Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

Dedicated by Alexander Tamarchak in loving memory of his parents, Olga (Rachael) Bogouslavskaia and David Tamarchak.

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We isolated so much during the recent Covid pandemic.

That isolation was terrible.

That isolation, though, – at least for some us – was also empowering.

Some us improved our marriages and family life during that period of isolation.

That happened because isolation – by confining us at home – increased the time that we spent with spouses and family. That additional time caused some of us to focus more on spouses and family.

Some us became more spiritual and more contemplative during that period of isolation.

Isolation – especially in light of Covid illness and death – afforded us time for contemplation.

That happened because isolation – coupled, as it was, with Covid illness and death – evoked thoughts about mortality and about the meaning of life.

Such soul-stirring thoughts sometimes engendered greater spirituality.

Some us became less focused on “keeping up with the Joneses” during that period of isolation.

That happened because isolation limited our interactions with our neighbors. When we stopped interacting with neighbors, we stopped comparing ourselves to them. That pulled some us out of the “keeping up with the Jones” trap and allowed us to create lifestyles that were right for us.

Yes, Covid unearthed latent powers.

And it isn’t just Covid that has the capacity to unearth such powers.

Other calamities – even calamities as catastrophic as the Holocaust –also have that capacity.

That capacity is documented in a study that compares Holocaust survivors to American-born Jews that demonstrates how survivors frequently achieved more then their American-born Jews.[1]

The study documents that survivors’ marriages were frequently healthier than those of their American peers.[2] It shows that survivors’ rates of mental illness were lower than those of their Americana peers. And it displays that survivors’ financial successes were greater than those of American Jews with similar levels of education.

These survivors achieved all these successes despite the following gut-wrenching handicaps: Survivors usually had no family or financial resources. They had 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 because the Holocaust, as unimaginably horrific as it was, unearthed these survivors’ dormant strengths.

Losing family made survivors more appreciative of family. They, therefore, valued and invested in family.

Facing starvation and impossibly hard labor forced them to muster latent inner resources and extraordinary endurance. That taught them about inner resources that remained unknown to others – enabling them to persevere where others faltered.

And the constant spectre of death fostered soul-searing introspection. That, sometimes, contributed to a strong religious commitment that facilitated the unwavering faith that one sometimes sees among survivors.

Stating that the Holocaust engendered strengths doesn’t in any way, the Holocaust’s monstrosities – nothing can minimize those monstrosities.

That statement, though – that the Holocaust unearthed strengths – is a factually true statement.

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

Take Matzoh, for example.

Matzoh is called “lechem oni” – bread of affliction.[3] Matzoh recalls affliction because it is the bread that slaves ate. Harried slaves ate matzoh because they didn’t have enough time to allow their dough to rise into bread.[4] They also ate matzoh because they couldn’t afford the yeast that makes dough rise into bread.[5]

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, 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 – a sign of affluence.

On Pesach the contradictory motifs of affliction and freedom meld together.

And that’s because, as we just noted, the motifs of affliction and freedom don’t contradict one another – because affliction strengthens and, thereby, “frees us.”

The Egyptians destroyed our families by throwing our babies into the Nile”[9] and by sundering husbands from wives in labor camps.[10] That made us more appreciative of family – which prompted us to invest more in family.

The impossible Egyptian conditions forced us to muster latent strengths. That empowered us with an awareness of our latent strengths.

And the constant suffering sparked contemplation and a search for meaning that ignited a religious awakening.

There’s a message here for us as we rebuild our lives in a world less defined by Covid.

In our pre-Covid lives, we may not have appreciated 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 children. And we may have overlooked the spiritual because we focused on the material.

The pandemic, though, with it’s emphasis on family and spirituality did – at least for a period – unearth strengths that we didn’t know we had.

If we nurture them strengths, they will remain with us.

If they do remain with us, then living post=pandemic won’t just be about being freed from the pandemic.

It will also about being freed by the pandemic.

Rabbi Weber is rav and founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey and is Rabbi Emeritus of Toronto’s Clanton Park Synagogue. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message, for information on his live or zoom shiurim or on having him as scholar in residence in your community. Please join his nightly amud yomi shiur at Yeshivas Toras Dovid, 69 Carlton Road in Monsey. Rabbi Weber will be scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Resort for the 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