Column by Mary Lee Talbot
For many years, Rabbi Ed Feinstein and his wife, Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein, had the privilege of studying in Jerusalem for several weeks each year. One year, their group of scholars was invited to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust, where they met with the chief archivist.
Feinstein preached at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Monday in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “We Don’t Throw People Away.” The scripture reading was Exodus 2:1-12.
The archivist told them there are more than 140 million documents collected from all over the world related to the Holocaust. For years, the materials had been stored wherever they could find space, but in 2000 the archives moved to a new state-of-the-art building with a supercomputer that could organize the many documents.
“The mission of the archive is to make a dossier of each victim of the Holocaust,” the archivist told the group. He found Hannah Goldberg’s file to share with them. She lived in Paris, was deported in 1943, then died in Auschwitz later that year. In 1980, her sister, who survived, filled out a form to find out what had happened to Hannah.
Feinstein said, “The form sat for 30 years but with the new computer the pieces suddenly came together. The deportation order, the camp where she first stayed, the train with the number of the train car she was in, the day she arrived in Auschwitz and was murdered, all those documents came together to tell her story.”
He continued, “There was one more thing: A letter Hannah wrote to her mother and sister on the train. She told them not to be afraid or sad and to not give up on life or hope. She was strong and she wanted them to be strong because that was the way she was raised. Hannah dropped the letter out of the train when it stopped in a small French town. It was found by a station worker and given to the American soldiers who liberated the village.”
Hannah is a person again, said Feinstein. “The Nazis turned her into a number and into smoke, but she has been made a human being again. She had been given her name, her story, her words. We were all weeping.”
Feinstein asked the archivist how he could do such work; why did he do it? The archivist whispered to him, “Because we don’t throw anyone away, not the living or the dead.”
“That is as good a definition of religious ethics as I can find,” Feinstein said.
Prophecy begins in the eyes, Feinstein said. Sight is a physical phenomenon; vision is a social construct.
He described returning to Southern California after being in New York City. At a freeway off-ramp he saw a man with a sign, “Will work for food.” Feinstein’s son asked, “Abba, who is he? What does he want?” Feinstein gave the man a few dollars and drove on.
Months later, Feinstein had a real shock. At the freeway off-ramp, he stopped, but his son did not see the man who was asking for help. “There was a stop sign, a garbage can, a man begging, a tree and some trash; the man had become part of the landscape. He was disposable, invisible in a world filled with invisible people.”
Rosa Parks was invisible when no one on the bus protested her arrest for not giving her seat to a white man. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sitting in front of the law school dean, was invisible when he lamented the woman who took a man’s seat in the school. Trayvon Martin and George Floyd were invisible.
Prophecy begins in the eyes. Feinstein called Exodus 2 a “meditation on seeing. A mother sees her baby and sees he is good. Pharaoh’s daughter sees a child in the bulrushes and raises him as a prince. Moses sees that his people are suffering,” Feinstein said.
An ordinary Egyptian did not see the suffering of the Israelites. They saw economic progress for the new Egypt, while Moses saw suffering and brutality. He saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite.
“The average Egyptian saw nothing. The slave was no more than an appliance. Did you say, ‘Good morning, toaster,’ today?” Feinstein asked the congregation. “Moses saw two human beings, not two social constructs. One was beating the life out of the other. Moses looked around thinking, ‘Does anyone else see what I see?’ and when he realized no one did, he killed the taskmaster.”
Prophecy begins in the eyes, he said again. “When we see beyond social constructs, when we see the people who are invisible, prophecy begins.”
Feinstein shared a story of a nursing student taking an exam. One of the questions on the exam was, “What is the name of the woman who mops the floors?” She left it blank and asked the professor if that answer would count toward the final grade. The professor said yes.
Then the professor told the class, “You will meet many people in this work. Everyone has a name, a story, aspirations and hurts. Everyone deserves care. That is what life is all about. By the way, her name is Dorothy.”
When historian Hannah Ardent interviewed Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem during his trial for crimes against humanity during the Holocaust, she found that he was not insane or an evil genius – he was very, very ordinary.
Feinstein asked, “What enabled him to permit such evil? Obliviousness, thoughtlessness. He sat untouched at the trial while the victims told their stories of extreme torture and pain.”
Humans, Feinstein continued, have a superpower. “We walk around as individuals, but we can step out of our subjectivity and enter into the lives of others. We understand that they matter.”
Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie, had the opportunity to sit next to William Gladstone, the British prime minister, and declared that he was the smartest person in England. At another dinner party, she sat next to Benjamin Disraeli, another British prime minister, and decided he was the smartest person in England.
“We must engage with others, to not oppress the stranger but to see ourselves in the life of the other,” Feinstein said. “There is no one outside the circle of compassion. We don’t throw anyone away. In a world that is in a crisis of getting hotter and hotter, we have to reach beyond our boundaries and engage with others. Empathy is a survival skill.”
Feinstein had a piece of homework for the congregation. “Chautauqua is a remarkable place, with incredible speakers, musicians, and preachers. There are 1,400 invisible people who make this place gracious and warm. Use your superpowers with the kid who scoops your ice cream, the man who tends the gardens, or the choir, or someone who smiles and says, ‘Welcome.’ ”
He continued, “Find one of the invisible people and use your Clark Kent superpower on them. Say, ‘I know who you are and I know what you do. Thank you for giving your grace of spirit to make Chautauqua what it is.’ ”
A rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when night was over and day began. There are many rituals and rites in Judaism and the students started looking in their books. One student said, “Rebbe, day begins when I can look at the fields and see where mine ends and my neighbor’s begins.” A second student said, “Day begins when I am out in the field and I can tell which house is mine and which is my neighbor’s.” A third student said, “Day begins when I can tell which animal is mine and which belongs to my neighbor.”
The rabbi began to weep. “Is that what you think faith is about, when you can divide house from house, field from field, animal from animal?” he asked. “No, that is not what it is about, my children. It is when you look into the face of the one who sits beside you or walks beside you and you see your sister, your brother. Then the long night is over and the day has begun.”
Feinstein said, “May the night end and the day soon begin.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene T. Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Rabbi Sam Stahl, longtime associate with the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, read the scripture in English and Hebrew. The prelude, played by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, was “Her Children rise up and call her blessed,” by Margaret Sandresky. The Motet Choir sang “Have You Heard God’s Voice?,” by Jacqui G. Jones and Frederick Chatfield, under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Paean,” by Percy Whitlock. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund.