My sons never knew their maternal grandfather. I never knew him either. He died of a brain tumor while my wife Natalie was in college, which was before we met.

By all accounts Peter was a wonderful person. He loved chess and theater and active life outdoors. He loved his daughters and, no doubt, would have doted on his grandchildren. He was beloved by his extended family.

While all of that is good in and of itself, what makes it more remarkable is that my father-in-law was born in the Ukrainian forest in 1942 while his parents fought the Nazis in a brigade of Partisans. At one point, as an infant, he was hidden, found by the Germans, and left to die—only to survive miraculously when the soldiers either had compassion or didn’t want to waste a bullet on him. His father took the baby to a non-Jewish farmer and, at gunpoint, made him pledge to care for the child until after the war, which he did.

The family eventually made its way to Canada, where Peter grew up and made a life and met Natalie’s mother, whose parents found refuge in Israel following their own stories of imprisonment by the Russians during the war before eventually moving to Canada as well. Today Natalie, among other things, helps run a graduate degree program in Israel education. (Not to be outdone, her younger sister is currently the Canadian ambassador to Croatia, which during World War II was a puppet state of Nazi Germany and a collaborator in the Holocaust. Take that, Hitler.)

My own ancestors immigrated to the United States before the Shoah, and thus it was not the presence in my life growing up that it was for Natalie (and for many Canadian Jews of her generation). Israel, however, was and has remained a major part of my family’s story: my parents lived for a year in Israel with my older brothers before I was born; my eldest brother made aliyah after college and has been blessed with five children and two grandchildren; and I lived there for two years as a student, the latter of which was with Natalie when our eldest son was an infant.

This week, which began with Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and concludes with Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), is thus an important and meaningful one in my own life and that of my family, if for no other reason than that our own personal stories are so wrapped up in their larger narratives. A hair’s breadth, a single bullet, separates the existence of my wife and my three children from non-existence. For us, that miracle is on a level of the action of Pharaoh’s daughter to save the baby Moses from the Nile. One who saves one life saves, creates, sustains an entire world, entire worlds: a miracle.

I thus frequently wonder about that moment, when the Nazi soldiers stood over my father-in-law’s infant body: What was going through their minds? Was there an argument? Did some tiny modicum of compassion swim its way from their hearts to their heads to their hands? Did a still, small voice of the Divine speak into their ears and lead them to lower their weapons? I want to believe that some element of rachamim, some kind of mercy, was present in that instant—rachamim which is rechem, the womb in which life in all its manifold possibilities gestates and grows, even in a speck of an instant in the Ukrainian forest.

I do not have a political point with this message. If this story needs a point (does it?), perhaps it’s no more and no less than a call to compassion. As my wonderful French-Israeli colleague Rabba Mira Weil shared on our Daily Sit on Yom HaShoah this week (see especially her comments after the sit), compassion has been hard for many to feel in the wake of October 7 and the painful, devastating months that have followed. And it feels like so many hearts are only getting harder, the polarities growing stronger, the shouting getting louder, the space for rachamim—between Jews and other Jews, between Jews and Palestinians, between Jews and the rest of the world—shrinking and shrinking.

Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) that we read this week is the Torah’s clarion call to holiness, and so much of it is centered on awareness of and compassion for those who lack power and agency: not putting a stumbling block before the blind; not oppressing the stranger; leaving the gleanings of the harvest on the ground for the poor to take. These are all, in their way, expressions of rachamim, gestures of compassion that are the wellspring of holiness. In the words of a contemporary commentary on the Torah portion’s most famous line: “Love your neighbor as yourself—even when your neighbor isn’t like yourself” (which of course invites the question: who is really like or unlike any of us, and how do we make that judgment?).

This is the essence of a life of holiness, a life of Torah, and I would suggest it applies even when it’s hard—even, that is, when we need to have compassion on ourselves for not mustering as much compassion as we feel like we should. That’s where the Torah asks us to dig deeper, to try a little more, to yes treat ourselves with compassion—but also to not let ourselves off the hook from seeking to be compassionate. As Moses’s story illustrates, as my own family’s story illustrates, the entire world depends on it.

Josh’s Friday Reflections

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

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