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A LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARK NIGHT

Friday, 15 June, 2018 - 11:10 am

The Talmud tells a strange story: A harp was hanging above King David's bed. At midnight, a North wind blew upon it and it played of itself. He arose immediately and studied Torah until dawn. After the break of dawn, the wise men of Israel came to King David and said to him: Our master, the King, Israel your people require sustenance! They need to live! He said to them: Let them go out and make a living one from the other.

They said to him: A handful cannot satisfy a lion, nor can a pit when un-dug be filled up with its own clods of earth.[You need to bring more earth from elsewhere to fill the pit.] David said to them: Then go out in troops and attack the enemy for plunder.

This serene, almost mystical, scene is brusquely changed when the king suggested Jews go to battle to gain a livelihood! From whimsical alarm clocks and King David’s midnight spiritual service, from a king of yore being woken by a harp to delve into Torah for the remainder of the night, we come to waging war for economic gain. Really?

Let’s move to another, far more recent, mysterious text. After the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s passing on 3 Tammuz, 1994—which will be marked by world Jewry on Shabbat, June 16, 2018—three binders full of Torah writings, letters, and diaries were discovered in a drawer in his office.

One diary, from December 1932, records a dream that his father in law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, shared with him, in which his own father came to console him. "My father appeared to me and said, 'Why are you brokenhearted? In your home, there is a light that shines in the dark of the night!'"

"I woke up, and the moon was shining into the room, but I knew that this wasn’t the light he was referring to. So I went to the house library and found you [the Rebbe] studying Torah. Then I understood what light was burning in the night."

The generational span of three Rebbe's gives a sense of something historic in the making, and a premonition of the future. But exactly what happened here? Why was the Rebbe broken?

Perhaps because, only 50 days later, Adolf Hitler would assume the chancellorship of Germany, ushering in the greatest, deepest period of darkness our people have ever known.

In his book The Will to Live On, the great American novelist Herman Wouk, who is 103, relates a shocking historical tidbit to introduce his reflections on contemporary American Jewish life. He writes how he once came across a passage in the memoir of Rudolf Hess, the commandant of Auschwitz, that so startled him, he had to write it down:

Eichmann was absolutely convinced that if he could succeed in destroying the biological basis of Jewry in the East by complete extermination, then Jewry as a whole would never recover. The assimilated Jews of the West would be in no position and would have no desire to make good this enormous loss of blood, and there would, therefore, be no future generation of Jews worth mentioning.

The Holocaust was meant also as a poisoned bullet whose insidious effects would take hold over decades. The Nazis expected to take care of the physical destruction of European Jewry, and the spiritual decay of the rest of Jewry to take care of the rest. Thus, the turning cogs of history in 1930's Europe seem to forecast the physical and spiritual destruction of world Jewry. If American Jews were an intended target of the Holocaust, then what escape was there? Wouk goes on to say that this understanding of the intent and design behind the Final Solution begs the question today: “Has Hitler won the war against the Jews?”

Perhaps it was this deeply melancholic vision of the future of his people, and the future of Judaism and Jewish life, that the Rebbe felt, and it broke his saintly and gigantic heart?

Only weeks before the Haman of our times, Hitler, ascended to power, the shepherd of Israel broke. Jewish life would be transformed forever. Hundreds of communities would cease to exist overnight. 2,000 years of Jewish life in Europe would go up in flames in five years. Six million would be reduced to ashes—and the world would remain silent.

So his father came to him in a dream and said: Wait! In your own house, a light still shines through the darkness! Despite the tremendous calamity facing our people, and the inconsolable tragedies they will endure, beyond what any quill can capture on paper or any mouth can convey in words, there is still hope, even after the Holocaust. A light still shines.

What was this light?

When the Rebbe saw his young son-in-law, the next Rebbe, sitting and learning, he understood this was the light his father was alluding to.

Indeed, by May 1945, when the enormity of the tragedy and loss came to light, the Rebbe made it his mission to light up the darkness of G-d’s apparent long absence. What the Rebbe did in the post-war years will be retold as one of the great acts of reconstruction in the history of mankind. Mounds and mounds of ashes, the only remains of our six million brothers and sisters (can we even wrap our brain around that mind-staggering number?), left a nation crushed beyond words, and many seemed lifeless beyond hope. Never had Judaism's everlasting light come closer to being extinguished. The Shoah destroyed the core of Jewish life: men, women, and children who were the most vibrant, animated elements of the Jewish people. An entire world went up in smoke. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as well as other great Jewish sages, refused to yield to despair. In the thickness of darkness, they kindled a light.

While others responded to the Holocaust by building memorials, convening conferences and writing books—all extremely important and noble tributes to create memories—the Rebbe urged everyone to reconstruct Jewish life. He built schools, yeshivas, and communities, encouraging inspiring countless Jewish people to do the same. He opened his heart to an orphaned generation, imbuing it with hope, vision, and determination. He became the most well-known address for countless activists, philanthropists, influential people, rabbis, leaders, and lay men and women from all walks of life, giving them the courage and confidence to reconstruct a shattered universe with gusto and passion. His message: Our world was shattered, but not destroyed. His mission statement: Hitler brought death and darkness into the world, therefore let us bring life and light.

From a synagogue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the spiritual leader to millions of Jews and people around the world, a man whose counsel was sought by world leaders and rock 'n' roll icons.

His mission was not only to bring light back to the darkness but to transform the darkness into light.

The Rebbe launched the first effort I know of in Jewish history to reach every Jew and the Jewish community in the world. Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “If Hitler wanted to hunt down every Jew in hate, the Rebbe wanted to track down every Jew in love.”

Every story in Torah can be appreciated on many levels, the literal as well as the mystical. The earlier story about King David, begins in darkness, at midnight, the furthest point from sunset on one side, and sunrise on the other. As the world slept, the harp of Israel's Shepherd, King David, played.  

David, King of Israel, felt this wind, and his harp—representing the harp of all Jews—began playing the sweetest and holiest melodies. All night he sat immersed in Torah. Outside, darkness abounded, but inside, the light of the Divine, the light of Torah, burned brightly. The music never stopped.

It is a parable for Jewish history—even in the middle of our nights, there was a “hidden wind,” a “ruach,” a spirit, that could move our inner harp and ignite its apparent numb chords. Was this not reenacted in the vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1933, weeks before Hitler’s rise to power? Outside, darkness had descended. Insight, a light burned. It was the light of Torah, the light of G-d, the harp of King David playing as the king learned Torah.

Eventually, the first light of dawn arrives, and the Jewish people must shake off the dust and arise from the ashes of Europe. As Germany was defeated, the survivors saw for the first time the break of dawn. They may not be experienced in the sunrise, but at least dawn breaks. (Eli Wiesel wrote two extraordinary books: Night and Dawn. Night describes his time in Auschwitz; Dawn described the liberation, Israel, and the laborious task of reconstructing a people who endured the darkest of nights and stood at the brink of destruction.)

It is at this point that the sages said to the king: Our people need guidance and direction. They require sustenance! They need to be rebuilt, to be nurtured, to be re-inspired.

So King David instructed the people to nurture each other; each and every Jew is capable of offering support to his or her fellow; each of us possesses vast reservoirs of inspiration and love. Each of us must be both a giver and a taker.

But the sages seeking the king’s advice were unsettled. The advice seemed to violate a basic law. A closed system cannot sustain itself indefinitely, without an outside power source.

This was the second part of the king’s instructions: send out the troops!

This second point truly reflects the revolutionary attitude that the Rebbe brought with him, from the very moment he assumed leadership. Go out, he exhorted his disciples. Do not remain cloistered in your communities, nursing your own wounds, desperately clinging to a Judaism defeated in the face of the outside world. Seek out the sparks of holiness that lie beyond your borders. Enough with the defense; let’s invest in offense. Every Jew, no matter how spiritually far (s)he may seem, has a Divine fire. Every human being has a Divine spark.

Do not be afraid to enter territory that seems outside of your domain, because G-dliness is everywhere. In every person and in every situation you can discover the Divine.

But it was King David’s midnight harp, and the Rebbe’s call to go and conquer the world, that kindled a light of hope and resolve on that dark night at the end of 1932.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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