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Parshat Chukat (5769)
This week's section contains many stories about escaping death.
It begins with the ashes of the Red Cow to cleanse the defilement of death. Then it relates how the Jews were miraculously saved from death when their source of water (from the rock that followed them in the desert) and protection (by the "Clouds of Glory" that surrounded them) were temporarily removed. Then they were wondrously rescued from deadly serpents, from attacks by the Amalikites, the Edomites and more.
Why couldn't G-d just make it easier on the Jews? Why the close calls with death, which have tragically been our lot since the time of Abraham.
To explain this here is a story (BaKhila weekly, Pg. 23 kolot)
Eliahu Herman was only ten years old when WWII broke out, but he wasn't worried. First of all he lived in Hungary far from the front and second he was too young to be a soldier. Little did he know the Germans were killing everyone, especially Jewish civilians and they were soon to conquer his country.
He was fourteen and a half when it happened and a few weeks afterward his family was rounded up with all the Jews in his town and taken to 'work'. The Germans needed workers to support their war efforts. That's what they were told.
But as soon as he arrived in Auschwitz he knew it wasn't true. The guards, dogs, barbed wire, the smells and sounds. It was clear that this was much more sinister. He put his hand in his pocket and felt his Tefillin. Before he left he stuffed them in his pocket. He closed his eyes, and prayed silently for help. It was inconceivable that this was happening. The Germans were supposed to be the most civilized nation! He took the two small leather boxes out of his pocket, bent over as though tying his shoelace, lifted his trouser leg and wound the straps tightly around his leg.
Moments later the Jews were separated into one line for men and another for women, and forced to file past a doctor seated at a desk who, with the flick of a finger, directed some to the left and others to the right. In the year Eliahu was in the camp he went through this process four times and each time he was sent to the right and from there to a work assignment.
At first he wondered what happened to those who went to the left. His parents were sent to the left. Most of the people that were arrested with him were also sent to the left. Someone said that they were killed and the huge billowing smokestacks in the distance were their ashes.
Now all he had left were his Tefillin and hope. Being young and healthy he managed a bit better than the others. He often gave pieces of his food to others and, when he was sure that no one was looking, he would even let them put on his Tefillin for a minute at a time.
Conditions got worse; the beet 'soup' got thinner and it seemed the bread rations were smaller. Rumor had it that the Germans were losing the war and were short of supplies. But for some reason they kept Auschwitz going twenty four hours a day!
Then early one terrible morning all the prisoners were driven out of their beds and crowded outside in courtyard in 20 below zero weather. Guards and dogs were everywhere! Some guards were pointing rifles. Then the incredible happened; the gates of Auschwitz opened!
It was a death march.
The Germans decided to move the entire camp to avoid being discovered by the approaching American forces. Killing all the 20,000 prisoners would leave too much incriminating evidence. So they decided to march all of them for one full week to a camp hidden deep in the woods of Austria called Gonskirchen.
Needless to say hundreds fell on the way and were left at the roadside for the dogs and wolves. And Gonskirchen was even worse. Eliahu himself related:
"The conditions were impossible to bear. The first week was a week of hunger. The conditions and crowding were inhuman; 2,800 people were crowded into each of the barracks and all each was given was a cup of watered beet soup and a small piece of bread per day. That week was equal in suffering to the entire war. It was a race against death. Each of us knew that the war would end very soon and no one wanted to die so near to freedom but in that week over 5,000 prisoners died. It was horrifying: in Gonskirchen, hunger, thirst, filth, disease, weakness, sleep deprivation and death were everywhere. To this day I cannot get the pictures out of my mind. The visions are before me constantly. Especially at night as soon as I go to sleep I yell sentences in German and wake in a cold sweat. What made things worse was the worry constant that our camp was so well camouflaged and so deep in the forest that if and when the Americans ever found us, no one would be alive!"
Eliahu was desperate. He prayed and kept his eyes open for a break. The Nazis were worried about the Americans and, although the high barbed wire gate and fences were electrified and well guarded, soldiers were deserting and there was a great degree of disorder in the camp. And Eliahu took advantage of it.
One morning he noticed, in back of one of the buildings, what looked like an old uniform and that evening, when no one was watching, he snuck out of the barracks and discovered it was the uniform of an SS officer! Perhaps one of the deserters, afraid the Americans would kill him, abandoned his uniform. In any case it was his only chance. Being tall for his age, he put on the clothes, tried to stand as straight and Nazi-like as possible and strode to the main gate. If the guards stopped him he was dead. He had no papers and one look at him would have given him away.
But he touched his Tefillin for good luck, prayed to G-d for the millionth time and walked……. past the guards…. out of the gate to ….. freedom!
As soon as he was out of their sight the first thing he did was unwind the Tefillin from his leg, kiss them, thank G-d and put them in his pocket for the first time in a year.
He ran and ran, falling exhausted in the snow only to stand and run again. Then on the second day when he was more dead than alive he heard a jeep. Was it the Germans? No! It the Americans! He was saved! But suddenly it dawned on him; when they saw his uniform they would kill him! He began fumbling with his shirt buttons but his hands were so cold he couldn't! Suddenly they were all around him, American soldiers with guns pointed. He raised his hands and one of them motioned to him to empty his pockets.
He knew this was the end. His mind was swimming as he pulled out his Tefillin and held them out. Who knows what they would think they were.
"Suddenly the officer yelled out in Yiddish "Du bist a YID?! Zug Shma Yisroel!" (You're a Jew?! Say Shma Yisroel!!)
The commander was a Jew!
Eliahu began weeping and yelled 'Shma Yisroel, HaShem Elokenu!" And the commander, also weeping, dropped his gun and rushed to hug him.
His Tefillin saved him.
Eliahu moved to Israel, married and had children, but perhaps because he had wrapped the Tefillin so tightly around his leg for so long a time, his leg became seriously infected to the point that the doctors agreed that it was endangering his life and would have to be amputated.
With no choice Eliahu set a date for the operation; the professor operating, although an outspoken atheist, was one of the biggest experts in Israel. But, as could be expected, Eliahu was nervous.
Less than an hour before the operation the professor came to visit him in his hospital room to make a routine checkup and Eliahu made a strange request; he wanted to take his Tefillin with him into the operating room.
"Out of the question" answered the Professor. "The bag is dirty, your Tefillin are unsanitary. Totally forbidden! Why do you want to bring them anyway? Put them on now if you want and pray here. If G-d wants to come into the operating room we won't stop Him." He said half sarcastically.
"Professor" Eliahu answered. "These Tefillin went with me through Auschwitz! They protected me! I beg you! Just let me keep them near the operating table."
The professor was stunned. "These Tefillin were with you in …. Auschwitz?!" He said with damp eyes, staring at the leather boxes and then at Eliahu in disbelief.
"Why" he continued … "the last time I put on Tefillin was at my Bar Mitzva! Could you put these on me now?"
Eliahu sat up in bed and helped the professor to put the Tefillin on and say Shma Yisroel. Then, after he finished and returned them to their bag he ordered a nurse to put them in an airtight plastic bag and bring them, with the patient, into the operating room.
Several hours later Eliahu was beginning to regain consciousness in the recovery room. The first thing he noticed was his Tefillin bag next to his head and the second thing was the professor, smiling.
"The operation was successful!" The professor announced proudly….. "We saved the leg!!"
"My leg? Thank you! Thank G-d" whispered Eliahu groggily. "But who was it that saved the leg?" he asked almost rhetorically.
"The Tefillin" The professor replied.
This answers our question. This Torah portion deals with being saved from death because the goal of the Jewish people is exactly that: to rid the world of suffering and death!
Man was created to live forever (Gen.2:17) but the sin of the Tree of Knowledge and later the sin of the Golden Calf brought death and suffering into the world.
The goal of the Jews is to correct this: to bring the world back to its pure state by following the Torah and its commandments; indeed this is what has miraculously preserved, protected and saved the Jews from total destruction for over two thousand years to this very day as we saw in our story. And this job will be completed by Moshiach
Sounds fantastic but it's more than just true, it's one of the 13 foundations of Jewish faith!
The Moshiach will be a true leader that will awaken the eternal desire in each and every Jew to return to the 'Tree of Life'; namely the Torah and its commandments.
Then not only will the Jews be protected, but the entire world will be freed from pain and suffering.
It's all up to us to make it happen one second sooner. We must do what we can, even one more good deed, to tilt the scales of redemption and reveal …..
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