Some flames never fade.
On this night 75 years ago my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lau, led his community to their terrible deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka. He was the last rabbi of one of Poland’s oldest Jewish communities. On this day in 1942 he was with one of his sons, Shmuel, 14 years old; the other family members were scattered, including my father. Some survived. A soul candle is lit in their memory in many homes in Israel today by dozens of their descendants who remember their legacy, honoring their stories and souls. And one more candle’s lit here in NYC.
On this night here in NYC, revelers in costumes will fill the streets and candy will spill out of buckets as the night of all souls descends. Halloween, I was taught when I came here, is the night on which the veils between the world part, slightly, and the world of the soul beyond, full of terror and fascination, is more accessible – ghosts and all.
So what’s soul anyway? Beyond fluffy words and candle flames and abstract notions of existence? This past fall I read Rabbi Naomi Levy’s riveting book “Einstein and the Rabbi,” about a letter Einstein wrote to a bereaved father whose young son died of polio. This letter is a way to make sense of science, the mystery of soul, and what it means to be fully alive. I shared highlights from the book with the Lab/Shul community over the High Holy Days, calling on us in these mad days of growing friction to do as Einstein advised and “widen our circles of compassion” to be part of the greater world with all its complex and challenging parts.
Naomi Levy, my teacher and friend, is an incredible storyteller, a fearless teller of her truth and of Judaism’s deepest narratives that open the veils between the worlds of the visible and the invisible. Her book helped me in so many ways to connect deeper with my soul, my story, our bigger picture and purpose. Now I want to read it all over again.
Tonight she will be speaking at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the book. Info HERE.
The reading is sold out but is free to watch online. I plan to be there to honor a living rabbi and her wisdom, to honor the memory of my grandfather and the many who perished along with him on this date, and to celebrate the legacy of yet another rabbi – Rabbi Marcus, that bereaved father to whom Einstein wrote. How do these circles connect? In 1945, Rabbi Marcus, an American chaplain, helped take care of my father and uncle when they were just 18 and 7 years old, survivors of Buchenwald. They were the only ones of the family to survive.
I dedicate a lit candle to memory, to souls, to the persistent wisdom of our traditions, to the veils that protect us and to the times that they part. In those moments we are able to peek beyond and lean in to mystery with gratitude, gravity, sometimes a giggle, and an ever rippling and deepening sense of awe.
May all memories be blessings.
– Rabbi Amichai