Reflections on Ukraine Shabbat Shekalim 5782

Like many of you, my family roots are in the Pale Settlement. The Pale Settlement was the Western portion of Russia, the only part of the country where Jews were allowed to live. Both sides of my family are from that region and my mom’s side is from Ukraine specifically. My great-grandfather, David Margolis, was conscripted into the Russian Army from Kiev. At the turn of the twentieth century, Jewish communities were ripped apart, with more and more children and young men forced into military service. David did not go quietly. He killed his commanding officer and took the man’s identity papers, then started migrating towards the United States. He married my great-grandmother, Minnie Sudaken, in England as they traveled towards this country.

Even those of us who don’t have familial connections to Ukraine experienced a glimpse of the horror experienced by Ukrainian Jews during the Shoah, the Holocaust. Our Jewish Federation’s Every Person Has a Name Holocoaust Memorial Event honored those murdered at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev. From babies to the elderly, our fellow Jews were slaughtered. I have to say, going to Pasadena City Hall early in the morning, and reading those names was a singular experience for me. I felt the weight of all who came before us. All of the shattered dreams and decimated communities.

And yet, Am Yisrael Chai. The People Israel Live. In the seventy-six years since World War II, Jews returned to Ukraine. As Jewish Federation Executive Director and TBD member Jason Moss pointed out in his email today, there are now approximately 200,000 Jews living in Ukraine, with close to 300 communal Jewish organizations.

As you probably know, the democratically-elected leader of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. This makes the Putin’s lie that Ukraine is led by “drug addicts and neo-Nazis” all the more despicable. Make no mistake – this is a battle against autocracy, and against evil.

There is a robust tradition in Judaism to call out evil and fight against it. Earlier in Exodus, we read about the Amalekites. Amalek is said to be the grandson of Esau and the wellspring of our enemies. In Deuteronomy, we are called to wipe out the Amalekites and to always remember the evil they did to us. This is a troubling commandment for the peace-focused among us.

To be clear, I do not think the United States or another country should enter this war. But I do believe Ukrainians have the right to self defense. President Zelensky called on Ukrainians to use molotov cocktails to defend their capital. Today, television and radio stations were airing instructions on how to make them. It is hard for us to imagine this level of ground offensive to defend our country. And yet, it is the reality being faced by our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.

Our prayers for peace are not only the hope for a cessation of violence. I pray for Ukraine’s sovereignty. I pray the people of Ukraine live through this horror. I pray the people of Russia topple Putin’s regime. I pray that truth and democracy are victorious over lies and kleptocracy.

The Jewish Federations of North America set up Ukraine Crisis Fund to support Jews in Ukraine, using their established local organizational support network. By contributing to the fund, you will help Ukrainian Jews survive this invasion and choose their own future, whether that means moving to Israel or rebuilding their communities within Ukraine.

I know that the invasion of Ukraine is at the top of everyone’s mind this week. While I am not going to give a second sermon on Parashat Vayeikhel, I do want to speak briefly about the fact that this is Shabbat Shekalim. There are four special Shabbats leading up to Passover. The cycle of our calendar is intentional. The name Shabbat Shekalim refers to an additional section of Torah added to the weekly reading. It actually comes from last week’s parshah. Exodus chapter 30 verses 11 through 16 describe a census where every adult Israelite was expected to contribute a half-shekel to the creation of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary.

Moving forward to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, an annual tax was collected on the first of Nissan, and notices regarding the approaching deadline began at this time, roughly a month before the tax was due.

We each have an equal obligation to the continuation of the Jewish people. Regardless of how much money we have, we all have gifts to share. So if you feel compelled to give to the Jewish Federation Ukraine Crisis Fund, or another charity supporting the Ukrainian people, please consider also giving money to support the ongoing work of our local community at Temple Beth David. And if you are not yet a member of TBD, we welcome you to join us.

May our support for democracy and for peace never waver. May our community, and the people of the world be led with honesty towards a peaceful future.

Shabbat shalom.

Sermon originally delivered to the Temple Beth David Shabbat service on Friday, February 25, 2022; 25 Adar I 5782.

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