Rabbi Avi Shafran
In 1943, after more than three years of German control over France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That December 10, the Lyon Milice, the shock troops of the Vichy government, decided to put an end to the Jewish worship.
The shul's rabbi survived the war to tell the tale, which is recorded in a book about Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon" (the title, in fact, of the book, by Brendan Murphy - Empire/Harper & Row, 1983). A member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the sanctuary that Friday night during services. Armed with three hand grenades, he intended to lob them into the crowd of standing worshippers from behind, and to escape before the explosions. After silently opening the door and entering the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi (who stood facing the congregation), he pulled the pins.
What he saw, though, so shook him that he remained wide-eyed and motionless for a crucial moment, and then only managed to toss the grenades a few feet before fleeing. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.
What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the sudden, unexpected sight of his intended victim's faces, as the congregation, as if on cue, turned as one on its heels to face him.
The would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at "bo'i b' shalom," the last stanza of the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi, when worshippers traditionally turn toward the door to welcome the Sabbath. The account came to mind of late because it is, at least to me, a striking reminder of something truly fundamental yet easily forgotten. We Jews often survive on miracles.
To be sure, we don't base our belief on them, as do some religions. Maimonides famously wrote that the miracles recounted in the Torah - even the parting of the Red Sea - are demonstrations not of G-d's existence but rather of His love for His people. We know G-d exists because of our carefully preserved historical tradition that He communicated with our ancestors at Mt. Sinai, an event we will soon celebrate on Shevuot.
All the same, though, His love and His miracles underlie our existence.
Our tradition teaches that our foremother Sarah was biologically incapable of conceiving a child; the very beginning of our people thus was miraculous. The perseverance of the Jewish people over the millennia is a miracle, as is our rebirth after countless decimations.
And recent Jewish history has been no less miraculous. When Israel destroyed the assortment of Arab armies arrayed against it in 1967, even hardened military men well aware of the Israeli air force and army's skill and determination spoke of miracles. And the rescue at Entebbe in 1976 may have entailed special-forces acumen, but sensitive Jews saw on it the clear fingerprints of the miraculous as well. And, in 1981, they recognized no less in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, signs not only of military might but of miracle, of G-d's love.
None of which is to belittle the tremendous efforts of Israel's military, may its members be safe and protected. But while "this world" efforts must always be made, believing Jews maintain a concomitant consciousness of the fact that success and failure are determined by something considerably more sublime.
In the perspective of our religious tradition, that something is our merit as a people - our kindness to one another, our prayers, our study of Torah and our performance of mitzvot. In the end, those are the things, our tradition teaches us, that will make all the difference. In the Torah we read how the Jews, led by Joshua, fought the Amalekites. When Moses held his hands high, the verse continues, the Jews waxed victorious. "Were Moses ' hands waging war?" asks the Mishna. The answer, it continues, is that "when the Jews eyes [inspired by Moses' hands] were lifted heavenward, they were militarily victorious."
In these terribly trying times for Jews, when hatred carefully nurtured for decades has erupted in a plague of vicious murder and old, ugly ghosts have been stirred awake, it behooves us to remember that fact. We all ask ourselves what we can do on behalf of our beleaguered brothers and sisters. There are many things, to be sure.
But at the very top of each of our lists should be things like: prayer; with concentration and heart; charity, with generosity and concern; Jewish observance, with care and determination; Torah-study, with effort and commitment.
Because, unified spiritually by the expression of our common Jewish religious heritage, we are doing something nothing else can do: meriting a miracle.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.