OHR TZVI ON THE PARSHA: CHANUKAH – BY 8, I HAD GRADUATED FROM BUCHENWALD

Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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It’s a story that former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau recounted when we were hosting him at our home in Toronto. And it’s a story that was prompted by our son, Dovi.

Rabbi Lau asked Dovi his age. Dovi replied that he was eight.

Dovi’s response motivated Rabbi Lau – who childhood was spent in ghettoes and concentration camps – to recall: “By eight, I’d already graduated from Buchenwald.”

Rabbi Lau’s recollection then segued into reminisces about his first post-Holocaust Chanukah. That Chanukah was celebrated in a postwar abyss that was bereft of parents, communities and schools. There was no one who could offer little Yisrael Meir guidance. He, therefore, knew very little about Chanukah candles

He did, though, know all too much about the yahrzeit candles permeating that ever-mourning post-Holocaust world. And that’s why he viewed these Chanuka candles as yahrtzeit candles. And because everyone lit these candles – and because additional candles were added nightly – Yisrael Meir assumed that these candles were being lit for a particularly momentous yahrtzeit.

Which is why he asked the adults: Which tzaddik do these candles commemorate? What great things did he do?

That’s when the adults realized that little Yisrael Meir – who was so knowledgeable about death – was so ignorant of life.

That’s when the adults began addressing little Yisrael Meir’s ignorance by telling him that candles – and most of yiddishkeit – are also about light, warmth and celebration.

It was a message to the orphan. And it’s a message to us.

Like little Yisrael Meir, we may need to address death.

Addressing death, though, doesn’t mean focusing on death.

Our focus should be life – light, warmth and celebration.

This positive focus is mandated in the following possuk: “Serve Hashem with happiness and approach him with joyous song.”[1]

And it’s also mandated by our psychological needs. Those are the needs alluded to in the following possuk: “because you didn’t serve Hashem with joy …you will serve your enemies…in hunger and thirst… until they destroy you.”[2] This possuk’s ascription of terrible suffering –starvation and destruction – for not “serving Hashem with joy” lends itself to many readings.

One such reading understands “not serving Hashem with joy” as a joyless living that diminishes positivism, energy and accomplishment. That will, of course, causes depression and negative behaviors. That will also, then, weaken us to a point where we’ll “serve” the enemy who will “destroy” us. [3]

This diminishment is poignantly documented by Corrie ten Boom, a non-Jew who nursed Jews post-Holocaust after hiding them during the Holocaust.

About her wards, she writes: “Since the end of the war, I had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality…some victims were able to …. rebuild their lives, no matter the physical scars. But those who nursed their bitterness against the Nazis remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.”

Corrie ten Boom demonstrates that the Torah’s command to “serve Hashem with happiness”[4] isn’t just a mitzva. It’s also a formula for “rebuilding lives, no matter the physical scars.”

Thers no doubt that it’s hard to rebuild – and harder yet to “serve Hashem with happiness”[5] – after pain and loss.

It’s far harder, though, to continue “nursing a bitterness.”

It really is “as simple and horrible as that.”

[1] Tehillim 100:2

[2] Devarim 28:47-48

[3] As explained by the Rambam, Shofar 8:25, although see Rashi ad loc.

[4] Tehillim 100:2

[5] Tehillim 100:2