Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

Dedicated in memory of Julie Koschitzky ע”ה, one of the Jewish world’s great leaders and unifiers, who was also – and more so – an extraordinary wife and mother whose constant small kindnesses touched everyone around her.

Dedicated with much appreciation by the Tober family in memory of Shmuel Asher Ben Yosef & Chana Bas Yaakov Aryeh ע”ה.

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We isolated so much during the recent Covid pandemic.

And that isolation, surprisingly enough, sometimes unearthed latent powers.

How did the pandemic do that?

For one, it lessened our interactions with our neighbors.

And once we weren’t interacting with neighbors, we weren’t comparing ourselves to them. That made us less likely to fall into the “keeping up with the neighbors” trap in trying to replicate their lifestyles.

Also, isolation – by confining us at home – increased our time with family.

That additional family time caused us to think about – and to focus more on – family.

Also, isolation – especially in light of Covid illness and death – afforded us time for contemplation.

That contemplation, especially in light of Covid illness and death, frequently involved thoughts about mortality and the meaning of life.

Such soul-stirring thoughts sometimes motivated good decisions.

Yes, Covid unearthed latent powers.

And it isn’t just Covid that unearths such powers.

Other calamities – even ones as catastrophic as the Holocaust – have the capacity to unearth such powers.

That capacity is documented in a study about Holocaust survivors that demonstrates how survivors found successes that frequently eluded American-born Jews.[1]

That study documents survivors’ healthier marriages.[2] It also documents their lower levels of mental illness. And it also shows them earning more money than American Jews with similar levels of education.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how these survivors achieved this despite the following gut-wrenching handicaps: Survivors usually had no family or financial resources and very little formal education. And they were also crippled by memories, anxieties and nightmares.

But they still leapfrogged past their American peers.

How did they do this?

It may have been partly because the Holocaust, unimaginably horrific as it was, unearthed dormant strengths.

Losing family made survivors more appreciative of family – and, therefore, more likely to invest in family.

Facing – and surviving – starvation and impossibly hard labor forced them to muster extraordinary endurance.

That taught them how much endurance people really have and enabled them to persevere where others faltered.

And the constant spectre of death fostered soul-searing introspection that sometimes contributed to strong religious commitment. That commitment is seen in the unwavering faith that one sometimes saw among survivors.

Not that the development of these strengths minimized Holocaust monstrosities – nothing can minimize the Holocaust’s immense damage.

But that doesn’t negate the fact that the Holocaust unearthed strengths.

This truism about latent strengths may explain Pesach mitzvos that – oxymoronically – recall both affliction and slavery.

Take Matzoh, for example.

Matzoh is, on the one hand, called “lechem oni” – bread of affliction.[3]

Matzoh recalls affliction because it is the bread that was eaten by slaves.

Rushed, harried slaves ate matzoh because they didn’t have enough time to allow their dough to rise into bread.[4]

And slaves also ate matzoh because they couldn’t afford the yeast that made dough rise into bread.[5]

Yes, matzoh recalls slavery.

Matzo, though, as per the following possuk also recalls freedom: “They left [Egypt] ..and baked the dough they took … as matzos…because they… couldn’t tarry [and let the dough rise].” [6]

Matzah, then, recalls both slavery and freedom.

And maror may recall them both as well.

Maror, as per the following, recalls bitterness and slavery.

“Why do we eat maror? Because they embittered our lives.”[7]

Maror, though, as per the following iconoclastic interpretation, also recalls affluence: “Their tradition was to eat … meals with maror …even if an Egyptian only had bread, maror was on his table …”[8] Maror, then, is a meal-enhancing condiment.

Yes, contradictory motifs – affliction and freedom – meld together.

And that is because, as noted earlier, affliction and freedom aren’t contradictory because affliction strengthens us and, thereby, “frees us.”

The Egyptians destroyed families by having our babies “thrown into the Nile”[9] and by sundering husbands from wives in labor camps.[10]

That may have made us more appreciative of family – and, therefore, more likely to invest in family.

The impossible Egyptian conditions may have mustered and, thereby, empowered us with latent strengths.

And the constant suffering may have ignited a religious awakening.

And that may send a message to us as we rebuild our lives in a world less defined by Covid.

In our pre-Covid lives, we may not have fully appreciated our standard of living, our families or our yiddishkeit.

We may have been dissatisfied with a good standard of living – because we wanted an extraordinary one.

We may have fretted over the vicissitudes of normal marriage and children-rearing – because we wanted ever perfect, ever pliant spouses and Rhodes Scholars for children.


We may have overlooked the spiritual because we focused on the material.

The pandemic, though, with its emphasis on family and spirituality may have – at least for a period – unearthed strengths that we didn’t know we had.

Those strengths, if we just nurture them, may yet remain with us.

If those strengths do, indeed, remain with us, then it’s not just about being freed from the pandemic.

It’s also – surprisingly enough – about being freed by the pandemic.

Rabbi Weber, founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey is Rabbi Emeritus of Toronto’s Clanton Park Synagogue. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim. Rabbi Weber will be mara d’asra at the Honor’s Haven Hotel for Pesach. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000.

[1]  Dr. William Helmreich, Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America, Simon & Schuster, 1992; Dr. William Helmreich Don’t Look Back: Holocaust Survivors in the U.S., Jerusalem Letters of Lasting Interest, Oct. 1 1991

[2] As of 1991, 11 percent of the survivors were divorced as compared to 18 percent of American-raised Jews.

[3] Devarim 16:3

[4] Sforno, Chizkuni ad loc.

[5] Netziv ad loc.

[6] Shemos 12:39

[7] The Pesach Haggadah’s reason for marror.

[8] Opinion of Spanish Chachamim, Ibn Ezra, Peirush HaAruch, Shemos 12:8

[9] Shemos 1:22

[10] Sotah 11b