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A People of Extremes: Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut

 Chizkuni’s Explanation of Jewish Suffering

The Chizkuni to Devarim 4:32 makes a powerful insight. If one wonders, he writes, why the Jewish people are subject to a more intense punishment in the Exile (as described in Devarim 4:25-28), Devarim 4:32-35 provides the answer. These pesukim tell how Hashem revealed Himself to our entire nation during yetziat Mitzrayim and at Sinai.

 

Two Understandings of Chizkuni

I understand the Chizkuni in two ways: First, since we were shown as a nation incontrovertible evidence of Hashem’s ongoing involvement with our people (“Ata horeita lada’at ki Hashem hu haElokim,”—pasuk 35), we have no excuse to sin. Thus, if we do sin, Hashem punishes us intensely. No other nation was shown such evidence; therefore, Hashem expects more from us.

Second, is that we are a people of extremes. At one extreme, Hashem helped our people with unparalleled and extraordinary nationwide miracles. On the other hand, when we sin on a national level, Hashem’s accountability is severe.

The Gemara in Megillah 16a articulates this idea as follows: (Megillah 16a) The wise men continued: “But you shall fall (nafol tippol) before him,” (Esther 6:13). Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai interpreted a verse homiletically: Why are these two fallings, “nafol” and “tippol,” mentioned here? The wise men said to Haman: This Jewish nation is compared in the Bible to the dust of the earth and it is also compared to the stars in heaven. This teaches you that when they descend, they descend to the dust and when they rise, they rise to the stars. Accordingly, when Mordechai is on the rise, you will be utterly incapable of prevailing over him.

The Jewish people—as the Gemara is expressing—are a people of extremes. When we fall, it is a dramatically steep drop. When we rise, we ascend to dramatic heights. These extremes reflect divine influence, for our path is most atypical and irregular.

Megillat Esther reflects these extremes. In its third and fourth perakim, everything falls perfectly into place for the smooth execution of Haman’s evil plan. However, as soon as all begins to turn around at the beginning of the fifth perek, it all fits seamlessly to our benefit. In the third and fourth perakim, the Jews are helpless and hapless. In the eighth and ninth perakim, many are clamoring to become Jewish, for they are “riding high.”

 

The Highs and Lows of the Jewish People Expressed by Natan Sharansky in 2022

Natan Sharansky spoke at a Sheva Brachot gathering in honor of the wedding of Benaya and Neta Dickstein. Benaya’s parents—Yossi and Channah—were murdered in a terrorist attack when he was seven. He said as follows: “When I was growing up in Donetsk, Ukraine, there were many nations and nationalities. There were those with identity papers that read ‘Russian,’ ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘Georgian’ or ‘Kozak.’ This was not so important since there was not much difference between them. The single designation that stood out was ‘Jew.’ If that was written as your identity, it was as if you had a disease.

We knew nothing about Judaism. There was nothing significant about our Jewish identity, other than the antisemitism, hatred and discriminatory treatment we experienced because of it. When it came to a university application, for example, no one tried to change his designation from ‘Russian’ to ‘Ukrainian’ because it did not matter. However, if you could change your designation of ‘Jew,’ it would substantially improve your chances of university admission.

This week, I was reminded of those days when I saw thousands of people standing at the borders of Ukraine, trying to escape. They are standing there day and night, and only one word can help them get out: ‘Jew.’ If you are a Jew, there are Jews outside who care about you and are waiting for you. Someone on the other side of the border is searching for you. Your chances of leaving are excellent.

The world has changed. When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unfortunate designation. No one envied us. But today, on the Ukrainian border, identifying as a Jew is a most fortunate circumstance. It describes those with a place to go, where their family—an entire nation—awaits them on the other side.”

In perakim 3 and 4 of Megillat Esther, it was deeply disadvantageous to be a Jew. In perakim 8 and 9, it was incredibly beneficial to be a Jew. Megillat Esther reflects the extremes of Jewish life.

 

A Recurring Theme in Tanach

The Tanach and Jewish living repeatedly express the extremes of Jewish life. On the one hand, yetziat Mitzrayim and ma’amad Har Sinai are ubiquitous themes of Torah life. On the other hand, the punishments described in the tochacha (rebuke) (especially in sefer Devarim) are extreme. Megillat Eicha (1:12)—read on Tisha B’Av—teaches לוא אליכם כל עברי דרך הביטו וראו אם יש מכאוב כמכאבי אשר עולל לי אשר הוגה ה’ ביום חרון אפו—“May this not befall all you travelers; if there is such pain as my pain, which Hashem visited upon me on His day of wrath.” Amos 3:2 (read as part of Parshat Vayeshev’s haftarah) states: רק אתכם ידעתי מכל משפחות האדמה על כן אפקד עליכם את כל עונתיכם— “I have a close relationship only with the Jews, and, therefore, I hold them accountable for every sin.”

 

Conclusion: The Shoah and
Medinat Yisrael

The history of the Jews of the past 90 years manifests Am Yisrael’s extremes. During the Shoah, we reached a terrible low. In dramatic contrast—not even three years after the Holocaust—our fledgling nation fended off invaders from three sides and increased its territory by approximately 50% in Israel’s War of Independence. With Hashem’s influence, Israel continues to be an ongoing spiritual, military, scientific and economic miracle.

No human being can explain the Holocaust’s ferocity; we have no idea why Hashem allowed it. However, the unparalleled suffering followed by the extraordinary resurgence in Israel fits with the Torah’s depiction of the Jewish people, whose experiences do not work with the patterns of the rest of humanity.

The proximity of Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut reflects this reality.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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