Redefining who we are and choose to be


I hadn’t planned on stopping to watch, but something about him caught my attention. It was Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the day our Temples were destroyed, the city of Jerusalem ransacked and hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered or sold into slavery, and he was being interviewed on Israeli television.

“How old are you?”

The question hung in the air as the Kapo in concentration camp uniform with the authority over life and death stared down at the frail little boy in front of him. In the camps, it was a question that could get you killed.

“Fifteen,” answered the boy, who could not have been more than eight. There was no room for little Jewish boys in the Nazi world of death camps, and his older brother Naftali had warned little Srulli to lie. The Kapo glanced down at the boy with a skeptical look and asked again: “How old are you?”

And again, little Srulli answered: “Fifteen.”

At which point he asked the fellow behind the boy: “Is he your son or your brother?”

“My brother,” answered Naftali.

“Well, how old is he?” asked the Kapo again.

“He already told you, he’s fifteen,” answered Naftali, trying to stay calm.

At which point the Kapo looked around and, lowering his voice and motioning towards the syringe in his left hand, said: “Look, this is a typhus vaccine, and it’s based on weight which I figure out according to age. If he’s really eight years old and I give him the vaccine of a fifteen year old, it will kill him. But if he’s really fifteen and I give him the vaccine of a ten year old, he’ll probably get typhus and die, so I ask you again: how old is he?”

Naftali thought for a moment and, in a voice barely above a whisper answered:

“He is seven.”

At which point, the Kapo looked around and squirted half of the injection onto the ground before giving young Yisrael (Srulli) Lau the typhus injection that ultimately saved his life.

And sixty years later, on Israeli National Television, the young child, saved from the Holocaust, now famous around the world as Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, smiled and said: ‘There were many angels that conspired to allow me to sit here today, and that Kapo was one of them.

So what do you do with a story like that?

It’s true there are many angels in life and they can often take the most mundane forms, from the simple traffic light that keeps you from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the little girl whose temper tantrum sends you to the back of a pizza store saving your life from a suicide bomber. But there are just as many angels who don’t seem to make it.

• • •

There are those who will say that we must repent, that the books of life and death, sickness and health, joy and sadness will once again be open, and we must return from our evil ways in order to hope for a good, and even a safe, year. They will tuck their children to sleep at night secure in the knowledge that if we fast on Yom Kippur and give tzedakah, pray every day with our tefillin and learn to be more tolerant towards one another, that we will, please G-d, have a better year.

And yet, do we really think that everyone who fasts and prays with all their heart is guaranteed a good year? And of all the pain and heartache, the love lost and people broken this year, as it all simply because some people didn’t pray hard enough?

Is there a recipe for ensuring there will be peace and no more bloodshed in the new year at last?

These past weeks, as we do every year in the weeks and leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we read the portions of Ki-Tavoh, Nitzavim and Vayelech, which seem to repeat again and again the idea that the day will come when tremendous calamities will surely befall the Jewish people. Indeed one need not be a scholar to see in Jewish history a pattern of exile and pain that seems to follow us wherever we go.

But then what is the point of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which seem to suggest that we are not doomed by the inevitable? Judaism believes we can change things, but how?

It seems that this week’s parsha contains a new covenant:

“Atem Nitzavim hayom … le’ovrecha’ bebrit Hashem Elokecha’, asher Hashem Elokecha’ koret imcha hayom.” (You are standing here today … to pass into the covenant of [with] Hashem your G-d … which Hashem your G-d seals with you today.” (29: 11)

A careful look at these portions actually makes clear what this new and final covenant is all about: this is the covenant of teshuvah.

The day will come, says the Torah, when all the blessings and curses have come to pass when “Ve’shavta’ ad Hashem Elokecha’ (when we will return).” (See Devarim 30:1-6) We will return from all the far-flung places where we have wandered and from all the lost paths to which we have strayed.

Many translate teshuvah as repentance, but that is not really accurate. Repentance in the dictionary means regret or feeling sorry, but regret alone is simply about guilt, and that is not what Judaism wants, despite all the jokes to the contrary.

This does not mean to say regret is necessarily a bad thing, because regret is the first stage towards teshuva and involves recognizing the fact that there is something wrong I would like to fix. But while regret on its own suggests that we cannot undo the past, Judaism believes we can hope to change the future.

Teshuvah, from the word “shuv” or “return,” is an attempt to go back to who I could have been before all the mistakes I made. Teshuvah is about creating a whole new reality, by tracing history back to the precise point where the present reality we struggle with began to go astray.

Every year on Rosh Hashanah as we begin a new year, we have the capacity yet again, to redefine who we are and who we choose to be. 

Best wishes for a Shanah Tovah full of love and joy, purpose and peace. Ktivah ve’Chatimah Tovah.

A version of this column appeared in 2012.