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None Is Too Many

(Excerpt from Sermon given by Eli Rubenstein, Kol Nidre, Congregation
Habonim October 8, 2008)
…..In our world today, there is a commonly held view about the
hopelessness of the human condition. The view, while in some ways
understandable, is not justifiable, either on historical, theological or
practical grounds. In fact, the view itself has the danger of becoming a selffulfilling
prophecy. For if you believe in the innate, unchangeable – and
negative – nature of the world, then what’s the point in trying to change it?
Before I examine this issue further, I want to ask a question, which may
seem totally unrelated to this topic, but whose relevancy will hopefully
become clearer toward the end of my remarks.
Does anyone know who won Canada’s first Olympic Gold medal at the
Beijing Olympics?
Before I answer that question, let me refer back to the oft heard common
viewpoint alluded to earlier. The line of thinking goes something like this:
“After the Holocaust the world said “Never Again”. Yet look at Rwanda,
look at Cambodia, look at Darfur, and look at Ahmadinajad!
What’s the point? No matter what, the world will always hate Jews, the
world will always commit genocide…… so why bother??”
I want to suggest to you that this viewpoint is fundamentally opposed to
Judaism. To be Jewish means to never give up hope in ourselves, in the
Jewish people or in humanity. Simply put: We are forbidden about ever
becoming cynical about the nature or fate of humanity.
The Talmud teaches us that even when the blade of the knife is pressed
against our throats we may not give up hope..
At Yad Vashem, I once heard a Holocaust survivor who spoke about his
parents pushing him through the small hole they smashed in the boxcar
traveling to a death camp – his mother’s last words to him were “Be a
mensch” be a good person… She was, in essence, saying to him, “I don’t
care how evil the world is, I don’t care that the world has lost it’s reason
and gone insane- you be a good person, you do the right thing…
And why does Judaism teach us not give up hope in humanity, despite the
repeated errors of its ways?It is precisely because Judaism teaches us that we CAN learn from our
mistakes, that humanity CAN, eventually, get it right.
I once heard a young woman say, “ I never agree when someone says,
“History repeats itself” - as if it’s an automatic, mechanical, scientific reality
about the world. The truth is, history doesn’t repeat itself, - PEOPLE
repeat history – and they don’t have to, if they only realize it!” Judaism
agrees.
The most dramatic example, for me, is right here in Canada. From the
years, 1933- 1948, Canada – arguably - had the worst record when it came
to letting in Jewish refugees from Europe. F.C. Blair, Canada’s Minister of
Immigration, once said that Jews trying to enter Canada reminded him of
his father’s farm during feeding time, with all the hogs trying to get into
the trough at the same time. After WWII was over, when the full extent of
the tragedy visited upon European Jewry was known to all, a senior
immigration official was asked about how many Jews would be considered
for entry into Canada. His now infamous response? “None is too many..”
The tragic and shameful story about Canada’s past was first brought to
light by Professors Irving Abella and Hesh Troper in their now classic
work, “None is Too Many” which was first published in the early 1980’s.
And, yet, there is a remarkably hopeful aspect to the story.
In the mid to late 1970s, the world was beset by the “Boat People” crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of Asian refugees had fled their war-torn
countries, many by boat. In the unprotected waters of the vast Pacific, they
were often beset upon by pirates – murder, rape and robbery were all to
commonplace.
Among the countries that responded, two of them were especially
noteworthy: Israel and Canada.
Why Israel? Because Menachem Begin, himself a refugee from Holocaust
Europe, had just assumed power in Israel. Despite his country’s tiny
population, his first act as Prime Minister was to accept a large number of
the “boat people”. Begin remembered all too well how, in 1939, the world
turned its back on the Jewish passengers of the St. Louis, and how, after the
ship was sent back to Europe, many of its passengers ended up perishing
in the Shoah. Israel, he felt, could not ignore those whose plight was so
similar.
And why Canada?In 1979, Ron Atkey, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, was given an
advance copy of “None is Too Many”. Aghast at Canada’s record toward
Jewish refugees during WWII – which he was learning about for the first
time – Atkey turned his attention to then ongoing ‘boat people’ crisis.
Determined not be known as the “F.C. Blair of the 80’s” he successfully
directed Canada to provide a safe haven to an exceptionally high number
of these struggling refugees.
So who won Canada’s first Olympic Gold medal at Beijing? Wrestler Carol
Huynh of Hazelton, B.C., a daughter of those same Vietnamese boat people
that Ron Atkey decided to bring to Canada. (If you have a moment later on
this evening, you may want to take a minute and watch the gold medal
award ceremony for Carol Huynh on Youtube. It is one of the most moving
scenes I have ever witnessed of a Canadian athlete receiving a medal at the
Olympics.
(See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfktTjS5yLg )
Letting in these imperiled refugees, wasn’t only the right thing to do, it was
also good for Canada.
Our tradition teaches us that Teshuva – true repentance - consists of:
A. Acknowledging the trespass or mistake
B. Promising not to repeat the transgression
C. When you find yourselves in the same position, not to commit the same
error again.In this case, that is exactly what Canada did.
The beginning of the “None is too Many” story, might prompt within us an
attitude of despair, cynicism and apathy toward the human condition
But the post script to the story reminds us to never to give up on the world,
to never be cynical about the nature or fate of humanity, no matter how
many times humanity may falter, or let us down.

Fri, February 28 2020 3 Adar 5780