When I was very young a story told by my Rabbi made a lasting impression upon me. It is about a great East European sage of the early 20th century we call the Hafetz Hayyim, which literally means “ the Seeker of Life.” His real name was Rabbi Israel Mayer Hakohen but received his more famous title from a book he wrote about care in using speech. It comes from the verse in Psalms: who is the one who seeks life? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceit.
Rabbi Hakohen was a great halakhist (a scholar of Jewish law) as well as moralist renowned for his piety, modesty and gentleness. He brought the Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law, up to date for his time with a commentary that has become a standard text for Halakhic (Jewish legal traditions) study. It is a story about him that I found and find so telling.
A visitor came to consult with the rabbi from far away. The rabbi welcomed him into his home and the visitor was surprised that the home was so sparsely furnished. He asked the rabbi: where are your furnishings? Rabbi Hakohen in turn asked him: where are your furnishings. The visitor replied: I am only a visitor here, a stranger. I do not have any furnishings with me. The rabbi answered: I too am only a visitor here.
This story has many important teachings.
We humans like the comforts of home. ‘There is no place like home.’ ‘Home sweet home.’ We like the sense of rootedness our homes provide. In our youth our parents care for us; as we grow, we make our own homes with husband or wife and hopefully children to care for. In old age we may join our childrens’ homes to be cared for by them. In each locale and phase of life there might be a home that is safe, secure and comfortable in which to live out our lives. So it might be natural to think of humans as being totally committed to the idea of home. Yet throughout human history mobility has been an important part of human life. Ancient hunting societies moved to where the greatest catch could be made. Agricultural societies moved to the most fertile lands and stayed there until the power of the earth was depleted. People moved willingly and voluntarily to make better lives for themselves. Then, when they settled down in a place, they continued to travel: vacations to exotic places, cruises through sunshine areas as well as visits during the cold winter months. Sometimes the mobility was prompted by oppressive conditions and danger to life.
Our Jewish tradition emphasizes that we
should always remember our immigrant roots
Of course, as Jews we know that there are forced migrations from lands we inhabited for centuries and even millennia. This kind of mobility was not initially welcomed but somehow we survived and even prospered in new locations with a more friendly population. I believe that just about everyone has experienced at least one major move and some minor moves during their lives.
Our own history even begins with a radical move. Abraham is told to leave ancient Babylon for a new as yet unknown place that God says: I will show you. Abraham is told: Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s home. Abraham and Sarah leave with their family on this new mysterious adventure into the unfamiliar and for an as yet unidentified place. How this initially impacted on Abraham’s family we do not precisely know. We can imagine an element of what is called in French: dépaysé, a person in a new and strange environment trying to make a new life under new conditions. It can produce what is called in French: anomie, a sense of disorder, instability and confusion. Fortunately Abraham and Sarah had God to direct them in their new surroundings.
Yet we have reason to believe that Abraham never became fully rooted in the new surroundings. Later on the Bible describes the passing of Sarah, and Abraham seeks a burial place for her. He approaches the local population to request a piece of land. In his request he says of himself:- “I am a stranger and a resident among you”. This term is probably the equivalent of a ’landed immigrant’ in Canada or a ‘resident alien’ in other places. After so many years in Canaan, Abraham still looks upon himself as an immigrant, a stranger even though he is a long-time resident. He needs permission to acquire property. This is eventually granted to him in ancient Hebron and remains today as a sacred place for us Jews : The Cave of Hamakhpelah is where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah are all buried.
Throughout most of our history the description of the resident alien with limited rights, is certainly applicable. Now, in the age of democracy, our status has changed. We are citizens like everyone else. We have the same rights as all others. Of course, prejudice sometimes limits us but it is not legally enshrined in the system. In fact, the system works in favor of immigrants against the ingrained chauvinism of so-called native populations. We see this in our Quebec society now discussing ‘reasonable accommodation.’ This is an important issue and challenges both the original population of a society and new immigrants towards an analysis of what it means to immigrate as well as to accept immigrants. Some French Canadian elements of Quebec society have always had difficulty with this issue. For example, in many minds Jews are still considered strangers and new immigrants although the Jewish community has roots in Quebec that are more than 250 years old. During that period we have had a pretty good life here and I am hopeful that Quebec’s flexibility will grow and mature.
The Montreal Gazette recently had a report of a survey on attitudes towards minorities in Quebec and Canada. Strikingly, positive attitudes towards Jews are very high across the country even though they are a bit lower in Quebec. But one headline read something like: French Catholics Isolated. According to the Gazette article, some French Canadians seem to have forgotten their immigrant roots and pretend to be the hosts to other immigrants and wish to limit public exposure of other religious symbols. So, the maturation process must go on.
Our Jewish tradition emphasizes that we should always remember our immigrant roots. Many holidays and practices are rooted in the experience of our ancient immigration from Egypt.. The Torah constantly proclaims that we care for the stranger based on our own experience of being strangers in Egypt.
In the summer of 2007, my spouse, Norma, and I traveled through some of Central and Eastern Europe. It was an intense trip in which we tried to trace Jewish history in the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary with a brief dash into present-day Romania to visit the city in which Norma’s mother had been born when it was still part of Hungary. South of Prague we stopped at Brno where Norma’s father had been born while his father served as Rabbi of the city in the early 20th century.
In most cities we visited there were certainly ancient cemeteries testifying to Jewish presence for almost 1000 years. In local Synagogues there was also usually a major plaque mounted after World War I to honor those who died defending the ‘Fatherland.’
Both of these phenomena testify to Jewish longevity in these lands. But the Synagogues and the plaques are striking! We saw magnificent edifices especially in Hungary that rival the cathedrals of Europe in majesty and beauty.
What do these mean today? Would any Jews mount a plaque in these countries to the Fatherland after World War II? There are plaques from the recent past but they commemorate the millions destroyed by the Nazis and their accomplices in each country. The sense of ‘fatherland’ unfortunately is gone.
So what do these grand Synagogues mean to us today? Did those who built them at immense expense really feel so much at home and secure that they were ready to make such a statement? Or, was this an attempt to convince themselves and the general public that they were indeed rooted in the society as full and equal citizens?
Another example. Gunter Demnig, a non-Jewish German artist, has initiated a project to put ‘stumble stones’ as memorials throughout Germany to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. These stones are placed as part of the street paving near the homes and workplaces of the victims. Over 10,000 have been placed to date, according to the Jerusalem Report (March 19, 2007).
Of course, there has been some opposition to this project for one reason or another. Demnig reports of a man who told him - while he was laying such a stone- to do something for the German victims for a change. Angrily he showed the man documents proving that the Jewish victim had been decorated as a soldier in World War I. In Demnig’s mind the victim was certainly a German. In his critic’s mind he was not.
What about ourselves? Do we hesitate to invest in our future here in one of the freest countries of the West? I know I do not hesitate. I think that at this time Western democracy looks like it will provide long-term residence for us. North America is not riven by the historic conflicts and hatreds of Europe that are still present today. But no one really knows the future. I think we still know deep down that anything is possible, that even our residence here can end. But conditions would have to change radically. In Europe, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, they changed quickly and many were unprepared for the changes. They seemed unimaginable. How could a modern society turn against an important and productive part of society? Is it rational that Hungary would destroy 34% of its doctors and 49% of its lawyers? Many of the most important writers and scholars in Hungary were Jewish. Their names are well known today in Hungary but few know of their Jewish heritage.
“I too am only a visitor”
So we return to Hafetz Hayyim, the “Seeker of life”. I too am only a visitor, he told the stranger. He probably did not know himself how right he was and how soon the millions of Jews of Eastern Europe would be destroyed. But I also think he had more in mind when he made this statement.
The implications of Rabbi Israel Mayer Hakohen’s response to a visitor to his home were that he himself was a guest. Probably, what he had most in his mind was the fact of human transience, that we are all brief visitors on this earth.
We are placed here on Earth when God so desires. We are sent on a mission to live in such a way as that God’s dream for humanity will be realized. We can have our own dreams as well but if they do not fit in with those of God they will not usually succeed or make us feel that we lived a meaningful life. We are created and placed in this world at a particular time because that is the most fitting time for us. It fits the assignment we each have on earth. Each person is an agent, a messenger that is sent to accomplish a particular task; if we were born at any other time in history the times would not be right for us. Now the challenge is to live up to our task. Unfortunately, we often fail to do so. That is a source of shame so we ask God’s help to overcome that shame and our failure to fulfill our task. What then is our task? How can we know it?
Over and over again we say on Yom Kippur what we call the 13 Characteristics of God – compassionate, kind, generous and patient and others as well. We are not only reminding God that we expect kindness and compassion for ourselves but we are being reminded that these are the qualities we should be emulating in our daily lives. If we do these things then we are making the most of our lives. These moral spiritual qualities are the foundation of a good life. Short or long it is by these we will fulfill our mission and by these we will be remembered.
Rabbi Hakohen, “the Seeker of Life”, is reminding us that the apparent furnishings of life are just so much dross. We are all visitors in this world. We cannot take with us any of our material powers or possessions to the next world except those we generously shared with others. That which we gave away is permanently ours. When we stand before God on Yom Kippur or in the World to Come these will stand with us. We are only passing through. But we have a job to do. When the job is over, we can then take with us our good deeds, our kindnesses and generosities, the love and care we shared with those around us in our families and communities. This is the way the “Seeker of Life” bid us seek life as well.
Gunter Demnig’s memorials commemorate victims of the Holocaust.