This story made me cry, and I had to share it with you.
A group of inmates in Bergen Belsen stood around watching as their spiritual leader, Rav Yisrael Spira, the Bluzhever Rebbe (look him up, you will be blown away at the righteousness of this man) prepared to light the menorah. But menorah is a euphemism, because this “menorah” was actually an old wooden clog. In place of candles, the inmates had filled it with shoe wax, and the wicks were some threads pulled off their “clothes.” Picture this scene: in the depths of hell, a group of tattered and desperate people gathered to embrace their heritage and celebrate a Chanukah they would always remember.
The Rebbe began singing the blessings over the candles in the traditional tune. Since this was the first night of Chanukah, three blessings were to be said. He sang the first two blessings in a voice that was dulled with pain. “L’hadlik ner shel Chanukah” and “She’asah nissim” had probably never been said in circumstances like those before. And then the Rebbe paused and turned to look at the face of every person in the room. After what seemed like a long moment, he turned back to the menorah and recited, in a voice that suddenly rang clear and strong, the third blessing, “Shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh!”
Later, the Bluzhever Rebbe explained the reason for his pause before reciting the Shehechiyanu, and the sudden obvious change that came over him. Amidst the suffering and persecution, the death and the evil, he suddenly wondered how he could say that third blessing — that You kept us alive, and preserved us, and brought us to this time?! How could he recite this blessing in a time where literally hundreds of dead bodies were lying in the shadow of those very candles he was lighting?! Can one praise Hashem for keeping him alive in order to witness the worst atrocities man has ever seen?
And then, when he looked around the room, the Rebbe understood. There, in the blackest hole on earth, in Bergen Belsen — the depths of hell itself, Jewish people have gathered to light the menorah. Despite their suffering and their anguish, in the face of the murderers themselves, Jews are prepared to serve Hashem and celebrate their tradition. And the Rebbe explained, “I looked and I thought, Master of the Universe, look at Your People! Who else, in the face of death and evil, stands with faith, concentration, and even joy listening to the blessing of thanks for bringing them to this time?! Look how they stand, hanging on to every word of the blessing ‘Who has made miracles for us’, while facing a menorah made of a clog and shoe wax! If now is not the time to bless Hashem for bringing us to this moment, then I do not know what is.”
Our history is full of stories of persecution against us. Those are so common, they are sadly almost unremarkable. What is remarkable is our response to the suffering. A nation that continues to serve Hashem despite the suffering, that chooses to be a light unto the nations in spite of the suffering, that is remarkable. We are a People that forges on and keeps the torch lit, no matter what our circumstances may be.
For us in America in 2017, thank G-d lighting a beautiful menorah, with our choice of colorful candles or oil, is a given. When we stand in our warm, beautiful homes this week and light our menorahs in the window, let us take a moment to really thank Hashem for keeping us alive, preserving us, and bringing us to this time. Let us focus on all the miracles we have been blessed with and the beauty that fills our lives. And let us be filled with gratitude for the opportunity to continue carrying on the torch of our heritage.
Have a wonderful Shabbos and a lichtige (lit up!) Chanukah,
PS Join us on December 25 at 10 am for a special treat – the world-famous Discovery Seminar with guest speaker Rabbi Eliyahu Bergstein! Uncover secrets of the Torah that will blow your minds, and eat kosher Chinese (it is December 25!) for lunch! Babysitting and youth program available, including a Mad Science party. Email Claire at email@example.com to register.
Those of you who had the privilege of going on a JWRP trip to Israel know what that life-changing experience was like. The inspiration, the friendship, the connection to Judaism as a Jewish woman are only some of the things the JWRP trip gave you, and all at a really great price. Now is your turn to pay that gift forward by telling your friends to go to Israel with Aish for an Israel experience that is fun AND inspirational. Send them to jwrp.org, and make sure they click on the Aish St. Louis tab when they apply. Keep the torch lit!