Jonah Levy

Shabbat Shalom,

(I know that it is not time for the thank yous already, but I would like to thank all the people who did not understand a thing, waiting for the time where you can understand everything. Well, here it is. Now you finally get to understand what we say!  The best part! So, let's begin. )

In my Haftarah portion from the Book of Joshua, Shelach Lecha,  Joshua is preparing the Children of Israel to enter the Promised land. He knows it will be challenging, so he sends two spies to Jericho to find out how to capture it. These spies go to house of Rahab. She tells them of the fear her country has of the Jews supported by G-d. Rahab hides them in straw when suddenly guards come in and ask if she is housing the prisoners. She says no and misleads the guards to go outside the gates. When she returns, she asks the spies to save her family because she has treated them well. The men tell her what she has to do in order to save her family and she agrees. Then the spies go on their way. When they return to Joshua, they tell him all they have learned.

The character who really stood out to me was Rahab. She risked her life because she believed in G-d, even though there had been no miracles that had happened to her. She had faith that the Israelites would win because of this. So she hid them and in return asked the spies to save her family. This act of wisdom inspired me because she had to be both selfless and courageous. Because of this, she became very well respected in the Jewish community, accepted by the people that was now supporting her. According to the Midrash, Jewish commentaries on the Bible, Rahab caught the eye of Joshua, and they married. The Midrash also says that she became one of the first to convert to Judaism and that Rahab and Joshua were the ancestors of nine prophets.

Rahab's actions are very similar to other important people in my life. Their names were Vasalina and Alexander Yarmolyuk, and they were a Ukrainian couple who protected my grandmother when she was a baby from the Nazis.  When my grandmother was just a baby, my great grandparents decided they were going to go into the woods to hide from Hitler and the Nazis. Because she was just a baby and she would not survive in the wilderness, she was given to the Ukrainian family.

The Yarmolyuks took her as their daughter, went to church, and baptized her, keeping my grandmother’s Jewish identity a secret. Many times, officers would come to the door and ask for the baby. When the family heard this, they invited the officers in and made them drunk so they would forget about what they had come for.

Rahab risked her life to protect the spies. The Yarmolyuks risked their lives to protect my grandmother. What are the influences that might give a person strength to do something risky?

Reason 1: One reason that someone might do something risky is they have nothing to lose. Rahab was a prostitute and most likely disrespected among the community. In verse 15 we read. “‘Rahab lived in a house built into the city wall.” According to the commentator Donna Nolan Fewell in The Women’s Bible Commentary, this means that she was an outsider, because she lived far from other people, in the boundary “between the inside and the outside” of the city. Because she was an outcast, who only had her family, why would you not keep spies in you home, who might offer you a better life?

Rahab abandoned the Jericho people who might have cared even a little about Rahab. However, she decided to abandon them so she could be respected in the Jewish community.  Rahab wanted the Jews to take over her country because she wanted to belong to a better community and be more respected. When the people of Jericho did not respect her as a person, they dug their own grave. That is why she betrayed her own. Because no one can lose someone's disrespect when they never had it in the first place? She probably felt wronged and that is why she had nothing to lose.

However, this is not the case in all situations. Some people take risks who have a lot to lose. The Yarmolyuks were very respected farmers where they were living in Poland. They risked their lives to save my baby grandmother. They kept it secret from all the people who respected them, no matter the cost. So even when you are respected, why would you do something risky? After seeing these examples, this reason was not as strong as I thought. So what else makes you do something risky?

Reason 2:  Another reason someone might do something risky is because it involves someone or something they care about.

It is human nature to care for things and people. This is why when someone is in trouble, you help them out, even when the risk reward ratio is on risk’s side.  This also includes giving attention, a thing that everyone needs. They take risks that would save someone else. Some pieces in life are too good to let go, and people take risks to keep or get that thing. Vasalina and Alexander put their lives in danger to save my grandmother. They used their wits to outsmart officers trying to kill the infant.

One time, Vasalina was instructed to bring my grandmother to a field.  She came in late, made an excuse about why she was late, and then when the officer asked for the baby, Vasalina refused to give the baby up. She put her life in danger for someone else, even though she knew that she and the infant might both die.

Rahab took the risk of keeping the spies, almost getting herself killed, to save her own family. She hoped that she could save her family, the one thing she had left, by hiding these strangers. This turned out to be successful for her and for her family. She succeeded by saving her family and then got the respect of her new neighbors.

Reason 3: Faith is one reason someone might do something risky. It is the belief in someone or something that gives you the strength to do what you need to, whatever the cost. By Merriam Webster’s definition, faith is allegiance to a duty or person. When I read this definition, it reminds me of sports. No one would want to play unless you had a faith in winning the game. Rahab has faith that G-d can exist and will help Joshua and his people. This is one reason that she keeps the spies hidden. She knows that G-d will overtake her country, as she says in verse 11, “for the Eternal your G-d is G-d in heaven above and here on earth”. She has faith in G-d and that is why she later becomes one of the first converted Jews.

In the Yarmolyuk’s case, it is faith that saves my Grandmother. Because they believed my great grandparents were dead, they took her as her own daughter. They believed that she was going to be theirs forever so she was baptized. They also did this because, in their Russian Orthodox religion, they believed in doing the right thing.

After writing this, it struck me: how can anyone understand being risky by hearing a speech about it?  There needed to be something to connect it down to earth. It could be as simple as handing in a test without double checking it (which I have TOTALLY not done) or as big as jumping off a cliff. The decision could be as quick as playing a card or as long as choosing your job you love.

This also connects to our world today.  Right now, we are seeing protests pop up everywhere. Millions of people are standing up for what we believe in.They are marching to disagree with people more powerful than them. They want this world to be a better place. Why do some people take the risk of being disrespected among their neighbors to express their opinions about politics or world issues? The answer is because they know that if everyone joins and supports, the large number who protest can change the opinions of a small amount of very powerful people. Just by Picketing. Protesting, and boycotting, we can change the world.

In this country, no matter how strange it seems, the powerful people need less powerful people to do their work. If there was an army of just important people, there would be no wars won, if there were just important people providing us food, how long would we be full? Every person in this country could change the world as one. Risk would be a big part of that. If we all take the risk of standing up for immigrants, getting a healthcare bill that will guarantee everyone to be healthy, or taking a stand for global warming, a lot of things could get done. Despite everything, this is still a democracy and there is more work done by less important people. If we take these risks today, our voices can make the world a better place. It is definitely worth taking these risks, but, like Rahab and like the Yarmolyuks, you need to be to caring  and have faith to do them.

For my Mitzvah project, with the help of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, I visited a holocaust survivor. I came in wanting to know about this person's Holocaust experiences, but instead I got to learn about his triumphs, which were plentiful. This man gave me a lot more knowledge about perseverance. After coming to the US, he claimed 34 patents throughout his career, and some are still used today! Our visits were enjoyable and I really liked hearing all he had done in his lifetime. One thing that struck me, at the end of the first visit he said, “I don't want you  to feel bad for me, because if I stood in the mirror everyday thinking about how lucky I am to be alive, I would get nowhere.” He is now someone I look up to and admire for all the work he has done, as well as surviving the Holocaust.

I also went to the U.S. Holocaust Museum to help me understand more about the Holocaust. It was very touching to see the name of the people who helped my grandmother at the museum, and to light a candle in the hall of remembrance. I also was moved by Daniel's story, an exhibit to show what it was like for kids in WWII. These experiences meant a lot to me and taught me to be a Jewish adult and how to make an impact on the world. Preparing for this day taught me how to persevere through listening to the struggles of my people in the past, and having the faith that it will never happen again.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me on my journey. I would like to thank Missy and Rabbi Penzner for helping me learn all I needed for today and giving me help whenever I needed it  I would like to thank Justin and Elijah and all my other Hebrew School teachers for helping me realize my Jewish identity. I would like to thank the HBT community for staying with me and always saying hi and how much I had grown, even if I did not know your name. I would like to thank my friends for making me happy when I needed it. I want to thank the Rolnick Lekach family for always finding time to be with me and the Levy Langner family for surrounding me with your liveliness. I would like to thank my grandpa Bernie, who taught me how to be kind to everyone, even the people that I did not like. I am also grateful for my brother, Ezra, for being the person that I could rely on when I was bored, even if that meant annoying you. I would also like to thank my mom for dealing with all my frustrations and for keeping me going, no matter what, even if I didn't want to, plus the things I did not even think about for this day. I would like to thank my dad for always keeping things light and always finding a time to joke around. I would finally like to thank all of you who could make it here today, whether from a couple blocks away or from California.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted on July 11, 2017 .