Weekly Shiur – Tazria – Mitzora / Yom Hashoah
The Ibn Ezra, asks an extremely interesting question regarding Kriyat Yam Tzuf. According to the numbers portrayed by the Torah, Am Yisrael, enormously out numbered the Egyptian Army. There were close to three million Jews at Yam Tzuf facing a considerably smaller Egyptian army. That being the case, why didn’t the people simply stampede the Egyptians?
The Ibn Ezra answers, that the slave mentality of Am Yisrael stopped them from fighting their Egyptian counterparts. It was a mentality that had been internalized over centuries; the Jews had been born and bred as slaves. It was an inherent part of their education to see the Egyptians as their betters. It was therefore inconceivable, even to a people freed from bondage, to raise its hand against the “master”.
In a separate but similar comment at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, the Ibn Ezra, points out that it was certainly not a coincidence that the representative of the Jewish people in Egypt was a man who was not brought up in the surroundings of slaves. Moshe Rabbeinu, grew up in the palace of Pharoah, and even during his exilic years, he spent his time with Yitro, a Priest of Midyan. The Ibn Ezra maintains, that this was why Moshe was able to stand in front of Pharoah as an equal, this was why Moshe stood up for the children of Yitro in Midyan, and this was why Moshe killed the Egyptian oppressor in the first instance. Only a free man, not bound by masters, not educated as a slave, could do the things that were required of Moshe. It is this mentality of slavery, so natural to Bnei Yisrael that led to many of the subsequent problems in the midbar. In truth the slave has no independence on the one hand, yet on the other hand, there is little to no responsibility required of him. The slave does what he is told, but at the same time, he is dependent on his master for food, clothing, upkeep etc… The slave when given independence will often not know what to do with his new reality, he might even find the option of being a free man more daunting than remaining a slave.
This is very reflective of Am Yisrael in the midbar. According to the Ramban, the entire episode of the golden calf can be understood as a major attack of panic triggered by the absence of Moshe, by the absence of leadership.
As soon as something that was generally provided, was lacking, panic set in. Whether it was water, whether it was food. The people were panicked as soon as they were not provided for, the slave mentality within them refrained them from initiating, from taking control. Indeed, when left in these situations, it is quite understandable, how memories of Egypt suddenly became an oasis of paradise. The advantages of slavery far outweighed the advantages of freedom.
The people had to be educated to be free. They had to be taught about faith, about responsibility, about initiative. The period in the wilderness was set-aside for this purpose. However, as we see, this educational process essentially failed. The generation that was redeemed from Egypt, never totally internalized their freedom. They followed Hashem into the wilderness, they received the Torah, but they never reached the highest objective, they never merited entering Eretz Yisrael.
The people led by Yehoshua, however, were quite the opposite, they were warriors who marched into Eretz Yisrael, conquering and settling the land, beezrat Hashem, in a mere fourteen years. Led by the two and a half tribes, Am Yisrael, made up of a generation, who were born and bred as free men and women. A generation accustomed to the taste of Manna, to Be’er Miriam. A people who encamped around a Mishkan, with the Shechinah presiding in the center, who were led by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.
The generation led by Yehoshua was a new generation. When overlooking the history of our people during the twentieth century, there have been many who have tried to parallel between the events as described in the Torah, and the reality of the last hundred years. They have suggested, that the Jews of the Diaspora were essentially exilic; slaves, trained to be subservient, trained to bow their heads when faced by the non-Jewish oppressor. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that in the years of the Second World War, Jews went ‘like sheep to the slaughter’.
The Jews of Zion, on the other hand, have been paralleled to the generation of Yehoshua; a new generation, with the pride and responsibility that is required for a people to exist independently.
To my mind this parallel is fundamentally mistaken, there is an enormous difference between the events as described in the Torah, and present-day history. As soon as Hashem gave the Torah to Am Yisrael, as soon as the words ‘Naase Venishma’ were pronounced, the concept of slavery as a nation ceased to exist forever. In truth, for that specific generation the total transformation proved to be too much. Yet for every generation from then onwards, there would never again exist the concept of slavery wherever they were whatever they may be forced to do, physically limited may be, but spiritually free. When Hashem brought us out of Egypt and gave us the Torah, He gave us independence eternally; irrespective of our physical reality we would always be free men.
The Israeli culture during the initial Post-Holocaust period (those who had not experienced Europe during war time), on the whole, appeared almost embarrassed, by the apparent ‘cowardice’ of the Jews in Europe, by the seeming passivity of an entire generation. It seemed to many to be symptomatic of years of exile.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. To accuse an entire people of walking ‘like sheep to the slaughter’ is a travesty of justice to say the least. The levels of resistance offered by the Jewish people during this most horrific period in world history, is to my mind, unparalleled. Yet to understand the greatness of the Jews of Europe one must first truly define resistance.
To resist is to refrain from giving-in to the demands of any given negating force. How we define resistance during the Second World War is entirely dependent on how we understand the aims and objectives of the Nazi movement. As I see it, there were at least three ‘ideological’ objectives:
(1) The dehumanization of the Jewish people
(2) The physical annihilation of the Jewish people
(3) The extinction of the Jewish faith from the face of the earth
To resist any of these objectives would be an absolute act of resistance. I would like to offer just a few examples that clearly reflect that not only did our brethren not walk as sheep to the slaughter; they set a true example for all man kind for eternity.
Primo Levi in one of his books describing his experiences during the Holocaust (‘If this is a man’ p46) describes one of his first experiences in Auschwitz. The man he describes is a man named Steinlauf. Primo Levi met him on one occasion, by the washbasins early one morning. The man was clearly an older inmate, who had already spent quite some time at the camp. He describes how he stood in astonishment watching this man fervently wash his face, to no real avail. After a while, Mr Levi approached the man, and asked him why he was insisting on going through the motions even though his efforts were an apparent waste of time. Steinlauf answered him, emphatically: “They are trying to turn us into animals, when I do this, I remain human’.
A seemingly irrelevant act, but in the human sense a real act of resistance. The Holocaust is full of many similar acts. The fact that, Hospitals, Theaters, and Schools, continued to exist during the ghetto years, is a true indication of the Human spirit that existed at the time. It is an insistence that whatever they may try to do we will continue as ‘normal’, we will remain human beings, we will resist.
The more famous acts of resistance are of course the acts of armed uprisings. The physical uprisings, that took place during the latter years of the war. It is important to note that almost every single act of physical resistance took place when it was absolutely clear that there was no hope of survival. This in itself is of crucial importance. It was because people wanted to live that they did not pick up arms. To fight essentially meant to die with honor, but it meant to die. No one believed that they would overcome the might of the German Army. Excepting the plight of the partisan movement, almost every uprising took place as a last resort, when each hero concluded that they still had the choice of how to die, if not how to live.
Many are aware of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, however, there were in fact revolts in nineteen ghettoes as well as three Death Camps.
Yet, what is always ignored is the spiritual resistance. How many continued to learn Torah? How many continued to pray? How many continued to wear Tefillin? How many went to their deaths with the words Shema Yisrael on their lips? I cannot imagine the strength that it takes for a human being, who has been systematically destroyed; first, his finances, then his family, then himself. Yet after all of this he remains a believer. For me there can be no greater climax in a human beings life than to reach the Akeidah and continue to utter the words Shema Yisrael. When all around you begs the question why? How? You stay firm in your belief Shema Yisrael. This is resistance in its truest form. The fact is that the Jewish people survived the Holocaust, not simply physically as a people, but spiritually. There can be no greater form of resistance than to stay adhering to ones beliefs to the very end.
The Chatam Sofer in quoting the Midrash as quoted above by Rashi, explains. That man is the climax of creation, he was created last to emphasize that the whole of creation was exclusively for him, yet on the other hand he was created last to force home the point, that if he were ever to lose sight of his real objectives, he should remember that he is thus less important than the smallest of insects. Animals have no choice, they therefore have no real potential, man has potential, and man has choice. Man can therefore be the king of creation, or the lowest creature of all. In the same way that man can reach heights beyond those of an angel, he can reach depths beyond those of the most vicious animals ever to have existed. Man was created last because he is the purpose of the world, yet his laws of purity are taught after those of animal in order to show the potential depths to which man can fall.
So many spend the day of Yom Hashoah grappling with the issue of G-d and the Holocaust. They ask where was G-d? To me the question that should be asked is: Where was man? If anything at all, the Holocaust shows us how far man can fall if he chooses the wrong path. Whenever I see pictures of Jews being shot by Nazis, I see the two extreme potentials that man can reach. On the one hand, the animal-soldier, oblivious to the absolute evil in which he is involved, cold-blooded pointless murder. Yet on the other hand, the victim, the Jewish person, who despite everything remains a human being to the last.
As human beings we always have a choice of how to do what we do. Our aim must always be to reach our highest potential, to be the man for whom the world was created. We must focus on our faults, our weaknesses. We must learn from our mistakes how to become better, how to excel. I cannot end this shiur, without a short prayer for our soldiers, who even now, with the help of Hashem, are defending the people of Israel, and in reality, the people of the world.
Our Army is an absolute source of pride to me, where other countries indiscriminately bomb, without even trying to distinguish between civilian and enemy, our soldiers are tirelessly moving from house to house attacking only the clearly defined enemy. The methods and sensitivity of our armed forces are unparalleled, and even though the world tries to ignore reality for what it really is, the truth will always victor in the end. Our Berachot go to all of our soldiers, that Hashem should protect them in all that they do, and ensure the security of our people.