Bystanders and Upstanders

November 16, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


If you have never heard of Kazimierz Sakowicz, don’t worry; neither had I until three days ago. For the past ten days, together with 120 congregants and under the leadership of Rabbi Savenor, I participated in a congregational trip to St. Petersburg, Moscow and then, for about thirty of us, to Lithuania. I had never been to Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, where my great-grandparents and no doubt many of yours were born. Vilna: home to the eighteenth-century rabbinic giant the Vilna Gaon; once the center of all Jewish learning, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Vilna: A glorious history that came to a horrific end at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. On June 24, 1941, just days after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis entered Lithuania. Shortly thereafter, with the arrival of the Einsatzkommando – the German killing brigade – the roundup of Lithuanian Jews began in earnest. On July 11, the first group of Jews were marched into the Ponary Forest to be killed, the start of a prolonged massacre that by its conclusion about two years later had claimed 100,000 lives, of which 70,000 were Jews. The mass killing ended not owing to mercy but just the opposite. Having calculated the economics of 1.5 bullets per dead Jew, the Nazis sought a more cost-efficient path toward achieving their murderous goals, which led to the establishment of concentration camps, gas chambers, and crematoria. Standing at the site of the mass graves in the Ponary Forest earlier this week was to stand at ground zero for the depths to which humanity can sink, as sad and sobering an experience as I have had in all my days.

What we know about Ponary we know by way of scraps of testimony from survivors and perpetrators, and none is more important than the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz. Sakowicz was a Polish journalist who lived in the village adjacent to Ponary Forest. From that very first evening of July 11, 1941, Sakowicz chronicled the atrocities as he observed them from a hiding place in his attic and in the of testimony of others. Aware of the risks in recording the crimes around him, he hid his notes in lemonade bottles buried in the ground. We will never know what Sakowicz intended to do with his diaries. Sakowicz was killed in unclear circumstances in July 1944; his diaries were not found until after the war and were not translated into English until the 1990s. (K. Sakowicz, Ponary Diary: A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder, ed. Y. Arad, 2005)

Sakowicz was no saint. I read the diary this week, and there is something jarring about the matter-of-fact manner in which he relates the murderous actions of the Nazis alongside the weather of the day, as well as how he records his scorn for the Jewish victims. But for me, the take-home of Sakowicz’s diary is not Sakowicz, nor for that matter the Nazi atrocities with which we in this room are well familiar. What I found most disturbing about Sakowicz’s chronicle was his characterization of the local Lithuanian population – the accomplices, collaborators, and bystanders to the mass killing. The inhumanity of the Nazis was not news, but I was struck by the way that locals stood by as the victims were led to the pits, ignoring their pleas, in some cases doing the shooting themselves, covering the victims with dirt after stripping them of their clothing, and carrying away their belongings to be traded in the marketplace. Not one or two nights, not one or two months, but for nearly two years, and there is no record of any moral objection. An entire community was complicit in a moral outrage. Nobody stepped up to intercede in the face of what must rank as one of the most inhumane chapters of human history.

Of all the indicators by which moral behavior can be measured, none is as clear, in its breach or fulfillment, as the willingness of an individual to put him- or herself on the line on behalf of another. It is laudable and praiseworthy, no question, to act in self-defense and care for one’s own well-being. So too, one should always strive to champion and defend the values one holds dear. But for Jews, moral behavior goes a step further. Moral stature is measured not merely by how we defend self-interest, nor for that matter by our support for certain ideals in times of comfort. We are measured by our willingness – or in the case of the Lithuanians, unwillingness – to intercede on behalf of another, even when, if not especially when, doing so puts our own interests at risk.

We need look no further than this morning’s Torah reading and the actions of our people’s founder Abraham to see this moral standard given expression. Having been granted a covenant by God in the form of land, blessing, and progeny, Abraham is given advance warning of God’s intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In a move as bold as it is courageous, Abraham steps up to intercede on behalf of people that he neither knows nor knows to be worthy of an impassioned defense. “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” Abraham remonstrates. What if there are fifty, forty-five, forty, twenty, ten righteous people found? Will you, God, still carry out your destruction? The significance of the narrative is not whether Abraham was successful; he was not. Nor for our purposes today, is it important to understand the mysteries of divine justice. The significance of the exchange as noted by the Jewish mystical text the Zohar is that Abraham’s willingness to go toe-to-toe with God illustrates his moral stature. Unlike Noah, who, when informed of God’s plan to wipe out the entire human race, went ahead with building an ark to save himself, his family, and a bunch of animals, Abraham risks all, beseeching God to restrain the divine wrath directed at the inhabitants of Sodom.

The circumstances and players of our Torah reading are as different from the aforementioned chapter of Holocaust history as night is from day, but the moral muscle group is one and the same. And it is not just this one scene. Throughout the Bible, the willingness or failure of one individual to stand up for another is the litmus test, the moral thread that holds our biblical narrative together. From Cain standing by the blood of Abel to Joseph’s brothers standing by as their brother is left in the pit to die to Judah placing himself at risk on behalf of his brother Benjamin to Moses striking down the Egyptian as an Israelite slave is beaten or, more famously, stepping into the breach as the Israelites stand guilty before God for the sin of the golden calf, in each of these instances and so many others, the moral highs and lows of our people are found in an individual’s standing up for another. This intercessory instinct, taught my late teacher, Dr. Yochanan Muffs, is the mark of a prophet and hero for our people. As Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, teaches: “In a place where there are no upstanders, strive to be an upstander.” (2:5)

We could leave it at that. But those who know what happens next, in the two scenes following Sodom and Gomorrah, know that soon enough our heroic Abraham is cast in an altogether different light. Our stand-up guy, it turns out, is not always the stand-up guy we would expect him to be. First, as we read on Rosh Hashanah, Abraham stands by silently as Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from his home. Where, we may ask, is our heroic intercessor now? And then, more famously, in the following chapter, God calls on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, a gut-wrenching request to which Abraham accedes all too willingly. How is it possible that the bold hero who interceded on behalf of Sodom now stands silent when it comes to his own flesh and blood? What has become of Abraham’s moral stature?

It is a question and conundrum that are perplexing not just to me and you, but to generations of biblical commentators. Why the two Abrahams – the morally heroic and the morally meek. How do we square the circle of our founding father, who over the course of such a short time displays such utterly contradictory character traits? While centuries of rabbis have proposed a variety of answers; seeking to recast, excuse, or mitigate Abraham’s behavior, this year I see it differently. This year I would suggest that the point is not in resolving or reconciling the conflict, but in the fact of the conflict itself. I believe the whole point is that we, the reader, are provided, over the course of a few chapters, with one person, Abraham, offering multiple responses to the call to be an upstander, the central test of biblical morality.

Simply put, I think the message of the Torah is that every human being, even the great ones like Abraham, can on any given day be pulled one way or another. None of us live with the weighty inflection points of our biblical forebears, or, thank God, the decision-making of those complicit in the genocidal acts of the twentieth century. But all of us do live in a world every bit as morally gray as it was on that first day that God created it; and we in this room are living through a moral free fall the like of which I cannot recall in my lifetime. Each one of us, every day is faced with a series of decisions – momentous and mundane – that call on us to differentiate right from wrong and choose one path or another. And a certain percentage of those choices will involve not our own well-being, but our willingness to intercede on behalf of others. And then a subset of those decisions will involve us interceding on behalf of another in a manner that calls on us to risk our own well-being – social, financial, political, and sometimes physical.

It is not a traditional read of the text by any stretch, but I believe the Torah intentionally provides us with instances when Abraham got it right – like Sodom and Gomorrah – and instances when Abraham got it wrong – like Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. Had the Torah done otherwise, had it given us a one-dimensional Abraham who always got it right, his function as a moral exemplar would cease because his level of moral excellence would be unattainable. We need examples of both his success and his failure because we need to know that for each of us, as for Abraham, nobody gets it right every time. All of us struggle, and it is in that struggle and in the knowledge that others have struggled that we find our strength. We need to keep trying; we need to keep aspiring towards our potential heroic stature, even if on occasion we fail, even when it is hard, and especially when it seems out of reach. We dare not have the annals of history look back at us, as we do at past generations, wondering how was it that good people just stood by silently in the face of evil.

That day in Lithuania began with Sakowicz, and it ended with someone named Sugihara. As we returned to the city from Ponary Forest, we stopped briefly at a memorial built in honor of Chiune Sugihara, a diplomat sent by the Japanese government to open a consulate in Lithuania. Recognizing the dangers faced by Lithuanian Jewry, over a period of just a few months, ignoring the orders of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Sugihara issued visa after visa enabling Jews to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway to the port of Vladivostok, where they boarded ships bound for Kobe, Japan and then to Shanghai, and then, eventually, after the war, to safety. Sugihara worked desperate twenty-hour days saving as many Jews as he could, until, under pressure, he himself was forced to leave. To the very last minute, he issued visas, in the lobby as he packed up, and according to witnesses, up to and including the moment he threw blank signed visas out the window of the train as it pulled away. A midlevel Japanese diplomat with no connection to Jews, Sugihara issued some 10,000 visas. Today there are over 40,000 descendants of the Jews saved by the actions of one man, who because of those actions was demoted after the war by the foreign ministry, taking a series of menial jobs and reduced at one point to selling light bulbs door-to-door. It was not until 1984 that Yad Vashem recognized him as a Righteous Among the Nations – to date, the only Japanese recipient of that honor. (Levine, Hillel, In Search of Sugihara, 1996)

And I stood at the Sugihara memorial, I wondered why Sugihara did what he did? Why does anyone do what they do? According to one account, the only explanation Sugihara could muster was: “I acted according to my sense of human justice, out of love for mankind.” (Levine, p. 282). While we may regret Sugihara’s lack of eloquence, perhaps it is the very ordinariness of his response that is instructive and inspiring for us all today.

None of us are perfect, and none of us, not even Abraham, gets it right all the time. But a common person, you or I, can perform acts of uncommon good. In response to challenge, we can all be elevated beyond what we think ourselves capable of, what we think possible. Moral heroism is not reserved just for biblical figures. It is there for all of us, in all our ordinariness, to the extent we are willing to step up to the calling of the hour.