This past Thursday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day. The Holocaust means something different to each one of us. Some of us are children of survivors, or lost family in the Holocaust or grew up with the Holocaust as powerful motivator, influencing our dedication to Judaism and the State of Israel. One of the aspects of the Holocaust that impressed me the most is the dedication of our people to God and Jewish practice even under the most trying conditions.
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry was a Talmudic scholar who survived ghettos and concentration camps. In those miserable places people would come to him with questions on Jewish Law. After answering them, he’d record the question and answer on scraps of paper. Before the camps were liquidated, he buried the scraps in metal cans. After the war, he retrieved his responsa and published them in a book titled, “Questions and Answers from the Depths” (Shealot U’Teshuvot Mimaamakim) believing it was his duty to tell the world about the Jewish people’s suffering. Yet his book also conveys their devotion and dedication to God and Judaism even under the worst circumstances. Here are just two of the thousands of questions asked of him.
Question: Committing Suicide in Order to Be Buried Among Jews
On 6 Marcheshvan 5702 [October 27, 1941], two days before the horrifying Black Day of the Kovno Ghetto—when some 10,000 men, women and children were taken away to be butchered—every one of the ghetto dwellers saw his or her bitter end coming. At that time of confusion, one of the respected members of the community came to me with tears on his cheeks and posed a question of life and death. He felt that he could not bear to see his wife, children and grandchildren put to death before his very eyes. For the German sadists had a system for extermination: In order for the murderers to enjoy the suffering of their victims, as a matter of course they would kill children before the eyes of their parents, and the women before the eyes of their husbands. Only after satisfying their bloodlust in this sadistic fashion would they put an end to the suffering of these men. Because he felt certain that it would be too painful to witness the horrible suffering of his loved ones, he asked whether he could terminate his own life earlier, to avoid witnessing the deaths of his loved ones. This way, besides being spared a horrible death of great suffering as the hands of the accursed murderers, he would also gain burial among the Jews in the Jewish cemetery in the ghetto.
Although the man knew he would definitely be subjected to unbearable suffering by the abominable murderers, and so hoped to be buried among Jews, he was still not allowed to commit suicide.
Moreover, permitting suicide in such a case meant surrendering to the enemy. For the Germans often remarked to the Jews, “Why don’t you commit suicide . . . ?” Suicide was viewed as an immense desecration of G‑d’s name, for it showed that one had no trust in G‑d’s capability to save one from the accursed hands of the defilers. The murderers’ goal was to bring confusion into the lives of the Jews and to cause them the deepest despondency, in order to make annihilating them all the easier.
Question: Reciting the Blessing “Who Has Not Made Me a Slave” in the Ghetto
During morning prayers, Reb Avrohom Yosef . . . reached the blessing, “[Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d . . .] who has not made me a slave,” and shouted bitterly to the Master of all Masters, “How can I recite the blessing of a free man? How can a hungry slave, repeatedly abused and demeaned, praise His Creator by uttering, ‘Who has not made me a slave?’”
I was then asked for the Torah ruling on this question: Should the blessing be omitted because it seemed to be a travesty—in which case it would be forbidden to recite it—or was it forbidden to alter or skip any part of the prayer text established by our sages?
One of the earliest commentators on the prayers points out that this blessing was formulated in order to praise G‑d not for our physical liberty, but rather for our spiritual liberty. I therefore ruled that we could not skip or alter this blessing under any circumstance. On the contrary, despite our physical captivity, we were more obligated than ever to recite the blessing, to demonstrate to our enemies that even if physically we were slaves, as a people we remained spiritually free.
Although I see Rabbi Oshry’s point, I disagree with him. Blessings are a service of the heart, not some inscrutable formula of words that we must say. This prayer was originally crafted in a time when there was slavery. It’s a statement of gratitude that we are free men and women and not someone whose life is totally controlled by another. Theoretically, a slave could have a free mentality, but since he doesn’t own his own time, he wouldn’t make that blessing. I’d say that during the Holocaust the blessing “of not making me a slave” was on a hiatus; thankfully, nowadays we can say it again with a full heart.
As time moves on, the Holocaust will take its notorious place among the annals of Jewish history like the Purim Story, the Spanish Inquisition and Chmielnicki Pogroms. For now it’s still a close call of near total annihilation. Certainly there was indescribable suffering, but there was also incredible dedication, elevation and devotion. For us to grow as people, we need to remember both our physical and spiritual resilience.