Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Yom Haatzmaut: Take a Stand

For a comprehensive look at this topic see this article by Rabbi Alan Haber.

As everyone knows, there are many perspectives on how to treat Yom Haatzmaut. Will you go to a chagiga with live music? Will you be reciting Hallel? Will you have a seudah? Opinions on this topic tend to be impassioned, and with good reason: we are dealing with a very important issue.

I give full credence to the validity of more than one position on how to celebrate the day. However, there is one thing I do not understand. I do not understand those people who decide to “play it safe” and therefore end up doing nothing.

The question is as follows: is Israel a gift from Hashem to the Jewish people or not?

Satmar (for example) takes a clear stand on this issue: the State of Israel is an evil thing, and therefore it is appropriate to mourn on this day. Or if you are someone who thinks that the State has nothing to do with Hashem, then you very well may ignore the day completely, and that would be consistent.

If, however, you believe that Israel is a gift from Hakadosh Baruch Hu, then it is your obligation to do something to recognize this fact.

Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable going to a chagiga with live music during the omer? Fine, gather together some like-minded friends and have a kumzitz. Your rabbi paskens not to say hallel? So say some prakim of Tehillim. Listen to a shiur online. Eat a seudah. These are things that people can do without worrying about breaking the minhag of mourning during sefirah, without worrying about brachot levatalah.

I find that all too commonly people will say, “No, I’m not going to the program/chagiga tonight because of the tefillah chagigit and the live music,” and then instead, they simply do nothing. If you believe that Hashem gave us Israel, that there were nissim, that we are incredibly blessed to have our own state in Eretz Yisrael (despite its very imperfect government), then it is wrong not to thank Hashem, not to acknowledge His gifts, His blessings, His miracles.

Have a Yom Haatzmaut sameach, in whatever way you choose to celebrate!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why I Don't Read Holocaust Books

I am spoiled.

I have lived a perfect life, a life entirely free from intense suffering. Sure, I have known people—young people, good people—who have suffered from terrible diseases, from impossible hardship. But these people have not been the people closest to me, so these tragedies have not touched me in the most personal way. My faith is strong—but who am I to talk, I whose faith has never been tested?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking for a test. I’m not asking for a tragedy, chas v’shalom. But I fear. I have lived a life without trial, yet I am imperfect. If, given every gift that Hashem can possibly offer, I still am unable to serve Him perfectly (in fact, far from it), where would I be if something terrible happened?

And that’s where the Holocaust books come in. My whole life, I never read any (with the exception of Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I had to read for school). My philosophy, right or wrong, has always been: why make yourself sad on purpose? Besides, I am extremely squeamish, and the details of Holocaust tales have always been too much for me to handle.

Now, a junior in college, one of my classes has required me to read a book called The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. The author tells his own tale, a man searching for the stories of six of his ancestors who were killed by the Nazis. He travels from the Ukraine, to Australia, to Israel, seeking out his history. His saga is interspersed with comparisons to stories in Sefer Bereishit, as elucidated by Rashi and a modern commentator named Friedman. The author himself is not Orthodox—he was brought up vaguely Reform, and although since then he has ‘discovered’ much of his heritage, the impression I have gotten is that he still takes a secular approach to the validity of the Torah. The book is long, 500 pages, and I am only halfway through. Though it is slow reading, I have, for the most part, enjoyed its intricate rambling and frequent keen insights.

But reading about some of the horrors of the Holocaust, and only just the horrors that occurred to the population of a tiny town called Bolechow, has also frightened me immensely. Reading the book for long periods of time, I feel sucked into a world I am afraid of. The way that Hashem allowed people, Jewish people, religious people, to be treated makes me forget, momentarily, that He is just. When I hear that the Rabbis suffered most—how a Rabbi, his eyes cut out, was forced to dance naked with a woman for the officers’ amusement, I wonder—how? Why?

Yes, I had heard about the evils of the Holocaust before. I had heard of the slaughter, but rarely in such vivid detail. Six million is not just a number. Six million are people, each with an individual story. When I hear the story of a single death I am sickened—multiply that horror by six million, and what happens? I cannot even fathom it.

And that, that is why I do not read Holocaust books. Because yes, it is important to be aware of our history. Yes, it is bad to close your eyes to reality. But I am not as strong as I should be. Hashem has not tested my faith, He has not put me in their shoes. Maybe, in a tough situation, I’d find my hidden strength. I’d like to think I would. But their tests are not mine, and reading about them will not make them mine—it will only confuse me.

As a close friend said, “I’d rather not shred myself up into little tiny pieces just to see if the pieces can come back together when I close the book.”