By Yochanan Gordon
Although the New Year has already come upon us, it is close enough that we could still see the station from where the train of life and of the New Year has embarked. In fact, with Yom Kippur still a few days away, we have the ability to mould our destiny for the coming year. As we have in previous years, this Yom Kippur and then with the onset of Neilah, we will collectively pour forth our hearts in prayer for complete forgiveness, resolving to be better and more thought out in our relationship with G-d and the world, hoping that blessings of life, health, wealth and redemption become ours for the coming year.
The greatest part of welcoming in a New Year is our ability to close the book on the past. There is a certain freshness that the New Year brings with it which allows us to focus our attention and resources as the present gives way toward the future and to say goodbye to those moments that have plagued us in the previous year. However, this is only partially true.
As a result of G-ds unconditional love and abundant kindness He gave us a day where we can absolve ourselves of our past misdeeds or inactions and resolve to love Him as He loves us. However, we all know people who have experienced untold pain, suffering and tragedy over the past year and while time in a certain sense heals, the memories of those who today are gone linger in the minds of those who loved them most. These people, despite the onset of a New Year, are on some level stuck in the past; a past which will continue to live on until the wounds are cured and the redemption is heralded.
Human tragedy is very hard to accept at face value. When we hear of a tragedy that has befallen someone whom we know and love the first question that surfaces in our hearts and minds is why? Why did this happen to such an innocent person, such a happy and otherwise wholesome family? While this question is quite natural, it seems at least in the here and now the answers do not exist. The only way to truly triumph tragedy is through faith in G-d, as the verse says, “Tzaddik B’emunaso Yichyeh”. However, there is a deeper understanding in this verse as expounded by the Gemara, “Tzaddik B’emunaso Yichayeh”, which means that the righteous people deliver life to the masses through their faith. There is one story that comes to mind which illustrates this precise point.
When discussing a tragedy that has been on our collective consciousness, the Holocaust is one that many of us while we personally have not endured it, we can on some level relate to the atrocities that took place during those years. While there are many people who have first hand stories and recollections of the despair and heroism that they witnessed throughout the war years, there is one story that has been with me for some time which brings the aforementioned verse to life – the story of the Klausenberger Rebbe. Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam otherwise known as the Klausenberger Rebbe was born in January of 1905 and passed away in June of 1994. On June, 2 1944 the Rebbes wife and his nine children were tragically gassed to death. Still, all ensuing stories and wonders performed by the Rebbe throughout the war surround more than anything else his observance of every mitzvah in the most stifling situations. So when we read of the Rebbes life after the war, how he had the courage and resilience to remarry and build a family as he had prior to the war, it is clear that he got this strength in the Torah that was an inseparable part of him. It is no coincidence then that from the many names that the Torah is called one of those is oz, strength.
But there is one part of his life story that I am referring to that I heard not so long ago. This story took place the moment the American army came to liberate the camps which signaled the end to that hell on earth. The Rebbe said that after all he went through when he saw that it was the Americans and not Mashiach who came to liberate the camps he had what he described as a slight loss of emunah. This to me is the most profound detail in his story.
Every year we hope that the New Year will bring us apparent goodness. I say apparent goodness because even those things which occur that seem evil or without reason are in the larger realm of things for our ultimate good. As the Gemara says, “All that G-d does for us is for the good”. So we ask for goodness which is apparent and not the type that we have to dig into the deep recesses of our faith to see the good in. But that despair, that sense of hopelessness that the Rebbe experienced at that moment reveals a part of the Rebbe that is so profound. That is, that had Mashiach arrived at that very moment to liberate the camps, as hard as it was for the Rebbe and all of the survivors to say goodbye to those that they loved so dearly, it all would have been worth it. For someone who has endured suffering, there is nothing as crucial as the knowledge that his or her suffering, sadness and constant mourning were not done in vain.
So while we stand at the threshold of a new beginning and look yearningly toward a brighter future there are many in our midst that have a hard time looking forward when those near and dear to them have been seemingly lost in the past. We today are in a certain sense waiting to witness the silver lining to all the tragedies that we have endured as the Rebbe anticipated but sadly did not see when the war finally came to an end. But as outside observers of a true tale that transpired not so long ago, we have to resolve at this point in time to the belief that the coming of Mashiach will empower our belief to look back on a world riddled with sadness and suffering and say thank You G-d for all that we went through. As hard as it is for us to comprehend this, the Prophet Isaiah tells us that this will become our reality when the opaqueness of exile is replaced with the lucidity of redemption.
In the Haftorah of Acharon Shel Pesach the Navi Yeshaya tells us that in the era of Mashiach we will proclaim, “Oidcha Hashem ki anafta bi” in other words thanking Hashem for taking out his wrath against us in exile in light of the ecstasy and clarity brought about as a result of the redemption. Just a couple of years ago I spent the tail end of Pesach at my in-laws in Wesley Hills. For this Haftorah the gabbai called up a father of one of the regular congregants who clearly had lived through that hellish period of the Holocaust. The deliberateness and deep emotive thought with which he read every word in a deep Russian accent which was interrupted with frequent sobbing and deep sighs entered like an arrow into the hearts of those present. When he got to the Pasuk of Oidcha Hashem ki anafta bi it was as if the emotions which he tried so hard to hold back came rushing through the facade with which he was trying to conceal it. It seemed at that moment that the wound of the atrocities that he lived through was still so sensitive that the notion that a day will arrive that we will express our gratitude for them is inconceivable.
If there are so many people among us who for whatever reason are stuck in the past it sort of makes us look callous and insensitive even at the gates of this New Year to look forward. The Torah tells us that the Jews were not obligated in the mitzvah of bikurim until fourteen years after they entered the land at which point everyone received their portion. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the mitzvah of bikkurim was an expression of gratitude to G-d for giving us our own portion of land. The question arises, how could we express gratitude in a situation where some of our colleagues still have not received their portion? Therefore, the mitzvah of bikkurim had to be delayed.
The last time Yom Kippur fell out on Shabbos a saw a read a story which happened in the Bais Medrash of the Berditchiver on a year where Yom Kippur fell out on Shabbos. Before Neilah the Berditchiver while talking to the audience directed his words to G-d on high. He said, “Aibershter, it says in your Torah that it is assur to write on Shabbos. It also says that whatever He commands us to do He Himself fulfills. The Berditchiver surmised, the only way it would be permitted to write would be to save a life. He concluded that it must be that we will all be acquitted in judgment as a result.
Here we are standing at the door of Yom Kippur looking to take on another year anticipating all the good and blessings that will come our way, but we too are caught up in a dilemma. How could we be so insensitive to forget the plight of our brothers and sisters whom this last year have endured such hardship and sadness? From the delay of the mitzvah of bikkurim we learn to carry the plight of our brethren heavily on our hearts and minds. The Medrash on Yeshaya says, “In the hour that Mashiach will come, he will ascend the rooftop of the Beis Hamikdash and say to the Jewish people, “Humble ones, the era of your redemption has arrived and if you don’t believe me take a look at the light which emanates from within me.” The question is why the Medrash employed the appellation of anavim? Even if there are humble people in our midst that does not necessarily extend to the entirety of the people! I saw an explanation that as a result of the chevlei Mashiach we will become humbled.
So we ask you Aibershter, look at how we have involved ourselves in the plight of our brethren some of whom we never in our lives met. Look how Jews the world over have begun to claim responsibility for the health and well being of Jews who need assistance and create a situation where we can collectively close the book on our past and look longingly towards a better, brighter future one where the reward and pleasure will put all of our suffering into perspective and a time when we will collectively say thank You will the coming of Mashiach. It’s our hope that the Shofar blast after Neilah will lead us into the Shofar of Mashiach and our ultimate redemption.