Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Coping with Difficulties
To dedicate this lesson

A Tree Grows In Jerusalem


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

"The days of our lives are seventy years," wrote King David in his Psalms. While life expectancy in Israel has blessedly reached 80, and even beyond ­ we now rank 13th highest in the world - that number, seventy, continues to symbolize an entire era, a chapter in the book of history that can now be more accurately reviewed and researched with the perspective of time.

It is now 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, a somber, sobering anniversary marked with countless gatherings, memorial services and candle-lighting ceremonies. Though Auschwitz and all it implies will never be completely unraveled or understood - the number of Jews murdered there rises with each passing study - reflections on the legacy and moral lessons of the Shoa continue apace, and they vary wildly. Survivors pilgrimage to this ghastly site and pledge, with aging fists held high, "Never Again!" At the same time, the BBC - perhaps in a fit of wishful thinking, mindful of how much Jewish blood the British, and all of Europe, for that matter, have on their hands - boldly proclaims, "Is it time for the Holocaust to finally be laid to rest?"

One of the most insightful approaches to tragedy and trauma was outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic 1969 book, "On Death and Dying." She identified 5 reactions, or stages, that accompany grief and catastrophic situations. While her emphasis was on the individual sufferer, I believe her analysis can also be applied to collective calamities, such as the Shoa. And so I paraphrase them here:

STAGE 1: Shock, Disbelief and Denial. In the years immediately following the war, the world - including many Jews - could not believe that such a pervasive, massive, intricately-planned and executed mechanism of genocide could have been carried out with such gruesome success. How could so many Jews, from so many places - from Oslo to the boot of Italy, and virtually every place in between - have been systematically identified, rounded-up and slaughtered with such devilish efficiency? Even now, with all the thousands of books written on the subject, we shake our heads and struggle in vain to grasp the enormity of Germany's crime, and the scope of our loss. At the same time, we must also contend with the plague of Holocaust denial, a fundamental device of both left and right-wing extremists - not to mention much of the Arab world - in their obsessive drive to re-write history as part of their campaign to defame both Israel and the Jewish People.

STAGE 2: Anger. Injustice breeds frustration, which in turn boils over into anger. There were so many people and places towards which to vent our fury after the Shoa. Of course, the Germans were the primary recipients of our rage, but dozens of other nations were either complicit in their collaboration with the Nazis, or conspicuous in their inaction. How could we ever trust our host countries again? How could we return to face neighbors who turned on us and turned us in, or cheered - even inwardly - at our fate? We had learned, all over again, that the Diaspora could be a very dangerous place for Jews. We could not bear to resume life in the places that had rejected us; we sought new, safe havens. And so we gravitated in large numbers to the few places that had not abused us, primarily America - which, despite some ugly stains on its own record of rescue, had finally turned the tide of war against Germany - and the fledgling State of Palestine/Israel, which welcomed the survivors with open arms.

STAGE 3: Guilt. There was plenty of guilt to go around, once the camps had been liberated. While many of the leading criminals were judged at Nuremberg, most of the rank-and-file Nazis and their accomplices escaped the hangman’s noose and were never punished for their crimes. Many nations tried to pretend that they were not guilty, that they, too, were victims rather than victimizers; Austria, Holland, Poland and several of the Balkan states were among the worst offenders. Much of Europe sought - and still seeks - to assuage their Shoa guilt by focusing on Israel's "crimes," obscenely comparing our treatment of the "poor Palestinians" to the Nazis’ treatment of us. But the gentile world was not alone when it came to grappling with this issue; we Jews also carry pangs of guilt: Why did we not heed the warnings of what was coming; why did we not see the approaching storm? Why did we not flee Europe when we had the chance, brief a window as there was? And for those who WERE safe in their host countries during the war, did we do enough for our fellow Jews caught in the maelstrom? And even today - as the Claims Conference stubbornly sits on more than a billion dollars in undistributed funds ­ can we honestly proclaim that we are taking care of the survivors in our midst?

STAGE 4: Depression. It takes a Herculean effort to recover, to function normally again after the events of the Holocaust. The sheer weight of the pain, the loss, the tears is immense. How can one possibly go on when he has suffered so much, when he has seen his whole world torn away from him? How can he regain his self-respect and his confidence in his fellow man after having been reduced to a slave, a number, an unwanted, discarded dreg of humanity? The survivors were super-human in their resolve to build their lives again; they married and made babies in the DP camps, they found new homes, they started from nothing and made a name for themselves, amassing fortunes and contributing in disproportionate amount to their new societies, including and especially Israel. Against all odds, they clung to the belief that Life is Hope, and Hope is Life.

STAGE 5: Closure, Acceptance and Resolution. This is the hardest part of the process, regaining our moral and emotional balance. How can we, as a nation, come to grips with what we have seen or endured? How can we reconcile an all-powerful God of mercy with the murder of more than a million children? If the world has purpose, and history has a guiding hand, where was it during those awful years of the Shoa? And if the universe is random and direction-less, then what is the point of it all? How do I know that mankind will not sink once again into the depths of depravity, with even greater ferocity and mass destruction?

Perhaps the answer to this final question, the key to closure, was provided, fittingly, this past week with the unique little holiday of Tu B'Shvat. For centuries this day was nothing more than biting on some tasteless carob bark, or waxing poetic, from afar, upon the figurative Seven Species of the Holy Land. But the creation of the State of Israel has brought the holiday to life. It has caused the day to sprout, to blossom into a beautiful expression of planting, of growth, of bringing forth life from dormant soil.

The Talmud tells the famous story of Choni Hama’agel, the "Circle-drawer." One day, as Choni was traveling along the road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?" Choni asked the man.

"Seventy years," the man replied.

"Do you really think that you will live for another 70 years?!" Choni asked, somewhat cynically.

The man replied, quite calmly, "I found carob trees growing when I was born - because my ancestors had planted them for me - and so I, too, now plant them for my own children."

Choni sat down to have a meal, and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a cave grew around him, hiding him from sight. He continued to sleep for 70 years. When he awoke, he saw what looked like that same man gathering beautiful fruit from the carob tree.

"Are you the man who planted this tree?" Choni asked, in amazement.

"No, I am his grandson," the man replied. "I am enjoying what was planted for me, even as I will now plant for others."

70 years after the horror of Auschwitz, the Jewish People have been replanted in the glorious State of Israel, which has flowered beyond our wildest dreams. If there is any resolution, any glimmer of hope to be found among the ashes of the Shoa, it is in the fertile soil of this marvelous land, where dreams still flourish and where the path of history is coming, at long last, full circle.
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