This past Thursday, we observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In Israel, a siren goes off, people stop in the streets, and reflect. They remember loved ones. They imagine the many relatives they never met. And they silently lament the ongoing and seemingly never-ending assault of antisemitism.
Over the years, my reflections on the Holocaust have evolved, as they should. As a young child, the Holocaust was a nightmare, quite literally. I would think Nazis were gathering to invade us, or maybe even hiding in my closet. Trauma, as I spoke about last week, gets passed on. As I got older, prouder in my Jewish faith, I thought of the Holocaust in the terms of heroism. The stories I heard of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Stories of people maintaining their faith in G-d in the face of such godlessness. More recently, I have been thinking of the Holocaust in terms of the long-lasting trauma to survivors and their descendants. Memory is alive; it is malleable and ever shifting. It is a weakness of the human condition, but it’s also a strength, it’s beautiful. If our memories don’t take on new meaning and cannot be seen from fresh perspectives, then it is not only our memory that is dead, but in some way, we are as well.
And so today, I want to revisit the Holocaust from a fresh perspective; fresh, at least, for me, and that is from the perspective of Jewish law and practice.
In 1994, Professor Haym Soloveitchik, the son of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, penned what is considered to be one of the most important articles and assessments of Orthodox life. The article, titled, Rupture and Reconstruction argued “that from the beginning of the twentieth century and continuing after World War II, the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry, contemporary religion lost its roots or, more precisely, what he called “a mimetic tradition,” (from the word, mimic, to copy) a phrase which from that day on entered the Modern Orthodox lexicon. In the past, not only values but also religious practice was conveyed by living example, and not through texts. The absence of a continuous tradition, or masorah, led to religious insecurity; people now turned to detailed texts, as opposed to their parents and elders, to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.” (R. David Brofsky)
The impact, he suggested, led the Orthodox community to shift to the right and to more chumra, more stringency as Jewish texts tend to cautiously advise more stringent practices, even if the community they were written from and for, did not always act in the same fashion. And so, Professor Soloveitchik lamented this rupture in our mesorah, in the parent-to-child-tradition, caused by the Holocaust, which created a community that was dependent on books, and therefore more conservative in their approach to Jewish law and practice.
In the two and a half decades since he wrote his essay, the shift to texts over community, has also caused the exact opposite phenomenon, one that is equally, if not more, lamentable. As many have pointed out, the explosion of Jewish education for men and especially for women, the existence of the internet and social media with all its sharing abilities, has caused a tremendous amount of kulos, of leniencies, to be shared and adopted widely. Instead of turning to their shul rabbi, many an observant Jew, turns to rabbi Google, where he or she could often find not just an answer, but quite often, the exact answer that they’re looking for.
A prominent rabbi once told me that when a congregant asks him a question, he also Googles it. Not to look up the answer, but to know what alternative approaches he has to contend with. It’s like going to the doctor after you’ve spent a few hours on WebMD and the doctor has to reassure you that, “No, not every headache is a brain aneurism.”
Muhammad famously described the Jewish People as the people of the book. But he was mistaken. We are first and foremost a people. Full stop. A nation. A family. Yes, we have a book, but it is called a Toras Chaim, a Torah of life. It is a living book. Not only is it relevant in every age and era, but it is constantly evolving. Where does it evolve? Right here. Among the people, in a community, in discourse, in dialogue, and debate.
This week’s parsha speaks of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Vayehi bayom hashmini, and it was on the eight day. The eight day of what? For seven days preceding the inauguration, Moshe taught Aharon and his sons how to serve in the Mishkan, what to do, how to do it. But he didn’t use a book, he didn’t even give a lecture. Moshe himself served in the Mishkan and the Kohanim observed. The mimetic experience was born.
And on that very day, Nadav and Avihu, two of the most brilliant rising stars of the Jewish People, slated to be the next leaders, they died, actually killed by a heavenly fire. Why? Our Sages teach us that they were waiting for the elders, Moshe and Aharon, to die, so they could take over.
Now you have to understand – this wish of theirs, for Moshe and Aharon to die, was not selfish, and not as cynical as it may sound. Moshe and Aharon were old men. They were likely a little out of touch with the sentiment of the people. Nadav and Avihu, they “got it.” And they were fully capable of learning, of teaching, of communicating to G-d and receiving Divine instructions. “Moshe and Aharon, you did a great job; you got the Jewish People out of Egypt, you brought them the Torah. But now it’s time for the new generation. Enough with the old men.”
What they failed to appreciate is that without the elders, without the connection between the past and the present, without their roots, they had nothing. That is not Judaism. The text is not enough; the community, the relationships developed in a community, the experience of learning from one another, that is who we are. That is what means to be a Jew.
Community is not only the medium through which we study and apply the law, it is the driving force behind some of the most challenging laws in the Torah. The second half of the parsha describes in great detail the laws of Kashrut; of what we can and cannot eat. Although we cannot fully understand why certain foods are allowed and others aren’t, in a very general sense, the rules of Kosher, as difficult as they may have been and sometimes are, have kept us united. They have forced us to live in close proximity to one another. For all the complaints of mark-ups and the like, what price would we not pay for the gift of community?
In the tenth century BCE, King Solomon, the Gemara tells us, instituted the Eruv, the mechanism through which a semi-public domain can be treated like a private one. People can mock the Eruv, people can fight against the building of an Eruv, but tell me, is there anything that had a greater impact on ensuring that we live next door to one another? There’s a reason King Solomon was described as the wisest of men.
And then, years later, as the Jews were dispersing all over the world after the destruction of the Temple that King Solomon built, another visionary came on the scene. His name was Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, and according to many, he is credited with instituting the Beis Knesses, literally, the house of gathering, the shul. It was designed to be a place where people could pray and to learn, but also to gather. You could pray at home – G-d is everywhere. You could learn wherever you’d like – all you need is a book. But for Judaism to survive, you need a community.
If I were to be perfectly honest, I relate deeply with Nadav and Avihu. I sometimes think I know what’s best for the Jewish People, and the old rabbis, the ones who can’t even turn on their phone, let alone keep up with the latest Jewish Twitter controversy, they’re out of touch. I relate to Nadav and Avihu, because I too, prefer to serve G-d alone, as they did. I sometimes feel lost in the crowd or distracted by a congregation. I feel that when I pray alone, my tefilah is more elevated. I’d like to believe these are holy sentiments. But they are not Jewish sentiments. Because Judaism is not just a faith. It is a peoplehood, a community, a family.
The Holocaust caused a rupture in our community life with lasting impact. Though radically less dramatic, the pandemic did the same. It’s really nice to see so many of you coming back, but there are many scratching their heads, wondering, why bother. And they’re in good company! Nadav and Avihu, the all-stars of the Jewish youth, felt very much the same, and I too have a hard time articulating why people should start coming back to shul. But I think the answer is this:
We serve G-d, and we study books, but first and foremost, we are a people. As we learned this past year, a Zoom family get-together is just not the same. Learning on one’s own is nice, but real Jewish learning takes place in the walls of the noisy study hall. There’s a lot of really good information on the internet, but I would never trade that in for the wise advice of my personal rabbi – even when I disagree with him. And praying in one’s home can be uplifting, but G-d, our Father, listens more closely when we stand together as one.
For every rupture, there is a reconstruction. I look forward to rebuilding with each and every one of you; growing together, learning together, praying together, and with a deep and shared appreciation for the central role of peoplehood in our faith, becoming an even stronger community than we were before.
I’ve avoided any analogies between this pandemic and the Holocaust for obvious reasons. No matter how great the loss – and there were many, not just “out there” but in our community; the lives we lost this year amongst ourselves were caused by Covid, directly or indirectly, and we mourn collectively for each of them. We mourn for the loss of so many innocent lives taken by a disease. But of course, any comparison between the atrocities and tragedy of the Holocaust is shallow, ignorant, and insulting.
What I’d like to do though is focus on what took place after the Holocaust; on the life and the path of the survivors. Again, not because the experience is identical but because I think it is instructive.
I grew up, like many of you, on stories of heroism during the Holocaust. They inspired me then and they inspire me now. What people did to survive, to persevere, to rebuild is supernatural. However, a few years ago, I was speaking to a survivor, a very prominent man in his community and he described to me what he and his friends did in the immediate aftermath of the war. I was shocked.
He, this very aristocratic, refined, devout individual, and his friends, engaged in all forms of licentious, drunken, and immoral behavior. I will leave at that.
I should not have been so surprised. These people experienced a deeply distressing experience, or what we call trauma, of the highest degree. Drinking and all forms of mind-numbing behavior are quite common as a way of self-medicating after a trauma. Again, not identical at all, but this past year has seen the alcohol market explode. One company reported a 350% increase in sales. Whether it was the illness itself, the fear of the unknown, being cooped up with family, watching one’s business fall apart, and the political upheaval, this past year, we all experienced some level of trauma; it was a deeply distressing experience.
What I should have been surprised by was how this survivor and so many other somehow got past that stage and rebuilt their lives.
It’s not to say that these survivors ever got past the trauma. Most did not seek therapy as they should have. Most of the survivors suppressed their feelings. It was only at night when they were no longer consciously able to fight back the demons, did their children and neighbors hear their screams of anguish from hellish nightmares.
Trauma lives on. It doesn’t just go away on its own.
Not only does it go on, it gets passed on. Let me share with you two quotes:
“When I chose my wife, I wanted someone who I felt would be able to run away from the Nazis when the time came someone who was strong physically and emotionally who could shoulder the burden of caring for children in a difficult time.”
And, “Any change in the political world almost anything in the news will have me frightened and fearing for my children’s safety.”
Sounds like the sentiment of people who lived through the Holocaust, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Those are quotes from the children of survivors. (https://mishpacha.com/a-scarred-inheritance/) And that’s because trauma, we have learned, gets passed on to the next generation. Sometimes, even to a third generation. (Heard from Dr. Norman Blumenthal)
But amazingly, despite the trauma, the Survivors rebuilt and built even more than they had in the Old Country. Of course, there are the famous ones, like Elie Wiesel, Israel Meir Lau, Abe Foxman, Tibor Rubin, Walter Kohn, Daniel Kahneman, Tom Lantos, Edith Eger, and the list goes on and on. Every field. There have been books written about this phenomenon. Overall, survivors were more driven people – and again, this passed on to at least another generation. As we all know, they would never waste any food, but they also would not waste any time; every moment was to be used and to be used well.
Although the Holocaust haunted them, it also drove them. My perception, watching my grandparents rebuild their lives, despite the many difficulties, was that they were driven by two things; guilt and gratitude. Guilt for having survived and gratitude to G-d for allowing them to survive. Like all survivors, they couldn’t escape its dark shadow, but they also allowed it to animate them, to drive them, to do and accomplish. For the believers, they felt that G-d had allowed them to live, to survive for a reason, and they could not rest until they fulfilled it. They felt that their survival was a sign from Hashem telling them that He believed in them, that they were left as the remnant of the ruins for a special role that only they could fulfill.
We’re all familiar with the term PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Allow me to teach you a new term – PTG, post-traumatic growth. It’s a real thing, people can actually grow from trauma, and the Holocaust survivors are shining examples of what it looks like.
As I said, any comparison between what we went through and those who went through Holocaust borders on the absurd. But I feel like it is accurate to say that we are survivors with a lowercase s.
You could disagree; you could question this premise by arguing that you were super-cautious, and your survival was a matter of good hygiene or your age. I might counter by saying that I know someone quite well who was really cautious and who got pretty ill. Hi. I also have heard of many young and cautious people who have died.
You might counter, I did just fine; I cooped myself up at home and kept myself busy. I was safe and sound. I am not a survivor! Or, in our immediate community the strain for the most part wasn’t so strong. Rabbi, you’re being dramatic.
But when so many people die, all around you, you are a survivor. And as a thinking person, that has to change the way you live.
These last days of Pesach, we celebrate Kriyas Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea, which took place seven days after the Jews left Egypt. Without getting into the textual support for this, there is an astonishing Medrash that suggests the sea split a second time. Once for the entirety of the Jewish People and once – for Dasan and Aviram. That’s right. Those are the two guys who constantly harass Moshe, who almost got him killed, who rebel against him, who are described as people with no portion in the world to come. The sea split a second time. Just for them.
Apparently, says the Medrash, they stayed behind in Egypt when the Jews left. Not only that, but they came along with Pharaoh when he came to capture the Jews at the sea. And as the Egyptians were drowning all around them, the sea split for these two guys. And they crossed to the other side.
What merit did they have to experience such an amazing miracle? The sea splitting just for them?! And for Dasan and Aviram, of all people?!
The Brisker Rav suggests that back in Egypt, Dasan and Aviram were in charge of their fellow Jewish slaves and when their quota was not filled, Dasan and Aviram stood up for their fellow Jew. And obviously this was an incredible merit and mitzvah. But I think it was also their undoing.
Because you see, they told themselves, “Yeah, of course the sea split for us. We deserved it. We saved our fellow Jews.” And so they didn’t change their ways at all. They didn’t grow from the experience at all. So much so, that Rashi comments, whenever we find the word, ‘nitzavim/ standing’ in reference to unidentified people, it is them, Dasan and Aviram. You know why? Because they were stagnant. They were unmoved by the most moving experience of their time. They didn’t have Post-traumatic growth, they didn’t even have post-traumatic stress. They just pretended that nothing happened at all.
Imagine that. Imagine watching people die all around you, and you survive, and to just move. To so to speak, remain standing. To remain unchanged…
Regardless of our age, regardless of the absence of any underlying conditions, regardless of how much we believe in this doctor or that one, we just experienced Kriyas Yam Suf; many people died and we are here. The world came to a standstill. Jewish life came to a screeching halt. And now we’re back again.
I don’t know how much actual trauma you experienced. I don’t know how much trauma I experienced. Honestly, I think many of us are still in some level of shock.
But it’s wearing off. Vaccines are being rolled out. The shul is filling up. The world is getting back to normal. And we have a question to ask ourselves, will we grow from this experience or not? Will we be filled with gratitude every day of our lives, knowing that G-d has told us, through our survival that He believes in us, that He wants something from us?
Or will we just remain standing?
It’s a mindset; a mindset of gratitude. Yes, maybe even some guilt. And from a religious, believing perspective, it’s a mindset of G-d communicating to us. You know what He’s saying? He’s telling us that although we may be entirely unworthy, He cares about us and believes in us.
Allow me to share with you a story I recently heard and moved me to the core (heard from Rabbi Ephraim Schapiro):
About 40 years ago there were a group of yeshiva students who were not behaving as they should and got involved in phone scams. They would make a prank phone call and scam people. They took it to an unconscionable abhorrent level and started calling great rabbis and pranking them asking them bogus questions. It was one boys turn to call the great Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and at 11:30 at night he called Rav Moshe. The Rebbetzin picked up and said, “The Rosh Yeshiva is sleeping. Is it an emergency? Should I wake him?” The boy said yes. Reb Moshe hearing it’s a halachik question washed his hands and came to the phone. He asked the boy what the question was and it was obvious it was a scam; a bogus question, completely made up.
R’ Moshe then asked the boy what yeshiva he learned in. The boy didn’t want to answer, he didn’t want to be incriminated. “I won’t get you in trouble,” said Rav Moshe. “Where do you learn? What gemara are you learning in school?” He told him. “What daf are you learning? What page?” He told him. R Moshe said let me ask you a question on Tosfos on that Gemara.
He shared the question and then said to the boy, “Do you understand the question?” The boy said no. And in fact, judging from the caliber of this scam artists yeshiva student, it was a miracle he even knew what tractate they were learning. But the patience of Rav Moshe was legendary. Without a gemara, past midnight, with a teenager who tried to scam him, this true story is that Rav Moshe taught the boy on the phone the entire Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos of a whole page, word by word, line by line, top to bottom, soup to nuts. He then asked the boy if he understood it? He said no. Rav Moshe reviewed it again. This went on another two times. After a whole hour he asked the boy, lovingly, if he understood the question on Tosfos? And the boy said, “Yeah, yeah, I do. Wow, that’s an amazing question.”
Rav Moshe instructed him that when he goes to Yeshiva the next day he should ask his teacher the question. The next day the boy raises his hand, the rebbe is wondering what in the world could this kid want. And he asks the question. And the Rebbe is astounded. “That’s incredible! What a kasha! What a question! Where in the world did you get it from?” The boy answered, “Rav Moshe Feinstein.”
The Rebbe spent the entire week of class dealing with that question. Comes Thursday and beaming like a light bulb, the Rabbi walks into class and he said, “I have an answer to the question that you asked!” Thursday evening, the boy comes home from yeshiva and he runs to his room and locks the door. The parents, surprised, shocked, come to the door, they ask to be let in, and they see their son crying uncontrollably. “What happened? What happened?” they ask him.
And all he could say through the tears were these words: “Reb Moshe believed in me. Reb Moshe believed in me. And if Reb Moshe believed in me then I believe in me.”
And the next morning he went back to yeshiva and he literally turned his whole life around. Today he is an accomplished individual, teaching young adults Torah, and if you ask him today why, he would say because Rav Moshe Feinstein believed in him.
Ladies and gentleman, with all due respect to Rav Moshe Feinstein and this boy, we all have an even greater claim. G-d Almighty believes in us. G-d Almighty spared us. G-d Almighty spent time watching us this year. Because He believes in us. He believes that we have something to contribute. He does not want us to just “go back to normal.” We cannot just remain standing. We must come out of here different people. We are survivors and G-d is telling each and every one of us, in our own way, “go make something of yourself. Grow.”
Someone asked me the other day, “How can I get my kids back to shul after all this time away?” And the answer is that trauma, both the good and the bad, they get passed on to the next generation. Like the many people here who are living with their parents’ ghosts and angels, our children will live with ours. If we dedicate ourselves to living life like a survivor; in a more meaningful fashion, with more urgency, with more vision, more prayer, more Torah, more chesed, they will too.
Someone emailed before Yom Tov asking me why did G-d do this to us? And of course, I don’t know the answer. But more importantly, I cannot know the answer. And that’s because G-d speaks in 7.8 billion languages. He speaks to each and every one of us. All the time. But especially now. With the waves of the sea still crashing down around us, He’s speaking to each of us, telling us, I believe in you. Don’t stand still. Don’t just go back. You’re a survivor and I, G-d Almighty, believe in you.