Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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Vera was two months pregnant when she arrived in the Auschwitz netherworld in 1944.

In that – previously unimaginable – world babies weren’t even gassed. They were, rather, thrown onto pyres to be burned alive.

In that world, women, like the children, the aged and the sick, were gassed upon arrival.

In that world, women who’d been coaxed into revealing their pregnancies were “beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged by their hair … kicked in the stomach with heavy boots. Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into the fires, alive.” [1]

In that world, women who – secretly – maintained their pregnancies invariably birthed starvation-induced stillborn babies.

In that – senseless – world, it was only sensible do abort a fetus. Which is what fellow inmates encouraged Vera to do, in the latrine, late at night.

But Vera didn’t do that.

Vera, instead, carried her pregnancy to term.

And so, on December 21, 1944, Vera birthed a baby girl. That baby didn’t attract any attention because she was too weak to cry. Which let her remain hidden in an upper bunk while Vera did hard labor in the bitter cold. There, the baby remained until Auschwitz’s liberation in January 1945.

Birthing a child in Auschwitz was extraordinary. But the sentiments that motivated that birth were, actually, quite ordinary.

Because that’s what parents do. They yearn for their children. They agonize for their children. And they sacrifice for their children.

And such parental yearning, agonizing and sacrificing permeate all of Rosh Hashana.

That yearning is the subject of Rosh Hashana’s first day’s Torah reading. That reading is all about how Avraham and Sarah hoped, pined and prayed for a child. And it’s the subject of the first day’s haftara. That reading is all about how Chana hoped, pined and prayed for a child.

That agonizing is the subject of the second day’s Torah reading. That reading is all about the agony of sacrificing a child on the akeida. And it’s the climax of the second day’s haftara, where we read that “Rachel cries for her children.”[2]

That sacrifice is the subject of the second day’s haftara. That’s where we’re told how Chana sent her beloved son to live in the mishkan – distancing him from herself – because that was best for her child.

Those sentiments permeate our davening in how it references the akeida and so many other instances of parental yearning, agonizing and sacrificing.

Those sentiments also explain so much about our shofar blowing.

They explain why we use a ram’s horn. Why? It’s because a ram – which was sacrificed in lieu of Yitzchok at the akeida – recalls the akeida[3] and the parental feelings that the akeida evokes.

Those sentiments also explain why we blow the shofar one hundred times. Why? It’s because of the famous story about “a mother’s hundred cries.” That was Sisera’s mother’s – Sisera being an Assyrian enemy who battled against us – while she awaited her son’s return from battle.[4] Yes, Sisera was our enemy- but his mother was a mother. And we so want maternal feelings to define shofar that we even reference an enemy for that.

And isn’t this focus apropos on Rosh Hashana?

On Rosh Hashana, when everything began, it’s apropos to focus on parents – who began it all. It’s apropos to remind ourselves that – in addition to the cut and dried mitzvah of kibbud va’em – there’s also a debt of gratitude for all that yearning, agonizing and sacrifice.

Those reminders – especially when grounded with the realization that kibbud av va’em is an inviolable mitzva – can motivate us to overcome challenges.

Challenges that include remembering that our parents are parents, even if they make mistakes, are ill tempered or have unrealistic expectations.

On Rosh Hashanah, we try remembering kibbud av va-am and parental yearning, agonizing and sacrifices.

Our parents probably didn’t have to make Vera’s sacrifices.

It’s likely, though, that they’d have made those sacrifices, had circumstances demanded it.

Let’s remember that when we next equivocate about kibbud av va-am.

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. 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 scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Resort for the Yomim Noraim & Sukkos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000


[1] Jeff Heinrich, “Born in Auschwitz,” May 9, 2009, Aish.com

[2] Yirmiya 31:14

[3] Rosh Hashana 16b

[4] Tosafos, Rosh Hashana 33b