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So the people spread out through the entire land of Egypt to gather gleanings for straw. The taskmasters pressed, saying, "Complete your work, the daily matter each day, as when there was straw!" The foremen of the Children of Israel, whom Par'oh's taskmasters had appointed over them, were beaten, saying, "Why did you not complete your requirement to make bricks, as yesterday and before yesterday, even yesterday and even today?" (Shemos 5:12-14).
Rashi explains that when Par'oh increased the workload on the Children of Israel, denying them straw yet demanding the same quota of bricks they had been required to fill until then, their plight was exceptionally pitiful. The Jewish foremen whom Par'oh had appointed over the slaves could not bear to demand from them what they could not do and so they themselves were beaten by the Egyptian taskmasters for not producing the required amount. The foremen were rewarded, after the Redemption, with the privilege of being appointed members of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Jewish Court.
I once heard that the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Shapiro ztvk"l, said that the topic of the Holocaust should be taught in yeshivas. I wondered what aspect of the Holocaust he had in mind and what lesson he wanted us to learn from those tragic events. Rather than rely on hearsay, I decided to go straight to the source and ascertain for certain what the Rebbe had in mind.
On a trip to the United States, I visited the Rabbi's home and asked his grandson if I could have a few moments with the Sage who was then probably in his late eighties. The grandson said that although it was normally not a problem, these particular weeks the Rabbi did not usually see people. The reason, he explained, is that this is the period during which the Holocaust ended and each year, at this time, the Rebbe relives the horrible terrors everyone went through as they became aware of how great the destruction actually was and what had happened to their families and loved ones. I explained that I was only in from Israel for a few days and I would only be a moment or two to ask the Rabbi what he wanted us to do in our yeshiva. He said he would ask his grandfather, and, a few minutes later, I was allowed to enter.
I'll never forget the site of the venerable old Tzaddik who was obviously grieving the pain of the entire Jewish People. With warm eyes staring at me, the Rebbe asked what I wanted of him. Actually, I felt guilty bringing up the topic which was already so much on his mind. I felt as if I were adding salt to open wounds. But it was too late to back out. I asked the Rabbi if it were true that he had said that the Holocaust should be taught in Yeshivas. He affirmed that he had indeed said so many times. I asked him what aspect of the terrible nightmare he wanted us to remember and why. His answer was a bit surprising.
Filled with emotion, the Rabbi told me that we should tell stories of how Jews kept the Torah, as best as they possibly could, and remained loyal to Hashem, even in those terrifying conditions. Some risked their lives to put on tefillin; light Chanukah candles; bake matzah; hear the shofar blown and even keep Shabbos as best as they possibly could. The evil Nazis, may their names and memory be blotted out forever, were able to triumph over the Jewish bodies, but the Jewish spirit remained unconquerable. These are the stories we should gather together and retell in yeshivas to today's youth. On the one hand it will make them proud, rather than ashamed, to be a Jew. And on the other hand it certainly obligates us, who, thank G-d, do not have these obstacles in our way, to do our very best to observe the Torah's commandments.
This short meeting with the Holy Man was very inspiring. But the highlight of it all was when he offered to tell me a story of his own experience, as an example of what he meant.
A note between two inmates had been intercepted by the Concentration Camp wardens. This was a terrible crime in those conditions and the Nazis wanted to punish the one who had sent it. They called the Bluzhever Rebbe to their headquarters and told him that they were sure that, as the Rabbi of the group, he could easily find out who the guilty party was, if he did not know already. Therefore, they would give him twenty four hours to reveal his name to them, or else he, himself, would be executed by them.
The Rebbe did not hesitate for a second. He opened the pajama shirt he was wearing and said, "You don't have to wait twenty four hours. You can kill me right now. Because, I can assure you that I will never give over a fellow Jew to be punished by you or anyone else!"
The Rabbi was sure that he would be shot on the spot, but, amazingly, the cruel Nazis were impressed with his great Jewish spirit. They replied, "Rabbi, you are truly a good Jew. But the others are all pigs."
"You are mistaken," replied the Tzaddik. "The other Jews are great, wonderful people. I am the lowest among them all!"
May his memory bring blessing and protection upon us.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network