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Monday, April 7, 2014

I Believe...

Lent 5, Yr. A
4/6/14
John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

     Seventy-five years ago, Reb Azriel-David Festig was famous throughout Warsaw for his gifts as a singer and composer.  On High Holy Days, people filled the synagogue where he and his brothers worshipped, Reb Azriel-David leading the prayers with his brothers as a choir. His strong, clear notes stirred the hearts and souls of all who heard him raising his voice to God.
     He supported himself as a shopkeeper, but music was his true joy and calling, and his compositions made their way to synagogues across Poland. However, like millions of other Jews in Europe, Reb Azriel-David was caught in the horrors of Nazi persecution. Forced first to wear the yellow Star of David, then subjected to extreme discrimination and segregated in ghettos, in the summer and fall of 1942, thousands of Jewish people were removed from the Warsaw ghetto by train to the Treblinka extermination camp, Reb Azriel-David among them. Young and old were brutally packed into the suffocating confines of cattle cars, with no water and little air, and transported to Treblinka. During the several hour journey, the passengers sobbed and moaned, despairing of what awaited them.
     Reb Azriel-David, however, was lost in prayer and contemplation when the words of the twelfth "principle of Jewish faith," from the medieval scholar Maimonides, suddenly came to mind: "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and although he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait every day for him to come." As he meditated on the words and their meaning, he knew that his faith was being tested to the limit...at such a time as this, he told himself, when all appears lost, when there is no basis for hope, is when our people are called to hold most tightly to what we believe.
     And then, from somewhere deep inside him, a quiet melody began to arise, blending perfectly with the words. Ignoring the press of people around him, eyes closed to look more clearly inward, he sang, oblivious to the silence that had descended upon the cattle car and to the hundreds of ears listening in amazement. He didn't even stir as voices began to join his, first in almost a whisper, and then with growing passion.
And so it was that the whole cattle-car, and then the entire train, crammed to overflowing with people who had every reason to give up hope, rolled along the tracks to death at Treblinka, their voices swelling as one: "I believe… in the coming of the Messiah…and although he may tarry…I wait every day"
     By the time he became aware of the spirit that had come over those in the train car with him, Reb Azriel-David's face was stained with tears. He was convinced that the melody was the most perfect expression of the Jewish soul, reflecting a faith that even millennia of suffering and persecution couldn't extinguish. He was determined this song would not die here. And so he found two young men, strong enough and willing to risk jumping from the train in an attempt to carry it to his rabbi, who had escaped to America. With the help of others, they ripped off the boards covering a small window near the top of the train car, then pulled themselves through the opening and hurled themselves to the ground.
     One of the young men died in the escape, but the other survived, and after the war's end, he made his way as instructed to the Rebbe of Modzitch, now in New York.  He shared the story of the train and sang the melody that he'd brought with him from Reb Azriel-David. This song of faith, the Ani Ma'amin/"I Believe," is sung to this day, in times of joy, of repentance, and of sadness, a testament to the faith of those in the midst of suffering and a sign of the hope of a people: "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and although he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait every day for him to come."
     (adapted from http://vbm-torah.org/archive/shoah/27shoah.htm)
     Like the Lord speaking through Ezekiel to those dusty, dry bones, Reb Azriel-David proclaimed hope. Like Martha meeting Jesus after the death of her brother, those grieving, battered souls on the train raised their voices to declare belief in the God who gives life. There is, and always has been, so much in our world that could cause us to doubt, to despair, to deny God; so much that can make us cynical or hard-hearted; so much that might cause us to lose our breath to speak up and speak out, to find our communities dis-membered. But there have been, and continue to be among us, those whose longing and passion and faith isn't extinguished. Some, like Desmond Tutu, speak to and for a nation and the world. Some, like our friends singing on a mountaintop in Haiti, don't know if they'll even be heard beyond their village. But they believe and proclaim this truth: the love and life of God cannot be contained. Bound up or nailed down, silenced or entombed, tarrying...but not destroyed, not defeated, not forever.
     In the face of the power of death, of its sadness and stench, Jesus's voice called out for Lazarus and for us. He entered into our pain as he wept, grieving for his friend, for Martha and Mary, and for every life that's been torn apart by loss. And then, even as he was turning toward Jerusalem and his own agony, he called upon the God of redemption who had sent him into this world, and claimed God's power to release the dead. In his very being, he began to reconcile death and new life, despair and new hope, emptiness and new love. May we claim his example as our way, and with Ezekiel, Martha, and Azriel-David, may we believe.
     [play Ani Ma’amin from Shekhina album, Congregation Bet Haverim, available on iTunes]

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