I have often wondered why the story of Purim is still relevant at all after the Holocaust. Not even a hidden miracle was performed to save the Jews from the hands of Hitler, a greater enemy than Haman. Why continue to praise G-d for a hidden miracle when it seems that even hidden miracles came to an end with the Holocaust? History has proven Purim to be irrelevant and even offensive. How can we continue celebrating Purim when six million Jews, collectively, did not see the hidden hand of G-d and were left with no divine intervention? Is celebrating Purim not an affront to all those millions who were tortured and died under the most hideous circumstances?
Hundreds of personal stories describe how Jews risked their lives to rejoice in their Jewishness while facing the Nazis’ atrocities. In the extermination camps, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and even Purim. What was it that kept them going? Was it just wishful thinking?
What they realized then, as never before, was the eternity and indestructibility of the Jews. Perpetuity is the very essence of the Jews. Eliezer Berkovits, in his book, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps, shares examples of what this means. Here are two instances:
When Rabbi Moshe Friedman of Boyan, a towering personality and great Torah scholar in pre-war Poland, was brought to Auschwitz with a transport of deeply religious Jews, during Passover 1943, he was asked to undress prior to the “shower.” He turned to the Oberscharführer, grasped the lapel of his Nazi jacket and said to him: “You, the most despicable murderers in the world! Don’t imagine for one moment that you will succeed in destroying the Jewish people. The Jewish nation will live forever. It will not vanish from the stage of history; instead, you will be erased and disappear.”
Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale. As the camp commander…took a number of young Gerer Chassidim to be put to death, one of them, Israel Eisenberg, asked for permission to say a few words of farewell to his friends. I stood opposite them and heard every word. He did not speak many words…. He got hold of the hands of another young man and started singing. They were calling to each other: “Kiddush Hashem, the most important thing, let us rejoice!” They all began to sing and to dance as if a fire had been lit within them. Their sidelocks, which were then hidden under their hats, they now pulled out and let them hang over their faces. They paid no attention to what was going on around them. They were dancing and singing. And I thought I would lose my senses; that young people should go to their death as one goes to a dance! Thus dancing, they jumped into the pit as a rain of bullets was pouring down on them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A’H, notes that we must never let ourselves be intimidated – and the Jewish way to avoid this, to do what we are told on Purim, to increase our joy. The people that can know the full darkness of history and yet rejoice are a people whose spirit no power on earth can ever break. Not to do so would be a tragic dereliction of duty.
This Monday, we will observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in commemoration of a great American, and in celebration of his accomplishments in his all too brief life. For a while, and especially through the events in our nation’s capital last week, I’ve been reflecting on what he stood for and how he presented himself. He certainly knew how to use words to move people and we have countless examples of the everlasting impact of his words. When he tried to capture the essence of a good teacher and leader, he was simple and succinct:
“You cannot teach what you do not know, and you cannot lead where you will not go.” -MLK
During the shocking attack on the Capitol, we observed language and symbols of the Nazi era that we never would have imagined witnessing in the United States. Martin Luther King’s words ring truer than ever. Last week’s events, along with the difficult summer we experienced, reinforce the urgency of strengthening Holocaust education and remembering that tragic era in our history.
One way to take action is to participate. I call your attention to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th. Please explore our website for upcoming events and opportunities to reflect and remember what hate and bigotry can do when left unchecked.
Two days after observing Dr. King’s birthday, we will inaugurate a new president and vice president of the United States. It is appropriate that we mark this occasion by remembering and appreciating Dr. King’s efforts on behalf of the values of democracy, justice, and freedom. May G-d bless America.
Over the next two weeks, we will be marking three significant events on our calendar. This coming Monday, January 20, we observe the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. On Thursday, January 23, Yad Vashem will be hosting the Fifth World Holocaust Forum 2020, entitled “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Anti-Semitism,” and on Monday, January 27th, the world will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This Shabbat our Torah reading begins the second book of the Torah, Exodous, Shemot. How appropriate that the weekly Torah reading would coincide with these three important dates.
Rav David Silverberg, Yeshiva Har Etzion, notes that in Parashat Shemot (1:13), the Torah tells us that the Egyptians enslaved Bnai Yisrael, forcing labor upon them “be-farekh.” Most commentators interpreted this word in accordance with the usage of the root p.r.kh. in Talmudic literature as meaning “break.” Rashi, for example, writes that the Egyptians forced upon Bnai Yisrael “labor which breaks the body.” Onkelos translates this word as “be-kashyu,” which likely means “harshly,” or “severely.”
An entirely different interpretation of the word “be-farekh” is offered by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who associates this word with the word “parokhet,” referring to the partition that separated between the two chambers of the Mishkan. According to Rav Hirsch, the word “be-farekh” indicates that by enslaving Bnai Yisrael, the Egyptians effectively drove a wedge between Bnai Yisrael and the rest of the country, singling out the former as a fundamentally different – and inferior – class. Rav Hirsch writes:
“By declaring them slaves, they [the Egyptians] divided them off from the rest of the people, as being creatures without any rights whatsoever, they shut them right off from all the rest of the population who could claim legal rights. Slaves are declared to be a different order of beings to ordinary human beings. “
Thus, the word “be-farekh” indicates that the Egyptians created a “partition” between themselves and Bnai Yisrael, designating them as a slave class that deserved no rights and could be tormented and abused freely.
The significance of this reading of “be-farekh” extends beyond the context of Egypt’s enslavement of Bnai Yisrael. Many people erect various “partitions” between themselves and certain groups. They view those different from them as not merely different, but as separate and apart, and as inferior beings. These “partitions” might relate to financial status, social skills, professional skills, appearance, ethnic or geographic origin, level of religious observance, or any other distinguishing feature. Our legitimate pride over our background, achievements and way of doing things can easily lead us to regard as inferior those from different backgrounds, who have not achieved what we have achieved, or who conduct their lives differently than we do. The retribution visited upon Egypt for its mistreatment of Bnai Yisrael teaches us of the evil of “be-farekh,” of erecting artificial “partitions” that set apart certain groups of people as inferior. We are certainly entitled to take pride in our unique identity and accomplishments, but at the same time, we must avoid building mental “partitions” between us and others, and looking with disdain upon those who are different from us.
Dr. King who championed the end of racial segregation in this country was deeply influenced by the Jewish experience, particularly the message in the Torah and our experiences during the Shoah.
Viewing the experiences of the Shoah through a uniquely Jewish lens, Yad Vashem continues to be a light unto the nations in reminding us of the consequences of what hatred can do to society and how essential it is to respect and value others.