Journal entry: Monday, June 5. A little over halfway through our month-long kayaking expedition across our ancestral homeland of Lithuania, my daughter and I struggle through one of our most challenging stretches.
We hit a series of sluggish meanders, followed by long straightaways, with ferocious headwinds howling upstream. We’re paddling with all of our might just to maintain our place. The water feels dense and viscous, like we’re stuck in a bog. Every time we finally reach the end of a straightway, after an excruciating effort, we turn, hopeful for a moment, either right or left — only to forlornly behold the same hideous collection of radio towers we’ve been seeing since lunch, hours ago. Whenever it seems we might pass them, there they are, somehow still in front of us, like giant upthrust middle fingers taunting us, defiant maledictions from the spiteful earth.
What are we doing on this river, wrestling with wind and water and history? Why have we returned to the land that my great great grandfather, Rabbi Judel Girsch Finkelstein, fled with his family over a century ago? Like the river, we are turning and returning, pressing forward, eddying back.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that history is dynamic. He writes: “Over time, things change meaning. I am reminded of how one of my children took a rare book I loved and innocently used a few pages of it for a coloring book. I was furious. But now, as I reflect on those scribblings, they bring not only nostalgia but tenderness . . . In this way, the present can change the past.”
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Two months after I posted this passage on my blog, I received a response from Harry Gorfine, an Australian fisheries biologist who I met in Vilnius. His words completely transformed the way I understood our adventure on the Nevezis River. He wrote:
I keep meaning to tell you about those radio masts that were driving you nuts as you and Rosa paddled between Babtai and Kaunas. They were of critical importance to native Lithuanians during January 1991 as ordinary citizens mobilized in their campaign for independence from the oppressive Soviet regime. Many came out to demonstrate and were maimed as the tanks driven by young Russians ran over them, crushing their limbs into the muddy ground.
Those radio towers were the means by which the underground operatives of the de facto Lithuanian government in Kaunas desperately got a message to the West, to let them know what was happening as it unfolded. Time was of the essence. Without swift communication the world might have awoken to news about a large scale massacre. That’s all history now, but as much as I am aware of what you were up against on that stretch of the river, had I been paddling beside you, I would have drawn motivation to persevere, for the demoralizing headwinds and cold, wet conditions that you faced were trivial in comparison to what others have endured in this land of our forebears. I gather the towers remain in use today, but even if they were abandoned, I doubt that permission to demolish them would ever be granted, given the legacy of freedom that they helped to secure for the country.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God speaks slowly in our lives, a syllable at a time. It is not until we reach the end of life that we can read the sentence backward. Our stories are not over until we write the final utterance, which has the capacity to change all that came before.
We have just begun the new Jewish year of 5778. It’s a time of challenge — and opportunity. May our wrestling with our nation’s past help us move toward a better and brighter future.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
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