OU Torah Insights Project
Mot - Yom
April 29, 2000
Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla
In May 1940, refugees flocked to southern France seeking passage to
Lisbon, Portugal via Spain, in hopes of finding a ship there to take them far
away from the battlefields of Europe.
But to cross the frontier, the refugees needed Portuguese entry visas,
and on May 10, 1940, the date that the Germans invaded the low countries and
France, the Portuguese government instructed its consul general in Bordeaux,
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, to refuse entry visas to all refugees, Jews in
particular. All passage across the Spanish border came to a sudden halt and some
ten thousand Jews remained stranded in Bordeaux.
One night, walking in the city, Mendes met Rabbi Haim Krieger, a refugee,
as he and other Jews were preparing to spend the night in the street near the
main synagogue. Mendes invited the Rabbi to the Consulate and listened to his
account of the Jews suffering.
Hearing this, Mendes announced that he was ready to grant entry visas to
anyone who asked. Rabbi Krieger recounted what followed: I sat with him a
full day, without food and sleep, and helped him stamp thousands of passports
with Portuguese visas. Mendes did not eat or sleep a whole day, until late at
night. And during this short time, he issued several thousand visas, until the
enemy approached Bordeaux and we were forced to flee to Spain.
When Mendes returned to Lisbon, the Portuguese government, furious at his
insubordination, dismissed him from the Foreign Ministry and canceled all his
retirement benefits. When they met again in Lisbon in 1941, Mendes told Rabbi
Krieger that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarded him as mentally deranged
for having destroyed his career.
a family of twelve children, Mendess savings quickly disappeared. The HIAS
organization tried to mitigate his suffering, and two of his children were
helped to relocate to the United States to start new lives.
Mendes had no regrets. If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one
Catholic [Hitler], then surely is it permitted for one Catholic to suffer for so
many Jews. I could not act otherwise. And I accept everything that has befallen
me with love.
The Jewish community of Lisbon supported him financially in the years before his death, in 1954. In 1996, he was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Amongst the Nations.
Parshat Acharei Mot, just a few days
before Yom Hashoah, we read about the Yom
Kippur ritual in which two identical goats are placed side-by-side. Lots are
chosen. One is marked To G-d, the other, To Azazel.
goat marked for G-d, is sacrificed by the Kohein
Gadol to expiate the sins of the people, its blood sprinkled in the Holy of
other goat is led into the wilderness, to cut-off land, then thrown off a
cliff, its bones smashed on the rocks below.
people from the same cities in Nazi Europe, with the same educations, the same
religious backgrounds, the same experiencesyet, with very different destinies. Goral echad laHashem,
vegoral echad laAzazel. One lot marked for G-d, a rescuer who made amends
for the sins of his people, destined for holiness, a person prepared to
sacrifice himself and his family for the sanctification of G-ds
The other lot marked for Azazel, a person who bowed before the demonic
evil of the wilderness, who led his culture and his country to a cut-off
landcut off from all morality and civilized behavior. His destiny was to be
smashed on the rocks, his legacy cast to four winds.
How many destinies were cast to G-d? How many rescuers? How many
Schindlers? How many Mendeses?
Many worlds were saved by rescuers. A Dutch Christian rescuer called it,
the conspiracy of goodness. Do you think, he said, that I could
have hidden a Jewish family without the knowledge and cooperation of the grocer,
the milkman, the policeman? If Azazel has many faces, goodness has many
are taught that for the sake of 36 righteous persons, the world is sustained;
for the sake of ten righteous persons, Sodom
and Gomorrah would not have been
destroyed. Saving one life is tantamount to saving an entire world.
is a powerful mirror. Goodness challenges us in ways that evil does not.
Compared to Eichmann, I am a saint. But compared to Mendes, how do I measure up?
Would I have unlocked the door? Would I have taken into my home this sick man,
this pregnant woman, this frightened family? Would I have kept them for days,
weeks, months, years, knowing that discovery would mean imprisonment, torture
and death for me and my family?
We are created in the image of G-d. Goodness is our moral mandate. Let us hope and pray for the day when all mankind will cast its destiny with G-d. Goral echad laHashem. One destiny with One G-dthe G-d of love and mercy. The G-d of Israel.
Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla
Rabbi Kassorla is rav of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Maryland