Choosing life after the Shoah

Religion, May 2011

Choosing life after the Shoah

By Rabbi Nochum Mangel, Chabad of Greater Dayton


Rabbi Nochum Mangel

About 1,900 years ago, a horrific scene played out. A generation earlier, Rome had put down Jewish resistance and destroyed the great Temple in Jerusalem. Now, Rome was waging a ruthless campaign to destroy the Torah itself and decreed death to anyone who would teach it.

The great Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon was unmoved by the imperial decree. He knew his role was to teach. He continued to gather crowds and to teach Torah in public.

He was arrested and sentenced to a horrible death — burnt alive at the stake, wrapped in the Torah scroll from which he had taught.

As the terrible sentence was being carried out, his heartbroken students called out to him: “Master, what do you see?” He answered: “I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward.”

Life is a supreme value in Judaism. But sometimes the world brings us up against those for whom life is cheap. And not always do we have the means to win every battle.

What happens then? Do we say, all right, might then wins? Should we abandon our principles, our history, our relationship with God?

We say instead, no, I may not survive myself, but the Torah will soar upward and with it, the people of the Torah. Bodies may perish and be destroyed, but the spirit will soar beyond reach of any oppressor.

That fiery spirit is the common inheritance of the Jewish people, and through us, to all people who wish to live with God. It is the secret of our strength and the root from which triumph sprouts. Our response to persecution and its horrors must acknowledge that as a matter of first importance.

This unquenchable spirit shows itself as much in our days as in the days of old. Dr. Joachim Joseph, an Israeli scientist, was a child when the Nazis occupied Holland. When his 13th birthday was approaching, he was a captive in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Holland’s chief rabbi was there in the camp too and had managed to smuggle in a tiny Torah. With the rabbi’s inspiration, Joseph celebrated his Bar Mitzvah there in the camp under the shadow of death.

After the moving event, the rabbi entrusted the young man with the tiny scroll.

Years later, Ilan Ramon had become friends with Dr. Joseph. When Ramon, a renowned and heroic IDF pilot, was chosen as the first Israeli to fly on the Space Shuttle Columbia, he asked if he could take the scroll with him into space. Dr. Joseph consented.

Speaking of what he was doing, Ramon said that he was taking that Torah “from the depths of hell to the heights of space,” making it an article of hope and inspiration for all the world.

Not only did Ramon take a physical scroll with him, but in space, he made a point of living the words himself: keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and sharing words of Torah.

Though Ilan Ramon did not survive that mission, the spirit of his act endures and inspires.

The way to uphold the power of the good is to take it with us in life’s journeys. The light of the Torah only grows greater; no tyrant or evildoer ever has power over the Jewish soul.

We who are here join hands with those who fell, and when we pick up the spark that had been entrusted them, we are made whole again.

Here is another story from recent times. Before Pesach some 30 or 40 years ago, someone had an idea that it would be good for Jews to memorialize the Holocaust by leaving an empty seat at the Seder table. This would be a powerful and moving symbol of our loss.

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe heard of this, his response was different. The best response to the Holocaust is not to have empty seats at Pesach Seders, but to have them full. The best memorial is to welcome to our homes and to our tables and to our hearts Jews who would never be at a Seder otherwise. We will be welcoming a holy spark back into our midst.

While it is a great and holy thing to light yahrzeit candles in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, the best commemoration is in the Shabbat candles that a new generation of Jews will light.

We will not be content to simply honor those who fell in the fight against evil and darkness in melancholy resignation.

We will not rest, we must not rest until darkness is driven out of all power, and the world is filled with light.

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