Monday, May 3, 2010

What about the Holocaust, WHAT ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST?

Note - This post is a response to a comment in my previous post Deja Vu in the Clouds. Please read that one first.

This coming Thursday is May 6. And this coming Friday is 23 Iyar. (הבעל"ט). In 1945 these two dates came on the same day.

That's the day that my father, LOY"T, was liberated from Ebensee. That was 65 years ago this week. Here's what I wrote about it in my book (One Above and Seven Below, p. 272-3):

As the Allied Forces closed in, the SS liquidated the satellite camps (and most of the inmates) and they herded the survivors and marched west. The survivors from that region were concentrated at a camp named Ebensee. I have seen photos and have read accounts about Ebensee. It can only be described as the land of the living dead (though there was no shortage of dead that did not happen to be living). By the time my father arrived, in the last weeks of the war, it was total chaos. Very few guards, no work, no food, no room to sleep, nothing but starvation, sickness, and death.

But - it was spring. The guns could be heard and the planes could be seen. For the living there was the dream of imminent liberation. And for the religious, there was G-d. On May 5, 1945 a flag was hung from the watchtower to signify that it was over. The next day my father, 15 years old, stood holding the hand of Rabbi Yehoshua Grunwald, the Rebbi of Chust, as they watched the American tanks roll in.

Shortly before the liberation, one prisoner came across a shel yad from a pair of tefillin. The shel yad was conveyed to the most prominent religious spiritual leader that was present, the Rebbi of Chust. He concealed this treasured find until the day of liberation a short time later. On the day of liberation the Allied Forces brought in a mobile field kitchen and prepared a meal of meat and rice. Two lines quickly formed - a long line at the kitchen waiting for a ration of the hearty food and a much shorter line in front of the Rebbi of Chust waiting to say the blessing and don the shel yad. My father stood on the short line. It seems that the food was too rich for the undernourished systems of most of the inmates. My father relates that many people who partook of the offerings of the long line began to die. Many others who partook of the offerings of the short line began to live.

A little more than 15 years ago, I asked my father how he felt right after liberation when his parents were gone and he was released from Gehinom. He answered: "I felt like I have the whole world open in front of me."

He was young and, despite the atrocities that he witnessed and experienced, he was spared much of the sufferring of so many others. He was from the Carpathian sector that wasn't evacuated to the concentration camps until 1944. He was too young to have been married so he didn't lose a spouse or children and the two sisters that he had before the war (there were no other siblings) survived as well. His parents were gone, his past was shattered, but he knew one thing: There is no point looking back. Only forward. And there was a whole open world in front of him.

Exactly 15 years ago, he made a grand Kiddusha Rabba on Shabbos to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his liberation. There are 7 of us children (3 were married at the time with a combination of 12 grandchildren. Now there are - בלע"ה - more than 35 grandchildren and some great grandchildren en route) and he wanted all 7 of us to say a few words.

When my turn came, I was at a total loss. But I kept thinking about what he told me a short while earlier: "I felt like I have the whole world open in front of me." And so I spoke out the gemara at the very end of masechet Makkos (24b):

שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים כיון שהגיעו להר הצופים קרעו בגדיהם כיון שהגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל שיצא מבית קדשי הקדשים התחילו הן בוכין ור"ע מצחק אמרו לו מפני מה אתה מצחק אמר להם מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו מקום שכתוב בו והזר הקרב יומת ועכשיו שועלים הלכו בו ולא נבכה אמר להן לכך אני מצחק דכתיב ואעידה לי עדים נאמנים את אוריה הכהן ואת זכריה בן יברכיהו וכי מה ענין אוריה אצל זכריה אוריה במקדש ראשון וזכריה במקדש שני אלא תלה הכתוב נבואתו של זכריה בנבואתו של אוריה באוריה כתיב לכן בגללכם ציון שדה תחרש [וגו'] בזכריה כתיב עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות ירושלם עד שלא נתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה הייתי מתיירא שלא תתקיים נבואתו של זכריה עכשיו שנתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה בידוע שנבואתו של זכריה מתקיימת בלשון הזה אמרו לו עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתנו:

On another occasion they were going up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus they rent their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount they saw a fox scurrying from the place of the Holy of Holies. They all began to weep and Rabi Akiva began to laugh. They said to him (Rabi Akiva): Why do you laugh? He said to them: Why do you weep? They said to him: The place upon which it states, "And the non-Kohen who approaches must die" and now it is overrun with foxes and we ought not weep? He responded: This is the reason that I laugh. It states (in Yeshaya) "And I will have testify for me trustworthy witnesses - Uriah the Kohen and Zecharia son of Yevarchihu..." How can Uriah be mentioned with Zecharia? Uriah lived during the first Temple and Zecharia lived during the second Temple! But rather the scripture is equating the prophecy of Zecharia to the prophecy of Uriah. By Uriah it is written: "Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed as a field..." and by Zecharia it is written: "There will yet again be elderly men and elderly women dwelling in Jerusalem..." As long as the prophecy of Uriah has not been fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zecharia may likewise not be fulfilled. Now that I see the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is certain that the prophecy of Zecharia will be fulfilled.

And they said to him: Akiva has consoled us. Akiva has consoled us.

I was not brought up under the shadow of the Holocaust. When I was very little, I was told that Daddy was born in Europe and he "escaped" during WW II and his parents were killed.

When I was 8 years old we took our first trip to Eretz Yisrael and my mother took us to Yad Vashem. That's when I learned about the Holocaust.

And later on I started paying attention to what goes on in shul and I started listening to the weekly parsha. And I listened during Parshas Bechukosai (this week's parsha, BTW) and parshas Ki Savo when they read about the tochacha. And I said to myself, "That sounds just like the Holocaust!" Whoever wrote the Torah knew in advance that there was going to be a Holocaust. The Torah is REAL. Moshe is REAL.

G-d is REAL!

The prophecy of Uriah is real and the prophecy of Zecharia is real and parshat Ki Savo is real and parshat Nitzavim is real.

What about the Holocaust? WHAT ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST?

The Holocaust was our deepest tragedy, but it was also one of our greatest gifts. Because the children of the Holocaust have a Holocaust to tell them that what the Torah says will happen is what will happen. Since the churban habayis, no modern generation had a Holocaust to give us emunah in the Torah. But our generation has it.

And Rabi Akiva - and my father -tell us that we are allowed to laugh.


Anonymous said...

yechezkel, i was at that kiddush that your father gave 15 years ago. i'm sure you won't my saying that your father told the story in an even more moving manner... or noting that, in marking that milestone and the role that tefillin played in it, he donated 50 pairs of tefillin for bnei mitzvah who would otherwise not be able to afford them. your father's optimism and spiritual strength are inspiring. i consider it an honor to know him.

Y, Ben-David said...

Yechezkel said:
The Holocaust was our deepest tragedy, but it was also one of our greatest gifts. Because the children of the Holocaust have a Holocaust to tell them that what the Torah says will happen is what will happen. Since the churban habayis, no modern generation had a Holocaust to give us emunah in the Torah. But our generation has it.

Wait a minute. As I pointed out, every year, during the "Three Weeks" period culminating in Tisha B'Av we are forced to confront the disasters that have repeatedly hit us. Maybe in the time of Rabi Akiva there was doubts about the prophecies of the Torah in B'Chukotai and Ki Tavo, so maybe the hurban was illustrative to those seeing it in a way they may not have been aware of previously, although they all knew about the Hurban Bayit Rishon (destruction of the First Temple). But since then, most Jews are at least dimly aware of the massacres of the Crusades and the Black Death, the expulsion from Spain, the Chmielnitsky Pogroms, the pogroms in Czarist Russia, the thousands of Jews massacred in the Russian Civil War following the First World War and finally, the Holocaust. Almost all Jews, even the most assimilated are aware that Jews have been repeatedly smacked throughout history. In fact, that is one of the major REASONS for assimilation...the desire to get out of this loop. So are you saying that the best proof of the validity of the Torah is yet another punishment of this sort? It wasn't enough to read the story in the Talmud and to fast and sit on the floor on Tisha B'Av? How many Holocaust survivors were religiously observant at the time and then abandoned it as a result of their crisis of faith after experiencing all these horrors? How can you say that the Holocaust is a "gift" that GIVES us emunah when so many were driven away? As I see it, the gift is that G-d gave us another chance, within 3 years of the end of the Holocaust, to start the geulah process with the massive kibbutz galuyot to Eretz Israel. Without that, the despair would have been far, far deeper and there would be far, far fewer observant Jews today and flowering of Torah like we see.
It's not the punishment we look to for inspiration, but the redemption.

Yechezkel said...

To Anonymous--

If I am not mistaken, my father did not speak at the Kiddush. Only at the shul (when he announced his Tefillin gemach). This implies that you were at the shul as well.

Anyway, you are spooking me out so I will offer you a signed copy of the book if you tell me who you are :-{

In any case, thank you for commenting and for your warm compliments.

Yechezkel said...

To Mr. Ben-David ---

I think that all the "smacks" that we got before the Holocaust were just a few "light taps" because they were all local affairs and almost always a brief makka that lasted a day, or a week or a month and "went away". A progrom here,an expulsion there, a massacre here. Yet, as all the baalei mussar say, they were also all messages that should bring on Emunah. But nothing hit the words of the tochacha spot on like the Holocaust, which was a six year ordeal that killed most of European Jewry and put all Jews - even those in the Middle East and Western Hemisphere - at risk of annihilation.

I don't think it's for you or me to decide if we needed it or not. But once it happened, we should appreciate what it says to us. One of the stupidest things that Rahm Emanuel has said (and there are many) is also one of the smartest: We should never waste a crisis.

And, please, don't blame G-d for assimilation.

Y. Ben-David said...

I am sorry, but I am still missing the point. I don't see how being massacred is supposed to strengthen our faith. After all, unfortunately, we have not been the only victims of such the last hundred years there have been massacres of the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Rwandans and others. No one says that they "prove" that Armenian Orthodox Christianity or Buddhism are "right". Now, you might say, "no, the message is just for Jews", but an already religious Jew doesn't need such a "reminder" since he is already observant and the non-observant might say "who needs this?". Recall in Sefer Shmot that after Moshe Rabbenu comes to Egypt to bring word to the Benei Israel of the coming redemption, things at first got worse and the Torah says explicitly that the Benei Israel stopped listening to Moshe because of the hard work and despair. Despair is a powerful emotion and can push people in negative directions. I am in awe of people who went through that hell and who were able to maintain their faith, but, also many lost their faith, so the record of the Holocaust's influence on the religious faith of Jewish people at large is ambiguous.
In addition, the Torah tells us that how the outside world sees us IS also important...this was the argument that Moshe Rabbenu used to talk G-d out of ending his relationship with the Benei Israel after the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf) incident. Moshe says that the Egyptians will draw the wrong conclusions about G-d's power in the world if they were to hear such a thing. Apparently that is an important consideration.
Similarly, what alienated Jews think is also important....because Judaism is not simply a "religion" in the sense of being only a community of believers. "Am Israel" (the Jewish people) are a NATION and the Torah is its constitution. It applies to everyone born into it or who join it voluntarily. If a large part of the nation is disgruntled and alienated, that means that something is wrong somewhere, and we don't simply dismiss those in this state merely as "reshaim" or people who only want to indulge their taavot (appetites).

So, being the victims of repeated atrocities doesn't strike me as a way to strengthen allegience to the Torah from within and respect from the rest of the world from without. Regarding your quote from the Talmud regarding Rabi Akiva's statement, I will have to do some thinking about it. I do see that he was talking to people who were committed to Torah and who were possibly wavering, but as I said before, there has been plenty of Jewish suffering since them to remind us of our position in the world. You must remember that it was also the same Rabi Akiva who became the supporter of Bar Kochba and his war against the Romans, so Rabi Akiva himself felt that not only was suffering part of our conciousness, but we ALSO NEED REDEMPTION, meaning in a national-political sense.
Thus, I am convinced that what makes both the world at large and the Jewish people in its totality to sit up and take notice of the Torah and its relevance is NOT the Holocaust, but the promise and implementation of the REDEMPTION process, focussing on the massive kibbutz galuyot to Eretz Israel which began right after the Holocaust.

Shachar Ha'amim said...

I grew up in Yechezkel's world, but am no longer part of it. The type of Holocaust theology espoused here was not common to the charedi world that I grew up in. It would seem that since that time parts of the chareci world which obstinately refuse to see the redemptive message in the ingathering of the exiles and the stablishment of some form of Jewish sovereignty over parts of the Land of Israel, have unwittingly (or wittingly?) adopted elements of "there was a Holocaust so it is important to remain Jewish" form of Jewish identification common to more assimilated groups of Jews such as American reform and others. This is because haredi anti-zionism has forced them into a theological corner from which they can't escape.
As a granchild and nephew of Holocaust survivors, I can only say that my grandparents and great aunts and uncles who survived the war and were religious afterwards (even charedi) would be shocked by the ideas expressed here by Yecheskel - they would find them abominable.

Yechezkel said...

>>I am sorry, but I am still missing the point...

You are obviously not an admirer of Rahm Emanuel (join the club!)

>>Thus, I am convinced ...

Sure we need redemption. But it will come quicker and easier if we show HKBH that we are ready for it. The reason that we haven't had a complete redemption is that too many of us are trying to do it by themselves and not invite HKBH to the party. And HKBH says: If I am not invited, I am not coming!

It will never happen without His help. And that's what He is trying to tell us.

Listen up!

Yechezkel said...

>>As a granchild and nephew of Holocaust survivors, I can only say that my grandparents and great aunts and uncles who survived the war and were religious afterwards (even charedi) would be shocked by the ideas expressed here by Yecheskel...

As well as by Rabi Akiva since it is the same idea.

Y. Ben-David said...

I asked a friend of mine who is good at decoding Midrashim and the Aggadata and he said your understanding of the Rabi Akiva story is incorrect. He is NOT saying that we should "enjoy" all the "puranut" (suffering and punishment) prophecies and look forward to them, rather, GIVEN that they have happened, things can only get better. He was telling his colleagues not to lose hope, better days are coming.

Yechezkel said...

>>He is NOT saying that we should "enjoy" all the "puranut" (suffering and punishment) prophecies and look forward to them

What a coincidence! Neither am I!

>>rather, GIVEN that they have happened, things can only get better. He was telling his colleagues not to lose hope, better days are coming.

What a coincid...oh, never mind!

Anonymous said...

Here's another article that, I think, dovetails well with what you are saying here:

A couple of key paragraphs:

"I credit them [the Holocaust martyrs] for endowing the world with the greatest gift since the revelation at Sinai. I thank them for proving the true and eternal anatomy of the Divine spirit within man.

"From time immemorial, the invincible nature of this Divine sprit has been questioned, challenged and contested. Its actual existence lies at the heart of every moral conflict and struggle from the very beginning of time. Whether it be Nimrod, Ishmael, Esav or Amalek, or any of the varied more contemporary rebellious icons, at the core of the rebellion lie a direct challenge to the invincible Divine spirit within man and its Heavenly source.

"Three thousand years of unspeakable strife, bloodshed and tears failed to end this cosmic struggle. Then came the Holocaust and the indisputable verdict was in: “You can break the body and even destroy it, but you cannot destroy or break the Divine spirit in man.”

"Yes, at Auschwitz and Treblinka occurred an event of epic proportions – on par with that of the revelation at Sinai. In Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Theresienstadt the cosmic quandary, which is central to all of creation, had finally been resolved. The human spirit is indeed invincible – as infinite and eternal as its Divine maker. This has been resoundingly determined via the holy ashes and sacred skeletons of the tenacious holocaust martyrs."

Anonymous said...

And by the way, Shachar Ha'amim: I have yet to hear any frum person use the argument "there was a Holocaust so it is important to remain Jewish" to support positive observance. To use it as an argument (one of many, mind you) to keep our fellow Jews from assimilating, and especially from intermarriage (i.e., "sur mei-ra") - yes; as a reason for ourselves to keep mitzvos (i.e., "va'asei tov") - no. We have much better reasons for that.