“For the righteous may fall repeatedly but they arise again.” [Proverbs 24:16]
Undoubtedly, one of the more challenging biblical episodes I have had to teach middle-school students over the past 40 years is that of King David and Bat-Sheva. Clearly, every Tanach teacher of pre-teens who faces this challenge must determine how best to present this story in an age-appropriate fashion. But I have also found it necessary to prepare for the students’ reaction to the behavior of their righteous hero, King David. Reactions that, I learned, could often be quite emotional and agitated.
It was therefore my practice to introduce the entire episode with the aforementioned quotation from the book of Mishlei, Proverbs: “For the righteous may fall repeatedly but they arise again.” It was a quotation that adorned my chalkboard (and, eventually the SmartBoard) throughout our study of the three chapters in which the account unfolds. I would begin the study by pointing to this verse and explaining that righteousness is not reached through one’s deeds alone but also through the response to one’s misdeeds. So let us wait until the story unfolds and we see King David’s reaction before we react. The true nature of a tzaddik is best revealed not by never stumbling but by how he views himself after he stumbles: Is he able to admit his sin? Does she understand her trespass? Does she show true contrition and, as a result, repent? Simply, tzaddiks are not judged by their actions but by their reactions.
The truth of these words hit home through the events of these past months.
“The city of Amsterdam will give its Jewish community $11 million.”
Thus read the headline in the newspaper. I was fascinated and needed to find out the details of such a generous offer and so I began reading the article. The article explained that “according to Yad Vashem, about 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands when the Germans invaded the country in May 1940…The final tally of Jews deported stood at 107,000 in 1944, [so that] only 5,000 returned after the war. Over 75 percent of the Netherlands’ Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.”
Although these facts were important, they had not yet explained the largesse that would be given to the Amsterdam Jewish Community. And so, I continued to read:
“The issue first made headlines in 2014, when a historical study discovered that hundreds of Dutch Holocaust survivors who returned to Amsterdam after the war were required to settle overdue bills, city taxes and fines, accumulated while they were in camps or in hiding… Even Jews who returned from Auschwitz were required to pay the bills, including money owed for gas that was unpaid by squatters residing in their property during the war.”
I re-read the article twice. I had to make sure that I had read it correctly because I simply could not believe it. I was seething with rage at the absolute immorality of the city fathers and their insensitivity to the plight of the few survivors that they displayed at that time. Yet, I realized that now they had reacted properly to their “misdeed” and would begin to make amends. It was important for me to understand that and to accept that. So why was I still irate and filled with feelings of outrage?
And I figured it out.
It was 71.
Seventy one years.
It took 71 years to address and finally redress the unconscionable act! It seems that successive city councils had brought up the issue but tabled it repeatedly. So now, after almost every survivor had passed on, after those who suffered that double ignominy were gone, after the victims to whom that money was owed were no longer around to collect it, the Amsterdam municipality reacted. It took the next generation, actually the third generation, to own up to the shameful acts of their grandparents and act to remove their shame. So I wondered: Is this the response to misdeeds that the Book of Proverbs speaks about? Is this the act of the penitent? Of the remorseful? Is this the reaction of the righteous?
Perhaps that is why I remained outraged.
And yet, reactions are important and often indicative of one’s sincerity and true feelings.
A week ago, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe [CLAE] charged German museums with theft for having handed over artwork looted from Jewish homes to prominent Nazi families after the Holocaust. The Bavarian State Galleries, who were given the restitution task by American authorities in 1949, kept some of the works and sold others to individuals, according to the CLAE. Among those who purchased these precious pieces at deflated prices were the widow of Hermann Goring and the wife of Hitler’s district governor of Vienna whose husband was condemned at the Nuremberg trials for crimes against humanity, having deported 60,000 Austrian Jews.
It seems that following World War II, all confiscated artwork was to be returned to the rightful owners or their heirs. It was part of the agreement to have the German people make amends for the losses caused by the looting and criminal confiscations during the war. So how did they “make amends?” What was their response? How did they react to their misdeeds?
According to the CLAE, the Nazi families’ demands over the years were dealt with promptly and efficiently with little requirement to prove claims of ownership. The looted families, however, had their claims thrown out or had impossible hurdles created to prevent them from recovering their artworks. And the struggle to reclaim their rightful properties continues until today for the descendants of the victims.
The CLAE put it succinctly: “It seems that Bavaria thought ‘restitution’ meant restitution to the Nazis rather than to their victims.”
Reactions. They can tell us a lot about a person. Or an institution.
Last week we lived through a most horrendous few days with the butchering of an innocent 13-year-child while she slept and the murder of a remarkable father of 10 children before the very eyes of his family. The reaction of pain and tears by communities near and far was immediate. People from all over Israel, political leaders, venerable rabbis, family, friends and simply Jews flocked to the funerals and houses of mourning. After completing the shiva observance for their murdered daughter, the parents of young Hallel proceeded to travel to Otniel in order to comfort the Mark family whose husband/son/brother/father was murdered just one day after their daughter. Jews from all over came to Israel to do no more than identify with the collective pain that was felt by the entire Jewish community. Funds were established to raise money to help the victims and their families and even to provide secure transportation for those living in the area.
But those weren’t the only reactions.
The family of the Kiryat Arba attacker appeared on television that very day to praise their murderous son/brother and express their pride in him, calling him “a hero” and urging others to emulate him. The Palestinian leadership responded as well, calling such murderers “holy martyrs” and reaffirming that the family of today’s murderer will immediately start receiving a monthly PA stipend that the PA pays to the families of all the “martyrs.”
Reactions that reflect one’s attitudes.
And what should we learn about the standing ovation given to Mahmoud Abbas by representatives of the EU after he reawakened the canard, last heard during the Middle Ages, claiming that the Jews (actually he accused a non-existent rabbi belonging to a non-existent rabbinic group) demanded that their government poison the well water of the Palestinians.
What inflames our passions more—the libelous accusation or the unacceptable reaction? What reveals more to us—the big lie or the standing ovation that followed?
There are reactions of the righteous that are remorseful and positive.
There are reactions of the far-less-than-righteous that are revealing and troubling.
“For the righteous may fall repeatedly but they arise again.”
We have fallen, been thrown to the ground and trod upon by our enemies from time immemorial. But the righteous recover and arise again. Yet, we must get up wiser than we were. We must learn from the revealing actions and reactions of others. We must understand attitudes through the behavior we see repeatedly, so we do not fall again.
I pray that God strengthen our perception and resolve so we no longer must fall to prove to others the righteousness of our reactions.
Or of our cause.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler, founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, is a musmach of RIETS and a graduate of Yeshiva College and Bernard Revel Graduate School. He served the Fort Lee, NJ community for 36 years and taught Jewish Studies in the Moriah School of Englewood as Coordinator of Tanach studies. Rabbi Winkler also served as president of the RCBC until he and his wife, Andea, made aliyah in November, 2014. Rabbi Winkler is the author of Bringing the Prophets to Life, an overview of the early prophets, and he currently lives in Jerusalem.