I’ve been to some dark places. I’ve stood at the side of a crematoria in Auschwitz, and next to a mountain of ash and bone at Maidanek. I’ve been to Belzec, the notorious death camp, and to Theresienstadt, the quaint little village the Nazis created to show the world how kind they were to the Jews, always forgetting to bring the Red Cross to the crematoria outside of town. But nothing could prepare me for what I would see in the Ponar Forest of Lithuania.
We arrived there on the morning of May 23rd, and the weather couldn’t have been better. We stepped off the minibus into a 73 degree spring morning, dappled sunlight streaming into the forest through the tall trees. The air was warm and redolent with the scent of the wildflowers sprouting all around us. The trees were wearing their bright green spring uniforms, the lush leaves having just come out on the branches, and had not yet tired of the unceasing summer sun. Birds were chirping loudly to each other, singing the song of the forest. It couldn’t have been more peaceful and idyllic. Then we walked up to the massive pits which once contained the bodies of 70,000 of our sisters and brothers.
The Ponar forest is just a few miles from Lithuania’s capital city of Vilinus, or as it is more commonly known in Jewish circles, Vilna. During the early part of the twentieth century, it was where the Jews had built their summer homes, the beautiful forest providing relief from the hot and crowded streets of the bustling city. When the Russians took over Lithuania in 1939 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they built big concrete pits in the Ponar forest where they planned to stockpile fuel for military needs. The Germans captured Vilinus on June 24th of 1941, and almost immediately the Ponar forest changed its role yet again, from fuel depot for the Russians to killing fields for the Nazis.
The Nazis didn’t need a lot of manpower; as soon as the Nazis took the country, Lithuanian thugs came out of the woodworks, only too happy to help the Nazis with their sadistic and barbaric plans. From July of 1941 to August of 1944, almost daily, hundreds if not thousands of Jews were marched down the road from the city to the forest, where they were ordered to undress and then climb into the pits. Standing in a circle around the pits were drunk Lithuanian thugs with machine guns, who would spray the Jews with bullets, and then order other Jews to cover the still-moving mass of bodies with dirt. The Lithuanians would then gather the Jewish belongings and truck them back to town where they would sell them in the marketplace for cheap. For years, the Lithuanian population bought Jewish shoes, fur coats, jewelry, baby clothing, suits and other valuables for next to nothing and had no compunction adorning themselves with the belongings of the murdered.
In 1944, as the Soviets advanced on the Germans, the Nazis began to fear the world’s reaction to their atrocities. They ordered eighty Jews to move into the forest. All day long, they were forced to exhume the bodies of their brothers and sisters, and burn them on massive pyres. At nigh,t they were lowered into a pit with tall stone walls so that they could not escape, and in the morning they were lifted out of the pits and sent back to their horrific jobs. Knowing that they would be killed when they finished their task, they managed to dig a small tunnel using spoons they found, and just as they were about to complete their task, all eighty of them escaped in the middle of the night. The Nazis hunted them down with highly trained dogs and only eleven of them survived.
The Ponar forest is in ways far more painful than other Holocaust sites I’ve been to. When standing in a gas chamber or by a row of crematoria, you can connect at least part of the horror that you know existed to the things you visually perceive. But the Ponar forest is beautiful. The birds are singing, the trees are lush, and save for a few monuments, there is nothing there that tells the story of the screams that emanated for three years from the round grass covered pits you see before you. The silence is deafening.
Standing at the edge of the pits, I broke down crying like a baby, like I never have before at any other Holocaust site. I used to be filled with anger and rage when seeing a gas chamber, my lips would reflexively call out to G-d to avenge the blood of the innocent, but this time I was filled with a deep wrenching sadness, a sadness for all the lives that would have brought so much good to the world had they not been cut down brutally way before their time.
We were a group of Dads from Detroit, on a mission to learn more Torah, and get to know what our people are all about. In the Ponar forest, at the edge of a grassy pit that used to be filled with bodies, we gathered in a huddle. We spoke about how there is absolutely no need to push the souls of the holy ones who died there further up in heaven, they are already in the highest place in heaven. Rather, when we stand at the precipice of human evil, when we stand in a in a lush forest where so many thousands of lives were cut short, we have to take it upon ourselves to bring into the world the good they never got to do.
The three-year-old boy who would have said Shema Yisrael every morning and evening now needs someone else to say those Shemas for him. The mother who would have lovingly fed her hungry child hundreds of meals now needs someone else to lovingly serve hungry children hundreds of meals. The businessman who would have given generously of his income to help support Jewish education now needs someone else to give that charity and support that Jewish education. The silence of the Ponar forest is deafening, it is our job to fill that void.
The very next morning, May 24th, our group found ourselves 1650 miles away, but a world apart. After having taken a night flight from Lithuania to Israel, we woke up in Jerusalem, the beautiful capital of the Jewish people. We made our way to the Kotel and our eyes were filled with sight and splendor. It wasn’t just an ordinary day, it was Yom Yerushalayim, the day that Jerusalem was liberated from Arab hands in 1967. And it wasn’t any Yom Yerushalayim, it was the 50th anniversary of that momentous day in history, the day that Jews once again were able to pray at the Kotel, to talk to G-d from just outside the wall of the house He once shared with us!
The entire Kotel plaza was filled with people. There was singing and dancing in small groups and big groups. Jews of every stripe and flavor were there, and they were all filled with joy! It took our group ten minutes to get from the Kotel plaza all the way up to the wall. And there, our group took out our siddurim, donned our tefillin, and started praying Shachris the morning service. A bunch of dads from Detroit, from all different backgrounds, some who could read Hebrew some who couldn’t, some who grew up going to services every day and some who grew up going to services only on the High Holidays, all huddled together by the Kotel and calling out in prayer, Shema Yisrael.
After concluding our prayers, we moved back into the throng of people celebrating the day’s significance. We joined a throng of people dancing to the words Am Yisrael Chai. There were people with knit kippahs, people with black leather kippahs, people with no kippahs, people with black hats. But the song we all sang was the same, Am Yisrael Chai. The music was deafening.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s portion, Shelach, we read about the meraglim, the spies that the Jews sent forth to reconnoiter the land of Israel before they would enter it. The meraglim came back to the desert and gave a negative report, causing the Jews to lose spirit, and even suggest that they should return to Egypt. G-d was very angry that the Jews believed the spies’ slander on the land He had promised would be good, and He decreed that the Jews would wander in the desert for 40 years. During that time, all the people who had cried all night long bemoaning their fate, and asking to die in the desert, would die in the desert. Their children would be the only ones to enter the land, and witness the goodness of a land filled with G-d’s blessing.
The morning after this decree, a group of Jews decided that they had made a drastic error, and that they would rectify it by leaving immediately for the land of Israel. Moshe sent word that they should not go, as G-d had decreed that they must stay in the desert. If they were to go, G-d would not be with them, and they would fall in battle to the Amalekites and Canaanites. The group refused to listen to Moshe and charged forward. As I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, they were met by a welcome party of Amalekite and Canaanite commandos who massacred them.
The commentators point to something strange in the storyline. One night earlier these people had been so sure that Israel was a death trap that they begged to go back to the slavery of Egypt rather than to go to that dangerous land. Can it really be that the very next morning they are so sure that Israel is the greatest place in the world that they are willing to risk their lives to get there?
The Alter of Kelm, (1842-1898, Lithuania) [the father of the Kelm yeshiva, a bastion of the mussar movement which focused intensely on character development], answers this question with a fascinating insight. Many times we are on the cusp of greatness, and the evil inclination, the negative force inside of us, senses this, and puts up a magnificent fight, using every weapon it has. However, when we are on the way to do the wrong thing, the evil inclination is noticeably missing. If anything, the fact that everything is going our way easily can sometimes be a sign we’re heading the wrong way.
The Jews were about to enter the Land of Israel, and begin living on a new plane of existence, incomparable to any previously experienced by the Jewish people. The evil inclination put up a massive fight, the spies came back with a negative report, and the people fell for it. The next morning, the Jews were no longer supposed to go to Israel, au contraire, they were supposed to stay in the desert. Now the evil inclination lifts the wool off the eyes of the Jews and they see how wrong they had been. All the doubts and distortions they were shown the night before dissipate, and they see the truth. Now they want to go to Israel, and the evil inclination stays real quiet, because he knows it is the wrong thing. Sure enough, they fell for it again, and suffered the unfortunate consequences.
This teaches us a big lesson about our daily life. When we are just coasting along with no challenges, we need to recognize that we are probably in the wrong lane, or possibly even heading in the wrong direction. If we were heading toward greatness, our negative inner forces would be putting up every roadblock possible. Our growth comes from overcoming challenges, and if we’re not experiencing them, then we’re not on the path of growth.
When all is quiet on the Eastern Front, it probably because we belong on the Western Front.
As mentioned above, this Parsha speaks about the spies the Jews sent into Israel. When the people came to Moshe with a request to send spies, Moshe asked G-d. G-d replied, if you want to send spies, go ahead, but I see no reason for it, as I told you the land would be good. From here we see that right from the get-go, this spy idea wasn’t too hot. We also learn that G-d will not prevent you from doing something bad. He gave us free will, and if we desire a wicked path, He will not bar us from walking down it.
Next, Moshe picked the leaders of the tribes, amongst them his best disciple Hoshea. Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, which is an acronym for “G-d should save you (from the counsel of the meraglim).” He gave the spies instructions as to where to go exactly and what to look for. Moshe told the spies to study at the cities they would encounter. If they were heavily fortified with many defenses, it would be a sign that the people are weak. However, if the cities were open, it would show that the inhabitants are strong and have nothing to fear. This is often also true in human psychology. Sometimes we see people who, due to unfortunate events in their past, put up strong walls of defense, almost never allowing their true emotions to show. Although some might view this as a strength, in reality, it is a sign of emotional weakness. The person who has emotional strength learns to overcome difficult events, and to slowly open themselves up to the entire range of emotions, even though at times it will be painful. (Thanks Wurzweiller School of Social Work, I am using you for the first time this year!)
The spies went, and came back bearing the fruit of the land. They described the land to the Jews as the ultimate Super Sized country; the fruit was huge (eight people were needed to carry one cluster of grapes), the people were gigantic, and inhabitants were dying all over the place (As a favor to the spies, G-d arranged that a lot of people should die so that, due to their grief, no one would notice the spies. However, when someone is looking for bad, they will find it even in the good being done for them). The Jews began to fear going to Israel, and started talking about going back to Egypt, ignoring the protests of Yehoshua and Caleb, the two righteous spies, who tried to tell the people how good the land was. The Jews became so hysterical that the entire nation wept all night long.
G-d was so angry that He threatened to destroy the entire nation and rebuild it from Moshe alone, but Moshe prayed very hard. He said that if G-d did so, all the nations would claim that G-d could only beat one king (Pharaoh), but not the 31 kings living in Israel so He killed His people before they got to Israel. Moshe also used the 13 Attributes of Mercy, a special formula for praying which G-d had told Moshe never returns without results. In the end, G-d acquiesced and said that He would not wipe out the Jewish nation for their grievous sin of not believing in Him and His promises about the Holy Land. However, G-d swore that all the adults who did not believe Him would never see the land – they would die out slowly over forty years of wandering in the desert. (The forty years paralleled the forty days the spies spent in the Holy Land gathering evil information to tell the Jews.)
Additionally, the night that the Jews cried for no reason was the night of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av), and G-d declared that it would be the night on which Jews would cry forever. Sure enough, on Tisha B’Av we lost both our first and second Temples, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, World War I began — a war whose outcome triggered World War II and its Holocaust, The Final Solution was decreed and signed by Goring YS’V the day before Tisha B’Av 1941, and the cattle cars left Warsaw, the largest ghetto with 400,000 Jews, on Tisha B’Av 1942. Although this seems like an awful lot of punishment for one sin, we need to understand that the underlying mistake of the Jews’ tears was their lack of complete faith that G-d can deliver on His promises. This lack of faith in G-d’s ability continues to be the cause of our pain and suffering as a nation.
After G-d spelled out the decree, a number of Jews suddenly felt remorse, and decided to go up and conquer Israel. Moshe told them not to go, as G-d had just decreed forty years of wandering. They went anyway, but G-d was not with them, and they were easily defeated by an army of Canaanites that they encountered immediately.
The Torah next describes the libations (offerings of wine and flour) which were brought along with the different sacrifices offered in the Temple. O.K. I was a teacher for eight years in NYC, and old habits die hard, so for homework I’m asking you to email me an answer as to what is the significance of the juxtaposition of the story of the spies and the libations. They seem to be totally unrelated, so why are they right next to each other in the Torah?
The Torah then describes the mitzvah of challah, which is the commandment to take a bit of dough off any dough we make and give it to the Kohen. Today we don’t give it to the Kohen, because they don’t have the level of ritual purity necessary to eat it, but we do take off a piece from our dough, (and if the dough is 5 lbs or more, we even make a blessing on doing this special mitzvah!) Today, being that we don’t give the Challah to a Cohen, and we can’t eat, we instead simply burn it. The Torah then discusses the atonement process for different forms of idol worship including intentional individual, unintentional individual, and unintentional public (when the High Court makes an erroneous ruling that allows a practice which is actually idol worship.) The last story in the Parsha is about a person who went out and desecrated Shabbos publicly, even though he was warned not to do so, and the punishment he received.
The Parsha concludes with the commandment to wear tzitzis, the fringes we wear on four cornered garments. They are there to serve as a constant reminder of our obligations to G-d. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this, which happened to a close friend of mine, Rabbi Aaron Eisemann, of Passaic, NJ. Once, when he was on a campus out in the West Coast doing outreach, he saw a big commotion. After going out to see what was going on, he sees a number of PETA activists (who advocate for animal rights and veganism) with a huge sign reading, “Stop the Holocaust on your plate; become a vegetarian!” Understandably, there was a large group of people standing around demanding that they take down this offensive sign which so minimized the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Fist were about to fly, when, suddenly, the leader of the PETAniks shows up. Sure enough, he is this little timid looking Jewish guy, and he averts the danger by telling his troop to take down the sign. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to reach out to another Jew, Rabbi E went to talk to him. He noticed that the fellow had a massive tattoo on his arm with some kind of message saying “Never Forget the Other Animals of this World” which the boy told Rabbi E he had drilled into him to ensure that he never forgets his responsibilities to the other animals of the planet. (I assume getting that tattoo should probably be considered cruelty to humans, getting tattoos hurts!) Rabbi E then told him that all Jews have a similar thing to remind them constantly of their responsibility to G-d and he showed him his tzitzit. The boy actually became interested in learning more about Judaism but, unfortunately, every time they were supposed to get together to learn, this boy was in jail for some illegal demonstration or other. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: What isn’t tried won’t work. ~ Claude McDonald
Random Fact of the Week: The average person will spend 2 weeks over their lifetime waiting for the traffic light to change.
Funny Line of the Week: Take my advice – I’m not using it.
Have a Swell Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham