The Rebbe’s Wartime Sighs Reverberate Today
The Rebbe’s Wartime Sighs Reverberate Today
By Harav Y. Reuven Rubin Shlita
Chassidic stories are often repeated many times. This is because with each new hearing more light is shed. Let me share just one such oft-told, yet moving, tale.
In Bergen Belsen on the eve of Chanukah, a selection took place. Early in the morning three Nazi sadists, dressed in their perfect black uniforms with the skull and crossbones insignia, entered the men’s barracks. They ordered the men to stand at the foot of the three-tiered bunk beds.
The selection began, and with indiscriminate nonchalance they walked past, and waving a finger, decided who would be subject to the sentence of death. With the shrilling word “komme,” the men selected were marched outside; awaiting them was a group of S.S. men. They then were methodically beaten with iron poles and truncheons until they were dead. This random mayhem took place all that black day until sunset. When the Nazi devils finally departed, they left behind hundreds of tortured and twisted bodies.
“Our hearts may seem full of gloom, yet with a ray of light everything can become illuminated”
It was then that Chanukah began in Bergen Belsen. The time had arrived to kindle the Chanukah lights. Instead of a silver menorah, they made do with a wooden clog, strings pulled from a camp uniform for a wick, and for the precious oil, well, for that they found some liquid shoe polish.
Not far from the heaps of freshly killed neshamos, the living skeletons gathered, seeking to observe the mitzvah of light in the darkest pit on earth.
To the Bluzhever Rebbe ztl fell the responsibility to light the first licht and the tzaddik chanted the first two blessings with a sweet, yet sad tune. He then looked around, as if seeking something. Quickly he turned his attention back to the light and recited the third blessing, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”
Amongst those present was a Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund. He was a clever and sincere fellow who had a passion for discussing issues of truth even in the hell he inhabited. As soon as the Rebbe finished the lighting ceremony, Zamietchkowski elbowed his way to him and said, “Spira, you are a clever and honest man. I can understand your need to kindle the lights with the blessing even in this death house. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, but the fact that you uttered the third blessing is beyond all understanding. How could you thank G-d for letting us live at this time, when outside your window there are hundreds of dead martyrs? Even those alive are just seconds away from death, and to this you bestow a blessing “who enabled us to reach this season?”
“Reb Yid, you are one hundred percent correct,” sighed the Rebbe. “When I reached that third blessing I also hesitated and asked myself what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head, hoping to catch the eye of the Rav of Zaner or one of the other worthy Rabbis, wishing to ask them this question. But just as I was turning my head I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Yidden, with eyes expressing faith despite the odds. They were there to see the Chanukah lights with deep devotion. I said to myself, If Hashem has a nation that at times like these, when, standing before the Chanukah lights, they see in front of them the heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and friends, and death is lurking in every corner of their lives; and despite all that they stand in such numbers to witness the Chanukah ceremony, then I have been blessed to see such startling devotion. This itself is deserving of a blessing.”
Some years later, the Bluzhever Rebbe received regards from Mr. Zamietchkowski. He had asked the son of the Skabiner Rav to tell the Bluzhever Rebbe that the answer he gave him that dark night in Bergen Belsen had stayed with him ever since and was a constant source of inspiration during hard and troubled times.
Sometimes darkness creeps up on us, and we suddenly find ourselves overwhelmed by it. We have been spared the hell of the camps. However, many find themselves engulfed in depression and anxiety. We somehow never see it coming, yet all the while our hearts grow dimmer. When the bleakness seems at its worst we flounder about wondering how we can crawl out of our inner emptiness.
A holy healing balm is Chanukah; it is a Yom Tov of illumination that comes at the darkest moment of the year. The miracle of the oil and the wonder of its lasting all that time is more unique when we realize that in those times, Yidden were in spiritual darkness as well.
The Haftorah for Chanukah speaks of another such moment, and how light was brought to bear for our ancestors. At the end of the Babylonian exile, nine years before the story of Purim, some forty-thousand Jews, led by Zerubavel and Yehoshua the Kohen Godol, returned to Israel. They started to rebuild the Beis Hamikdosh, but were held back by the authorities until eighteen years after the events of the miracle of Purim.
Things were spiritually very difficult at that time. The Yidden had suffered greatly in Golus, and intermarriage was raging rampantly throughout the Jewish world. Even the kohen gadol had sons who had taken gentile wives and the Prophet Zechariah depicts how Satan is condemning Yehoshua for his lack of zeal in chastising his kin.
However, Hashem defends Yehoshua calling him “a firebrand rescued from the flames.” This indicates that he had tremendous empathy for the horror that the nation was living through, and as such could not be faulted. Despite the chaos around him he sought to bring light. He is blessed with a prophecy which includes a vision of the Menorah with a continuous supply of olive oil, reminiscent of the miracle of Chanukah.
This chapter in our long history of pain seems to be speaking to our very own experiences. Our holy leaders came through the dreadfulness of the Holocaust as true “firebrands rescued from the flames” and through their efforts new visions of light were born. Jewish light is created in ancient Jerusalem, in Bergen Belsen, wherever the spirit is stretched towards Hashem’s essence.
Just as then, we have yet to be granted the total redemption with the rebuilding of the Sanctuary, but we should never despair. Hashem knows our travails and will see to our purification. We need just remain focused, never losing hope.
Chanukah is not about teaching as much as about “giving over,” handing to others that which we see as illuminating. For all the other Yomim Tovim we have whole volumes in Shas. For Chanukah we barely eke out three blatt Gemoro in maseches Shabbos. Why is there so little teaching? Perhaps because when speaking of illuminating the world we must simply transmit rather than just speak. And what is it that we are meant to convey? Spiritual radiance! A small ray of light can drive out a huge expanse of darkness. Our hearts may seem full of gloom, yet with a ray of light everything can become illuminated.
The sweet voice of the Bluzhever Rebbe, zy”a, still reverberates with his sighing of those blessings made in the darkest of dark places; his light is in the light of our blessings today, and connect us all with generations of “firebrands”.