Thursday, January 2, 2020

PARSHAS VAYIGASH 5780


STAM TORAH
PARSHAS VAYIGASH 5780
“NEVER ALONE”[1]

          “One night I had a dream. I was walking along the beach with the Lord, and scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One was mine and one was the Lord's. When the last scene appeared before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand, and to my surprise, I noticed that many times along the path of my life there was only one set of footprints. Furthermore, I noticed that they were at the lowest and saddest points of my life. I asked the Lord about it: "Lord, you said that once I decided to follow You, You would walk with me all the way. But I notice that during the most troublesome points of my life there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why You left my side when I needed You most." The Lord replied "My precious child, I never left you during your time of trial. Where you only see one set of footprints, I was carrying you.” (Author unknown)

          After twenty-two painful years, Yaakov began his descent to Egypt to reunite with Yosef. The Torah relates that during his journey, Hashem appeared to Yaakov in a vision at night and proclaimed: “I am G-d, the G-d of your father; do not feardescending to Egypt for I will transform you into a great nation. I will descend with you to Egypt and I will also ascend with you...”[2]
      The Bais Halevi notes that this was the most profound promiseHashem made to any of the Patriarchs. Until this pint, all the promises had been regarding the future. At this point however, when Yaakov was on his way into exile, Hashem promised him that He would remain with Yaakov and his descendants as long as they were there. Yaakov’s descendants were destined to encounter numerous trials and tribulations. But now they had a reassurance that Hashem would always be there with them.
          At times, the Hand of Hashem is difficult to discern. Still, this promise assures is that throughout challenging and painful times His guiding Hand remains with us. The Meshech Chochmah adds that while Avrohom and Yitzchok never had prophecy at night, Yaakov did on two occasions.
          The lives of the Avos symbolically foreshadowed all that would transpire to their descendants in the future[3]. Yaakov symbolized exile. He encountered constant turmoil and it was only though his tremendous resiliency that he was able to overcome his obstacles. Twice Yaakov descended into exile and both times, on the way, he had a vision at night. When he was compelled to flee the wrath of Eisav and seek refuge with Lavan, the Torah[4] relates that Yaakov saw a vision at night in which Hashem vowed to protect Yaakov and provide for his every need. Then, as he descended to Egypt, he again saw a vision at night[5], when Hashem promised to remain with Yaakov throughout the duration of the exile.
          It was for this reason that Yaakov composed Ma'ariv, the night prayer. Yaakov represents the idea that throughout the vicissitudes of life, Hashem is omnipresent. As Yaakov descended into exile, he visualized a prophecy of the Divine Presence in Egypt, Auschwitz, and Siberia.

          A number of years ago, I had the privilege to meet Mr. Yitzchak Wargon a”h, a Holocaust survivor, whose faith in Hashem was unwavering and inspiring.[6]  
          Mr. Wargon was a survivor of the Buchenwald Concentration camp and, as a Polish Jew, has survived nearly six years of Nazi brutality.
          Mr. Wargon recounted, in vivid detail, some of his extraordinary stories of survival and escape.Of the many incredible accounts he shared, one story stood out to me:
          Two months after the war ended Mr. Wargon found himself in Berlin, the decimated heart of Nazi-Germany. The city had been completely leveled by the Allied forces and rubble lay everywhere. A road was cleared through the destruction to give room for vehicles to pass through.
          As he was walking down the street, Mr. Wargon met a Russian soldier who appeared to be Jewish. They engaged in conversation and Mr. Wargon's hunch proved to be correct. The man was a Polish Jew named Moshe who had run away from Poland at the outbreak of World War II and had been drafted into the Russian army. As they conversed, Mr. Wargon noticed a young German civilian employed by the Allies, gun in hand, pacing back and forth in front of the mountains of rubble. (Germans who claimed to have no connection to the Nazi party were allowed to work for the Allies.) Mr. Wargon inquired from his new friend, Sergeant Moshe, why there was a need for this German civilian, armed with a rifle, to wander aimlessly around bombed out buildings? What was he guarding? What was there to protect? Moshe replied "Because you're a Jew, I will tell you the significance of that pile of rubble. Underneath the rubble lies Hitler's bunker."
          Without missing a beat, Mr. Wargon boldly asked if there was any way he could gain entry into the bunker. Moshe replied that his superior was coming at twelve noon and he would ask him then. Sure enough, at exactly twelve o'clock a jeep pulled up with an American, French, British, and Russian high-ranking officers (after the war a representative of each army was necessary). Moshe asked his commander for permission for a fellow Jew to join them and permission was granted.
      Mr. Wargon walked behind the soldiers as they marched to the back of the rubble through a narrow passageway leading to a descending stairwell. Thepassageway was so narrow that only one person could fit through at a time. They walked, single-file, down the stairs until they were two stories below street level. Above them was five meters of solid concrete, completely secluding the bunker from the world above. Even a powerful bomb could not penetrate the bunker. Huge air pumps and electrical generators were prepared to pump in fresh air in case of a gas attack.
      Mr. Wargon began to feel dizzy as he noticed numerous passageways going in every direction. Name plates hung outside offices with names of infamous Nazis such as "Herr Gobbels", "Herr Goering", "Herr Himmler”. In the corner, he saw a room marked off with the words "Der Fuhrer" the room had been Hitler's private office.As they were walking there was. A powerful gong sound that rang out. Mr. Wargon panicked and asked Moshe what happened. Moshe replied that it was the lunch bell. When Mr. Wargon asked how he could get out, Moshe smiled and replied that Mr. Wargon was his guest and he would eat with him.
          They walked down a long passageway until they reached the dining hall.The long table was laid out with exquisite cutlery made of pure gold along with crystal glasses. The soldiers sat in order of rank with the commander sitting at the head. As each soldier took his place at the table, he lifted his glass of water and pronounced a toast to Truman, Churchill, and Stalin. Not wanting to be left out, Mr. Wargon raised his glass and toasted his glass to G-d, and gulped down its contents thirstily. As soon as the liquid entered his mouth, he realized that it wasn’t water, but 192 proof Russian vodka. Five minutes later the room was spinning, and Mr. Wargon desperately called out to Moshe. Moshe looked at him infrustration, "You don't know what problems you're causing me. Hold on to the table." Moshe went to seek the advice of his commander. The commander looked at Mr. Wargon quizzically and motioned for Moshe to take Mr. Wargon to a side room to sleep it off.
          It was about 8 p.m. when Mr. Wargon woke up. When he opened his eyes, he realized that he was lying on a couch and Moshe and the commander were pointing at him. All of a sudden, the commander burst into uncontrollable laughter. Moshe walked over to Mr. Wargon and stood in front of him. "Do you understand what the commander said?" Mr. Wargon shook his head, "Of course not. I don't understandRussian." Moshe looked at him with a glint in his eye and remarked "Do you know who's couch you were sleeping on? The couch of Adolph Hitler himself!"
      After concluding the story, Mr. Wargon told me that he had a few pieces of Hitler's cutlery that came from the dining room of the bunker that he took with him. Engraved on the front is the Nazi symbol - a swastika and an eagle. The words "Kanzlei des Fuhrers- Office of the Fuhrer" is engraved on the back.
          Mr. Wargon related that years earlier when his son Moishe was a young boy, he was looking around the breakfront and found the cutlery in a box. Innocently, he placed it onto the neatly set Shabbos table. Mr. Wargon immediately threw it off the table and sternly rebuked his son: "Such an impure item should never be placed on a holy Jewish table.”
           It’s incredible to think that merely two months after Hitler committed suicide and was defeated, a concentration camp survivor slept on his couch. I also thought it was incredibly ironic that the very cutlery that Hitler had used ended up on a holy Shabbos table, even if only for a moment.
          This was the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Yaakov that he would never forsake him. In the most desperate and painful times, when it seems like we are lost, the hand of Hashem looms in the background.
          Indeed, a Jew is never alone!

          “I will descend with you
                   and I will also ascend with you”


Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY



[1] This essay was from the second year that I sent out Stam Torah in 2001/5761
[2] Bereishis 46:3-4
[3] מעשה אבות סימן לבנים
[4] Bereishis 28:11
[5] Ibid 46:2
[6] Mr. Wargon’s grandsons, Avi and Yossi Wargon, were campers and friends of mine from Camp Dora Golding. I originally met Mr. Wargon at Yossi’s bar mitzvah in August 2000. Thanks to the efforts of his devoted son, R’ Moishe, I was subsequently able to arrange for Mr. Wargon to speak at our shul – Kehillat New Hempstead, in November 2011. At that time, Mr. Wargon brought the cutlery mentioned at the end of this story. Mr. Wargon passed away a few years ago.   

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