After officiating a Bar Mitzvah service last week, Cantor Lee and I were invited for the festive meal. The proud grandfather was seated next to me.
With some hesitation he turned to me and said, “Rabbi, can I ask you a question that has been bothering me for weeks? You see,” he said, “it's about Ukraine. My entire family is originally from the city of Odessa. Almost all perished in the Holocaust by the Nazis with the enthusiastic help of the Ukrainians.
I am sure you know how cruel the Ukrainians were to us over many centuries and the atrocities they committed against us during many bloody pogroms, killing us, burning our synagogues, our villages. Now they want Israel to help them with weapons and take in as many refugees as possible.”
“Rabbi”, he continued. “I understand that these are refugees and the importance of helping them but it is hard for me not to feel torn between the bitter memories and our Jewish obligation to help anyone who is in dire need”.
It seems that the man’s question caught the attention of the other guests around the table. Suddenly the eager expectation for the wonderful food which was about to be served faded a little as many were listening intently to the conversation which was about to emerge.
I immediately realized how significant this issue is for so many of us. It feels like scratching an old Jewish scar to expose a deep and painful wound.
For a minute I was quiet. I myself have been trying to sort out my feelings about all this ever since the horrific pictures of brave Ukrainians being shelled indiscriminately by the Russians which, as we all know, caused a massive amount of refugees and so much destruction.
The painful memories of suffering at the hands of the Ukrainians will always be with us as they should. As I was trying to formulate the appropriate answer, the Biblical Exodus story came to mind.
For the Egyptians, it only took a few generations to turn from love and admiration for Joseph to an Egyptian generation with the exact opposite feelings about him and his people, the Hebrews.
The Torah indicates this by simply saying: ”A new king arose who knew not of Joseph.” I am sure there were hieroglyphic documents which spoke about the glorious days of Egypt during Joseph’s time. Egyptian kings were always good at documenting their achievements.
It was just that this new king, along with his subjects and the slave drivers had entirely different feelings about Joseph and his people.
With that in mind I turned to the grandfather and said, “It is our obligation to honor all these horrible Jewish memories at the hands of the Ukrainians, not only their enthusiastic participation in the Holocaust.”
I then reminded him about the pharaoh story. “This story teaches us an important Biblical lesson,” I told him. “Each generation has its own feelings and its own attitude towards important issues and events. Despite bitter Jewish memories in Ukraine of many centuries we can look at the situation as opposite yet similar to the Egyptian story.
In the modern Ukraine case it is a turn from a generation who knew no limits to their cruelty to the Jews to a generation who is very much pro-Israel and who admires and loves their Jewish leader, Mr. Zelenskyy, (the modern day Joseph?) and has no problem with its Jewish population.”
The grandfather did not seem comforted by the answer. “Yes”, he replied, “but shouldn’t we as Jews be very cautious when it comes to Gentiles with such a bloody history against us?”
I thought for a minute about it and said: “There’s a fine line between Jewish caution and paranoia. This generation of Ukrainians are good and brave people. They are certainly good to us, the Jews, and the State of Israel. They admire their Jewish president.
It is true that the State of Israel is afraid to supply Ukraine with arms because they depend on Russia not interfering with the Israeli Air Force activities in Syria. Yet its humanitarian help to Ukraine is extensive. Not only did Israel take in thousands of Ukrainians refugees, she also sent a modern, large, fully equipped field hospital manned by many doctors and nurses, along with large quantities of food and medicine supplies. And as you know” I continued, “many Jewish organizations are helping with very large sums of relief money”.
I was still not sure if this was a satisfactory answer. But then I realized that I should ask myself the same question. I guess if an Egyptian generation could ignore the wonderful deeds of Joseph the Hebrew who had lived only a few generations previously and turn into a generation of hate and bigotry, then we as modern Jews can do the opposite. Overcome the bitter memories of the past and welcome the good relations we now have with the modern Ukrainians.
And in doing so may the pain from past horrific deeds perpetrated against us be healed as we altogether create a new world. One where war does not exist. One where “Shirat Shalom” a “Song of Peace” is sung by all.
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