I want to tell you a story. It’s from a book called The River Midnight. The book takes place over the course of a year in a Polish shtetl toward the end of the last century. It is about the bonds of family, friendship, religion and culture. It is the story of four women who were childhood friends, the wild ones from the village who danced and dreamed in the forest. One of them went to America and gave birth to a daughter and a son there in the tenements of New York. After the death of their parents they will return to the village, Blaszka, to be raised by their aunt. Emma, as a young girl in New York, has fallen under the influence of the anarchists and revolutionaries in the workers’ movement. She, uh… does not follow Torah. She will dedicate her life to the workers’ movement, while her brother, Izzie, will become a rabbi and a scholar.
The River Midnight tells and retells the story of the year over and over, from different points of view, each one revealing another layer of the truth of life in the village and, I suppose, the truth of life itself. Each chapter ends on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the lives of Jews are written in the Book of Life for the next year. Looking out through this window in time, the narrator sometimes tells us a little of what will happen in the next year, and the years to come, stretching into the next century. At the end one of the chapters, this is what she tells us. She tells us about Emma, old now, trying to find word of her brother in the refugee camps after the Second World War, after the Holocaust. Some of the refugees think they have seen him.
Zev, the young man, heard that the Rabbi was seen in the Lodz ghetto crossing over to the Gypsy side during the typhus epidemic. Everyone heard him singing with the Gypsies as they died. An older man, overhearing Zev, says that he also heard of Rabbi Blau, but it wasn’t in Lodz, he insists. No, it was in Buchenwald. The girl says, Neither of you remembers what happened. It was in Chelmno. But they all agree that on Simkhas Torah Isidore Blau danced with a Gypsy boy in his arms, singing. The Rabbi held the child toward heaven, saying, “This is your Torah, God.” And the Rabbi died. How? They heard he was shot protecting the boy. They heard he caught the typhus from the Gypsies in Lodz. That he had a heart attack. That he died of hunger. It was in Theresienstadt, you know, added a middle‑aged woman with a number tattooed on her arm.
There, in the middle of the passage, is the astonishing image of Rabbi Isadore Blau, on Simkas Torah, during the typhus epidemic, dancing with a Gypsy boy, holding him toward heaven saying, “This is your Torah, God.” There is so much in this image, rooted as it is in the story, in the history of the Jews, in the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in my own inner Torah that sees the sacred letter aleph written on the body of every child.
The Gypsies are the untouchables of Europe. For a rabbi and a scholar to cross the river to comfort them in the midst of the typhus epidemic is no small thing. To sing and dance and die with them is an act of solidarity so profound, so revolutionary, that it takes my breath away. To raise the child to Adonai and say. “Here is your Torah, here is your holy word,” goes even further. This challenges Adonai himself, on behalf of justice, a justice more precious than diamonds and more rare.
Meanwhile, here and now, there is another story being written as we sleep, as we make the circle of our days. It is the story of war in the Mideast. Fallen from the headlines, the killing continues. Life, including the sacred life of children and pregnant women, spills out on the dust of Palestine, one more chapter in a history of blood. And, in my heart, I am a rabbi, on Simkas Torah, dancing with a Palestinian child in my arms, holding her to the heavens saying, “This is your Torah, God.” Would I say it with the hushed voice of tenderness, to remind Adonai, who has obviously forgotten? Or would I shout it into the void, in pain and rage? I don’t know. I simply know that the hatred and the killing of children, whether by famine, pestilence, war or neglect, has to stop.
We are all children.
I should have warned you that this was not a happy story, a fairy-tale to ease our sleep. But, whether we like it or not, it is the story of our times, where children die in a hundred wars. We are not being asked to take a bullet to protect a child, or die of typhus, or in a concentration camp, though these things may some day be asked of us. We are being asked, you and I, to reach out with tenderness to those without faces and give them comfort and strength. And I am asking that we reach out with tenderness to the untouchable parts of ourselves, so we may become whole and strong.
Every day of life is a miracle, every birth and every death a reminder. We don’t know where Izzie Blau died, whether it was the ghetto in Lodz or in the death camp that was Theresienstadt. But we know that we are not dead. We know that we are alive and not alone in our love for life. We know that together we can continue the journey of a thousand miles that leads to Jerusalem, the City of Hope, the City of Peace. And we know in our hearts the true cost of abandoning that journey. Here, walk with me…