A Powerful Metaphor, but Does it Work?
“I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach. And even though he tarries, I still await his arrival every day.” Those words form one of the 13 basic principles of faith of the Rambam. Yet, as I write barely a week before Tisha B’Av, I find myself doubtful that this Tisha B’Av will be filled with festive rejoicing.
That glum thought was triggered by watching From the Ashes, a new offering from Aish HaTorah scheduled to be screened in Jewish communities around the world this coming Tisha B’Av. The documentary basically follows Rav Noach Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah, on a visit to the death camps in Poland, together with 60 Aish HaTorah rabbis, interspersed with various participants discussing the experience.
The central metaphor of the documentary – one that is pounded home relentlessly in various ways – is that there is a spiritual Holocaust facing the Jewish people today no less devastating in its implications for the Am Hashem than the physical extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust. Those six million constituted approximately one-third of the Jewish nation. At least two-thirds of Jews today have little connection to the Jewish people, certainly not enough to prevent them from intermarrying.
For Reb Noach, the “spiritual Holocaust” is no metaphor; it is the driving force in his life. And he seeks to make it the driving force in the life of every Jew with whom he comes into contact.
Apathy and passivity were a too common response of American Jewry to the Holocaust. To mitigate the shame and guilt of that apathy, some claim that they did not know what was happening. Others live with the shame. Today, no one can claim that they do not know of the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage on the ranks of world Jewry. They are too well documented. From the Ashes urges our generation to act so that we do not have to live with the shame of our apathy.
The documentary uses the backdrop of the death camps to draw some powerful parallels. Reb Noach invites the rabbis accompanying him – most of whom are presumably former students – to contemplate in detail the determination of Nazis, ym”sh, to wipe out the Jewish people. The Nazis experimented with different means of murdering Jews until they came up with the gas chambers, in which they could murder up to 24,000 Jews a day in Auschwitz. Next they had to find a way to dispose of such a large number of bodies, and experimented with various different methods until they found the most efficient. So much planning, so much thought went into killing as many Jews as possible.
Should we not be willing to expend as much energy, invest as much time, experiment until we find the right solution, and, in general, show as much determination to save Jews, as the accursed Nazis showed to murder Jews, Rav Weinberg asks.
THE PREMISE OF THE COMPARISON between today’s losses to the Jewish people via assimilation and intermarriage to the Holocaust is familiar to all Torah Jews: spiritual alienation from Hashem is a form of death, and even more horrible than physical death. Chazal tell us that the Egyptians were only forbidden to enter into Klal Yisroel for three generations, while the Moabites were prohibited from entering forever; the former only tried to destroy our bodies while the latter tried to destroy our souls.
Despite the familiarity of the concept, the question remains: Does the metaphor of assimilation as a “spiritual Holocaust” work for us? From the Ashes contains one scene of a 23-year-old Israeli young man, with a ponytail, breaking down in piteous sobbing in the death camps. And the film is filled with many such emotion-laden moments.
But does anyone, besides Reb Noach and few refined souls, weep in the same way upon reading the most recent statistics on intermarriage or learning of the latest depravations of one or another of the so-called “streams’ of Judaism, as they do upon visiting the death camps? And if the metaphor does not work for us at that emotional level, despite being solidly grounded in Chazal, why is that?
All of us possess bodies. When we read of the torments inflicted upon Jews on the way to the camps and after arrival – the fetid, overcrowded cattle cars, in which it was impossible to draw a breath of air, to sit or lie down, or to attend to the most basic human needs; the below subsistence diet of watery soup and a slice of bread; the backbreaking labor by undernourished, disease-ravaged Jews, day after day – we can try to imagine that suffering.
In the same way, we can place ourselves imaginatively in the place of mothers faced with the most unbearable choice that any human being could ever be forced to make – which child will you take with you? – or ordered to pass a young child to an old woman destined for the gas chambers and keep on marching to the other line.
But can someone born to a frum family, educated in frum schools, imagine the life of someone who has never been exposed to tefillah, who has never even met a Jew with a real connection to Hakadosh Boruch Hu, who knows nothing of Torah learning or the sweetness of mitzvah observance? (Perhaps that is why Rav Weinberg decided early on in his mission that his most dedicated troops would be drawn from the ba’alei teshuvah themselves.)
The truth is that most of us – even shomrei Torah u’mitzvos – are much more connected to our bodies than our neshamos. Part of the hiddenness of this world is that we are aware of every little ache and pain of our body, but largely oblivious to what is happening to our neshama.
Even further removed from us is the pain of Hakadosh Boruch Hu over His children who know nothing of Him, or the suffering of the Shechina b’Golusa. Reb Noach describes what would happen if someone ran up and asked to borrow a rope so that he could save our drowning son. How we would rush to get the rope. If so, how much more so should we expect that Hashem will give us what we need in order to save His children from spiritual oblivion. But how many of us really identify with Hashem’s pain over His lost children to the point of resolving to work to lessen that pain?
I also suspect that Rav Weinberg underestimates the capacity of even the finest people to remain apathetic. His starting point is that if we knew of another Holocaust today, that all normal life would cease. We would drop everything else and devote ourselves fully to doing whatever we could to stop it. But I wonder.
Two years ago, almost to the day, 8,000 Jews were uprooted from their homes, their communities destroyed, their sources of parnassah taken away. Every once in a while, a new government study catalogues the suffering of those who were uprooted and details the impact on their lives. Sometimes we read the story; sometimes we skip it so as not to feel depressed. But how many of us have done anything to help our fellow Jews, or even gone to visit them to offer a bit of moral support? Do we even give them a thought from one month to the next?
And last of all, how many of us appreciate the extent to which the loss of millions of Jews is our personal loss. The Bais Hamikdosh, according to the Ramban, was a physical manifestation of the unity at Har Sinai when all 600,000 Jews received the Torah “ke’ish echad b’lev echad,” as “one man with one heart.” That unity was the precondition for the dwelling of the Shechinah among us. The loss of millions of Jewish souls, then, represents the amputation of a limb from the collective Jewish people, a loss of the unity upon which depends Hashem’s once more dwelling in our midst. Our deadness to the tragedy, our tragedy is a measure of our distance from Sinai and from the Bais Hamikdosh; a measure of our inability to truly mourn the Churban.
So I don’t expect many of those who view From the Ashes this Tisha B’Av to fully grasp the metaphor, to break down sobbing the way the secular Israeli broke down at Auschwitz. But maybe we can at least shed a tear over our own deadness, which is in the end a measure of our own lack of yearning for the unity of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh, bimeheirah b’yomeinu.
Appeared in Yated Ne’eman.