Rabbi Cohen and his fellow students

By Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen

An email arrived in my inbox in early May about a rabbinic seminar, the first of its kind, to be held at Yad Vashem. Mixed emotions were brewing inside me.

On the one hand, to be a complete Jew, one needs to study and be well-versed in basic areas of our history. To have the information in the mind, so that it can penetrate the heart. Certainly, the Holocaust was a pivotal event in Jewish history. We are only today re-attaining the population of Jews that were alive 70 years ago.

On the other hand, it was an intense way to spend a summer vacation. Choosing discomfort and venturing beyond our normal zone can often lead to profound results. Spending a week immersed in Holocaust studies, specifically at a more developed stage of life, was truly transformational.

There is something incredibly powerful about spending time immersed in any topic, particularly with a diverse group of rabbis. The group was multi-denominational and was ethnically diverse. It echoed the stark reality that the Nazis didn’t differentiate or discriminate between different Jews. The respect displayed between the different members of the group was truly admirable. We listened to diverse perspectives and views and validated what we heard. The Holocaust belonged to each of us.

Many asked upon my return what the purpose of the seminar was and how the content would be disseminated. It’s impossible to sum up all we learned, but I’d like to highlight certain overarching themes and new insights that are extremely relevant in 2019.

The concept of “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of G-d’s name, was introduced with a new wrinkle. The Torah has the well-known principle of giving up one’s life rather than violate one of the cardinal three sins: idol worship, illicit sexuality, and murder. We generally refer to this as dying “al kiddush Hashem.”

We also assume that dying because you are a Jew is the highest level of Kiddush Hashem. We studied literature suggesting that in the context of the Holocaust, it was easier to die for Hashem than to live for Hashem. Life was so harsh and unbearable that it would be understandable to surrender and die for one’s Judaism with the knowledge that one’s death is sanctified and revered in G-d’s eyes. However, in this unique context, kiddush Hashem was turned on its head.

In the midst of WWII, the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem demanded of the Jew to attempt to keep living for as long as possible. To live and perform mitzvos in defiance of the Nazis. This is the bigger Kiddush Hashem and this was what was being encouraged by some of the Jewish leaders of the time.

For most, it was easier to die than to live. Therefore, we are implored and commanded to do the opposite to the degree possible. This is a most powerful “resistance” in a spiritual form. This is in sharp contrast to the kiddush Hashem we are generally familiar with, when one wants to live but is forced to die.

One professor related a poignant point in “middos,” or character development. He conducted many interviews of survivors. At a certain point, it became clear to him that he was allowing his own biases and assumptions to impact upon the questions he was asking and even the answers he was hearing. The lesson he gleaned was to listen closely to the testimony and try to hear the experience through the eyes of the survivor alone. No assumptions and no preconceived notions.

He remarked that too often we let ourselves get in our own way. Our ego, presuppositions, and biases are disruptive. We often filter things through our own senses and how we experience them. His Holocaust studies and interviews taught him the powerful lesson of “bitul,” nullification, truly listening and placing ourselves in the shoes of another.

Another related insight on the concept of kiddush Hashem was a piece of Torah that we studied from the famous Rebbe of Piacetzna in his sefer Aish Kodesh. The Rebbe explained that the war of the Nazis against the Jews was a war against Hashem. They hated our G-d and his Torah. This animosity came through in various exhibits we observed and other materials we were exposed to.

Extrapolating from the Rebbe, a Jew attacked or killed because of his identity is being singled out as an emissary of G-d. Ironically, if we are targeted it means we are doing our jobs correctly. We are being identified by an outsider to the faith as an extension of G-d on this earth.

As much as we loathe being attacked, it is a source of pride that we are identified as so closely aligned with our Creator. I found some consolation in this idea and was fascinated that the Rebbe was sharing a kernel of this concept with the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Another issue of great import explored was the infamous question: where was G-d during the Holocaust?

We heard Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, a child survivor, speak impassionedly, almost criticizing those who lost their faith. Only someone who stood in his place could possibly make such an assertion. It was shocking and astounding to hear him speak so stridently.

We also were exposed to a fascinating 70-plus-year-old letter penned by Rabbi Herschel Schacter, zt’l, the Jewish chaplain who helped liberate Buchenwald. In passionate and poetic prose to his parents, he defended his audacious decision to leave a cushy rabbinical position in Stamford, Connecticut, to fight alongside the American armed forces. It was astounding hearing his praise and appreciation for the bastion of freedom that America was and is and the sacrifice he was willing to make.

Finally, there was the element of human suffering. We heard the testimony of a woman who became pregnant in a DP camp and tried to abort the pregnancy. The doctor wouldn’t comply because she couldn’t pay for his services. She then went home, took out a hot iron, and tried desperately to harm the baby by “ironing” her stomach. She testified that she couldn’t tolerate hearing any more cries of babies or young children. She had heard much too much in the concentration camp. Heartbreaking isn’t the word for this testimony. Thankfully, as she shared, she wasn’t successful in her efforts.

We live today in a post-modern world edging closer to 2020, 75 years from when the concentration camps were liberated. We are watching as the final survivors are dwindling in number and anti-Semitism and hatred is rearing its ugly head, certainly in Europe but also in America.

We are challenged still today to be representatives of Hashem and are charged to live “al kiddush Hashem,” by upholding and living up to the dictates of Torah. We also struggle with faith in a complicated world but must find G-d amidst the turmoil and doubt. We can look for inspiration from those who survived these horrors of history and still cling fervently to faith.

There is certainly room for much gratitude amidst much human suffering and pain. We are the most affluent Jewish community that history has ever seen. The lessons from events of the 1940s are so critical to us today. It is true; we all can put some end to the Holocaust. We can perpetuate the legacy of survivors as well as those who perished, through reinforcing the core lessons and concepts gleaned during a most transformative week of summer vacation. n

Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah of N. Woodmere and a senior relationship officer at Yachad. His is an author, podcaster, therapist, and popular speaker. Learn more at RabbiDovidMCohen.com.

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