Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Hollywood...and a distinguished movie star opens an envelope...and announces the name of the best actor of the year....and the audience goes wild with excitement as the movie star hugs those that are sitting near him, and then, to tumultuous applause, climbs up to the stage and receives the Oscar.

And once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Hollywood…and a famous television star tears open an envelope and reads the name of the best actress of the year in a television program and the audience goes wild as an excited actress hugs the people sitting near her and then comes up on the stage to receive an Emmy.

And once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Congregation Shaarei Shamayim on Sukkot, and before a congregation that listens with baited breath...I announce the “Lulav of the Year Award.” What is the “Lulav Of The Year Award?” (With thanks to Rabbi Jack Reimer for the thought.) And why does it have that name?

It’s the award that I give to a person who has shown outstanding courage. Why do I call it “The Lulav of the Year Award”? Because while a Shofar you can hide in your pocket, if you want to, and a tallis, you can carry in a bag, even a plain brown paper bag...and no one will know what you have inside…but a lulav you can’t hide. A lulav sticks out, and stands tall.

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that in ancient times, the residents of Jerusalem would take a lulav with them wherever they went on Sukkot. It was a strong affirmation of who they were, for a lulav can’t be hidden. The Midrash teaches us that a lulav is symbolic of the spine. And therefore it is an appropriate symbol to give to a person who has had the spine to stand up tall for what he believes is right.

And now the envelope, please…and the winner is…Elie Wiesel. Earlier this summer, the world lost one of its towering moral leaders. Elie Wiesel was not only a witness to the Holocaust; he was a leader and a prophet, who spoke out on behalf of victims of genocide and oppression everywhere.

I remember reading Wiesel’s book, Night, as a teenager. It challenged my faith while inspiring my commitment to Jewish life. He never stopped challenging Gd for the suffering of His people and caring about his people. And most important for today’s award, Wiesel’s spoke truth to power. Do you remember when he challenged President Ronald Regan? Regan agreed to lay a wreath at the grave of members of the SS during a trip to Berlin. Before a startled nation, he said with conviction and without fear: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place; your place is with the victims of the SS.” On countless occasions, Wiesel raised his voice in protest against genocide and spoke on behalf of those who were forgotten—even when doing so was not popular.

Wiesel was also a role model. Despite enduring the horrors of Auschwitz, Wiesel never gave up on his faith or his love of Jewish life. He taught me that you could be angry at Gd and still believe in Him. When asked how he could observe the Shabbat after all that had happened to him, Wiesel answered, “Just because I’m angry at Gd, why should I take it out on the Shabbos?”

If there’s one lesson, however, we can learn from Wiesel’s legacy, it is to recognize that the greatest of all evils is “indifference.” In 1999, Wiesel was invited to the White House by then President Bill Clinton to deliver a millennial lecture. He began by saying: What will the legacy of this vanishing century be?…Surely it will be judged severely...[with] failures [that] have cast a dark shadow over humanity: 2 World Wars and countless civil wars, the senseless chain of assassinations—Gandhi, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Sadat, Rabin—bloodbaths in Cambodia and Nigeria, India and Pakistan, Ireland and Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sarajevo and Kosovo; the inhumanity in the gulag and the tragedy of Hiroshima. And, on a different level of course, Auschwitz and Treblinka. So much violence, so much indifference. Yes, the greatest of all evils is “indifference.”

At the time he said this, civil war was being waged in Kosovo and Serbians were slaughtering their Bosnian neighbors. For Wiesel this was not just a moral affront to humankind; it was a sin of the highest order! But the real sin was the indifference, the silence of the world. As Wiesel said: While indifference can be seductive, it is the ultimate sin; it is so much easier to look away from the victims…Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor—never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten…Indifference is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.

Let me ask you, if you had to pick one mitzvah as the most important in the Torah, what would it be: belief in Gd? You shall not murder? Honoring parents? “Don’t commit adultery?” These are all important and essential to our humanity. But for Elie Wiesel the most important commandment would undoubtedly be: Lo ta’amod al dam reyecha (Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow human being). In American law a bystander has no obligations. But in Judaism there’s no such thing as a “bystander.” If you witness something that is wrong, you’re obligated to reach out in compassion and try to help. In other words: “Thou shalt not be indifferent!”

Did you know that in Israel, it’s against the law to be a bystander? The law reads: “A person is obliged to extend assistance, when able to do so without endangering himself or his fellow…[for someone in] immediate danger to his life, his person, or his health.” 

Of course, we can’t save the whole world by ourselves. How can we stop the aggression and warfare in the Middle East? How can we solve the problems of the refugees? What can we do about racism in America? Wiesel said: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Let me tell you a story about a boy who stood on the beach throwing starfish that had washed up on the shore back into the ocean. An old man came over and asked: “What are you doing?”

          The boy explained that he was saving the starfish by throwing them back into the sea before the sun was high in the sky and the heat killed them.

          Upon hearing this, the man commented, “Young man, don’t you realize that there are thousands of miles of beach and there are hundreds thousands of starfish all along the way? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

          Upon hearing this, the child picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the ocean. As it met the water, the child said, “It made a difference for that one.”

My friends, the Torah challenges us: Lo ta’amod al dam reyecha (Do not stand idly by the blood of others). A Jew—any person—has no right to be indifferent to suffering no matter who the victim is. Elie Weisel taught us that if we are uncaring about the world, about our way of life, about one another…we grant a posthumous victory to Hitler and to the wicked. Elie Weisel challenged us to wage war against indifference and despair. For this and for the inspiration he has been for what he has accomplished with his life after all he had been through…he now posthumously receives the Shaarei Shamayim’s Lulav of the Year Award. May Gd bless his soul. Amen!                 

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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