prosperity and freedom must also remember that these traits are not just dormant traits that are for emergency use only. Rather, these traits are there for us to use and capitalize on, as we live up to the eternal spirit of resilience and determination in our day-to-day living and living up to being a Jew. It may not be with the dramatic and painful or amazing experiences that our ancestors were forced to go through, but it is no less important in the quest to continue our job and make sure we pass it on to our families.

We live in a fast-paced world, one in which an IPad 4 is already obsolete as the IPad Mini just came out and IPad 5 is just around the corner. Yet our job is to find the inner strength that will ensure that despite the sometimes amazing non stop flow of information into our lives and the rapid paced world in which we live, we still find the space to make sure that the foundations and responsibilities of Judaism remain central to who we are and how we live.

If Abraham and Sarah could do it, so can we!

If the man with the tattooed number on his arm could do it, so can we!

Good Shabbos


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