Parasha Va-Yera

“For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him that they may keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”
I was perusing the newspaper a few months ago when my eye caught the obituary of a man named Leo Bretholz. The name was not familiar to me, but the title of the article caught my attention, “Age 93, Escaped from Train to Auschwitz”. Mr. Bretholz, however, did not get his obituary written up in the New York Times for simply escaping from a train to Auschwitz. True, toward the end of the war he became a member of La Sexieme, a Jewish resistance group that operated in France. La Sixieme was originally a network for rescuing Jewish children and youth. It later developed into a fighting unit that helped to liberate Southwestern France. La Sexieme was credited with rescuing several thousand Jews. But it wasn’t for that that Mr. Bretholz got his obituary published in the New York Times. On November 5, 1942, fifty two years to the day that I write this, Mr. Bertholz was being transported on a train from France to Auschwitz. He and another man pried the bars from the windows of a train car and, when the train slowed around a bend, they jumped out. They had to avoid the surveillance floodlights that the guards aimed over the entire curvature of the train as it slowed. It was a daring escape that he detailed in his 1998 memoir, Leap into Darkness, Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe. But Mr. Bertholz was not given a prominent obituary in the New York Times because he wrote a Holocaust memoir. Mr. Bertholz was given an obituary in the New York Times because he was a prominent eyewitness in a class action suit brought against the French Railroad that transported him to Auschwitz. The suit sought to recover damages from the railroad company, S.N.C. F. for the part it played in the murder of Jews deported from France to the gas chambers of Poland. Between 1941 and 1944 this railroad company transported 76,000 European Jews to the Franco-German border in 76 cattle cars. From there, German trains took them to the death camps. The suit died when the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the suit was outside of American jurisdiction.  The company formally apologized to Holocaust survivors and victims in 2011 a few months after American lawmakers, Holocaust survivors, and their descendents tried to block the company from participating in bidding on American high speed rail systems. They sought to prevent the company from getting these lucrative contracts before acknowledging their role in shipping tens of thousands of Jews to their death in Germany.  The company offered a formal apology but refused to pay reparations. It portrayed itself as a victim of German occupation itself. Mr. Bretholz was a star witness before Congress and the Maryland legislature as he testified in the attempt to pass legislation that would bar the company from bidding on contracts until it paid reparations to its victims. The company, claimed Mr. Berholz, was actively complicit in the deportations. The rail operators packed people into cattle cars, he said. They failed to provide adequate food and water, he said. They provided the guards that prevented people from escaping, he said. “Wartime France,” he said, was “the most important and very venal cog in the wheel of Hitler’s Holocaust co-conspirators.” The Jewish People have rightly been called a “justice intoxicated people”.  In our parasha this week, Abraham challenges G-d over G-d’s plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham impudently says to G-d. “Far be it from You – Will not the Judge of all the earth act justly?” We have here the very first instance of that “fanatical love of Justice” that Albert Einstein spoke about when he expressed his gratefulness that he was part of the Jewish people.  That love of justice is beautifully expressed in Psalm  94
“Rise up, O G-d, Judge of the earth/ repay the arrogant with what they deserve…….   They crush Your people; they oppress Your heritage                                                The widow and the stranger — they kill / the orphan — they murder.                            They say, “G-d does not see” / The Divine One of Israel does not take notice.”
Abraham was chosen by G-d, says scriptures, so that he could teach the world what it “right” and “just”.  Abraham was chosen so he could teach the world to have a conscience.  Hitler knew this. He wrote that conscience was a Jewish invention. Like circumcision, he said, it is a blemish on humanity. By seeking to destroy the Jewish people, Hitler sought to banish G-d from our world. The contemporary Israeli writer Yossi Klein Ha Levi puts it this way: “A photograph taken in Poland offered confirmation that the Holocaust was a spiritual war. It is a well known image: A Jew, wearing tallis and tefillin, is about to be shot by the jeering Nazi soldiers who surround him. The ultimate disputation:  The Jew insists on the existence of the Creator and the primacy of soul over body, while the Nazis, by exposing Jewish helplessness and the absence of an invisible Protector, insist on an empty cosmos.” Companies that collaborated with the Nazis and benefited financially from that cooperation ought to pay reparations to their victims and their descendents. People like Mr. Bertholz are doing G-d’s work on earth when they stubbornly pursue those reparations in the name of justice. They are bearing witness to the presence of G-d in history, carrying out the Jewish mission long entrusted to Abraham and his descendents. Shabbat Shalom