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Re-Digging Wells: A Tale of Two Rallies and the Resilience of the Jewish Community©

Rabbi David Baum

Parashat Toldot 2023/5784



On December 6, 1987, my father went to Washington DC to take part in the Save Soviet Jewry rally. At the time, I was just eight years old, but I remember him journeying to our nation’s capitol with fellow community members. I remember the pictures he brought back of him along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews flooding the national mall to demand freedom for the refuseniks, the Jews living in the Soviet Union under oppression who were denied permission to leave the country. It was one of the great lessons that I learned at a young age from my father: Kol Israel Areivim Zeh BaZeh - Every Jew is responsible for one another, both in America and anywhere in the world. 


Our family knew the consequences of Jewish silence in America in the face of Jewish suffering in Europe. During World War II in America, the Jewish community could not unite to speak with one voice about the atrocities perpetrated against our people at the hands of the Nazis. The largest protest to save European Jewry in Washington DC was two days before Yom Kippur in 1943. Four hundred rabbis marched to the White House to meet with then-President Franklin Roosevelt. He refused to meet with the delegation, infamously slipping out of the rear entrance of the White House. Forty-four years later, the organized Jewish community returned to Washington DC, but this time, 250,000 strong at the Save Soviet Jewry rally in 1987.


Journalist Allison Hoffman, in an article to mark the 25th anniversary of the rally, wrote: "The Dec. 6, 1987, rally was planned for the day before a historic summit meeting at the White House between President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The demonstration was the brainchild of Natan Sharansky, the most famous of all the refuseniks, who spent nine years in a Moscow prison on charges of being an American spy until his release and emigration to Israel in February 1986. It capped more than 15 years of organized efforts to assist Jews living under Communist rule—and became the largest protest on behalf of a Jewish cause ever in the United States. Perhaps most impressively, it mobilized the American Jewish community—young and old, secular and religious, liberal and conservative—behind a single cause to a degree that had never been seen before, and has not been seen since.”


Among the speakers at the rally was then Vice President George H.W. Bush who echoed the words of President Reagan at the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev," he said, "Let these people go. Let them go."





The Save Soviet Jewry rally was the largest Jewish rally in American history with over 250,000 people in attendance. The show of support and power by the American Jewish community was a catalyst that led to the freeing of Soviet Jewry, and, some say the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991.





On Tuesday, I traveled to the National Mall in Washington DC along with around twenty-five of our congregants from Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, including my eldest son. Although Jews are not supposed to count each other, we do tend to deem our successes, or failures, by the number of people who ‘show up’. I had my doubts that the March for Israel would match the Save Soviet Jewry rally due to several factors including increased antisemitism, the short amount of time that people had to make arrangements to go to the rally, and the preparation needed by the organized Jewish community to get as many people there as possible. On Tuesday, November 14, there were an estimated 290,000 people at the March for Israel rally representing the largest pro-Israel and Jewish gathering in U.S. history. Leading up to the rally, some in the Jewish press questioned the efficacy of large marches. I imagine some voices said having another march in Washington was just using the old playbook from 1987 expecting it to somehow work again even though we live in a vastly different time due to the advent of the internet and social media. I disagree, and I think going ‘back to the well’ was exactly what we should have done as the American-Jewish community at this time in history. 


This week parashah, Toldo, begins with the words

וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק׃

"This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.” (Genesis 25:19)


Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (HaEmek HaDavar), a 17th-century Rabbinic commentator, notes that Isaac is called the son of Abraham twice in the sentence to teach that Isaac’s life is defined by his being Abraham’s son more than by any other single factor. The next verses, and the rest of the chapter, tell the story of Jacob and Esau rather than speaking about Isaac’s life. It is as if Isaac is passive in his own story, merely a transitional character in the Torah. 


Even though this parashah is dominated by Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, we read a short story about an event in Isaac’s life, the only event where he is the active protagonist. In chapter 26, we read that there is a famine in the land, which similarly happened to his father Abraham. In this case, Isaac does not leave the land of Canaan like his father does, as God forbids Isaac to leave. God then promises Isaac that if he stays in the land, God will bless him with land and numerous heirs. Isaac stays in the land and has a similar interaction with Avimelech, a local ruler, and, like Abraham, he gains wealth and resources. With the acquisition of flocks and herds came the need for water and sustenance for them. Like his father before him, Isaac seeks wells in Avimelech’s territory, but the wells that Abraham dug were stopped up with earth. Isaac then digs the same wells that his father dug during his life, but the Philistines stop him. Isaac is persistent, and he keeps digging, as we learn: “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.”


These acts seem to reinforce the idea that Isaac is merely a transitional character and adds very little to history as compared to his father Abraham and his son Jacob. However, there is another side to look at Isaac. Hizkuni, a 13th-century French commentator, says that Isaac gave the wells the same names that his father gave them because those names show that the wells were in his possession because of his father’s legacy. 

 

We live in a society that values trailblazers and innovators rather than stewards of the past. Innovation leads to growth and needed change, but innovation without rootedness in the past is dangerous as everything is seemingly up for grabs and our lives lack a solid foundation. Without a foundational past, we cannot know who or what to stand up for. 


I believe this is the ‘innovation’ that Isaac brings as the second forefather: he taught us all that to be a people, we must recognize and strengthen the foundation laid by our ancestors before us. Without us, all the work they’ve done will be ‘covered up’, it is up to us to dig their wells, and new ones, in every generation.


On Tuesday, we returned to the same well that the previous generation dug in 1987 located in the National Mall in our nation’s capitol. We too demanded that an evil enemy release captive Jews as we chanted “bring them home” and “let them go” over and over, and in doing so, we kept the focus on the 240 hostages held underground by Hamas as the world has seemingly moved on. We too marched because our brethren across the globe are suffering, under attack, and feeling alone in the world. We too marched against antisemitism, not just in other countries, but in our country, the United States of America, which we never thought we would have to do in 2023. We too marched to show our brethren across the world that they are not alone. 


One comment I heard from Israelis who watched the rally across the globe was that it changed their perception of American Jewry’s relationship with them. Since October 7, they have seen Jews rally against them in public places, but yesterday they saw 290,000 Jews and allies standing up for them in the most public place in our country. 


Tuesday, November 14, was also Rosh Chodesh Kislev. The Jewish month of Kislev contains the holiday of Hanukkah. On the first day of this new month, we rekindled a flame that was perhaps flickering, and we found the courage and strength that we did not think we had in us, like the small jug of oil found in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) after it was cleansed. My experience at the rally was of a Jewish community that is unified like never before, and ready to stand up together against the hatred and evil permeating our lives. Leading up to this rally, since October 7, I have seen our congregants and Jews around our city come back to the well of the Jewish community. Usually, many take a break from Jewish life after the high holidays, but this year is different. The month of Kislev must be about rededicating ourselves to digging the wells of our ancestors that have been ‘stopped up’. It is time to persistently dig and to make our names known to the world who wants us to go away. 


There were incredible speakers, musicians, and moments that we experienced on November 14, 2023, that we will never forget, but the highlight of the day was finding myself standing next to Natan Sharansky, the leader of the 1987 rally, after he spoke and introducing him to my son. Returning to the same well has never felt more meaningful. I hope and pray that we continue to visit the well of Torah, the well of our ancestors, like Isaac did, as we traverse a precarious future. Just as our father Isaac never left the land of Israel, so too may our hearts and minds never leave Israel. 


We’ve been through incredibly challenging times before, but we came through it together, bringing the light of God and our ancestors with us, and were victorious. The rally was not the end of our struggle for our people, it was just the beginning, the first spark. May we be victorious again.

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