I met a friend of my brother’s the other day at a Jerusalem café. He told me that he had taken part in a convocation honoring Elie Wiesel at the Hebrew University, and that the Chief Rabbi of Rumania was there and told the following story:
In my position I’ve visited many small Rumanian towns and villages which once had a large population of Jews but which are now empty of Jews after the Holocaust. In one such town I hear something strange. There is an old synagogue there, abandoned and unused since World War II. But every Friday night, when the Sabbath begins, the lights go on in the synagogue and they go off on Saturday night, at the end of the Sabbath. I decided to look into it, and discovered that a goy, a non-Jew, enters the abandoned synagogue every Friday evening and puts the Sabbath prayer books by every single empty seat. On the Sabbath morning he comes in again and puts prayer shawls by each seat. He comes back on Saturday night, returns the prayer shawls and prayer books, and turns off the lights. He has done that for many years. I told Elie Weisel about this long ago, and he told me to support this man as much as possible so that he could continue to do this work.
When I heard this story I immediately remembered Bernie’s and my 1996 visit with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, to ask him for his blessing for the Zen Peacemakers’ retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Reb Zalman said that he was all for it, only the retreat had to be done for the sake of the souls there. I vividly remember driving back and pondering his answer: What souls? Weren’t the dead dead? Beside, as a Buddhist I didn’t believe in souls.
We’d asked him for his blessing for a single retreat, not knowing that this retreat would continue for 21 years. During all that time I and many others have sensed a powerful presence in those death camps. I hear visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau number almost 2 million a year, most of whom come to look around quickly, turn away and leave. But a small group of 100 comes every year to sit in a circle on those tracks, chant names of the dead and do ceremony.
Time is a human construct; past, present, and future are only human parameters for organizing experience and information in a way that can be processed by our brains, nothing more. In that case, how can anyone gauge the impact of a diverse group of people bearing witness to millions killed in the name of sameness, uniformity, and racial purity? Or the work of one non-Jew who, week after week, year after year, puts out service books and prayer shawls at the beginning of the Sabbath in a half-destroyed synagogue and puts them away at the end?
Why does he do that? What does he see?
I thought of this again when I read about the Forgiveness Ceremony conducted by Leonard Crow Dog at Standing Rock for army veterans. The same army that had massacred Natives for hundreds of years now came to protect their encampment, and then begged for forgiveness for what the US army had done over centuries. Wesley Clark, Jr., minced no words:
Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. We took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.
I devoured those photos when they appeared. Later that night, when I talked about this to a good friend, a wonderful and skilled leadership consultant, his response was that he appreciated this gesture, only it should have been better organized with more people and more publicity.
But this was no gesture. It’s precisely the small individual acts that make the difference. It’s precisely those acts making no sense (The dead are dead!), that seemingly have little visible impact, in which a person full-heartedly lights a candle, says a name, argues persuasively and peacefully against the use of Indian mascots by a local high school football team, who comes to the site of a massacre or the sale of slaves to re-member, reconnect the dead and the living, those acts participate in a moment that isn’t momentary but timeless; they heal the fabric of the one life that transcends life and death.
What does the man in Rumania, serving the invisible ones in the synagogue, say to his family and friends who tell him his actions make no sense? They are right; what he does has no logic. Those actions, like Leonard Crow Dog’s and other more anonymous ones, come from somewhere else. We can’t know the significance of even the smallest action. But I am quite certain now that the small is never small, the past is never past. Each of us can do something. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter.