In this week's portion, Parashat Shmini, the Mishkan is dedicated and a mysterious event follows, where Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a strange fire before G-d and are consumed by fire. Generations of Biblical commentators have grappled over many questions surrounding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. This Parasha is fitting for this week as we commemorate
Yom HaShoah and mourn the loss of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. Like the incident with Nadav and Avihu, it is difficult to fathom such incredible loss and we continue to grapple with so many unresolved questions.
Every year on this day, the eighth grade runs an interactive learning program for the school. The following are my opening remarks for the program:
The theme of this year's Yom HaShoah program is "Resistance, Persistence and Existence." The eighth grade has prepared a thought provoking, interactive program that demonstrates that when Hitler tried to murder all the Jews of Europe, the Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. They fought back, whether it was through an organized uprising, like fighting with Partisans in the forest; in small groups, by keeping Jewish rituals in secret; or individually, by the simple act of trying to survive Hitler's attempt to murder every one of us and to utterly extinguish the flame of our religion. The actual name of this day is
Yom Hashoah Ve Hagevurah-A day of remembrance for the Holocaust and for the
gevurah- the strength of the people who resisted, and the bravery of those who could not.
One of the last times I spent time with my grandfather was when I was in college. I was in Israel on a summer program working in a camp for Ethiopian Olim. I spent a few extra weeks with my grandparents in their apartment in Yerushalayim. It was probably the first time in my adult life where I spent a significant amount of time with my grandfather, and I remember asking him all sorts of questions.
Of all the stories he told me, the one that struck me the most was the story of how he met my grandmother. They both survived the Holocaust, but were without family. They each went back to their hometowns, which was, coincidentally, the same hometown, to figure out their next steps.
As my grandfather was telling me his story in his beautiful apartment in Emek Rephaim, a modern Jerusalem suburb, I thought this was a truly unbelievable story. He described going into a soup kitchen in his little town, set up by the Joint Distribution committee, a Jewish agency that helped Holocaust survivors. There, he saw my grandmother, serving food. My grandfather's exact words were, "When I saw your grandmother, it was love at first sight." This might not seem so unbelievable; we hear stories of people who "fall in love at first sight" all the time. In Judaism, when this happens, we call it 'finding your besheret.' Still, I couldn't believe that my grandfather, who just survived the Holocaust, lost most of his family, and had barely begun to pick up the pieces of his life, could possibly experience love at first sight. Here he was, a refugee with no home, no family, no resources, and no plan, and he falls in love -instant love!- with my grandmother, who, though in the same position, loved him back. How could a man who spent his whole young adult life hiding and fighting against extermination in a forest be able to experience such a raw, complex, human emotion like love? Where had he found the strength to love, and trust, and hope again?
This story epitomizes us as a Jewish people. We are faced with many challenges-not just persecution, modernity, anti-Israel rhetoric, and internal strife-but we are so strong that we are always able to persevere and pick up where we left off, the way my grandfather left his insane and extraordinary partisan life, to do the sane, ordinary thing that we have been doing for generations. He met a woman, fell in love, and started a Jewish family. By doing the mundane, he was truly living, which was a miracle in an era when so many were annihilated.