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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayikra-Zachor: How could G'd allow eight yeshiva students to be brutally murdered?
Eight bright lights were extinguished by a brutal murderer. The Torah scholar is not only personally protected but he actually has the merit to protect forty thousand people around him from their enemies. There is a heart-breaking, eyewitness report from the Nazi execution of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman and his students on the 11th of Tammuz 1941. "It seems that in Heaven they consider us righteous people, as we have been chosen to atone with our bodies for the Jewish people." "Because of the evil the righteous one is taken away." G'd sometimes takes away righteous people as an atonement for the sinful acts of the generation. Our sages compare the demise of the righteous with the offerings brought on the altar of the Sanctuary. Sometimes G'd will take away elderly scholars and sometimes young ones. When young scholars are taken away in the prime of their life, it reflects back on the generation that something is amiss. "I promise you that the "dog" will come and bite you and you will cry to Me and be aware where I am." The tragedy of last week definitely calls upon each and every one of us to do a personal reckoning and introspection to see where we can change and where we can do better.
This past Thursday night, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Adar II, eight bright lights were extinguished by a brutal murderer. This horrible event stands in stark contrast to the words of the Talmud (Megillah 29a) that when the month of Adar enters, one increases in joy. Whether it was a terrorist attack, or an inside job by a fired employee of the Yeshiva, does not make any difference to the bereaved families and to those wounded and maimed for life. The obvious question on everyone's minds is: how could G'd allow this massacre to happen?
The question becomes even more poignant when we see the words of the Talmud (Sotah 21a) where it says that the study of Torah protects a person from any harm and saves him even at a time when he is not occupied with his Torah studies. The Ba'al Hatourim (Devarim 1:3) explains that the Torah scholar is not only personally protected but he actually has the merit to protect forty thousand people around him from their enemies. So why were these eight precious Torah students not protected?
As always, we look for guidance in the words of the Torah, and by observing how Torah sages in the past dealt with these difficult types of issues. There is a heart-breaking, eyewitness report from the Nazi execution of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman and his students on the 11th of Tammuz 1941. Rabbi Wasserman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovitch Yeshiva, was one of the closest disciples of the Chofetz Chaim. As a matter of fact, when the Chofetz Chaim planned to make aliyah and move to the land of Israel, a delegation of rabbis came to plead with him to stay. As the spiritual leader of East European Jewry, they said, how could he leave them on their own. The Chofetz Chaim answered, "You do not need to worry. Even if I am going, I will leave behind Rabbi Wasserman."
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, who later led a congregation on the Lower East side of Manhattan, survived to tell us how Rabbi Wasserman dealt with the situation when the Nazis came. Rabbi Wasserman was studying Torah with his students when they were rounded up and taken to the place of execution. The Rabbi spoke calmly, as always, with his usual seriousness. He did not address his own children, who were with him, but spoke to everyone present. In fact, he was addressing the entire Jewish nation. Rabbi Wasserman said, "It seems that in Heaven they consider us righteous people, as we have been chosen to atone with our bodies for the Jewish people. We must therefore repent immediately. The time is short. The ninth fort [the place of the execution] is very close. We must keep in mind that with our repentance our sacrifice will be more pure. And with that we will save the lives of our brothers and sisters in America. G'd forbid that anyone should have a wrong thought that could invalidate the sacrifice. We are now going to fulfill the biggest mitzvah possible [giving up our lives to sanctify G'd's name]." Rabbi Wasserman concluded with these words, "It was consumed in fire and You G'd will rebuild it with fire [in general this is said in reference to the Temple in Jerusalem]. The fire that will consume our bodies, that very same fire will rebuild the Jewish people." Rabbi Wasserman understood that whatever happened was Divinely-decreed. And in the middle of all the destruction of the Holocaust he had the vision to see something constructive. He understood that the fire of destruction, that everyone viewed as the end, G'd forbid, would result in the Jewish people being rebuilt again. But Rabbi Wasserman saw more than that. He saw that G'd's wrath and anger had flared up against his beloved children and even the Jews of America were in mortal danger. And he understood that with the sacrifice of the noblest and purest of our nation, the communities in America and elsewhere would be saved.
Chofetz Chaim's son-in-law
A number of years earlier, the Chofetz Chaim suffered a personal tragedy when his beloved son-in-law, Rabbi Hirsh Levenson, passed away at a young age. The Chofetz Chaim's wife was very distraught and said to her husband, "I do not understand. There are so many wicked people in the world, so why does the Divine judgment hit such a noble and righteous person like our son-in-law?" The Chofetz Chaim answered, "You have to understand that if the Divine judgment would come out in its full measure, half the world's population would perish. Our dear son-in-law was taken instead of them." He continued to explain this with a quote from the Prophet Yeshayah (57:1) where it says: "Because of the evil the righteous one is taken away."
The prophet here gives us an insight to Divine judgment. It is obvious that G'd does not want offerings of human lives. However, right from the beginning of Creation, G'd established that every deed has its consequence. A good deed brings reward. An evil deed gives the Heavenly accuser the ability to demand punishment. In His great mercy, G'd sometimes takes away righteous people as an atonement for the sinful acts of the generation.
Demise of the righteous an atonement
In this week's Torah portion, we read about the various offerings brought on the altar of the Sanctuary. One type of offering was brought as an atonement when a person had sinned. The purpose of many of the public offerings was also to achieve atonement for sins that people committed without being aware. In Parashas Chukas (Bamidbar 20:1), Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) where our sages compare the demise of the righteous with the offerings: "Just like the offerings are an atonement, so is the demise of the righteous an atonement."
In Shir HaShirim (6:2), King Solomon expresses this thought with his poetic words: "My beloved has descended to His garden, to the rows of spices, to tend to His [sheep] in the gardens and to pick roses." The Midrash (ibid) explains this in the following way: G'd comes down to this world to see how the Jewish people is doing. He enters the synagogues and the study halls and he picks the righteous and takes them away. The Midrash continues and says that sometimes G'd will take away elderly scholars and sometimes young ones. What is the significance, asks the Midrash, between the situation when elderly people pass away and when young people suddenly are taken away?
The Midrash quotes Rabbi Yehuda who compares this to a light. "When a light goes out because there is no more oil, this is natural, both for the oil and for the wick and everything is fine. But when a light is blown out before its time, it is not natural and it is not a good sign for the oil and the wick." Rabbi David Luria, in his commentary on this Midrash, refers to his comments on a similar Midrash in Bereishis Rabba (62:2). There he explains that this parable refers to a generation and its scholars. When a generation supports and appreciates its Torah scholars, the scholars will live long and be there to light up and illuminate, to teach and to guide. But when young scholars are taken away in the prime of their life, it reflects back on the generation that something is amiss.
This week we take an additional Sefer Torah and read Parashas Zachor (Devarim 25:17-19). With this reading we commemorate how Amalek came and attacked us shortly after the crossing of the Reed Sea. There was no justification for their attack except their hatred for G'd and His chosen nation. Nothing has changed, as we say in the Haggadah on Seder night, "In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us." However, as always there is a story behind the story. At the end of Parashas Beshalach, just prior to when the Torah relates how Amalek came out to the wilderness to fight the Jewish people it says, (Shemos:17:7): "And he called the place Massah Umerivah because of the strife of the children of Israel and because they tested G'd saying, 'Is G'd among us or not?'" Rashi comments on this from the Midrash Rabbah (26:2) that there is a connection between this verse and the coming of Amalek: "I am constantly among you and ready to provide you with all your needs [says G'd] and you say, 'Is G'd among us … ?' I promise you that the "dog" will come and bite you and you will cry to Me and be aware where I am."
We do not have prophets that can teach us and interpret events and situations, or tell us the exact meaning of what happens. However, the tragedy of last week definitely calls upon each and every one of us to do a personal reckoning and introspection to see where we can change and where we can do better. It is very easy to point fingers and to blame others. But real change will only happen when we rise to the challenge and every one does what we can to make this world a better place and live according to what G'd expects of us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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