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WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR LIFE?

Thursday, 12 April, 2018 - 10:02 pm

Rabbi Lau once shared his memories when the Americans have arrived and Buchenwald was liberated.

 "I remember the looks of horror on the faces of the American soldiers when they came in and stared around them. 

I was afraid when I saw them. I crept behind a pile of dead bodies and hid there, watching them warily.

"Rabbi Herschel Schachter was the Jewish chaplain of the division. I saw him get out of a jeep and stand there, staring at the corpses.

 He has often told this story, how he thought he saw a pair of living eyes looking out from among the dead. It made his hair stand on end, 

but slowly and cautiously he made his way around the pile, and then, he clearly remembers coming face-to-face with me, an eight-year-old boy, wide-eyed with terror. 

In heavily-accented American Yiddish, he asked me, 'How old are you, mein kind?' There were tears in his eyes.

"'What difference does it make?' I answered, warily. 'I'm older than you, anyway.'

"He smiled through his tears and said, 'Why do you think you're older than me?'

"And I answered, 'Because you cry and laugh like a child. I haven't laughed in a long time, and I don't even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?'"

The conclusion of this week's Torah portion, Shemini, discusses the laws of ritual purity and impurity. They were a major part of Jewish life of old. We view these laws as archaic, but for our ancestors 1,900 years ago, in Temple days, this was part of the fabric of daily living, like losing your iPhone or filling your car with gas today. We can’t appreciate Jewish history and scholarship if we do not understand the laws of purity and impurity in the Torah and Talmud.

This will also demonstrate to us how each law in Torah, even one that seems impractical today, has timeless lessons for our own journeys.

In the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we say those moving words: A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to broken earthenware, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.

There are two ways to interpret this. The first is: Life is about me. It is about what I can get out of it. The purpose of my life is to acquire more and more items, to fill my empty insides.

But there is another way: I am a channel for G-d. As the Mishnah says: “I was created to serve My Creator.” Life is not about filling my voids; it is about fulfilling the mission for which G-d sent me here. I ask not what G-d can do for me, but what I can do for G-d. I ask not what life can do for me, but what I can do for life. I ask not what others can do for me, but what I can do for others.

At first glance, you might consider the first version of life far more satisfying, but in truth it is converse. The first way makes you vulnerable to far more distress. When all is about me acquiring more and more, I am vulnerable to all forms of frustration, sadness and corruption.

However, in the second version of life, your life can’t be contaminated, soiled, stained or muddied. In every situation you realize that you are G-d's ambassador, a channel for His light, a conduit for His energy, and a mirror for His truth.

57 years ago, two events occurred on the same date that garnered world headlines and attention. 

The first was the flight into deep space by Russian astronaut Major Yuri Gagarin, the first person to journey into outer space.

His spacecraft completed an orbit of Earth on April 11, 1961.

The second event, the very same day, was the opening of the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The two incidents were, of course, unrelated. Gagarin and Eichmann were separated by barriers of age, training, philosophy, and national origin. But in my eyes, the two events on the same day symbolize—in the most extreme fashion—the two sides of the human being, articulated above.

Gagarin, by his flight that put him in outer space, took man on a giant step into the limitless heavens. Eight years later, when Armstrong landed on the moon, he would declare: One small step for man; one giant step for mankind. Thus began the era of space exploration—in which we discover the infinite wisdom of G-d reflected in the infinite grandeur of the universe.

Eichmann represented man’s capability of descending to the lowest depths of depravity. His career as the architect of the Final Solution, sending millions to their deaths with precision, skill and German efficiency, reveal how man can hate with a spite and viciousness unequaled by any other creature on earth. Moments before he was hanged in Israel, he declared that he was a proud German and he was proud of all he did in Hitler's service. It is hard for us to conceive how cruel some humans can be—ones who look, smile, eat, sing, and sleep like us.

But this is human nature. We are earthenware vessels. We are Adam, from the word “Adamah,” which means earth. But Adam also means “Adameh,” we are similar to the Divine, we reflect heaven. Now, we have to choose which Adam we will become. We can be brutal and selfish, or we can reflect the Divine.

When you see yourself as impure, it is only your perspective—because you do not see yourself for who you really are—a channel for the Divine, an expression of G-d Himself.

Rabbi Yosef Wallis of Israel related the following:

While his father, Judah, was in the Dachau concentration camp, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at Judah Wallis. He caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he discovered a pair of Tefillin. Judah was frightened because he knew that if he were caught carrying them, he would be killed. He hid the Tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.

In the morning, just before roll call, while still in his barrack, he would put on the Tefillin. One morning, unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered him to remove the Tefillin, noted the number on his arm, and ordered him to go straight to roll call.

At the roll call, in front of thousands of Jews, the officer yelled Judah’s number and called him forward. The German officer waved the Tefillin in the air and screamed, “Dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these!”

Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was put around his neck. Before he was hanged, the officer mocked, “Dog, what is your last wish?”

“To wear my Tefillin one last time,” Judah replied.

The SS officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the Tefillin. As Judah put them on, he recited the incredibly moving verse from the prophet Hosea that many Jews say while winding the Tefillin straps around their arm and fingers: “Ve’eirastich li le’olam, ve’eirastich li b’tzedek ub’mishpat, ub’chessed, ub’rachamim, ve’eirastich li b’emunah, v’yodaat es Hashem;” I will betroth you to Me forever and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, and with justice, and with kindness, and with mercy, and I will betroth you to Me with loyalty, and you shall know G-d.

In silence, the entire camped looked on at the Jew with a noose around his neck and Tefillin on his head and arm, awaiting his death for the "crime" of observing this Mitzvah. Even women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, compelled to watch this ominous sight.

As Judah turned to the silent crowd, he saw tears in many eyes, and was shocked: Jews were crying! How could they possibly have tears left to shed—and for a stranger? Where were the tears coming from? Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, “Yidden (Jews), don’t cry. With Tefillin on, I am the victor! Don’t you understand? Victory is mine!”

The German officer understood the Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah, “You dog, you think you are the victor? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get another kind of death.”

Judah was taken from the stool, and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and two large rocks were placed under his armpits. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head–the head on which he had dared to place Tefillin. The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks from his armpits, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”

“No,” Judah responded, “I won’t give you the pleasure.”

At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses, and then burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag, so people wouldn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles, and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out. Two months later, on April 29, 1945, the U.S. Seventh Army's 45th Infantry Division liberated Dachau. Judah was free.

During the hanging and beating episode of Judah in the Tefillin, a girl of 17 had been watching from the women’s side of the fence. After the liberation, she made her way to the men’s camp and found Judah. She walked over and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?”

Judah said yes. The young couple walked over to the Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, who lost his wife and 11 children in Auschwitz, and requested that he perform the marriage ceremony. The Klausenberger Rebbe wrote out a Ketubah (legal marriage contract for a Jewish marriage) by hand from memory and married them. The young couple ultimately made Aliya and rebuilt their lives in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Wallis concluded his story, “I, their son, keep and cherish that Ketubah to this day. After all, I was born from this marriage.”

This is the story of the Jewish “earthen vessel” who remains beyond any form of impurity. It is the story of the Adam who in the midst of the abyss remains connected to the highest of heavens. It tells us what a human being is capable of; what a Jew represents in his truest core and essence.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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