Praising God on the Train Tracks

While on a trip to Germany and Poland with FASPE (Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics) in 2016, I found myself praising God in the sweetness of the afternoon sun while standing on the Grunewald station train tracks from which Berlin Jews were sent to death camps during the Holocaust. The following is an attempt to understand that strangely positive moment in the midst of darkness.

It was our third stop at a Holocaust-related site on that long, heavy day. First we had been to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel, where some of the first gas chambers were built, and 10,000 mentally and physically challenged people were killed, along with a number of homosexuals and others deemed “feeble-minded.” Next, we had spent time at the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the details of the so-called “Final Solution” were ironed out. And finally, we visited the Grunewald train station, from which the Jews of Berlin were sent to be murdered. It was late afternoon when we got to the train tracks. The summer heat was intense and fatigue had set in. We walked down the tracks to the dozens of bronze plaques set into the platform, which recorded the transport dates, the number of Jews deported, and train destinations. As I walked, I felt myself pulled toward the magnetic force of the Israeli flags at the edge of the tracks, probably left by a group of recent Israeli visitors. Bright blue and white cutting through the grayness, draped proudly on the tracks, along with stones and dried out flowers. I touched the soft fabric with love, a love that I have not felt in a long time toward this symbol of nationalism, human shallowness, and greed. This symbol of the innocence of my childhood. This symbol of the state of Israel, which sends its children here to wrap themselves in this cloth and go back home to manage the cruelty over Palestinians with a gun. And yet, I needed to touch it. It felt cool and soft against my skin.

Soon I was joined by another Seminary Fellow, Emily, and one of the Seminary faculty, Rabbi Jim. So there we were by the flags, one rabbi and two rabbis in the making, and it was time for Mincha, the afternoon service. So far on our trip, we hadn’t prayed together. But that moment felt like the right time. We began with Psalm 145, the prayer that opens the Mincha service. Ashrei yoshvei veitecha; Od yehalelucha selah, we recited the first verse, “Happy are those who dwell in your house; they will forever praise you.” We sang our way through the entire psalm, an acrostic poem that praises God. Another rabbinical student, Cornelia, joined us midway through, opening her prayer book. Others from our trip — priests, doctors, teachers, seminary and medical students — came and hovered nearby.

When we got to the line that begins with the Hebrew letter koof, Jim’s voice rang out. Was it with sarcasm? I couldn’t tell. “God is close to all who cry out to Him with truth.” They did cry out to Him, with nothing other than truth. Each and every one of those who passed through the train station. Each of those murdered at Brandenburg. Each of those condemned to death by the Wannsee Conference, those who died and those who survived. Was God really close to them all? As close as a lamb sacrificed in the Temple was to the one to whom she was sacrificed? We kept singing through to the end: “And we will praise God from this moment through eternity, Hallelujah.

There were no tears in this prayer session, no strong emotions as far as I could tell. It was cleaner than all that. Which isn’t to say that the thoughts behind the prayers made perfect sense. What’s to praise in this God who let this happen? What’s to praise here in this spot, on this day, and who exactly is it that we are praising? What is it that we were expressing in our joint praise?

As we walked out of the museum in Brandenburg an der Havel earlier that day I had found myself thinking back to a year-and-a-half ago and my nephew Nahar’s bar mitzvah. Severely disabled, both physically and mentally, Nahar would have been a prime target for murder at Brandenburg. Unlike the parents of those first subjected to the Nazis’ so-called “euthanasia” program, who wrote to Hitler asking him to kill their children in order to relieve their children’s misery, as well as their own, my brother and sister-in-law have inspired everyone they know with their committed and loving care of Nahar. The bar mitzvah was a gorgeous and heart-breaking celebration of him and his life. It is unclear how long he will still live. It is unclear how much pain he lives with each day or how much his legally blind eyes can see. Nahar cannot speak or stand. To an outsider, understanding what he wants or needs seems like a guess, a type of projection onto him from his family and caretakers. And yet people who know him learn to read his signals, and love him and his unique way of being present. At the bar mitzvah, despite the near-certainty we all experienced that Nahar understood what was happening that day, and embracing, reveling and rejoicing in it, we also experienced moments in which we knew we might be wrong and that the strong sense of presence we got from him might be more projection than truth.

That winter day we prayed a deep and joyful prayer together. We thanked God for Nahar and everything Nahar gives us. We thanked God for that immense, beautiful day, for that moment itself in which we stood together. It was an embrace of the beauty that exists within the frail, the unknowable, the fleeting. It affirmed life for life’s sake, vibrantly awake even as it moves continually toward death, its value lying not in “progress” but in being, not in the future, but in the present.

Before we got on the bus to leave Brandenburg, I said to Cornelia, “They were wrong.” By which I meant that they, the Nazis, had made a mistake.

The Nazi view of life was diametrically opposed to that which was expressed at Nahar’s bar mitzvah. The Nazis valued utility above all else. Jews deserved to die, according to Nazi ideology, not just because the Nazis hated them, but because they hindered progress. There were plenty of people the Nazis disliked. That was not enough of a reason to kill them. Science had to support the killing. In the Nazi view, an Aryan alcoholic’s life was not worthy. Nazi leaflets depicted how one alcoholic would bequeath to the world over 70 delinquent offspring within a few decades. Society simply couldn’t handle the burden, the Nazis argued, and it would remain forever hindered in growth and progress by such individuals. In this way, the Nazis justified killing Aryan Germans who were living in mental institutions. They killed people like my nephew, people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, children who weren’t developing at the same pace as their peers, and many others with all sorts of mental and physical disabilities.

What I am suggesting is that their mistake was not only ideological, but spiritual. In essence, the Nazis made the same error that the 20th-century Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel detected in the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo. In an effort to put a rational twist on Judaism for the sake of keeping second-century Jews from abandoning their faith for the alluring Hellenistic culture around them, Philo suggested that observing the Sabbath had a utilitarian purpose: productivity. Resting, argued Philo, makes you a better worker during the week. In his seminal book, The Sabbath, Heschel rebelled against this notion by quoting the Zohar, a central Jewish mystical text: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.” Shabbat — the day on which we can taste the nature of being, enjoy being with our loved ones, eat, drink, make love to our partners, and sleep well — is what we are alive for, not the vanities of our professional lives. The Nazis followed an opposing logic, which they believed would lead humanity to improve tremendously. If only those who hinder progress are eliminated, the logic went, then we would quickly reach a new age. The “Final Solution,” which we had brought to mind and discussed in our time at Wannsee before visiting the train tracks, was, to the Nazis, chevley mashiach, “the pangs of the coming of the Messiah.” In this sense, Nazism was not actually a secular movement, as it is often understood to be, but a religious, messianic one. Given this, it is entirely normal for them to have spliced the world into categories of us and them, and to have moved to eradicate the “them,” as other messianic movements have historically done.

Brandenburg, the place where Nazi mass murder began, suggests a category of “other” not defined in racial or religious terms, but in terms of usefulness. It leads one to wonder whether Nazi racial theory was a symptom of a deeper problem and not the driving force behind the killings. It forces us to look at today’s world and to not only look out for and fight racism, but to understand that behind racism may lie a deeper flaw: a rejection of the inherent value of living — and a notion that one person’s life is useful to society, whereas another’s is not. Healthy people should live, the sick should die. The weak should make way for the prosperity of the strong. A person who cannot or will not work for the advancement of society is sucking the blood out of the system. In the concentration camps, many were killed for their “laziness,” usually meaning they were too sick to work.

The extermination program at Brandenburg as the precedent for the killing of the Jews presents the uncomfortable question of whether there was something in the Jewish spiritual system that the anti-Semites of the time sensed and hated, something about Judaism itself that made non-Jews uncomfortable. At Brandenburg I felt called to seek out what stood behind the racism, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nazis sensed something in our tradition that deeply challenged them.

Modern Hebrew slang has a beautiful expression: Haval al hazman, literally “too bad for the time,” meaning “it’s a waste of time.” Over the years, this expression has been transformed to mean its opposite. When Hebrew speakers use the phrase today, what they mean is, “It’s amazing.” The expression “waste of time” underscores that the experience you had was out of the ordinary. Time is not meant for accomplishing this or that in the world, or even for recounting that experience in words, but for enjoying, appreciating, for being in it.

On every special occasion, every holiday, and each time we do something we haven’t done in a long time, Jews recite the words of the Shehecheyanu blessing: “Blessed are you, O God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, and sustaining us, and bringing us to this moment.” The concept of hazman hazeh, “this moment,” has the power to transcend all else. This time or moment, and the ability to be in it and experience it, is an ultimate goal in Judaism. The Jewish notion of time poses a challenge to the Nazi ethic of utility.

In Brandenburg, I had had the same instinct as I did when seeing the Israeli flags at the Grunewald station. I wanted to touch the stones, the foundations of the buildings where the gas chambers had stood. I did touch them. They felt smooth and cool to the hand. The only question I asked our guide as we stood on the ground that once held the crematorium was also about touch: Who took the bodies from the gas chambers into the crematorium? I wasn’t concerned so much with the perpetrators who assisted in the killing, but with the dead. Who touched their bodies once their souls were forced out? What, might I imagine, was the nature of that contact? My need to touch the place was so strong that I almost ran off the bus before we left, for one last touch.

Touch, physical pleasure, and sensuality are important in Judaism. Judaism does not believe in depriving the body. Rabbis are expected to marry and have sex. On Passover we are commanded to drink four glasses of wine. The morning service in Judaism involves highly sensual rituals: wrapping the arms and head in Tefillin, or phylacteries, wrapping the rest of the body in a Tallit, or prayer shawl, singing the melodies of the verses of song called Pesukei Dezimra. Shabbat is an especially sensual day. Every Sabbath meal is a feast. Wine is drunk Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and again on Saturday evening. The day ends with the Havdalah service, a short series of blessings and rituals that speak to each of our senses: we taste wine, smell spices, feel the warmth of the candlelight on our hands, and listen to the sound of our own singing. The senses are crucial avenues through which to experience the divine. The fact that Shabbat, our “Temple in Time,” as Heschel called it, is celebrated through the senses, points to the deep connection in Judaism between pleasure and time.

I am trying to understand what gave rise in me to that powerful impulse to connect physically with the gas chambers in Brandenburg, to feel the pleasure of those cool stones and bricks. Perhaps I needed to feel the present, the current, solid world I live in, which isn’t Nazi Germany, and in which a stone feels a certain way. Or maybe I wanted to touch something that is not an idea, a fact, a memory, or a story — things that can be manipulated and twisted, as we all do — but something that just is, even at a site of a former gas chamber. Or perhaps, after having just seen the photos in the Brandenburg museum of so many of the people whose lives were taken at that place, it’s possible that I wanted to touch them in some way. Innocent people, including children, passed on at that spot. Perhaps I needed to touch that innocence, to touch them in their final moments of terror, in my sad, twisted and all so human imagination. Maybe I felt that in touching the place they were killed I could somehow transmit to them a sense of love.

In Brandenburg I did not think of praying, other than perhaps reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. There were too many emotions going around for that. By the time we got to praying, six or seven hours later by the flags on the train tracks, the emotions had been released, or distilled into an innocence that would present itself in the clarity of prayer. That innocence, which implies a moment in time, an ability to just be, a temporary reprieve from seeing darkness, a total belief in sweetness, a sense of joy and inseparable oneness, and a true moment of goodwill, that innocence was haval al hazman. It effortlessly made our prayer an antidote to everything we had witnessed that day and perhaps throughout the entire trip. It was a simple, manipulation-free refute of the Nazi ethic of progress and utility, and a brief yet enduring testament to the lives of those who were killed in Brandenburg and sent to their deaths from those train tracks. It was pleasurable, and in experiencing that pleasure together at that site we reminded ourselves that pleasure exists, that it was good to experience it even there, and that part of our task is to seek pleasure and to protect each person’s right to do the same.

Our recitation of the Mincha service, like Shabbat and most moments of prayer, was a pause. It was not “useful.” But our singing words of praise to the Eternal manufactured an important innocence distinct from the innocence of those killed, but perhaps carrying an echo of it, and distinct from the naive beauty of a child’s sense of pride in his flag, but carrying the hopefulness that comes with it. The praise we offered together at that moment carried within it a lesson we had learned on our trip as well as the seeds of the task that lay before us in returning to our communities back home.

What is that task? There is the obvious: stand up to bigots and racists and those who demean another’s life; celebrate life and, for me as a Jew, celebrate Judaism. And then there is the less obvious: be a force for thoughtfulness and enjoyment, not ravenous progress; stand up to the forces that look at the world only through numbers, facts, grades, and other manifestations of “progress”; accept that the pace of personal progress is not the pace of New York City. As a religious leader, bring those pauses, built deeply into the fabric of our people and our faith, into the bustling world we live in. Use the Holocaust not as a tool for political manipulation, but as a way to be present to the frail reality of life, to the human tendency toward hate and death that must be continuously, laboriously negated; as an ever present Hineni — “Here I am!” — that can keep us real, and keep us awake, and keep us in love. And in the midst of frailty and anger to offer people an avenue to sing God’s praises.

*This article first appeared in the FASPE journal, 2016

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Misha has been working at the cusp of religion, art, activism and education for over twenty years. Rabbi of The New Shul and SCJ.

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