Category Archives: OLDIES (HOPEFULLY GOODIES)

image_print

Purim in the Valley of Tears

The below is by my esteemed father-in-law, R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, who lives in Toronto. It is adapted from his  book “Destined to Survive” (ArtsSroll.com).

 

We sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day – our meager ration of bread.  It was my seventh month in Dachau’s Death Camp #4.

“Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?” I asked, trying to distract my brothers in suffering, and myself, from our painful hunger.

“How do you know?”

“It’s freezing! Purim can’t be for another month.”

“No, no!” some protested. “Srulik doesn’t make mistakes like that! He has a good memory.”

“Crazy Chassidim!” others grumbled. “You’ve nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What’s the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Isn’t it always Tisha B’Av?”

The debate gathered force among the block’s “mussulmen” – the eighty living skeletons crammed tightly into a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall.  We lay in the camp infirmary on wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw, our eyes riveted on the curtain separating us from the block elder’s spacious quarters.

Suddenly the curtain parted, and the block elder stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly twenty-four hours.  Each inmate measured his ration wordlessly with his eyes, and compared it to his neighbor’s, each convinced that the other had received more.  At such times, best friends became bitter rivals and within minutes the stingy portions were devoured.  But our stomachs felt as empty as before, the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that it would be a full day before the next piece of bread.

Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus, I fell back on my board, and fast asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight.  I began to conjure images of my past, of my parents and my sisters, Gittel and Mirel… how I used to study in the study-hall of the Chassidim of Ger.   Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer Rebbe. I pictured the Chassidic leader’s face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating my very soul.

Will I ever have the merit, I wondered, to press myself once again into the crowd of Chassidim gathering around the Rebbe, to learn from him how to be a good Chassid and a G-d-fearing person?

“Time to pray, Srulik.”

My friend’s voice shook me from my reverie.  The memories vanished.  I was back in the pit of hell.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Let’s wash our hands and daven.”

Then it struck me.

“But it’s Purim!” I exclaimed.  “We have to organize a minyan!”

My pain and pangs receded.  Summoning strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we might fulfill something of our sacred Jewish obligation to publicly read the Book of Esther.

G-d responds to good deeds undertaken with dedication.  A copy of the second book of the Bible, with the Book of Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.

We were elated.  Such a find could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in Heaven and that the redemption was near.  Our excitement grew.  Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation?  No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing our prayer group, to the possibility of a German or kapo deciding dropping in unexpectedly. Even those who the day before had scoffed at the “crazy Chassidim” seemed excited.

“Who will read the Megillah?” someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me.  Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like all the inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulka, I read the words: “and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

When I read of Haman’s downfall, and that “the Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor,” the spark of hope that glimmers in every Jew’s heart ignited into a flaming torch. “Dear L-rd of the Universe!” I know each of us was thinking, “Grant us a wondrous miracle too, as you did for our forefathers in those days. Let us, too, see the end of our enemies!”

When I finished, everyone cheered.  For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the death camp had been forgotten. Having exerted the rest of my strength on the reading, I sat breathless, but my spirit soared.

When people’s actions are pleasing to G-d, even their enemies are reconciled to them.  The block elder, who usually strutted in with a scowl, smiled as he entered that day, ladling the soup without cursing at anyone. And the ever-present jealousy among us inmates seemed to turn into generosity.  Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like “Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!”

Instead of bemoaning the present, we dreamed of the future, of when the German demon would inherit his due, when this Jewish suffering would end.  And like a river overflowing its banks, thoughts of redemption burst forth from broken hearts.  One mitzvah led to another, to further acts of spiritual heroism. Someone decided to forgo the small piece of bread he had saved from the previous day, and offered it to his comrade. Another made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two “portions”, which only yesterday would have caused ill will, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill the mitzvah of “sending gifts of food, one to another.”

Those precious “Mishloach Manos” were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end as compensation for my services.

I thought to myself, “Dear G-d, behold Your people, who in an instant can transform themselves from wild creatures to courageous, caring men and faithful Jews…”

And a verse welled up inside me: “Who is like you, Israel, a singular nation on Earth?”

“Precious Jews!” I said to the others. “Brothers in suffering!  Let us make but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!”

The Silence of the Dogs

A curious Midrash holds an idea worth bringing to the Seder

“Midrash,” although redefined of late by some to mean a fanciful, personal take on a Biblical account, in truth refers to a body of ancient traditions that for generations was transmitted only orally but later put into writing.

One such tradition focuses on the verse recounting how the dogs in Egypt did not utter a sound as they watched the Jewish people leave the land (Exodus, 11:7).  The Talmud contends that, in keeping with the concept that “G-d does not withhold reward from any creature,” dogs are the animals to whom certain non-kosher meat should be cast.  The Midrash, however, notes another, more conceptual “reward” for the canine silence: The dung of dogs will be used to cure animal skins that will become tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls.

It is certainly intriguing that the lowly refuse of a lowly creature – and dogs are viewed by many Middle-Eastern societies as particularly base – should play a part in the preparation of the most sublime and holy of objects.  And that, it seems, is what the Midrash wishes us to ponder – along with the puzzling idea that silence is somehow key to that ability to sublimate the earthy and physical into the rarified and hallowed.  The particular silence at issue may be canine, but its lesson is for us.

Providing even more support for that thought is a statement in the Mishna (the earliest part of the Talmud).  “I have found nothing better for the body,” Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel remarks in Pirkei Avot (1:17), “than silence.”  The phrase “for the body” (which can also be rendered “the physical”) seems jarring.  Unless it, too, hints at precisely what the Midrash seems to be saying – that in silence, somehow, lies the secret of how the physical can be transformed into the exalted.

But what provides for such transformation would seem to be speech.  Judaism teaches that the specialness of the human being – the hope for creating holiness here on earth – lies in our aptitude for language, our ability to clothe subtle and complex ideas in meaningful words.  That is why in Genesis, when life is breathed by G-d into the first man, the infusion is, in the words of the Targum Onkelos, a “speaking spirit.”  The highest expression of human speech, our tradition teaches, lies in our ability to recognize our Creator, and give voice to our gratitude (hakarat hatov).  The first vegetation, the Talmud informs us, would not sprout until Adam appeared to “recognize the blessing of the rain.”  Hakarat hatov is why many Jews punctuate their recounting of happy recollections or tidings with the phrase “baruch Hashem,” or “blessed is G-d” – and it is pivotal to elevating the mundane.  So it would seem that speech, not silence, is the path to holiness.

Unless, though, silence is the most salient demonstration of the consequence of words.

After all, aren’t the things we are careful not to waste the things we value most?.  We don’t hoard plastic shopping bags or old newspapers; but few – even few billionaires – would ever use a Renoir to wrap fish.

Words – along with our ability to use them meaningfully – are the most valuable things any of us possesses.  To be sure, one can (and most of us do) squander them, just as one can employ a Rembrandt as a doormat.  But someone who truly recognizes words’ worth will use them only sparingly.  The adage notwithstanding, talk isn’t cheap; it is, quite the contrary, a priceless resource, the means, used properly, of coaxing holiness from the physical world.

And so silence – choosing to not speak when there is nothing worthwhile to say – is perhaps the deepest sign of reverence for the potential holiness that is speech.

Which brings us back to Passover.  As noted, the highest expression of human speech is the articulation, like Adam’s, of the idea of hakarat hatov – literally, “recognition of the good” – with which we have been blessed.  The Kabbalistic texts refer to our ancestors’ sojourn in Egypt as “the Speech-Exile,” implying that in some sense the enslaved Jews had yet to gain full access to the power that provides human beings the potential of holiness.

With the Exodus, though, that exile ended and, at the far side of the sea that split to allow them but not their pursuers passage, our ancestors responded with an extraordinary vocal expression: the epic poem known in Jewish texts as “The Song” (Exodus, 15:1-18 ).  Written in a unique graphic formation in the Torah scroll, it is a paean to G-d for the goodness He bestowed on those who marched out of Egypt – who went from what the Talmudic rabbis characterized as the penultimate level of baseness to, fifty days later, the heights of holiness at Mt.Sinai.

And so it should not be surprising that, whereas Jews are cautioned to use words only with great care and parsimony, on the Seder night we are not only enjoined to speak at length and into the wee hours about the kindness G-d granted our people, but are informed by the rabbis of the Talmud, that “the more one recounts, the more praiseworthy it is.”

© 2006 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Ice and Fire: A Different Sort of Holocaust Story

It wasn’t the most exciting or terrifying tale of the war years I had ever heard, or the saddest or the most shocking. But somehow it was the most moving one.

The man who recounted it had spent the war years, his teenage years, in the chilling vastness of the Siberian taiga.  He and his Polish yeshiva colleagues were guests of the Soviet authorities for their reluctance to assume Russian citizenship after they fled their country at the start of the Nazi onslaught.

He had already spoken of unimaginable, surreal episodes, fleeing his Polish shtetl with the German advance in 1939, of watching as his uncle was caught trying to escape a roundup of Jews and shot on the spot, of being packed with his Jewish townsfolk into a shul which was then set afire, of their miraculous deliverance, of the long treks, of the wandering refugees’ dedication to the Torah’s commandments.  And then he told the story.

We were loaded onto rail cattle-wagons, nine of us, taken to Novosibirsk, and from there transported by barge to Parabek, where we were assigned to a kolchoz, or collective farm.           

I remember that our first winter was our hardest, as we did not have the proper clothing for the severe climate     

Most of us had to fell trees in the forest. I was the youngest and was assigned to a farm a few miles from our kolchoz. The nights were terribly cold, the temperature often dropping to forty degrees below zero, through I had a small stove by which I kept a little warm. The chief of the kolchoz would make surprise checks on me to see if I had fallen asleep, and I would recite Psalms to stay awake. 

One night I couldn’t shake the chills and I realized that I had a high fever. I managed to hitch my horse and sled together and set off for the kolchoz.  Not far from the farm, though, I fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on without me. I tried to shout to the animal to stop, to no avail. I remember crying and saying Psalms for I knew that remaining where I was, or trying to walk to the kolchoz, would mean certain death from exposure. I forced myself to get up and, with what little strength I had left, began running after the horse and sled.

Suddenly, the horse halted. I ran even faster, reached the sled and collapsed on it.

Looking up at the starry sky, I prayed with all my diminishing might to G-d to enable me to reach the relative safety of the kolchoz.  He answered me and I reached my Siberian home, though I was shaking uncontrollably from my fever; no number of blankets could warm me. The next day, in a daze, I was transported to Parabek, where there was a hospital.           

My first two days in the hospital are a blur, but on the third my fever broke and I started to feel a little better. Then suddenly, as I lay in my bed, I saw a fellow yeshiva boy from the kolchoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before me, half frozen and staring, incredulous, at me. His feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags – the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold, without proper boots.  I couldn’t believe my eyes – Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolchoz!

“Herschel,” I cried, “what are you doing here?

I’ll never forget his answer.      

“Yesterday,” he said, “someone came from Parabek, and told us ‘Simcha umar,’ that Simcha had died.  And so I volunteered to bury you.”

The narrator paused to collect himself, and the reflected on his memory:

The dedication to another Jew, the dedication… Had the rumor been true there was no way he could have helped me. He had immediately made the perilous journey – just to see to my funeral! The dedication to another Jew …such an example!…

As a shiver subsided and the story sank in, I wondered: Would I have even considered such a journey, felt such a responsibility to a fellow Jew? In such a place, at such a time? Or would I have justified inaction with the ample justification available? Would I have been able to maintain even my humanity in the face of so doubtful a future, not to mention my faith in G-d, my very Jewishness…?

A wholly unremarkable story in a way, I realize. None of the violence, the tragedy, the horrors, the evil of so many tales of the war years. Just a short conversation, really. Yet I found so valuable a lesson in the story of Herschel Tishivitzer’s selflesness, unhesitating concern for little Simcha Ruzhaner, as the narrator had been called in those days: what it means to be part of a holy people.

The narrator concluded his story, describing how Hershel Tishivitzer, thank G-d, had eventually made his way to America and settled in New York under his family name, Nudel. And how he, the narrator himself, had ended up in Baltimore, where he married the virtuous daughter of a respected Jewish scholar, Rabbi Noach Kahn.  And how he himself had became a rabbi (changing many lives for the better, I know, though he didn’t say so) and how he and his rebbetzin had raised their children in their Jewish religious heritage, children who were continuing to frustrate the enemies of the Jewish people by raising strong Jewish families of their own.

And I wondered – actually, I still do – if the slice of Simcha Ruzhaner’s life had so affected me only because of its radiant, blindingly beautiful message – or if perhaps some part was played by the fact that he too, had taken on a shortened form of his family name, Shafranowitz, and had named his second child Avrohom Yitzchok, although everyone calls me Avi.

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Fighting Iron With Irony

On a beautiful clear night in 1924 at Landsberg am Lech, where he was imprisoned by the Bavarian government, Adolf Hitler remarked to Rudolf Hess: “You know… it’s only the moon I hate.  For it is something dead and terrible and inhuman… It is as if there still lives in the moon a part of the terror it once sent down to earth… I hate it!”

A chill accompanied my first encounter with that quote.  Because the Jewish religious tradition sees the ever-rejuvenating, shining disk of the moon as a symbol of the Jewish people.  Indeed, the very first commandment we Jews were given as a people, while still awaiting the Exodus in Egypt, was to identify ourselves through our calendar with the moon. The moon Hitler feared.

There is much other oddness about Hitler with connections to ancient Jewish tradition, things like his fondness for ravens, in Jewish lore associated with cruelty; he went so far as to issue special orders protecting the birds.  And like his fascination with the art of Franz von Stuck (the artist who had the “greatest impact” on his life, he once said), whose major themes are snakes and sinister women.  In the Jewish mystical tradition, snakes evoke evil and its embodiment, Amalek; and there are hints of an antithetical relationship between the irredeemable wickedness of Amalek and women.

And then there is the matter of the most loathsome of Hitler’s henchmen, Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Sturmer, the premier journal of Jew-baiting.

At its peak in 1938, print runs of Streicher’s vile tabloid ran as high as 2,000,000.  A typical offering included a close-up of the face of a deformed Jew above the legend “The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of God’s chosen people.”  Another displayed a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and a Jewish star on its chest.  In yet another, a Jewish butcher was depicted snidely dropping a rat into his meat grinder and, elsewhere in the issue, the punctured necks of handsome German youths were shown bleeding into a bowl held by a Jew more gargoyle than human.

In 1935, speaking to a closed meeting of a Nazi student organization, Streicher, displaying an unarguably Amalekian approach, declared:

“All our struggles are in vain if the battle against the Jews is not fought to the finish.  It is not enough to get the Jews out of Germany. No, they must be destroyed throughout the entire world so that humanity will be free of them.

The suspicion that in Streicher’s blind, baseless, and absolute hatred of the Jews lay the legacy of Amalek makes the story of his capture and death nothing short of chilling.

Purim is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates the defeat of an Amalekite, Haman.  Even a passing familiarity with the Purim story is sufficient to know that the downfall of its villain is saturated with what seem to be chance ironies; he turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that he so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way – a theme The Book of Esther characterizes with the words v’nahafoch hu, “ and it was turned upside down!”

Such “chance” happenings are the very hallmark, of Amalek’s defeat – a fact reflected in the “casting of lots” from which Purim takes its name.  Chance, Esther teaches us, is an illusion; God is in charge.  Amalek may fight with iron but he is defeated with irony.

As was Streicher.  In the days after Germany’s final defeat, an American major, Henry Plitt, received a tip about a high-ranking Nazi living in an Austrian town.  He accosted a short, bearded artist, who he though might be SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and asked him his name.

“Joseph Sailer,” came the reply from the man, who was painting a canvas on an easel.

Plitt later recounted: “I don’t know why I said [it, but] I said, ‘And what about Julius Streicher?’”

Ya, der bin ich,” the man with the paintbrush responded.  “Yes, that is me.”

When Major Plitt brought his serendipitous catch to Berchtesgaden, he later recounted, a reporter told him that he had “killed the greatest story of the war.”  When he asked how, the reporter responded “Can you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch-anti-Semite, what a great story it would be?”

Major Plitt recalled telling the reporter “I’m Jewish” and how “that’s when the microphones came into my face and the cameras started clicking.

Another happy irony in Streicher’s life involved the fate of his considerable estate.  As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine.  Just as Haman’s riches, as recorded in the Book of Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.

There is a good deal more of interest in the life of Julius Streicher to associate him with Jewish traditions about Amalek.  But one of the most shocking narratives about him is the one concerning his death.  Streicher was of one of the Nazis tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.

During the trial, Streicher remained disgustingly true to form.  When the prosecution showed a film of the concentration camps as they had been found by the Allies, a spotlight was left on the defendants’ box for security reasons. Many present preferred to watch the defendants’ reactions rather than the mounds of bodies, matchstick limbs and common graves.  Few of the defendants could bear to watch the film for long.  Goering seemed calm at first, but eventually began to nervously wipe his sweaty palms.  Schacht turned away; Ribbentrop buried his face in his hands. Keitel wiped his reddened eyes with a handkerchief.  Only Streicher leaned forward throughout, looking anxiously at the film and excitedly nodding his head.

While no proof was found that Streicher had ever killed a Jew by his own hand, the tribunal nevertheless decided that his clear-cut incitement of others to the task constituted the act of a war criminal; and so he was sentenced, along with ten other defendants, to hang

And hang he did.  But not before taking the opportunity to share a few final words with the journalists present at the gallows.  “Heil Hitler. Now I go to God,” he announced.  And then, just before the trap sprang open, he blurted out most clearly: “Purim Feast 1946!” – an odd thing to say in any event, but especially so on an October morning.

The “Amalek-irony” of the Nuremberg executions doesn’t end there, either.  The Book of Esther recounts how Haman’s ten sons were hanged in Shushan. An eleventh child, a daughter, committed suicide earlier, according to an account in the Talmud.  At Nuremberg, while eleven men were condemned to execution by hanging, only ten were actually hanged.  The eleventh, the foppish, effeminate Goering, died in his cell only hours before the execution; he had crushed a hidden cyanide capsule between his teeth.

Something even more striking was noted by the late Belzer Rebbe. In scrolls of the Book of Esther, the names of the ten sons of Haman are unusually prominent; they are written in two parallel columns, a highly unusual configuration.  Odder still is the fact that three letters in the list, following an unexplained halachic tradition, are written very small, and one very large.  The large letter is the Hebrew character for the number six (Hebrew letters all have numeric values); the small letters, added together, yield the number 707.  If the large letter is taken to refer to the millennium and 707 to the year in the millennium, something fascinating emerges.  According to Jewish reckoning, the present year is 5762.  The year 5707 – the 707th year in the sixth millennium – was the year we know as 1946, when ten sworn enemies of the Jewish people were hanged in Nuremberg, just as ten others had been in Shushan more than two thousand years earlier.

The Book of Esther, (9:13), moreover, refers to the hanging of Haman’s sons in the future tense, after the event had been recounted, presaging, it might seem, some hanging yet to happen.

To believing Jews, the Holocaust was the tip of an unimaginable iceberg of evil, stretching far and deep into the past even as one of its ugly tips punctured the relative peace of the modern world.

And so, as we prepare to celebrate Purim and the downfall of the Amalekite Haman, especially these days, when Jew-hatred has once again made itself manifest in the world, we would do well to ponder that the evil he represents may have been defeated at times throughout history but it has not yet been vanquished.

© 2005 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

 

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as public affairs director for Agudath Israel of America]

Pesach Sheni, 1945

 [I.I. Cohen is a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps living in Toronto, and my beloved father-in-law.  The below is adapted from his book “Destined to Survive” ArtScroll/Mesorah)]

 

On Wednesday, April 25, 1945, the SS guards in Kaufering’s watchtowers suddenly disappeared.

The block supervisors in our camp – a satellite of Dachau – stopped beating and cursing; they knew that the explosives that had grown louder each day signaled the death throes of the Third Reich.  Those of us whose legs could still carry them broke into the camp kitchen and hauled away potatoes, flour, cabbage and pieces of bread.  A day earlier we would have been shot on sight for lesser sins, but now, several days since we had been given any food, our hunger overpowered our fright. We stuffed both our bellies and our pockets.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the familiar murderous voices of our German captors.

“Everyone in a row! Roll call!” In a flash, the thugs were once again running about with clubs and revolvers in hand, mercilessly chasing and dragging everyone out of the barracks. , Having already experienced several years together in the ghetto, our small group of young Gerer Chasidim from Lodz tried to stick together. We discussed the situation. It was quite clear that the Allied forces were close by.  Rumor had it that the SS command had ordered camp commanders to exterminate all inmates, so that no living testimony would be available to the Allied armies. We found it hard to believe in such a diabolical scheme, but six years under Nazi rule had taught us that bleak prophecies had a tendency to materialize.

We debated our alternatives. Should we follow orders and evacuate the camp, or risk trying to stay behind and await the Allies? We decided to stay and, one by one, stole into the dysentery block, where only the hopelessly ill lay. We hoped that the guards would choose not to enter the contaminated area.

But our hopes were dashed soon enough when our block door crashed open and an SS officer, his machine gun crackling, shouted “Everyone out! The camp is to be blown up!”  Silence. We didn’t stir, the Nazi left and night fell.

Suddenly the air shook with the wailing of sirens. The Allies were bombing the German defenses! We prayed that the thunderous explosions would go on forever, and eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.

The next morning we awoke to an ominous silence, broken only by the moans of the dying. We arose cautiously and went outside the block. There was desolation everywhere, and a gaping hole in the barbed wire.  Had it been torn open by the fleeing Germans?  Were we free?

We went to the other barracks, and shared our discover with their frightened inhabitants – mostly “musselmen”, or emaciated “skeletons”.  Soon enough we heard the unmistakable rumble of an approaching convoy.  We sat and waited, our fear leavened with excitement.

The fear proved more prescient, and soon enough melted into acute disappointment, when the all too familiar SS uniforms came once again into view. The Nazis had returned, bringing an entire detachment of prisoners from other camps with them to help them finish their work.  Amid the fiendish din of screams and obscenities, we hurriedly hid in one of the blocks, covered ourselves with straw and rags and lay still, our hearts pounding with terror. Soon we heard footsteps in the block and I felt a hand on my head.  We had been discovered, by non-Jewish inmates of other labor and POW camps.

We pleaded with them to ignore us, and offered them our potatoes but just as the invaders had agreed, an SS officer came stomping in, swinging his club, which he then efficiently and heartlessly used on our heads. A boot on the behind, and we were on our way to the trucks, accompanied by the commandos and the SS.

We were picked up by our arms and legs and thrown onto a wagon piled with barely human-looking bodies; the moaning of the sick was replaced by the silence of the dead.  By a stroke of luck, though, while the guards were busy with another wagon, my friend Yossel Carmel and I managed to roll out of the truck and found refuge in a nearby latrine.  Though our hearts had long since turned to stone, our stomachs were convulsing.

Eventually the wagons left, and we crept back into the very block we had occupied earlier. I tore down the light hanging from the ceiling, and we posed, not unconvincingly, as corpses.  Every so often the door would open, and we would hear a shout of “Everyone out!” but we just lay perfectly still.  Darkness fell, motors rumbled, and then there was quiet.

Friday, April 27, 1945, brought a cold morning.  White clouds chased each other across the bright blue sky as a frigid wind blew through the barracks, chilling our bones. Periodically, the earth trembled with an explosion; we sat quietly, each engrossed in his own thoughts. Suddenly, we heard motorcycles rumbling and dogs barking.  Our hearts fell.  Once again, the Germans were back.

We soon heard footsteps in the block, and then a frenzied voice, “Swine! You are waiting for the Americans? Come with me!” There followed a commotion, the sound of running, the shattering of glass, and then, a burst of machine gun fire. I peeked and saw that those who had been hiding near the window had tried to escape. Yossel and I had not been detected but were paralyzed with fright. Footsteps approached and then we heard the rustling of straw.  When we felt tapping on the piles in which we were hiding, our terrified souls almost departed us.

We held our breath in fear as the footsteps moved away.  Peeking through a hole in the straw that covered me, I felt smoke burning my eyes.  Frantically, we ripped off the straw and rags and saw flames all around us. Hand in hand, Yossel and I fumbled toward the door, suffocating from the smoke, our heads spinning.  In a moment that seemed an eternity, we found ourselves outside.  Just a few yards from us stood the German murderers, fortunately, with their backs to us.

The entire camp was ablaze. We threw ourselves on the first pile of corpses that we saw and lay still; we no doubt resembled our camouflage.  Around us we heard heavy footsteps, screams and the moaning of the fatally wounded.  And what we saw was blood, fire, and clouds of smoke – hell on earth, complete with demons.

When silence finally fell again, I mumbled to Yossel that we ought to say vidui, the confession of sins a Jew makes periodically but especially when facing death.  He chided me to remember what I had told him when we arrived in Auschwitz, our first concentration camp.  The Sages of the Talmud, he reminded me, had admonished that “Even if the sword is braced on your neck, never despair of Divine mercy.”   Yossel recalled, too, the Sages’ admonition that in times of danger Jews should renew their commitment to their faith.

We crawled to a nearby pit, shivering with cold. Through my smoke-filled eyes and fear-ridden senses, I thought I saw SS guards everywhere, with weapons poised.  Yossel, however, finally managed to convince me that there was no one in sight; for an hour or more we lay in that pit. Every few minutes bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions nearby. The earth shook, but each blast pumped new hope into our hearts. Slowly, we crept out of the pit and made our way to the only building still standing – the camp kitchen.  There we found a few more frightened souls.

Together we discovered a sack of flour, mixed it with water, started the ovens and baked flat breads.  I noted the irony; it was Pesach Sheini – the biblical “Second Passover” a month after the first – and we were baking matzohs.

Suddenly, the door flew open and a Jewish inmate came running in breathlessly, crying out: “Yidden! Fellow Jews! The Americans are here!” We were free!

We wanted to cry, sing, dance, but our petrified hearts would not let us.  I wanted to rush outside, but my strength seemed to have left me.

When I finally did manage to move outside, I saw a long convoy of tanks and jeeps roaring through the camp. A handful of American soldiers approached the barracks.  One of them, an officer, looked around him, tears streaming down his face. Only then did I fully grasp the extent of the horror around us. The barracks were nearly completely incinerated.  In front of each block lay a pile of blackened, smoldering skeletons.

And we, the living, were a group of ghouls, walking corpses.  Along with the American soldiers, we wept.

Among the supplies the Americans had brought with them was a bottle of wine.  An inmate picked it up and announced: “For years I have not recited the Kiddush. Today, I feel that I must.” He then recited the words of the blessing on wine aloud.

And then he recited the “Shehecheyanu”, the blessing of gratitude to God for having “kept us alive until this time.”

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Holy Matrimony

Well known to every yeshiva child of even tender age are the four terms used in parshas Vo’eira to describe the redemption of our ancestors from Mitzrayim, and associated with the Seder’s four cups of wine.  Two other words, however, are used repeatedly by the Torah to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim.  While they may come less readily to mind, they share something odd in common: both are terms for describing a marriage’s dissolution.

The Gemara’s term for divorce is geirushin, and its root is a word used repeatedly in Shmos (as in 6:1, 10:11, 11:1 and 12:39) to describe what Par’oh will be compelled to do to the Jewish people – “divorce” them from the land.  And the Torah’s own word for divorce, shilu’ach – as in vishilchoh mibaiso (Devorim 24:3) – is also used, numerous times in Shmos (examples include 4:23, 5:2, 7:27, 8:25, 9:2, 10:4 and 13:17) to refer to the escape from Mitzrayim.

In fact, the word yetziah, one of the four well-known redemption words and the word employed in the standard phrase for the exodus, Yetzias Mitzrayim, also evokes divorce, as in the phrase “viyatz’a… vihay’sa li’ish acher (Devorim, 24).

 

The Original Chuppah

More striking still is that the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Egypt is followed by a metaphorical marriage.  For that is the pointed imagery of the event that followed Yetzias Mitzrayim by 50 days: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to ma’amad Har Sinai (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros.  And not only does the novi Hoshea (2:21) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (v’airastich li…, familiar to men as the p’sukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women from studying Novi).  But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai:  The chuppah, say the seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the birchas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai.  It can, at least on one level, be read to be saying “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth” rather than “made holy”).

So what seems to emerge here is the idea that the Jewish people was somehow “divorced” from Egypt, to which, presumably, it had been “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor.  And that, after our “divorce,” we went on to “marry” the Creator Himself, kivayochol.

On further reflection, the metaphor is, , truly remarkable, because of the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

It is in Devarim, 24, 2, and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband.

The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, of course, is a national one, incumbent on all Jews – the prohibition to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16).

 

Decrees and Deserts

More striking still is the light shed thereby on the Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah.  Considering the marriage-symbolism of Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah in that well-known passage reveals a deeper layer than may be at first glance apparent.

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by each individual – with each person receiving his partner “lifi ma’asov,” according to his merits.

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree is what determined “first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to “second marriages.”

The implications regarding individuals are unclear, to say the least.  But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the level of Klal Yisroel – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage metaphor – afford a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage”, to Egypt, was indeed divinely decreed.  It was foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and final one, was the result of the choice our ancestors made by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Egyptian society and culture.  When they took that merit to its fruition, by saying “Na’aseh vinishma,” they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Sinai.

© 2004 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Karpas Conundrum

Questions, questions everywhere.  At the Seder, that is.

There are the proverbial Four, of course, but they lead to a torrent of new queries.  Like why those questions are themselves never directly answered in the Haggadah.  And why they (and so much else in the Haggadah) are “four”?  And why they must be asked even of oneself, if no one else is present.  Not to mention scores of others on the oddities of the Haggadah’s text.  As the old jokes have it, we Jews seem to respond to questions with only more.

Why the Haggadah is so question-saturated is an easy one.  Because the Seder revolves around the next generation.  It is the communication of the saga of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt to our children, and thus cannot be undertaken in a merely recitative manner.  “Questions and Answers” is a most basic teaching tool, as are singing, number games, and alphabetical acrostics, all elements found in the ancient pedagogic perfection we call the Haggadah.  So none of those educational aids should surprise us.

Karpas, though, should.

For karpas, the vegetable dipped in saltwater at the start of the Seder, is truly baffling.  Although it is the subject of one of the Big Four questions, it not only does not have an answer; it seems that it cannot have one.

For the Talmud itself asks why we do it, and answers, “So that the children will notice and ask what it is for.”

At which point, presumably, we are to respond, “So that you will ask, dear children!”

To which they many be expected to respond, “All right, now we’re asking.”  And so forth.

Karpas seems to be the verbal equivalent of one of those Escher lithographs where figures march steadily but futilely up strange stairs only to again reach their starting point below.  Why we do it is an inherently unanswerable question.

Some insight, though, may be available by  considering yet another unanswerable question, perhaps the most fundamental one imaginable: Why we are here.

The Talmud recounts that the students of Shammai and of Hillel spent two and a half years arguing the question of whether “it would have been better for humankind not to have been created.”

And, intriguingly, they came to conclude that man would have been better off uncreated, and added only that now that we humans find ourselves here, we must strive to examine and improve our actions.

The famed 19th century Torah-giant Rabbi Yisroel Salanter addressed the meaning of the argument and its result.  Needless to say, he explained, the students of Shammai and Hillel were not sitting in judgment on their Creator.  What they were in truth arguing about was whether mankind, with its limited purview, can possibly hope to comprehend the fact that G-d deemed it worthwhile for humankind to exist.

And they concluded that we cannot.  We are unable to fathom what good the Creator saw in providing one of his creations free will.  It is surely better that mankind is here, but why cannot be known.

After all (they likely noted), free will makes sin inevitable.  And humans, in fact, seem entirely prone to bad behavior.

Past history and current events alike evidence man’s choosing evil over good at almost every turn.  We humans are eminently self-centered, and precious few of our thoughts concern how we might be better givers, not takers, better servants of the Divine.

What has this to do with karpas?

Perhaps nothing.  But perhaps much.

Because disobedience of G-d, the very definition of sin, has its roots in the first man and woman’s act of independence.  And one of the results of their choice was a change in the fundamental relationship they (and we) had (and have) with the earth on which we depend.

“Thorns and thistles [the earth] shall bring forth for you,” was the pronouncement, “and you shall eat the grasses of the field.”

In, of all places, the sole Talmudic chapter that deals with the Seder, we find the following passage:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “When G-d told Adam ‘and thorns and thistles…and you shall eat the grasses of the field,’ Adam’s eyes welled up with tears and he said, ‘Master of the Universe, am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?’  When G-d continued and said, ‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread’ [i.e. human food will be available for you, but only through hard work], Adam’s anguish was quieted.” (Pesachim 118a)

Could the meaning of Adam’s lament be that since humanity’s progenitor had proven through his insubordination the inevitability of humans choosing evil, man would seem to have been better off as merely another mindless, choiceless animal, a two-legged donkey?

Could that terrible thought be what brought tears to his eyes?

And, finally, could it be that the manifestation of the earth’s response to his sin, the lowly vegetation it will now naturally bear for him and which he is sentenced to eat – could that be… the karpas?  And the saltwater in which it is dipped, his tears and the sweat of the brow?

Could it be, in other words, that the question of why we dip karpas in saltwater is specifically constructed to be unanswerable precisely because it alludes to an unanswerable cosmic question?

There is more, though, and it unlocks a secret of Pesach and its culmination-holiday, seven weeks later, Shevuot.

The dipping of a vegetable into saltwater at the start of the Seder, seems eerily reminiscent of a conversation recounted in the Talmud between G-d and the first man.  When Adam hears G-d’s pronouncement that his sin has relegated him to eating “the grasses of the field” like animals, he cries, only to be reassured that he will still be able to eat bread, human food, albeit “by the sweat of your brow” – with hard work and effort.

What pertinence, though, does the recalling of that account have to the Seder’s karpas-ritual?  What are vegetables and tears and sweat – not to mention the memory of history’s first sin – doing at the very onset of a festive gathering?

The key to the mystery may lie in remembering that the Seder is not only the start of Passover but the beginning of a period that will culminate in the holiday of Shavuot.  The seven weeks between the first day of Passover and Shavuot are in fact counted down (or, actually, up) with the “counting of the Omer” on each night of those forty-nine.

Noteworthy is that on both holidays bread plays a prominent role.  On Passover, we eat unleavened bread; on Shavuot, the day’s special Temple offering consists of two loaves of bread,  which – in stark contrast to most flour-offerings – must be allowed to rise and become chametz.

Leaven is a symbol of the inclination to sin (“What keeps us [from You, G-d]?” goes the confession of one talmudic personage, “the leaven in the dough”).  Perhaps, then, the period between Passover and Shavuot, between the holiday of leaven-less bread and that of leavened bread, reflects our acclimation to the human propensity to sin.  It leads us to ponder that sin’s inevitability should not render us hopeless, but rather that our selfish desires are – somehow – a force that can be channeled for good, for service to G-d.

Shavuot, then, would be the celebration of our having accepted – even if not fully comprehended – the goodness inherent in our existence despite our inherent shortcomings.  It is the “answer” to the unanswerable question of why we are here.  And so our bread on that day is purposefully leavened; it has absorbed and incorporated sin’s symbol.

What allows for the “redemption” of our propensity to sin?  The Torah, whose acceptance at Sinai is celebrated on Shavuot.  For the Torah is that which “sweetens” the inclination to sin and makes it palatable.  As a famous Midrash renders G-d’s words: “I have created an inclination to sin, and I have created the Torah as its sweetening spice.”

Our base desires, the source of our sinning, are not denied by the Torah, but rather guided by it.  We are not barred from enjoying any area of life, but shown, rather, how to do so, how to utilize every human power and desire in a directed and holy way.

Passover, then, is the symbolic start of the process of growth.  It is the time to eat only pristine, unleavened food, to deny ourselves every sign of the inclination to sin, the better to be able, over the ensuing forty-nine days, to slowly absorb the powerful sin-inclination, to work on ourselves (by the sweat of our brows), and acclimate ourselves to what it represents … gradually, day by day, until Shavuot.  Only then, having labored to attain that growth, may we – by the sweat of our brows – eat true, fully developed, leavened bread.  For, if we have labored on ourselves honestly and hard, we have learned to temper and manage our inclinations to sin with the laws and guidance of the Torah.

Passover is thus a propitious time indeed for a hint to the great unanswerable question of how man’s existence can be justified despite his sinful nature.  For it is on Passover specifically that we begin to develop our ability to channel the human powers that, left unbridled, result in sin.

And so, at the Seder, as we dip the karpas in the saltwater, reenacting Adam’s sentence by eating a lowly vegetable, animal food, dampened with a reminder of his tears, his question should come to mind: “Am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?”

But so should something else.  Because the reminder of his tears – the saltwater – is a reminder no less of his hope, the sweat of his brow, the hard work that can lead us to become truly human, choosing, servants of G-d.  That hard labor is what justifies our existence; it is our astonishing privilege in this wondrous world.

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Blood

Reasonable minds might well wonder if there is a major blood-focus in Judaism.  In fact there is, and noting the fact is timely, for the bloodletting is on Passover, or Pesach.

I don’t mean the spilling this time of year of Jewish blood, of which there was indeed much over centuries in Christian Europe (another echo of Christian blood-fixation – Jews drinking Christian blood was a common slander in the Middle Ages, so much so that halachic sources actually suggest using white, not red, wine for the “four cups” in places where such libels are common).   No, not human blood but rather animal.

Specifically, the blood of the Pesach-sacrifice, which, in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was slaughtered the on afternoon before the onset of the holiday.  The meat of the lamb or goat comprised the final course of the Seder (the original “afikoman”), and some of its blood was placed on the Temple altar.

We don’t have a clear comprehension of the Jewish laws of sacrifices; somehow, the ritual dispatching of animals results in our own greater closeness to G-d (“korban,” the Hebrew word for sacrifice, means “that which makes close”).  But the spiritual mechanics, as is the case with so many of the Torah’s commandments, are ultimately beyond mortal minds.

The Pesach sacrifice, though, seems clearly to hearken back to the first Pesach, when the blood of the sheep or goat our ancestors were commanded to slaughter in Egypt, in preparation for their exodus from that land, was placed on “the doorposts and lintel” of each Jewish home.

In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine, and so it has been suggested that the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes in ancient Egypt may represent the blood of birth.  From those homes in ancient Egypt, in other words, a new collective entity came forth into the world.  A Jewish nation was born.

As the Shem MiShmuel, a classic Chassidic text, explains, before the exodus the Jews were all related to one another (as descendants of Jacob) but they were not a nation.  Any individual was still able to reject his or her connection to the others and the rejection had an effect.  Indeed, our tradition teaches that many in fact did so, and did not merit to leave Egypt at all, dying instead during the plague of darkness.

Once the people were forged into a nation-entity, though, on their very last night in Egypt, things changed radically.  With blood on their doorways and satchels filled with matzoh, they readily followed Moses into the frightening desert on G-d’s orders, knowing not what awaited them.  As the prophet Jeremiah described it, in G-d’s words: “I remember for you the kindness of your youth… your following Me in the desert, a land where nothing is planted.”  And thus the Jews became a living nation, an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

Which is why, in the words of the Talmud, “A Jew who sins is still a Jew,” in every way.  There is no longer any option of “opting out.”

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of suffering, not of torture, not even of death, but of its very opposites: birth, life, meaning.

The words of another Jewish prophet, Ezekiel – words recited in the Haggadah and traditionally understood as a reference to the Pesach sacrifice – well reflect that fact.

Referring to “the day you were born,” G-d tells His people: “And I passed by you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, ‘in your blood, live.’  And I said to you, ‘in your blood, live’.”

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

On Location

Last summer, I was privileged to attend a gathering of editors of Jewish periodicals at the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference.  This year’s conference took place in Los Angeles, and it was particularly nice to escape a sweltering east coast for a distinctly more temperate west one

I always enjoy the conferences for the opportunities they afford me – not only the professional ones but also the personal ones, the chances to meet other Jews, in particular those who are not like me.  The opportunity to get to know them and to speak with them – to share my life and views and to learn about theirs – is, to me, invaluable.

But I was happy, too, to see another Orthodox rabbi in attendance, the only other one present over the three-day gathering.  His name is Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, and he was there in his capacity as the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver-area Jewish weekly.  At the awards ceremony that highlighted the conference, he and his paper won more awards than I could count.  A modest and scholarly man, he seemed almost pained when his paper’s name was repeatedly called out and he had to make his way to the podium.

But the highlight of his trip, I know, was something else entirely.

A message from him had been waiting for me when I arrived back in my hotel room late the first night of the conference after a speaking engagement.  He wanted to know where I would be attending services the next morning, and if he could come with me.  I returned the call and told him what time a local rabbi had offered to pick me up

After services the next morning, Rabbi Goldberg told me about a “special project” he was working on: an elucidation of a difficult 18th century commentary (that of the Vilna Gaon) to a complicated Jewish legal text (the Shulchan Aruch on the laws of mikveh).  Though the subject matter was rather beyond my own proficiency-level, I allowed him to show me a particular passage he was having difficulty with, and, when he puzzled at an abstruse word, I suggested a cognate.

Although I spent most of my time with other conference attendees, the following night found me walking alongside Rabbi Goldberg in Universal Studios’ lot.  The group had just heard a presentation from an official of the Shoah Foundation – the Foundation is temporarily located at Universal Studios – followed by an interesting panel discussion about teaching the Holocaust in public schools.

We were walking to a dining hall on the premises where the awards dinner would take place.  Around us were actors’ personal trailers (the more successful the actor, we were told, the larger the trailer); on the drive onto the site we had seen elaborate facades of period-piece buildings with nothing behind them, props for movies or television shows.

Rabbi Goldberg was excited, but not by the trailers or props.  He had, he said, cracked the textual problem, and even claimed (probably overly generously) that my suggestion about the obscure word had played a part in his comprehension of the commentary.  I listened as he explained the passage, and it did indeed seem to make new sense.  As we spoke about the passage, there was no doubt in my mind that its resolution was the high point of my friend’s day, and of mine.

An uninitiated eavesdropper, no doubt, would have considered our conversation – about bends in pipes carrying rainwater to a basin for immersion to remove an invisible spiritual contamination – bizarre, to say the least.  But to believing Jews, Torah is nothing less than truth, the “mind,” so to speak, of G-d Himself.   The deep truths we are able to perceive in the workings of the physical universe have turned out, in our quantum physics-aware world, to live on an entirely different dimension from what was assumed for millennia.  According to traditional Jewish belief, the study of our tradition’s holy texts similarly afford us a glimpse of a world that is conceptual light-years beyond the mundane.

And then an immense irony materialized in my mind.  Here we were, Rabbi Goldberg and I, two Jews walking between trailers in a Hollywood studio lot, arguably the epicenter of all that is fake and phony in the world, a place where deception is the local currency and tinsel the stand-in for precious metals – having a discussion about Truth itself.

I wondered if anyone had ever studied Torah in that spot.  The idea that perhaps we had been the first filled me with a curious mix of pride and trepidation.

In Chassidic thought, physical things, and places, can be “elevated” by what is done with, or in, them.  When, later that night, a cab spirited me away to the airport for my flight back to New York to be with my family for Shabbat, I smiled and shivered at the thought that we might have played a small but sublime role in a unique sort of spiritual rehabilitation.

Getting In Touch With Our Inner Slaves

The word “slave” doesn’t generally inspire positive feelings.  For Jews, though, especially when Passover arrives, it should.

To be sure, the images evoked when we think of servitude tend to be of economically or racially oppressed classes, of men and women being treated as if they were something less than fully human.

There are other types of servitude as well that have little or nothing to do with class.  For example, whether we choose to confront it or not, we are all servants – indeed slaves – to a considerable host of masters.  Most of us are indentured to one or another degree to any of a number of physical and psychological desires.  Some are relatively innocuous, like the craving for a particular food – or for food in general – or the yearning to be entertained or pampered or allowed to sleep late.  Other desires are more sinister, like the compulsion to ingest some addictive chemical, or the lust to lord oneself over other people, or the coveting of property or persons.

In contemporary times, many of us are enslaved virtually without even knowing it – chained to our work, taking orders from advertisers, moving to the dictates of the arbiters of style, addicted to the media or to the Internet.  Oddly, every modern opportunity seems to morph into a new master; new options pull us even further from true freedom.

It seems almost as if it is a hard-wired part of human nature that we serve.  Indeed, Judaism maintains, it is, and for good reason: Because we are meant to be servants.

We just have to choose the right master.

Most people are aware that Passover is the Jewish holiday of freedom, commemorating how the distant ancestors of today’s Jews, embraced by God and led by Moses, threw off the yoke of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  But there is something very essential to the Passover account that many don’t realize: Though Egypt was rejected, servitude was not.

“Let My people go!” G-d ordered Pharaoh.  But the command doesn’t end there.  It continues: “… so that they may serve Me.”

The Jewish concept of freedom, or cherut, does not mean being unfettered, but rather fettered to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but rather subservience – not to the mundane but to the divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn’t end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days.  On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number.  The fiftieth day, the day after the counting, or Sefirat Ha’Omer, is completed, is the holiday of Shevuot (“Weeks”); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shevuot is the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, of the day the Torah was given to the Jewish people.  And therein lies the deep secret of Jewish freedom.

The life of a libertine is not freedom but quite its opposite, enslavement to transient pleasures, to substances and possessions, to the dictates of society.  Meaningful freedom, paradoxically, is being indentured – but to the ultimate master, the Master of all.  And so as we count the days – quite literally – from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, we express (and, hopefully impress on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shevuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in an ultimate sense: the will and law of G-d.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, punning on the Hebrew word for “etched,” used about the words carved on the Tablets of the Law.  The word is “charut,” which the Rabbis compare to cherut, freedom.

“The only free person,” they inform us, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

© 2001 AM ECHAD RESOURCES