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  • Rabbi Max Davis

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Recently, on Sunday Chol HaMoed Pesach, Dalia and I took our children sledding for what we anticipate (pray) will be the final time of the season.  It was an ample hill with only one other family present, so we figured social distancing would be no object.  However, much to our surprise, the other family’s bleach blonde peppy three year-old took an instant liking to our girls and made several attempts to reach out, literally.  Each time, her mother gently picked her up before she breached the invisible 6-foot barrier and explained as kindly as she could that we would all have to be friends at a distance.

Although I was grateful for the mother’s socially conscientious attitude and more grateful still that the situation resolved peacefully, I couldn’t help but feel an immense sadness at watching what could have become a beautiful young friendship fall victim to Coronavirus.  It’s a feeling not unlike the times when Dalia and I steer our children away from local playgrounds and other basic staples of their childhood, suddenly closed to them and lifeless.

Then again, I count our abundant blessings here in Minnesota, especially the freedom we have to get out and stretch in nature. 

With the approach of Yom HaShoa, I am all the more aware of our blessings.  In the flash of the moment, as our daughters’ would-be playmate was being guided away from us, I was reminded of so many stories of Jewish children in pre-war Europe forced to endure the severing of non-Jewish friendships; mothers and fathers steering their children away from the dreaded Jewish children.  What must it have been like to hear parents spout anti-Semitic dogma, rather than expressions of shared public health concerns?  How fortunate are Dalia and I to be able to join with our fellow parents in the fight against a common enemy disease.  How far we have come from the dark ages of Europe when the Jewish child herself was cruelly viewed as the disease.*

And so it goes these days.  I am among the ranks of those who waffle back and forth between frustration and relief, gratitude and grief.  I hope for the best but expect worse - if not the worst- chafing at the rules that constrict my children’s happiness while appreciating the relative luxuries we enjoy, especially the immense gifts of health and companionship.

For those who are likewise engaged in emotional ping-pong, it may be worthwhile to explore the experiences of those who lived through it before.

We begin with last week’s parshat Shemini. 

Parshat Shemini begins on a tremendous high. Vayehi bayom hashemini- It was on the eighth and final day of rites held to initiate the Kohanim in their priestly service.  At the climax of festivities, two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu perform an unauthorized act.  A half-dozen midrashim give a half-dozen interpretations, but suffice it to say, Hashem executes them. 

Aharon’s reaction:Vayidom Aharon– and Aharon was silent.

The pshat (straightforward understanding of the text) suggests that Aharon was stunned.  Stupefied, perhaps.  What could he possibly say in that horrible moment of calamity? 

What canwesay in those moments when we learn of nursing home horrors, mass graves in New York, and a disease that can make orphans out of children at a horrifying pace and stops even the healthiest athletes in their tracks?  These days, the “vayidom”media moments are numerous and unyielding.

However, there is another approach tovayidom Aharon.

The Ba’al HaTurim notes a connection between this unusual expression and its next usage in Tanach.  This occurs in Yehoshua 10:13 at an event known asShemesh b’Givon.  The Jewish army under Yehoshua engaged a marauding alliance of Amorite forces who had sought to destroy the Jewish enclave of Givon.  Our soldiers met with resounding success, but as the day progressed, it becomes clear that additional time would be required to utterly vanquish the foe.  That meant more daylight and consequently, Hashem miraculously halted the sun’s transit:Vayidom hashemesh! It is this unusual expression that the prompts the Ba’al HaTurim to draw a comparison between Aharon HaKohen and the sun.    

Seizing upon the Ba’al HaTurim’s connection, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin,Mara D’Atraof Toronto’sBayitshul, offers a unique interpretation:

Just as the sun stopped, so too, Aharon stopped. Instead of plunging into the abyss like the sunset, Aharon prevented himself from plunging into depression because he realized that he needed to move forward.

In other words, Aharon persevered.  We cannot fathom his true feelings in that dreadful moment, but we know he was ultimately able to avoid falling into a debilitating emotional abyss.Vayidom Aharon  - and Aharon came to a complete stop. 

As for those of us caught up in the news cycle, ricocheting between articles of hope and doom, longing for a shred of information to put our spinning minds at ease, perhaps we can aspire to the strength of Aharon.  If not, we have at least the suggestion New York Times columnist Allie Volpe shared in a recent article:How to Stay Sane When the World Seems Crazy:

 “Stop and take a breath. The world will keep spinning.”

Our second source of wisdom comes from the Esh Kodesh, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe.  Forcibly interned in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1939 until his murder with the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, the Esh Kodesh continued to lead his community with immense dignity and courage. During these years, he managed to compile a number of derashot into a manuscript that he hid in a canister.  Construction workers discovered the canister after the war and its contents were published in Israel in 1960.

The derasha of the Esh Kodesh from Parashat Metzora, April, 1940, caught my eye because of his description of Jewish institutional closures.

There are times, however, when we are smitten not only with physical suffering but also with things that , God forbid, distance us from Him, blessed be He.  There is no cheder for our children, no yeshiva, no synagogue in which to pray with a minyan, no mikveh and so forth.  In times such as this, God forbid, uneasy doubts may arise within us, asking how it is possible that even now, God’s intention is for our benefit.  If it were for the good, surely He would be punishing us with things that draw us closer to Him, and not with the annihilation of Torah and prayer and, God forbid, the end of almost all the Torah...

Thank God, our circumstances are far less dire than those of the Esh Kodesh, but we might ask similar questions of the Almighty at the present time.  As one longtime local Rav lamented to me in Target last week, ‘What is Hashem asking of us with all of this?! What does Hashem want from us?’  The Esh Kodesh wanted to know the same thing.

Despite a lack of answers, he was confident, even in his dire circumstances, that Hashem was ultimately conducting the world to a better place.  As he notes in his derasha, the Midrash teaches that when Bnai Yisrael reached Cna’an and found tzara’at in the walls of the Canaanite homes they were to posses.  It was a form of ‘X marks the spot’ indicating where the fleeing Canaanites had hidden treasure.  Although it was clear that treasure was buried in the walls and they would inevitably be broken down, nonetheless the new Israelite occupants were commanded to follow proper protocol of quarantining the houses for seven days.  Essentially, Hashem was directing them to experience events in sequence; a sequence that led fromtumah(ritual impurity), quarantine, and isolation to moments of revelation and blessing.  There was no shortcut to the blessings.

Our present turmoil offers no shortcuts.  Nonetheless, if we believe in the God of the Esh Kodesh, then we must hold fast to our tradition that insists our God is neither detached nor disinterested in the affairs of this world.  Our God has cherished relationships with us and, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 12b) is present at the head of every sickbed.  However long we must endure the present state oftumahthat keeps us distant from one another and from Torah, we owe it to the memory of the Aish Kodesh, if not to ourselves, to remain open to the notion that Hashem has arranged a future for us in which there will be revelations and blessings.

Howmight one remain open and hopeful these days?

Our third source of wisdom, a younger contemporary of the Esh Kodesh, suggests an answer.

Prior to Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av, I make an effort to read Shoah memoirs at a rate of one every couple of years.  That’s about as much as I can handle, as the accounts remain with me for many months, finding expression on a daily basis.  Previous year’s readings have includedMy Bones Don’t Rest in Auschwitzby Mrs. Gitel Donath z”l and Rabbi Joseph Polak’sAfter the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.  There is, however, a memoir somewhat closer to home that I have probably been avoiding ever since my parents forwarded me a copy several years ago.  This past Pesach of isolation, I decided that memoir’s time had come. 

The title speaks volumes:For Decades, I was Silent. Its author, Rabbi Baruch Goldstein zt”l, was the longtime rabbi of shuls in Wakefield and Worcester, MA and served asmesader kidushinfor my parents wedding.   Previous to that, he survived Auschwitz while enduring the murder of his entire immediate family and 98% of his native Jewish community of Mlawa, Poland.  Of the 6,000-strong prewar Jewish community, only 150 souls survived, including Rabbi Goldstein.

Four decades after his liberation from Auschwitz, Rabbi Goldstein found the sheer strength to break his silence.  His conviction compelled him to address classrooms, lecture halls, shuls, and ultimately to record his ordeal in painstaking, heartbreaking, and scholarly detail.  This was the book my parents gifted me several years ago.  They had already gifted me at birth a middle name, Asher, in Rabbi Goldstein’s honor.

The passage of Rabbi Goldstein’s work that I wish to highlight is expressed from a unique vantage point wherein the Rabbi, writing in 2008, reflects back on a moment in 1948 when, as a young man, he found himself experiencing flashbacks a further eight years to events of his youth in 1940.  The Rabbi’s writing conveys the depths of emotional turmoil he suffered at both junctures.

In 1948, three years post-liberation, the Rabbi was invited to his first Pesach seder as an American immigrant.  It was his first in eight years.  The seder was held in the home of a young friend, Riva Golinkin, to whom he would become engaged by the end of Pesach. Sitting there, observing the rituals so dear to him from his deeply devout youth, Rabbi Goldstein was torn between the pleasantness of his present surroundings and immense pain at the loss of everyone who had surrounded him at the seder table eight years prior. 

...We then raised our cup of wine and proclaimed, “Therefore we are obligated to revere, exalt, extol, exclaim, adore, and glorify the One who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and for us.”  For me, yes, I thought, miracles had been performed, but “for us”? ... For most of us, the miracles had come too late, I reflected.

Such thoughts continued to torment him throughout Hallel:

‘And let us say before Him a new song, Hallelujah!’  But what song could I sing when there was so much sadness in my heart?

‘He lifts the poor out of the dust; he raises the needy from despair.’ Oh, why did he raise so few of us?  All of us needed to be raised!

‘God had surely chastened me, but He did not doom me to death.’ True, but why did He doom to death so many innocent men, women, and children, including my father, mother, sister, and brother?  Despite the problems I had with the words, I sang along.  this was not the time to linger on such thoughts or to raise these difficult questions.  I had to put off this dilemma to be dealt with some other time.

Despite his open wounds from the past, Rabbi Goldstein invariably snapped back to his present, sitting in the physical and spiritual warmth of the Golinkin home, his soon-to-be fiancé by his side.  And so it went for the young rabbi, back and forth between emotional poles throughout the night.

The emotional challenges of his 1948 seder in some ways continued a legacy of emotional trauma from his previous seder, the seder of his flashbacks to 1940 Mlawa.

It was the Pesach of 1940, when we had already been living under Nazi rule for about eight months...We had managed to obtain matzoh – not an easy task at the time – and we were still able to observe Pesach according to tradition, although our seder lacked the usual joy of the season.  I recalled also the mood of fear that prevailed in our lives and the cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over us.  I remembered how we had still managed to be inspired by the words of the Haggadah, how we had looked with hope at the symbol of Elijah’s cup of wine on the table, symbolizing our hope that the prophet Elijah would appear soon as the harbinger of the coming of the Messiah, who would bring redemption to the world.  There were eight of us at that seder, alive and well and hoping, and now I was the only one of them left alive.

In addition to the awfulness of Rabbi Goldstein’s account, I am struck by his resilience and that of his family.  In 1948, he made a conscious decision not to be entirely sucked into his traumatic past. Vayidom– he refused to sink, but rather pushed himself to be present in the moment, as painful as it was.    

Eight years prior under Nazi oppression, the Goldstein family not only held a seder but managed to find some inspiration from theirkos Eliyahu.This suggests a decision to do more than just go through the motions of the seder, blunted by hardships and emotional turmoil.  The Goldsteins made an effort that seder night to continue grasping for meaning and hope from whatever spiritual sources they could.  This was beyond simply surviving and beyond remembering that the world will keep spinning and Hashem is a loving God with an ultimate plan.  It was a moment of thoughtful action, in spite of all.

Rabbi Goldstein is mykos Eliyahu,my inspiration, this year of fear and uncertaintyThekedoshei HaShoahare our sacred vessels of inspiration in frightening times.  Whether they survived or not, they bequeathed us the mantle of Yiddishkeit.  They modeled for us courage and proactive perseverance in the spirit of Aharon HaKohen who would not be sunk and who continued his unique relationship with Hashem until his death. 

May our active embrace of Yiddishkeit honor legacy, and may our proactive efforts to navigate present difficulties, physical and emotional, be a source of pride for future generations.

*I write this fully aware that not everyone has advanced beyond the dark ages.  Checking the news several hours after Yuntif, I was horrified and relieved to see that a white supremacist had been arrested for attempting to blow up Ruth’s House, a Jewish assisted living facility I used to frequent in western MA.  Baruch Hashem, this contemporary son of Amalek is in FBI custody, but the online vitriol that fueled his actions validates the sad warning of our Hagadah,elah shebechol dor vador– in every generation, foes rise up against us and we are dependent upon the Almighty to protect us.

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