Thursday, July 23, 2015


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


          Fall 1944.
It was already apparent that the German army would be vanquished imminently. The Allied forces were rapidly closing in on the Nazi War Machine from all sides, and it was clear that it was only a matter of time before ‘the Reich that would stand for a thousand years’ would collapse. Nevertheless, the Nazis were determined to promote their nefarious objective of making Europe Judenrein until their final moments. Such was the tragic fate of Hungarian Jewry which was shipped into the crematoriums en masse during the waning months of the war.  
One day fifty young yeshiva boys were herded into a ‘bathhouse’ in Auschwitz. It was late enough in the war that the boys were familiar with the Nazi’s ruse. They knew that at any moment the showers would be turned on, but instead of water, noxious Zyklon-B gas would come out, causing them all to die of asphyxiation within minutes.
As they waited for the inevitable, one of the boys called out to his peers, “My brothers; today is Simchas Torah, the day we celebrate the conclusion of one cycle of Torah study and the commencement of a new cycle. Throughout our lives we have tried our best to adhere to the Torah and uphold its every commandment. Now we have one final opportunity to give honor and to glorify the Torah. We have no Torah scroll and we have no books. But they can never take away our pride and our feeling of connection with G-d. So now in our final moments, let us celebrate with G-d Himself, before we return our souls to Him.”
The Nazi guards were used to hearing all sorts of noises emanating from within the death chamber. Screams, prayers, pleading, and banging were all par for the course. But they had never heard the sounds of harmonious singing. The boys had joined hands and were singing “Ashreinu mah tov chelkaynu – Praiseworthy are we! How goodly is our portion!”, inside their sealed tomb.  
One of the guards asked his comrade the reason for the delay and demanded that the commandant be summoned to witness the peculiar events. When the commandant hastily approached and heard the singing he was filled with rage. He slammed open the door of the Gas Chamber and burst inside like a madman. He grabbed one boy and viciously pulled him up, “You filthy swine! Explain to me why you are singing!”
The boy looked at the Nazi unabashedly and retorted, “We are celebrating the fact that we are leaving a world where Nazi beasts such as yourself reign. And we are celebrating the fact that in moments we will be reunited with our parents whom you have murdered.”
The Commander was beside himself. “You think the Gas Chamber will be your last stop? I will torture each of you individually and slice your flesh until you die in the vilest manner possible. You will wish you had died the relatively benign death in the Gas Chamber!” He had all the boys removed and placed in a holding block overnight. He planned to begin his torture campaign the next morning.
The next morning, a superior officer drove into the camp. He needed a group of young able-bodied men to perform grueling work. As he walked through the camp he noticed the group of yeshiva men locked up in the holding block. They were exactly what he needed.
The Nazi officer pulled rank on the camp commandant who stood by and watched silently as the young boys were marched onto trucks and driven out of Auschwitz.
Survivors report that all fifty boys survived the war.[1]

The holy books of the Prophets are filled with many beautiful uplifting prophecies which detail the greatness and loftiness of Klal Yisroel. Conversely, they are also replete with foreboding warnings of the impending doom that would befall the nation if they did not repent and heed the prophet’s words.
As a rule, even the most ominous and portentous prophecies conclude with words of encouragement and consolation. Despite the fact that the road is often replete with pain and suffering, ultimately, the Jewish People prevail and transcend all the travails that befall them.
  It is enigmatic therefore, that Megillas Eichah (“The scroll of Alas”) read on Tisha B’Av eve concludes with words of punishment. The final verse reads, “For even if you have utterly rejected us, You have already raged sufficiently against us.” In fact, it is customary to repeat the second-to-last verse, “Bring us back to You, G-d, and we will return; renew our days as of old,” so that we do not conclude our reading of the Megillah on a morbid note. Still, it begs explanation: Why does Megillas Eichah conclude with such harsh and painful words? 

Unlike the normal mourning process for a deceased relative where the mourning begins at the time of the tragedy, in regard to Tisha B’av the mourning begins three weeks prior and intensifies as the day approaches. Then on Tisha B’av itself we begin to accept consolation. At midday of Tisha B’av, we don our talis and tefillin and begin to sit on regular chairs. By midday of the day after Tisha B’av all of the laws of mourning abruptly cease. We immediately resume listening to music, shaving, taking haircuts, and doing laundry.[2] How can we understand the rapid, seemingly inappropriate, conclusion of the three week mourning process on the day after the most intense mourning of all?

The Bais Halevi[3] records the following poignant thought:
The gemara (Chagiga 5b) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania was once in the presence of the Caesar, together with a Sadducee[4]. While sitting there the Sadducee spitefully turned his head away from Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua responded by stretching out his hands.
The Caesar asked Rabbi Yehoshua for an explanation about what had just occurred. Rabbi Yehoshua explained that the Sadducee had turned his head away from him to symbolize that G-d had turned away and spurned the Jewish People. Rabbi Yehoshua immediately responded by stretching out his hands to symbolize the verse[5], “עוד ידו נטויה עלינו – His Hand is still outstretched upon us.” In other words, G-d still maintains a connection with the Jewish People.
Then the Caesar asked the Sadducee to explain the exchange between him and Rabbi Yehoshua. When the Sadducee could not explain why Rabbi Yehoshua had stretched out his hands, the Caesar had him executed. 
The Maharsha questions Rabbi Yehoshua’s response. The verse Rabbi Yehoshua used actually refers to the retribution and punishment that is meted out against Klal Yisroel for not properly adhering to the Torah. The full verse reads, “And despite all that, His wrath has not been quelled, and His Hand is still outstretched upon us.” Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua fooled the Cesar, but why did he use the aforementioned verse to prove that G-d has not spurned or rebuffed the Jewish People, when a cursory reading of the verse has the opposite implication?

The gemara (Bava Kamma 26a) discusses the halachic status of one who smashes a vessel which was thrown off the roof a building but did not yet hit the ground. The gemara’s discussion centers on whether we assume that, “מנא תבר תבר – he broke a broken vessel[6]” or not.
The Bais Halevi questions why this case differs from one who casts his vessel into the ocean ("זוטו של ים"), where the law is unequivocally clear that one who does so relinquishes ownership over the vessel, and another person may immediately retrieve the object and take possession of it. [This is true even if the original owner swears that he still wants the vessel and never intended to relinquish possession of it.] Why should casting a vessel off the roof a building be different than casting it into the ocean?
The Bais Halevi answers that the ocean is endless and, therefore, as soon as something falls into it, for all practical purposes it is lost. Therefore, when one casts his vessel into the ocean he is demonstrating that he no longer cares for the vessel. However, when one casts a vessel off a roof where it will unquestionably smash, he demonstrates that he specifically wants the object to break. If he only intended to relinquish ownership he could have thrown it into a dumpster. The fact that he bothered to ascend to a roof and throw it over the edge indicates that, for whatever reason, he wanted the vessel to break.
The Bais Halevi continues by explaining that the Sadducee turned away from Rabbi Yehoshua to symbolize that G-d had abandoned Klal Yisroel and relinquished ownership over them, as it were. Rabbi Yehoshua replied by stretching out his hands, symbolizing the harsh retribution and punishment that Klal Yisroel has suffered. In effect, Rabbi Yehoshua was replying that the Sadducee had misinterpreted the underlying message of our suffering. It is not that G-d has abandoned us. Au contraire! The fact that G-d continues to punish us so harshly demonstrates that He has not given up on us.
Our suffering is not analogous to an owner who casts his vessel into the water. Rather it is analogous to an owner who casts his vessel off the roof with the intention of breaking the vessel. G-d indeed inflicts harsh punishment upon us and we have unquestionably been subject to severe suffering throughout the millennia. But it is because our ‘owner’ knows that doing so is the only way to preserve us and refine us.

With this idea in mind, we can gain a deeper perspective into the mourning period prior to Tisha B’av, as well as to the conclusion of Megillas Eichah. The final verse of the Megillah which speaks of retribution and G-d’s wrath contains the key to our consolation.  The very fact that G-d still bothers to punish us shows that G-d wants to preserve us as His Nation. The very fact that He has been so angry with us demonstrates that,” His Hand is still outstretched upon us”, and He has not given up on us.
When one gives up on something and casts it aside, he no longer becomes angry on account of that abandoned vessel. His attitude becomes more apathetic and uncaring towards the forsaken vessel. But our pain and suffering shows that we are still the Nation of G-d and that G-d still loves us deeply enough to not allow us to falter and forget who we are.
This idea also explains why the mourning process which develops gradually until Tisha B’av seems to diminish so quickly.  The vast and numerous lamentations that we recite on Tisha B’av evening and morning depict and recount the endless suffering, tears, travails, and persecution that we have been subject to throughout the exile. However, therein lies the roots of our consolation. The persecution we have suffered symbolizes that we are still the Chosen Nation and therefore are held to a higher standard. The mourning of Tisha B’av actually contains the source of our consolation.

Chumash Devorim, the final book of the Torah, records Moshe’s words to the nation during his final weeks. Moshe began by reviewing all of the vicissitudes and events that occurred to the nation throughout their forty year sojourns in the desert. Moshe not only described each individual event, but he also demonstrated how everything that occurred connected together. Everything was part of a composite bigger picture, dictated precisely by G-d.
 Parshas Devorim is always read the Shabbos prior to Tisha B’av. The message is that nothing is random and there is no coincidence.
The rivers of Jewish tears continue to rage with incredible intensity. But there is a purpose and value in every one of those tears. It is a concept we believe although we cannot comprehend. It is that belief that has given us the courage and strength to withstand inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, holocausts, and libels. And it is that knowledge that has given us the fortitude to hold our heads high – sometimes even singing and dancing – in the face of demonic enemies and horrific challenges.
We also know that those rivers of tears will soon overflow and G-d will send Moshiach to herald in the blissful era of the Final Redemption. At that point Tisha B’av will be transformed into a day of joyous celebration. May it be this year!

“His Hand is still outstretched upon us”
“Bring us back to You G-d, and we will return”

[1] This story is recorded in “Small Miracles of the Holocaust”.
[2] Anyone who has ever spent a summer in an overnight camp knows that the Melave Malkah following Shabbos Nachamu (the Shabbos after Tisha B’av) is an extremely festive and joyous event.
It should also be noted that in a year such as this year (5769) when Tisha B’av concludes on Thursday evening, there are many laws that are mitigated already Thursday night because it is Erev Shabbos.
[3] Parshas Vayetzei & Derush 7
[4] The Sadducees were Jews who tragically denounced the Oral Torah.
[5] Yeshaya 5:9
[6] In other words, do we assume that once a vessel has been cast off a building we view it as being already destroyed, and therefore the person who smashed it before it hit the ground did not do any further damage and is therefore not halachically liable. Or do we assume that until the vessel hits the ground and shatters it is still physically intact and therefore the person who shattered it is indeed liable? 


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