I felt I finally got the depth of destruction of the Holocaust for the first time when I was preparing weekly lesson plans using Ma’yanay Shel Torah by the Kadosh Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (translated into English it is called Wellsprings of Torah. I heartily recommend Rabbi Friedman’s masterpiece to be part of everyone’s Judaic library).
The Holocaust was not a new concept to me. Both my parents are Holocaust survivors. Yet, through some incredible merit which we cannot begin to fathom or understand, both my grandfathers brought back from the concentration camps all their biological children as well as any child they had been Kvatte for. Which made no sense because my parents and their siblings were very young kids at that time. In fact, there was a decision made not to have any aunts or uncles or grandparents stand with them as a group, so sure were they that the group containing the children would be the first to be sent to death. Ironically, that was the group that made it out alive and everyone else died [may G-d avenge their blood]. I knew Holocaust. I had survivors’ guilt woven into my upbringing, and other such legacies of Holocaust after-effects, but it wasn’t something that felt immediately real and tangible the loss to me. I just didn’t feel it so keenly, as I had aunts and uncles and cousins.
Back to Rabbi Friedman’s sefer, penned in Warsaw. I finished it, and was left wanting more, wanted his compilation to extend to Nevi’im or Kesuvim. And suddenly it hit me, what if he hadn’t had life taken by the Nazis? What if he had continued his writing? I felt the loss personally for the first time. I remember how hard it hit me…sitting there crying…the greatness of the life snuffed out by the Holocaust.
Then we get to this week’s Parsha. Vayechee Yaakov and Yaakov lived. The Torah tells us of Yaakov’s passage from the temporal world to the next world. And our sages point out that the verses never says Yaakov died, for righteous people live on forever in their descendants, in the actions they did, in the guidance they gave. It finally came into focus for me. The Nazis thought they had killed Rabbi Friedman of Warsaw. Little did they know how alive he is as I use the anthology he pulled together to guide me many years later. Yaakov Loh Mays…no upstanding person is annihilated. Their life example and meaning lasts forever.
My father always stressed to us another lesson our sages teach from this week’s Torah portion. Yaakov finished his final words to his sons with reference to the word Bracha. Moshe, generations later, picks up the thread and begins his final words with that last word of Yaakov, V’zohs Habracha. Moshe finishes off with Ashrecha…and many generations later, King David begins his words with Moshe’s last word (Ashrei…). It is a message that no one generation is alone in the world. We carry forward the standards and ideals of those who came before us. To get really far spiritually, we must pick up the threads where they last left off. That is the secret of immortality of our nation (ah, Twain, do you begin to understand?). Any one of us can pick up the strands and continue weaving the beautiful meanings spun by our past giants.
If you are wondering about the Twain reference, Mark Twain wrote an essay wondering about how the Jewish nation survives all and thrives beyond natural expectations. Ohr Somayach so kindly posted it here: http://ohr.edu/judaism/concern/concerna.htm