Yom HaZikaron 5779 – So Much to Think About

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Yom HaZikaron is upon us again. It’s fitting that Yom HaZikaron fall out on Parshas Kedoshim. Every year we pray that there will be no more kedoshim, no holy individuals who are killed in the name of hate and terror. It’s not always easy to get into the proper state of mind for the day when one is in the diaspora. These are the things and the people I try to keep in mind today to do just that:

I think of Zachary Baumol, whose family, after 37 long years, now has his remains back. He was able to be buried among heroes rather than languish forever abroad. The families of Ron Arad, Yehuda Katz, Guy Chever, Oron Shaul, and Hadar Goldin are hopeful for a similar yeshua for their loved ones missing in action to give them some sort of closure.

I think of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref, first official victim of “terror” who was killed in 1851 as he set out for vasikin. A builder of the Churva shul after it had been destroyed in 1721, he never lived to see the second iteration of this synagogue be completed in 1864. He was left for dead in the streets, and although he was returned home alive, he died three months after the attack.

I think of Rabbi Yaakov and Netanel Littman, murdered as they drove to the Shabbat Chatan of their new son-in-law/brother-in-law. An exciting weekend was transformed into one of immeasurable sadness.

I think of Yoni Netanyahu, who fell while on the Entebbe mission, on July 4, 1976, as Americans celebrated the bicentennial. When the Torah describes the plague of the death of the firstborn, it states that there was no house in Egypt that was spared from the carnage. The same can be said of Israeli society. His family is a prominent one, yet the terrorists could not care less of who is contained in our lineage, as long as they are Bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.

I think of Amiad Yisrael Ish-Ran, and his incredible parents Shira and Amichai. Amiad was born prematurely after his parents were attacked by a terrorist. Although he fought valiantly to stay alive, it was not meant to be. The picture of his funeral, his tiny body wrapped in a tallis being held in someone’s single arm is an image that is burned into my memory, one that I never want to see again.

I think of Gilad Shalit who united the Jewish people. We were shocked when he was returned alive. I’ll never forget the feeling of watching on television from Birmingham, Alabama where I was with a delegation of students there for Simchas Torah.

I also think of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, the three boys, whose capture also brought the entire Jewish people together. I’ll also never forget standing in a department store in Cleveland when we found out that their bodies had been found, dashing our hopes for a safe return and hammering home the painful notion that sometimes, Hashem says no.

I think of Rav Ari Fuld, my rabbi and teacher in yeshiva, one of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life. I heard of his death via our yeshiva WhatsApp group while at my grandfather’s 90th birthday party. Trying to keep a smile for the entire celebration was so difficult.

I think of the Chevron massacre of 1929. Women were raped. Children were decapitated. The Arab police were among perpetrators of this heinous slaughter, like something out of the Holocaust, only decades earlier and not in Europe. 67 were murdered, including 24 students of the Chevron Yeshiva, which later relocated to Jerusalem after the melee.

Or the Kfar Etzion massacre in 1948, just two days before David Ben Gurion declared independence. You can visit the Kfar Etzion museum and vividly learn about how 129 were killed, some even after they had surrendered. Or the convoy of 35, the Lamed Hei, who were sent by the Haganah to bring supplies to Kfar Etzion. There were originally 38 deployed, but three returned back after one sprained his ankle. The Lamed Hei were discovered and murdered, and when their bodies were finally sent back to Israel, only 23 were identifiable. This rendered Rabbi Aryeh Levin to do a goral haGra to determine the identities of the other 12 victims.

I think of Rav Moshe Twersky, Rav Kalman Levine, Rav Avraham Kupinsky, Rav Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Rav Chaim Yechiel Rothman who were cut down, some clad in their tallis and tefillin, early in the morning in Har Nof. These individuals were kedoshim in life and in death, like the thousands of others who died in the name of terror.

I also think of Zidan Sayif, the valiant Druze police officer who died while trying to neutralize that terrorist. I also think about the Christians, Druze, and Muslims killed by terrorists bullets, rockets, and bombs by being mistaken for Jews or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think of those who survived the hell on earth wrought by the Nazis, yemach shemam vezichram, and later move to Israel and try to rebuild their lives from the ashes, only to fall in the war for Israel’s independence.

I think of the Fogel family, savagely butchered in their home on a Friday night.

I think of Michael Levin, arguably the most famous lone soldier. Michael was on leave in America when the war in Lebanon broke out in 2006 and came back to lead his platoon. In the aftermath of his death, his family and loved ones created a center for lone soldiers that now bears his name. His motto was “You can’t fulfill your dream unless our dare to risk it all.” When I was on Ramah Seminar that summer, the Philadelphia kids from Ramah Poconos were beside themselves. We all were.

I think of Ezra Schwartz, a regular 18-year-old just like any teenager from your community or any other, who was killed as he and his yeshiva were coming back from doing chessed. A nightmare scenario for us in the diaspora, something that didn’t seem like it could ever happen. But it did. The others in that van, like other survivors and families, may never be the same.

I think of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, which was and should be famous for perpetuating the esteemed legacy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. It’s now almost as famous for the terrorist who mowed down holy yeshiva students while they were studying on Rosh Chodesh Adar II. Our yeshiva went to learn night seder there a few days later. Marbin b’simcha was extremely challenging.

I think of the Yom Kippur war, how Jews on the holiest day of the year replaced their kittels with their madim (fatigues). With the fasting and repentance, Yom Kippur is an exhausting experience in itself. We beseech the Almighty every year on to be inscribed in the book of life. It must’ve felt so much more real then to literally be fighting for your life.

I think of Hallel Ariel who wasn’t even safe from a bloodthirsty terrorist while tucked in her own bed.

I think of 29 year-old Avigdor Kahalani, who miraculously led his unit and staved off some 50,000 Syrian troops and 1,200 tanks. He survived the ordeal and eventually became a politician after receiving the highest military honor for his valiant stand in what was later referred to Emek Habacha, the valley of tears.

I think of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin who were killed in front of their children in their car. Rav Eitam has such beautiful volumes of Torah that many people, myself included, only discovered because he and his wife were murdered.

I think of the terrified mother whose children were nowhere to be found when the rocket alarm sounded. She later found them standing at attention as they thought the siren was in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, which happened just a few days earlier.

I think of the Solomon family, who on the same night celebrated a Shalom Zachar and lost three members of their family. Watch the video of that baby’s bris and try not to cry.

I think of the parents who bring their children to be inducted into the army. I can see them in my head surrounding their smiling children with their huge Kal Gav backpacks. The excitement and pride coupled with fear and dread, only stopping to catch their breath when their children make it home safely.

Finally, I think of the twice bereft Iris Eden, whose first husband was killed tragically in the 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster (when two Sikorsky S-65-C-3 Ya’asur 2000 helicopters collided and killed all 73 on board) and lost her partner, Moshe Feder, just this week when his car was pummeled by a rocket launched from Gaza.

These are only a few snapshots of the 23,000+ stories. We are so thankful to the Almighty for the gift that is the State of Israel. But we cannot bask in the glory and holiness of Eretz Yisrael if we do not recognize and remember those who gave everything so we could have it. May it be God’s will that the most recent victim of terror will be the last.

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Acharei Mot 5779 – VeChai BaHem

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In Parshas Acharei Mos, we are commanded to keep the laws that God has given us. The laws that were taught before and after this decree.

” ‘ושמרתם את־חקתי ואת־משפטי אשׁר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני ה”

You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord

Rashi and Onkelos explain that “VeChai BaHem” references Olam HaBa, that when one lives by the word of God, it will enable them to live after they have passed on from Olam HaZeh. In order to live in the next world, we must live, so to speak, in this world, by doing what we have been commanded to do for generations.

If you look through the commentary of the Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe, author of Nesivos Shalom), Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (the Shelah HaKadosh), and Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (the Gerrer Rebbe, author of Chiddushei HaRim), among others, they will tell you that it’s not enough to merely live a life replete with mitzvah observance. The “VeChai BaHem” means that one must imbue their life of adherence to mitzvos with “life” itself. They use the term “lehashkia” to be invested. It’s not enough to engage in the behavior by rote. There needs to be feeling, there needs to be excitement. The actions must come alive.

To say this is easy. To live it can be anything but. There are plenty of mitzvos that are easy to get excited about and bring about a tremendous amount of joy. Purim is a jubilant time on our calendar, but what happens to our excitement for the mitzvos of the day when we have to work? When we can’t afford to give shalach manos to everyone on our list?

What do we do when life bogs us down so much and it’s hard to feel the strong connection between us and the Almighty that we’re supposed to feel? This is a question that I believe can be answered by the words of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Rabbi Goldstein is the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, a beautiful synagogue that, before a week ago, I and many others didn’t even know existed. With all due respect to the good rabbi, I wish it could’ve stayed that way, but a 19 year old kid made sure that this would never be the case. Not only would we all know about this particular shul, we’ll never be able to remove it from our memories.

In the aftermath of the attack that killed Lori Kaye HY”D, Rabbi Goldstein authored an op-Ed in the New York Times. Normally, I’d never recommend anything be read from this particular newspaper, but this piece is an absolute must read. He writes:

“I used to sing a song to my children, a song that my father sang to me when I was a child. “Hashem is here,” I would sing, using a Hebrew name for God, pointing with my right index finger to the sky. “Hashem is there,” I would sing, pointing to my right and left. “Hashem is truly everywhere.” That finger I would use to point out God’s omnipresence was taken from me.

I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.

From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue — especially this coming Shabbat.”

The bolded paragraph, to me, kicks the missive of “VeChai BaHem” into high gear. Rabbi Goldstein could take a grieving congregation and “lay low”, and workout their issues internally. Yet, that is not what he plans on doing. His promise is to be more involved, more connected. In the face of those who say that we should not, Rabbi Goldstein says, WE WILL! And we all should.

Yesterday, we commemorated Yom HaShoah, remembering the victims of the Holocaust with its survivors staring us in the face to make sure that our fire burn brightly for generations. For the survivors, and for the martyrs, VeChai BaHem means that our devotion is not only a sign of our dedication to the Almighty, but a clarion call to those who sought to eradicate us. When someone seeks to uproot your entire way of life forever, and they (BH) fail in that dastardly endeavor, the last thing on earth one would want to do is to slow down.

VeChai BaHem, according to the rabbanim that we stated earlier, means that we must be invested in our service. To not let our holy work be sullied by homeostasis. Our homeostasis should be that our avodas Hashem and kiyum hamitzvos are done with meaning and excitement. That’s true VeChai BaHem.

There will be an augmented meaning and fire in the work of the rabbi at Chabad of Poway, and I hope this ignites a spark within us as well.

Yom HaShoah 5779 – “The World that Once Was No Longer Is”

“The world that once was no longer is. Gone are the holy communities the sainted Jews, the children and their mothers, the rabbis, the libraries of thousands of sacred books adding up to hundreds of millions, the holy Torah-scrolls and Friday-night candlesticks and Saturday-night spice boxes. A world that no historian, sociologist, anthropologist, writer will ever be able to reconstruct — not even a hair of it, a shadow.

A thousand years of life in Europe spanning the entire continent — gone. Disappeared. Destroyed. Read the books, the yearly announcements of survivors’ gatherings, the exhibits put together by different cultural organizations whose members have crawled back into the cold gas chambers to bring back memories, men who have returned to the towns and cities of their births to bring back mementos — pieces of the past. Part of a door, a snapshot of a street in 1939, anything so long as one can say ‘I am connected, I am part of this destroyed world’ ” 

This is how Rabbi Ephraim Oshry begins his introduction to his Responsa from the Holocaust. The world that once was no longer is. Rav Oshry, the Rabbi of the Kovno Ghetto who ultimately survived the war and rebuilt his life and served the Jewish people. While in Kovno, he answered Halachic queries from many petitioners and having been appointed, for a time, as the Nazis as caretaker over a warehouse of confiscated Jewish books, he was able to research his answers with the “contraband” volumes of Rabbinic literature. (In fact, when readying them for publication, his first three volumes of responsa were virtually able to be printed without editing).

Last Yom HaShoah, I mentioned my fascination with the shailos that emerged from the Holocaust. But this year, I cannot help but be stopped in my tracks as I contemplate the symbolism of Rabbi Oshry’s words from the hakdama to his work.

The world that once was no longer is.

In his writing, he clearly refers to the world of European Jewry that was decimated by the Nazis. True, that world is gone, never to return again. And yet, the Jewish people have rebuilt and flourished. At the same time, on this Yom HaShoah, it feels as if the world that once was no longer is. The world in the aftermath of the Holocaust is now changing, transforming into something more sinister and negative. It’s not entirely surprising. The world watched and dragged their feet for years as Hitler, yemach shemo vezichro, had his way. These are the things that fill my mind on this Yom HaShoah.

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–A little over a month ago, as I was getting ready to leave the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, I was waiting at a street corner outside the convention center. Next to me, among the various protesters, was a man with his own cameraman seemingly trying to get Jews riled up. I engaged with him in conversation and was eventually accosted with viscous anti-Semitic remarks, as he spewed to countless before me. There were two things that bothered me though, more that the hate that he spouted. First, he was claiming that Auschwitz was merely a myth, a statement that he lured to get me to talk to him in the first place. Rather than being a haven of death and destruction, this man claimed that there was a brothel and an ice cream parlor on the grounds of the camp. Hardly the accoutrement for something that described as vividly horrifying by accounts of people who were imprisoned there. The second thing that made me angry about this individual was that he wasn’t just a crazed, ignorant fool trying to get under the skin of Jews. He was an individual who ran for public office in California. While he was crushed in the election (rightly so), there were still 89,000 people that cast their precious vote for this lunatic. 89,000 people, some of whom I’m sure were Jewish, who threw caution to the wind and cared not for his lies and libel.

–People love blaming millennials for just about everything. Apparently, 22% of millennials do not know or are not sure what the Holocaust is, while a staggering 40% don’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered.

–We live in a world where the most prominent newspaper in the world prints cartoons depicting Jews worse than we were portrayed in German “newspapers” of the 1930-40’s. The explanation for this blunder seems almost as insane. Being accused of having a slant or bias one particular way is one thing, but to allow such drivel to slip through unchecked is unbelievable. (Or maybe it isn’t.)

–We live in a time where we’ve had two attacks on synagogues in six months and have lost 12 holy souls. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel and himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, noted that the attack in Pittsburgh was reminiscent to him of Kristallnacht. The most recent attack, just last week, was on a day in the diaspora when we recite Yizkor in memory of those who have passed on. I am not certain, but I would be surprised if there were no people who were to recite Yizkor for individuals who perished in the fires of the Shoah at the Chabad of Poway that fateful morning.

34948_tumb_750Xauto–Today, I also think about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, the Kaliver Rebbe, who passed away that night at the age of 96. This nonagenarian survived the horrors of the Shoah and rebuilt what he could of his life. While he reunited with his wife in Sweden in 1947 after liberation, Taub used as a guinea pig by Dr. Mengele, yemach shemo vezichro. WhatsApp-Image-2019-04-28-at-9.41.30-AMThese experiments rendered him sterile. The “hallmark” of the Rebbe was that he was probably the only Chassidishe leader without a beard, a choice that he did not make himself. The “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz experimented with the Rebbe, and the chemicals rendered him virtually clean shaven for the rest of his life. This scar stared him in the face for 70 years. The Rebbe was also known for reciting the Shema at his speaking engagements. An article from Aish.com explains:

Throughout his life, the Kaliver Rebbe told and retold the story of how his fate to survive the war was sealed. In one of the darkest moments, just days ahead of his liberation, he cut a bargain with God pledging to dedicate his life to passing on the flame of Jewish continuity if his life was saved.

“The Nazis were literally throwing Jews into fires,” he recalled. “I heard Shema Yisrael being sung by a young boy and I turned to God and said, ‘Let me live, and I will say Shema Yisrael with the living.’”

For the next 75 years he would keep to his promise, opening schools, teaching and bringing a community almost entirely destroyed back to life. Wherever he would go, he would tell of his ‘agreement with the Almighty’ and often be brought to tears as he led other Jewish children in the same tune he heard that day. The Shema became his anthem, his revenge, his message to the world.

Rabbi Oshry was correct. The world that once was is gone, and it will not come back. But the Jewish people are also changing. We are also losing our Holocaust survivors, the ones who lived through atrocities. Despite the museums and recorded testimony, will the Shoah be ultimately relegated in our minds to the likes of the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition? Horrible things that befell our people, but soon we’ll be without a first-hand mouthpiece to tell us what it was like, and the ignorance is already starting to creep in. This cannot be. The Holocaust must be different, and one that will make a lasting memory on us. It seems bizarre to utter that, but in the not-so-distant future, our survivors will be gone and we will be the ones forced to tell their tale.

Even with the museums and educational curricula, will we be up to the task? The world sat back and hesitated to act once before. We cannot afford to do the same.