Abraham Reisen (1876-1953)
Raging forces of uncertainty, fear and violence fill the horizons of our globe. The world is trembling. For the Jewish people and for the world at large, in Israel and abroad, foundations are crumbling, lives are being shattered, pain is spread all over and the prospects of global war are tragically real.
Abraham Reisen (1876-1953) was one of the great Yiddish writers of last generation. During his youthful years, Reisen couldn’t have known about the pending destruction that would befall his people at the hands of Stalin and Hitler. Yet one of his Yiddish poems speaks volumes to the generation of Jews that has risen up from the ashes of Auschwitz and Treblinka, to recreate Jewish life.
The poem, employing metaphor, paints the picture of a Jewish father sitting in his sukkah -- the physically-fragile outdoor hut Jews sit in during the holiday of Sukkot -- as a storm rages. His anguished daughter tries to convince him that the sukkah is about to fall. But the father assures her that despite enormous challenges the sukkah has stood for 2000 years and it will not fall now.
Here is an imperfect translation of the poem:
My succa'leh was small
not fancy at all
but it was special and dear to me
some schach I threw over it
hoping to cover it
and there I'd sit and think.
The wind was a cold one
the boards they were old ones
the candles were flickering low
at times as if dying
but suddenly rising
as if they did not want to go.
A chill wind attacks,
Blowing through the cracks;
The candles, they flicker and yearn.
It's so strange a thing
That as the Kiddush I sing,
The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.
My sweet little daughter
was bringing me water
saw the wind and started to call
Father, she cried
don't stay there inside
the wind's too strong, the succa'leh will fall.
Fear not my child
it's been quite a while
the succa'leh is still standing strong
winds have been worse, my dear
but it's over two thousand years
the succa'leh will last very long.
A few years earlier, in a 1891 essay, Leo Tolstoy put it in these words:
“What is the Jew? This is not as strange a question as it would first appear to be. Come let us contemplate what kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers and all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and flourish. What is this Jew, whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?!
“The Jew is the symbol of eternity. He is the one whom they were never able to destroy, neither bloodbath nor afflictions, neither the fire nor the sword succeeded in annihilating him. He is the one who for so long has guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear.
“The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”
Adolph Hitler began his rise to power in the late 1920's, speaking in the beer halls of Munich.
The story is told that at one such meeting, amidst the haze of cigarette smoke and the smell of Bavarian beer, Hitler's voice could be heard ranting on about Germany's problems.
"The misfortune of Germany is the Jews. The Jews are the reason we lost the war. The Jews are the reason we suffer unemployment. The Jews are the reason we have bread lines. The salvation of the German Fatherland rests on ridding ourselves of the Jews!"
When he finally finished this hour-long tirade, the audience leapt to its feet in adoring applause. Towards the back of the room, an old Jewish man also stood up and clapped. Long after the rest of the audience finished applauding and began shuffling out; this old man continued his ovation. Hitler made his way over to the elderly man and screamed, "Don't you believe that I am serious when I say, 'the Jews are Germany's misfortune'?! Don't you believe me when I say that I intend to rid Germany of the Jews?!"
The old man, undaunted, turned toward Hitler and said, "Oh, I assume that you meant every word of what you said. You must remember, though, we are an old people and you aren't the first to hate us. Many years ago there was an evil King Pharaoh who also hated us. He enslaved our people for over 200 years. God saved us from him, and in honor of that event we have the beautiful holiday of Passover. Many centuries later there was a wicked man named Haman. He also hated us, and tried to kill us out. God saved us from him and in honor of that experience we now have the festival of Purim. What a wonderful feast, singing and dancing. Then came the Greeks who tried to oppress us and we now have Chanukah, marking that occasion. But you, Hitler, you hate us more than any of our enemies. When God saves us from you, what a rejoicing there will be!"
Isn't it amazing that century after century, after so many repeated attempts to slaughter them, to destroy them, to wipe them out as a people, the Jewish People are still here? If ever there was a means devised by man to torture another man it was used on the Jews. If ever there was a diabolical method used by man to kill another man, it was perpetrated on the Jews. And yet, this one, isolated, universally hated people is still around to tell the tale, still as vibrant, still as energetic, still as active in mind and spirit as ever. And even more telling, after almost 2,000 years of exile, this scattered nation, this sheep amongst the wolves, has found its way back to its homeland that it left so many centuries ago.
What is the power of the sukkah? Why indeed has she not succumbed to the mighty storms of history?
Rabbi Akiva, the great sage of the second century, answered the question. The Talmud (Berachot 62b) tells of how Rabbi Akiva taught Torah in public at a time when the Roman government, under the Emperor Hadrian, prohibited it. Another sage, Pappus ben Judah, warned him that he was endangering his life. Rabbi Akiva replied with the following parable.
A fox was once walking by the bank of a river, and saw fish darting from place to place. "What are you fleeing from?" he asked the fish. "To escape the nets of the fisherman." "In that case," said the fox, "come and live on dry land together with me." "Are you the one they describe as the cleverest of animals?" the fish replied. "You are not clever but foolish. If we are in danger here in the water, which is where we live, how much more so on dry land, where we are bound to die." Torah is to Jewish survival, said Rabbi Akiva, as water is to fish. Yes, we are in danger, but if we were to leave Torah, which sustains our identity, to enter the dry land of the Romans, we would certainly die.
Sukkahs, of course, have in fact succumbed to storms. Jews, too, have fallen at the hands of ancient and modern murderers alike. Rabbi Akiva himself was barbarically executed by the Romans. But, as Reisen's metaphor so poignantly reminds us, there is timeless meaning in the fact that the Jewish people has survived and thrived. It is not tall and powerful monuments of stone that secure the eternity of a civilization. Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome constructed many a splendid edifices, but their civilizations have come to an end.
It is the fragile and unstable walls of a sukkah – the seemingly fragile, nebulous and intangible fortresses of faith, Torah, Mitzvot and spiritual integrity -- that eternity is created.