A TALE OF TWO SURVIVORS
“And you shall run the flight of one who flees from a sword, yet no one is pursuing you” (Leviticus 26:36).
This week we read the Tochaha, a series of unimaginable curses that foretold the horrors that were destined to befall our people in its wanderings in exile.
Amongst these dreaded afflictions, is a curse is about running from our enemies.
Simply speaking, the Torah is telling us of the inherent fear that we shall have from the suffering that we have endured. We shall run at the slightest thought, even when there is no one in pursuit. But is it not better to run from a figment of imagination than having to flee from an actual pursuer? After all, the imagination can not brandish a weapon!
Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky tells the story of one Al Feurstein, a retired businessman who volunteered for a certain yeshiva’s financial office. Mr Feurstein happened to be a Holocaust survivor who told the story of his ordeals of concentration camps and death marches that wracked his 16-year-old body but were unable to conquer his faith and conviction to Hashem.
After enduring years of unspeakable horrors, the war ended and Mr Feurstein arrived in the United States. With the help of relatives, he resettled in New York. A few weeks after his arrival, he was invited to speak at his cousin’s synagogue. As he recounted his personal story and detailing the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and their willing civilian executioners, mouths fell open in literal disbelief. News had reached the US of mass murders and barbarism, but never had these congregants heard in full detail of how men born to human mothers had performed such horrific crimes.
What happened after his talk back then was most depressing, compounding the terror of his experience a hundredfold. A few prominent members of the congregation approached him. “Al, my dear boy,” they coddled him. “You couldn’t have seen and experienced those tales you told! We are sure you are shell-shocked from the terrible hardships you endured. After all, it could not have been all that bad.”
The worst curse may actually be when no one believes that the other calamities actually happened. Perhaps that is also included in the curse of “no one shall pursue you.”
There was once a great Rosh Yeshiva was complaining bitterly about not feeling well. Some colleagues did not take him seriously at first, and humoured him by saying that the pains were more in his mind than in his body – what we could call psychosomatic symptoms. Before those pains were actually diagnosed as the disease that eventually claimed his life, he lamented: “The Talmud in Bava Basra (15a) debates the historical timeframe of the story of Iyov. Some say he lived during the time of Moshe, while others maintain he lived during the period of the Judges, and yet others even claim that he lived during the period of Purim. However, there is one opinion that Job never existed at all and the entire episode is only a parable.
“That opinion was Iyov’s worst tzarah. Imagine, after all the pain and suffering Iyov endured, there is an opinion that he did not even exist!”
Perhaps this week, the Torah alludes to another form of curse. “When there is pain and suffering, when there is persecution and oppression, yet the world ignores the cries of those suffering – as if “ no one is pursuing”. That is a terrible curse in and of itself.
Perhaps that curse is as unfortunate as when the aggressors are clearly recognized for whom they are. Often our greatest enemies are not recognized as such. We are told that they are our partners and our fears are nothing but paranoia. Even our past experiences are being discredited by deniers, scoffers and skeptics.
We cannot control the ears and eyes of our detractors, but we can do our utmost to tell the story and make sure that they live on. And we can do our best to hear, too, the pain and suffering of those who cry to us, to make sure we understand the pursuers behind the pain.
Earlier on in the parasha, we have a very interesting blessing.
“If you go in My laws and are careful to keep my commandments, I will provide you with rain at the right time, so the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3)
This is just the beginning of the blessings promised for observing the commandments. The Torah goes on and promises peace, security from enemies, and closeness and favour from G-d. Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, addresses the first passage quoted above. “Is it possible that ‘if you will go in My laws’ refers specifically to observing the commandments? Doesn’t it (go on to) say ‘and (if you) are careful to keep my commandments’? This refers to observing the commandments. How then do we understand ‘if you will go in My laws’? It means that you should toil in Torah (learning)”.
Why is so much blessing promised for toiling in Torah learning? What is it about “toiling” in learning that distinguishes it as deserving of great reward and blessing?
There is a pertinent story told by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon of Brooklyn which he heard at a eulogy for Mr. Binyamin Schachner. The eulogiser described how every morning, when he came out of his synagogue, he noticed Mr. Schachner standing at the bus stop across the street. Rain or shine, Mr. Schachner was always there, never missing a day. The Rabbi didn’t make much of this, simply assuming that Mr. Schachner was off to work, and was a very organised person, as he never seemed to be late.
One day, however, the Rabbi happened to be watching as the bus drew toward the pavement, accepted passengers, and then pulled away. Much to the Rabbi’s surprise, however, Mr. Schachner remained standing at the bus stop. As the bus had not seemed particularly crowded, Mr. Schachner’s behaviour struck the Rabbi as somewhat puzzling, to say the least.
When a few days later this happened again, the Rabbi decided to find out why the gentleman continued to wait at the bus stop. He approached Mr. Schachner and said, “I couldn’t help but notice that you are here every day at this bus stop, yet twice I’ve seen that when the bus came by, you didn’t get on. Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” smiled Mr. Schachner, “Everything is wonderful, but let me explain why I’m here. You see,” he began slowly, “I went through the hell of the concentration camps, and suffered losses in the Holocaust. After we were liberated I knew that the future of the Jewish People rested with the children. So many of the adults had suffered greatly, so many were killed and broken in spirit. I realized that only with the new generation could Torah be revitalised. Therefore, when I came to this country and saw that little children were indeed learning Torah, it gave me great pleasure and hope for the future.”
“I once figured out,” he continued, “that if I stand right here at this bus stop, I can watch 32 bus loads of Jewish children pass on their way to various Torah-learning institutions in the area. I stand and count them as they go by, and if, G-d forbid, I would only count 31, my day would be incomplete. I have to know each morning that every bus load of children made it safely to school. That’s why I’m here, just to see this beautiful spectacle every morning. This is my greatest pleasure, to know that Jewish children are once again learning Torah. To me it is the most wonderful sight in the world.”
It is with this type of sentiment that someone would dedicate himself to “toil” in Torah learning. This enthusiasm is his contribution to the observance of the commandment to study Torah. It is the observance of the commandments with this great desire and yearning which distinguishes it as something unique, and especially deserving.
May we all merit not to flee from invisible enemies, but to pursue visible friends.