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THE POWER OF ONE MAN

Friday, 13 July, 2018 - 12:00 pm

A man and woman were recently celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

While cutting the cake, the wife was moved after seeing her husband’s eyes fill with tears. She took his arm and looked at him affectionately.

“I never knew you were so sentimental,” she whispered.

“No... No...” he said, choking back his tears. “That’s not it at all. Remember when your father found us in the barn and told me to either marry you or spend the next 50 years in jail?”

“Yes,” the wife replied. “I remember it like yesterday.”

“Well,” said the husband, “Today I would have been a free man.”

This week's double Parsha is the concluding portion of the Book of Number, Matot-Maasei. It tells how Moses chronicled the Jews travels from Egypt to the Promised Land. Most of the list is very concise: "They traveled from X and camped in Y; they traveled from Y and camped in Z..."–omitting the events that transpired in the areas where they camped. For example, the Sinai Desert stopover is mentioned without reference to the giving of the Torah. However, there are exceptions where the list is interrupted to point out an event that occurred at a particular location. One of these is the encampment at Mount Hor:

Aaron the High Priest ascended Hor at G‑d's behest and died there, on the first day of the fifth month, in the 40th year of the Children of Israel's exodus from Egypt."

Quite interestingly, this is the only time that the Torah mentions the exact date of a yahrtzeit (anniversary of death). Even the yahrtzeits of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, and King David are not mentioned.

Also interesting is the fact that the section containing this yahrtzeit is in the "wrong" place. It is not mentioned in the portion that relates to his passing (Chukat), but rather in this week’s portion, which mentions his death only as part of the journeys of the Jews through the desert.

What is so remarkable about the timing of Aaron's yahrtzeit that it merits explicit mention in the Torah? Furthermore, why is it not recorded in the place where the Torah discusses his passing?

Our Sages tell us that Aaron’s life was dedicated to resolving conflict, eliminating disharmony, and fostering trust and love. As the Torah says, "...Aaron would pursue peace and instill peace between man and his fellow and between a wife and her husband, therefore the entire house of Israel mourned him."

Now we can understand why his yahrtzeit is specified in the Torah—the first day of Av. This is another sign of the Divine, prophetic nature of Torah. More than 1,500 years after the death of Aaron, the first of Av would usher in a period known as the "Nine Days," referring to the first nine days of the Hebrew month of Av, days of acute mourning for the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples.

Says the Talmud (Yuma 9b): "The second Temple–when the people were involved in Torah, Mitzvot, and acts of kindness–why was it destroyed? Because they harbored baseless hatred towards each other!" It was the disunity of our people that caused our destruction.

This was true even on a pragmatic level. The Romans exploited the in-fighting of the Jews, using this weakness as a way to defeat Jerusalem.

"G-d provides the remedy before the illness," says the Talmud. Before any challenge in life, G-d provides the antidote to deal with it. So on the first day of Av, when we enter the nine days, the Torah tells us we have the yahrtzeit of Aaron—the day in which the life story of Aaron was completed—as a powerful reminder and a day in which can connect with Aaron’s energy and legacy of love and unity. Aaron was one man who affected an entire nation through his dedication to peace and love.

That is why the Torah places the date in the portion of Maasei; it is always read within a week of the yahrtzeit. This year, it falls out today. It is during this time of the year that the Torah wants us to know that we all have Aaron's power to restore love and unity among our people.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin was known as the "Rabbi of the Prisoners." Living in the Land of Israel prior to 1948, he visited Jewish children who were incarcerated in British prisons. Most were freedom fighters for the various Jewish underground militias that operated at the time. He also served as the go-between for many inmates and their families outside the prison walls. He was a caring and loving man who actively sought out those in dire need to help them with their physical or spiritual needs.

He was unique in that his warm relationship with the secular left-wing communities was no different than his strong ties with the religious Jerusalemites. An integral part of his approach was that he did not discount the non-religious or the religious.

His grandchild once visited the Rebbe who asked him, "How does your grandfather get along with the religious groups and the zealots [who may not appreciate his close association with the non-religious]?" He responded, "Grandfather has a 'consensus,' he gets along with everyone."

The Rebbe responded, "We learn in Ethics of our Fathers, 'One who is pleasing to his fellow men is pleasing to G‑d.' It does not say, 'One who is pleasing to scholars or the religious.' It says if the general public is pleased with you, in Heaven, too, they are pleased with you. Tell this to your grandfather in my name."

Yet we often ask: How can this relate to me? I am but one person; how can I have such a positive impact? Aaron could affect all the Jews. But I am small....

On March 9, 1942, an order arrived from Berlin to deport the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews. Adolf Eichmann's office was ready to "operate." Bulgaria had officially joined the coalition (comprised of Nazi Germany, Italy, Japan, and Franco's Spain, as well as several other mostly Eastern European, countries) in March 1941, hoping to reclaim the territories it had lost to Rumania, Greece, and Serbia (later Yugoslavia) as a result of its military defeats in the Second Balkan War (1913) and again in World War I.

Indeed, Germany, with the help of Bulgaria, occupied these territories and the Bulgarian King Boris was given full administrative control over these provinces and was hailed by his people as the "Unifier King." In 1942 the Nazi's forced the issue of the Jews and Bulgaria established an "office for Jewish relations."

Theodor Dannecker, Eichmann’s former representative for the Jewish Question in Paris, arrived in Sofia in January 1943 to fulfil the same role by working with this department, headed by Alexander Belev, a rabid Anti-Semite who advocated all Jews be forcibly deported to the death camps in Poland. Belev was aware that the deportation of Jews from its territories was best carried out in secret, to avoid public outcry.

Belev and Dannecker decided that 8,000 Macedonian Jews, 6,000 Thracian Jews, and 6,000 Jews from pre-war Bulgaria—about 20,000 altogether—would be shipped to Germany in the first wave of deportations. Later, they would "cleanse" Bulgaria properly from its 50,000 Jews.

On March 20-22, 1943, around 12,000 Jews from these territories were arrested and placed on four boats destined for Vienna. The trip took about a week; one boat sank. From Vienna, the Jews were sent by train to Treblinka on March 26th and 28th, and they were murdered in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Only 12 survived the war.

These Jews of the Balkans were, for the most part, tall, strong, and affluent. One survivor wrote: "When we looked at a man like that, we didn’t want to believe that only 20 minutes later [after arriving in Treblinka] he would end his life in the gas chamber. These fine looking Jews would hardly let the hangmen kill them so easily.

"[Because these Jews were so well- built, dressed, and good looking, the Germans decided to treat them 'differently.'] A small quantity of gas was introduced into the chambers, and the asphyxiation process went on all night. They suffered for a long time until they breathed their last. They also suffered terribly before entering the chambers. The hangmen were jealous of the victims’ fine appearance and maltreated them that much more."

Part of Belev's deal with the Nazi's was the deportation of 8,000 more Jews of Bulgarian citizenship to fill the quota he had agreed to. Belev stepped up to the task and ordered a secret transport. 

Enter Dimitar Peshev, a prominent politician in Bulgaria before and during World War II. In 1936, he served as Minister of Justice. At this time, he was Vice Chairman of the Bulgarian Parliament.

When Peshev learned that the government intended to hand over 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria, (he was unaware of the first 12,000 taken from the newly occupied countries near Bulgaria,) he decided to oppose this vigorously. 

Rushing into Parliament, he gathered a few members and burst into the office of Gabrovski, the Bulgarian Minister of Interior, with a demand that the order is rescinded.

After a dramatic confrontation, Gabrovski ordered that the deportation be postponed. Peshev personally called the local prefect's office to make sure that the counter-order was being obeyed. Not satisfied with this, Peshev decided to publicly denounce this and further deportations from the podium of the Parliament, where he was vice-chairman.

He collected the signatures of over 40 parliament members for a petition addressed to the government and the king, in which he pleaded not to disgrace the name of Bulgaria by consenting to the deportation of its own Jewish citizens to Nazi camps. He called it "mass murder."

Two others ought to be mentioned: When Bulgarian Archbishop Stefan learned that at least 800 Jews from Sofia were about to be "evacuated," he rushed to the royal palace and refused to leave until the king finally agreed to hear him out. Bishop Kyril of Plovdiv (a future head of the Orthodox Church) sent several telegrams to the monarch, and in a defiant act of civil disobedience, allowed local Jews to take refuge in his church and his own home. He prevented the deportation of 1,500-1,600 Jews from his diocese, who were ordered to assemble at Plovdiv's train station on March 9, by vowing to lie across the rails in the path of the train transport taking them out of the country.

The public protest spurred by Peshev caused the government to back down its plans to deport the country's 50,000 Jews. Due to Peshev's actions, thousands of Jews who were herded into warehouses and schools, awaiting the cattle trains to the death camps, were sent home.

Peshev, however, was penalized with his dismissal as vice-chairman of the parliament. Belev and his Nazi overseers were furious by this action and plotted new schemes to get rid of Bulgaria's Jews.  In August 1943, Czar Boris flew to Berchtesgaden to ask Adolf Hitler why he needed the Jews. Reluctant to admit to the gas chambers, Hitler answered that the Jews must build roads. "Roads are also needed in Bulgaria," answered the king.

Hitler didn't "buy" this, yet conceded providing all Jewish men and boys were sent to Labor camps. Boris agreed.

According to rumor, the Germans poisoned Boris; the royal plane returned to Sofia with a dead king and his brother became regent. Jews were removed from the cities and relocated to various locations throughout the countryside, but not a single Jew was forced to leave Bulgaria. At the end of the war, the Jews returned to their homes, which remained intact and waiting for them.

In 1945, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was still 50,000, its pre-war level. Its neighbor, Rumania, had 270,000 Jews, all sent to the gas chambers. Next to the rescue of Danish Jews, Bulgarian Jewry's escape from deportation and extermination represents the most significant exception of any Jewish population in Nazi-occupied Europe. Beginning in 1948, more than 35,000 Bulgarian Jews chose to emigrate to the new state of Israel. The Bulgarian people were the only ones in Europe (besides the Danes) who went out of their way to save the Jews, largely because of one man: Peshev.

After the communist takeover, at the end of the war, Peshev was placed on trial for his participation in the previous pro-German government. His role in saving the country's Jews swayed the court in reducing his sentence, and he was freed after a year's imprisonment.  In January 1973, Yad Vashem gave him a title of "Righteous Among the Nations" for his role in halting the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews at great risk to himself. Peshev died later that year. His memory is a blessing and an inspiration!

The lesson of 76 years ago teaches us what a single person, committed to the cause of justice and love, can accomplish. May Hashem avenge their blood–and may we all do our part in fighting the fight in today’s crucial times.

As the Rebbe said:  "One individual had brought the world to the brink of destruction, but for the mercies of the King of the Universe, who ordained that, 'The earth shall stand firm and shall not fall.' If such is the case in the realm of evil, surely the potential of any single individual is much greater in the realm of good."

As the Talmud says, "Every person is obligated to say: "For my sake, the world was created."

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Rosh Chodesh,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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