Sermon delivered the first morning of Rosh Hashanah 5780
September 30, 2019
The old man got on the Metrobus on a rainy afternoon. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were upset at the delay and, hearing his accent, cast their anger frontward at him: someone shouted “go back to where you came from."
But the old man couldn’t go back to where he came from and hadn’t been in his native country for over 40 years. The man was Jan Karski, a professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Jan Karski was the greatest man I ever knew personally. He was one of the most popular professors in the Foreign Service School and everyone in the program had to take his course in “Modern Foreign Governments”, so there were usually 200 or more people in the class. I took his class during the fall semester of 1978 and one day in September he made an announcement before he began his lecture. He said that his classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be taped and copies left in the dean’s office so that anyone who observed those holidays could get copies.
Other professors made accommodations for Jewish students who had to miss classes if they were asked, but Karski was the only professor outside of the Theology Department who proactively did so. At the time, I was a little surprised that this Polish Catholic professor with the thick accent and courtly manner did this, but I didn’t know his story then.
Jan Karski was not his real name. He was born Jan Kozielewski to an aristocratic family and served briefly in the Polish diplomatic corps before the Nazis conquered Poland. After the Nazi conquest he joined the Polish underground. In 1940, because of his knowledge of several languages, he became a courier between the underground and the Polish Government in Exile, which was in London. This is when he adopted the pseudonym Jan Karski. During one of his missions, in July 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia and severely tortured. He managed to escape.
In 1942 Karski was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec death camp. Karski then went to London where he met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust. He also described what he had seen to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
In 1944, at the request of the Polish Government in Exile, Karski wrote a book about his mission which sold 400,000 copies. When Karski first came to Washington in 1943 he intended to return to Poland once the Allies defeated the Nazis. But as a devout Catholic and fervent anticommunist, he decided to remain rather than go back to the newly-Communist Poland. He got his Ph.D. at Georgetown, joined its faculty, and never spoke about his experiences again until some 40 years later. He had agreed to be profiled by the Washington Post and this lead to him being interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his magisterial documentary “Shoah.” Karski’s story became known; he was honored by many synagogues and Jewish organizations. Yad Vashem formally named him a “Righteous Gentile” and the State of Israel gave him honorary citizenship. When Communism fell, the Polish government also honored him. He died in the year 2000 and in 2012 he was posthumously awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although he was honored throughout the world as a hero, Karski always rejected that label. Indeed, he considered himself to have been a failure. Although he understood that the likelihood of success was small, he had hoped to motivate the Allied powers to take action to save at least some of the Jews who were doomed to be murdered. He failed at this, and it haunted him to the very end. In 1965 Karski married Pola Nierenska, a Polish Jewish woman, whose entire family had been killed in the Holocaust; she died of suicide in 1992 when she jumped from their Bethesda balcony.
In 1981 Karski gave one of his first public speeches, to a gathering of American liberators of concentration camps. Reminding them that he had failed in his mission, he said; “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s entire family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps and crematoria – so have all the Jews who were slaughtered become my family. But I am a Christian Jew… I am a practicing Catholic… My faith tells me the second original sin has been committed by humanity. This sin will haunt humanity until the end of time. And I want it to be so.”
Although Jan Karski eventually married a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, this was more than twenty years after he repeatedly risked his life to make sure the world knew what was happening. Why did he do it?
There are some people for whom Karski’s actions would not make sense if their thinking was followed to its logical conclusion. The first time that I ever received hate mail (back when it took some effort to send hate mail because it involved paper and a pen and an envelope and a postage stamp) was in January 1993 when I was the Hillel Director at American University. I had just returned from visiting Haiti with nine other rabbis and there was a story about my trip on the front page of the Washington Jewish Week. I received a couple of angry and obscene letters from people who felt that unless a problem was specifically affecting Jews, we should not get involved.
This attitude persists today. On September 13 this year the Jewish Community Relations Council cosponsored a rally in downtown Rockville in support of immigrants’ rights. JCRC Facebook posts often garner lots of comments and discussions but most JCRC posts deal with support for Israel and opposition to antisemitism and garner negative comments from antisemites, racists, and haters of Israel. But the JCRC posts about the immigrant rights rally received lots of negative comments from people who appear to be Jewish, saying the JCRC should stick to defending Jews and Israel and not worry about other people.
In Pirkei Avot Chapter 5 Mishna 10, we come across a somewhat curious teaching: There are four types of people: One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine" is an ignoramus. One who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" -- this is an intermediate characteristic; others say that this is the character of Sodom. One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a chassid [pious person]. And one who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked.
Most of this Mishna makes intuitive sense. If what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, we have disorder and confusion. If I say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, I’m a sociopath. If I was the kind of person who said mi casa es su casa and really meant it, I’d be some kind of saint. But “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” seems to be quite reasonable; while it’s true that the Mishnah says that this is characteristic of an average person, it goes on that “some say” that this is the characteristic of the people of Sodom -- who, you will remember, were destroyed by God for their sins.
Because we live in a society that is predominantly Christian, many American Jews know only the Christian teaching that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. But that isn’t the way the Jewish tradition reads it. The Prophet Ezekiel said : “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” And the Midrash Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer states: “It was declared in Sodom: ‘Whoever shares his bread with the stranger, orphan, and the poor shall be burned at the stake.’”
Orthodox rabbi Benjamin Hecht of Toronto explains the rabbinic understanding of the social order in Sodom. “The Sodomite would not steal from another but, on principle, he/she also would not extend a helping hand. ... The fact is that in Sodom, it was considered wrong for someone to receive something for nothing or to give something to another for nothing. To them, this was an important societal ‘value’, necessary for the proper functioning of a community. From a Jewish perspective, the adherence to such a negative moral viewpoint, though, was deemed to be the key nature of the evil within the population of Sodom. The driving force of the Sodomites in the story was their opinion that a wrong was committed, that it was ‘immoral’ [to give something for nothing] no matter what the circumstances. This drove the Sodomites to act. They had a ‘principle’ that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and nothing should be given for nothing.” “From a Jewish perspective, the story of Sodom is . . .one of ‘committed’ citizens motivated by an evil principle, which they believed to be correct, that was being violated.”
Jan Karski was the polar opposite of the citizens of Sodom. He was tortured and risked his life in an effort to convince the Western powers to save Jews. He did this even though he was not Jewish. He failed in his mission because the Western powers could not be convinced that saving Jewish lives was worth the investment in munitions and manpower to do so.
The Jan Karski Educational Foundation was established not only to honor his memory but to urge humanity to follow in his footsteps. The Foundation created the “Spirit of Jan Karski Award” to recognize “individuals who through their actions have demonstrated the values represented by Jan Karski and have distinguished themselves by defending human rights, speaking out against aggression and on behalf of the integrity of ethnic and religious groups and sovereign nations.” Award recipients include NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for calling public attention to humanitarian crises throughout the world; Ambassador Samantha Power, for advancing the cause of genocide prevention; and the late Senator John McCain, “ for his courageous leadership and willingness to speak truth to power about international acts of aggression.”
As long as there is a Jewish community we will argue with each other about how much time, energy, and money we should devote to specifically Jewish interests and how much to the general welfare. If we do not take care of our own needs, we will not exist. But if we only take care of our own needs we have no reason to exist; nor would we have a right to complain when others don’t help us when we are in need. Or as Hillel put it over 2000 years ago: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
When we reach out to serve others -- a Christmas brunch at the Men’s Emergency Shelter, collecting school supplies for children in need, sending clothing and toys and hygiene supplies to asylum seekers in Nogales, Mexico -- we do not do it because the people we are helping are Jewish. We do it because we are Jewish. When Israeli search-and-rescue and rebuilding teams go to the Bahamas, when Israeli doctors help refugees in Syria -- they do not do it because those being helped are Jewish. They do it because they are Jewish and understand that we are called to be a light unto the nations.
At the end of this day, the world will either be a more or less kind, compassionate, and loving place because of your presence. As we ask God to inscribe us for blessing in the book of life, it is these qualities which will define us.