Sunday, April 23, 2017
The Silence of the Survivor©
Parashat Shmini and Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day
Rabbi David Baum
We all have stories to our names, all of us have someone for whom we are named after, and a piece of them lives on in us through the lives we live.
I want to tell you the story of how my cousin Brian, whose Hebrew name is Betzalel, received his name. My aunt told me the story - she had just given birth to her second child, her first boy, and her father, my grandfather had one immediate request: “It is very important for me that you name your son Betzalel. Would you please do me this favor?” Now, we’ve all been there. Our parents ‘suggest’ names for their grandkids, and then, when you don’t listen to them, they let you know how they feel. But she told me that this situation was different, and she pried a little. Why? And then, he shared a family secret with her. My grandfather was born in a town called Opole, Poland, but moved to Warsaw to become a tailor’s apprentice when he was in 2nd grade. From that time, until he became a prisoner at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, we didn’t know much at all. We saw pictures of his brother and sister, but that was pretty much it - a long silence.
But he finally broke that silence that lasted close to 50 years: I want you to name him Betzalel after my first son who was killed in Auschwitz. All this time, we had no idea that my grandfather had a family before he met my grandmother. It was also the last time he spoke about his first born son, Betzalel.
In this week’s parashah, we read one of the most chilling narratives in the Torah - the deaths of Aaron’s firstborn sons, Nadav and Avihu. Our parashah begins on a positive note. We are at the eighth day after the establishment of the mishkan. The rules have been given, the priests have been trained, and now we reached the moment when we are ready to put the well-laid plans into action in order to fulfill one purpose – because today, the Lord will appear to you. And so Aaron and his sons go through this holy process, in exactly they way they were told, and in verse 24, we see the results: 24 Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
Everything seems to be going according to plan, except, in the very next chapter, everything goes terribly wrong.
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire (aish zarah), which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.
Why did this happen? The commentators differ on the reasoning. Rashi, along with others, blame alcoholism. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, says that “They went into the sanctuary drunk,” which he derives from the fact that God warns the priests not to drink alcohol when they are giving sacrifices at the end of the chapter. Other commentators stress that the reason Nadav and Avihu were killed (I do not use the word their sin for a reason), relates to what they offered – an unfitting, strange, or foreign fire – aish zarah. Some say that the sons might have been trying to impress their father and the people by taking matters into their own hands. Others explain that Nadav and Avihu did not follow the rules exactly as prescribed to them, and because of this ritual mistake, God kills them. In fact, Ibn Ezra credits the sons by saying that they thought they were doing something that would be acceptable before God, but they did not do it in the correct way.
So which explanation is correct? Here’s a little secret regarding commentators: the more explanations you receive, the less sure anyone is of the meaning.
But amongst all the explanations, we read about Moses and Aaron’s response. Moshe tries to explain the loss of Aaron’s first born sons, "This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people." But Aaron’s response – two words, Yayidom Aaron – And Aaron was silent. There is simply no response. In other words, it doesn’t matter if his children had good or bad intentions – he still lost them in an instant. Perhaps his silence was a response to Moshe – I will remain silent in solidarity with my sons who no longer have a voice?
Here we learn that silence can actually convey many messages.
There is a misconception that survivors of the Shoah were always listened to and honored. There is no greater example than the holy work that is being done by the Shoah foundation, which has compiled thousands of interviews of survivors. But, for many years, survivors were not listened to. In Israel, the holiday became a stepping-stone to the other holidays of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was named Yom HaShoah U’Gevurah - which emphasized the resistance and was observed on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, arguably the most successful armed resistance by Jews against the Nazis. But they also picked this date, so close to the Israeli Memorial and Independence Day for another reason. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem: “For the Zionist, Israel was the antidote to the Holocaust, the land of the new Jew who did not go like sheep to slaughter, but who rather trained in the art of warfare and was capable of defending himself in times of danger. The move from Yom Hashoah to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut was a transition from the past which in many ways we remembered in order to forget, to the new Jewish reality which is Israel.”
These survivors were looked down upon by the proud Zionists in Israel - why didn’t you fight back? And the survivors were silent.
But sometimes, we confuse silence with inaction. The survivors did something and had a certain profound strength in them that few people in the world could have had. Many were able to move on to a certain degree. They put their lost relatives behind them, and they rebuilt lives, and families in new lands. Elie Wiesel, arguably the first and loudest voice of the silent survivors, addressed the first International Conference of Children of Holocaust Survivors in New York City, the generation after the Shoah. He began his talk by speaking about the famous story of two rabbis in the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Eleazar. The men were sentenced to death by the Romans fled to a cave, to live in seclusion. They came out of their isolation years later, and they were so shocked by the immoral nature of the world that everything they set their eyes upon turned to ashes. The voice of God came down and commanded them to return to the cave as a punishment. Eventually, they leave again. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s son Eleazar is still angry, but not his father. The Talmud comments: “Whatever the young Rabbi Eleazar’s eyes wounded, the old rabbi Shimon’s eyes healed.” The Shoah was not the end of the cruelty of man - but the survivors did not burn the world down around them. Wiesel addressed the collective children by saying, “Strange as it may sound, you are angrier than we were. And your anger is healthier than ours might have been. Like Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, we tried to heal, maybe too soon. But we did so for your sake. Since we chose to have you, we sought to improve the world for you.”
Aaron might have been silent, but he continued his work, for his living children, and his grandchildren, and I’m sure that Nadav and Avihu were still with him every single day of his life. I like to think that he never forgot them - and so we must never forget the 6,000,000 Jews murdered during the Shoah, especially the 1.5 children like Betzalel who never had the chance to live out their dreams. Instead of approaching survivors like Moses, with sage advice, let us be with them to listen if and when they want to speak. Let us honor them, not just for what they went through during the Holocaust, but what they did after to rebuild our lives, including being an integral part of the reestablishment of the modern state of Israel. And may we live our lives with greater meaning. I’d like to end with the words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman: “The deepest lesson of Yom Hashoah is in the responsibility it places on all of our shoulders. As Jews, we are all survivors. As a people who survived, we did not choose the path of bitterness and despair. We chose the path of recommitment to life, its challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. When we remember the Holocaust, we mourn those who died, and give new respect to those who survived and the ways they survived, and commit ourselves to walking in their path.”
Kein Yehi Ratzon - May it be God’s will