from the heart of jerusalem

Let’s consider what’s really important in life


There is a powerful story I heard many years ago but never shared publicly, considering it too fantastic to possibly be true. But having recently read an accounting of it in Yitta Halberstam’s “Small Miracles of the Holocaust,” I had the opportunity to ask a Hungarian Auschwitz survivor who recalled that this story had made the rounds in Auschwitz.

In the fall of 1944, as Hungary’s last remaining Jews were being sent to the gas chambers, a commandant decided to dispatch every Jew under age 18. Normally youth in their later teens were sent to the labor battalions, receiving a reprieve from the gass chambers. On the last day of Sukkot, the festival of rejoicing, the SS officer took special pleasure in condemning 50 more young Jewish men, especially as they had thought that, given their age and relative good health, they would be sent to work rather than death.

As the doors were closed and the reality of their situation began to sink in, for some reason there was a delay in the gas and the hundreds of Jews trapped in the chambers stood waiting. By 1944 most of the Jews knew what was coming, and one could hear the silent sobs and painful mournful undertones as the Jews awaited their deaths.

Then one young yeshiva student sprang up and shouted:

“Brothers! Today is Simchat Torah, when we are meant as Jews to rejoice in the Torah! We have one last chance to celebrate the gift of Torah, let us celebrate Simchat Torah one last time!”

And with that he began to sing the well-known words of a song sung in many communities on Simchat Torah: “Ashreinu, ma’tov chelkeinu, u’ma’ naim goraleinu” (“How happy are we, how good is our lot, and how pleasant is our fate”).

As they were singing and clapping the same commandant walked by and heard the joyous sounds emanating from the gas chamber. Confused, he ordered the doors opened and soon became enraged. Pointing at one of the young yeshiva boys, he demanded an explanation, at which point one of the yeshiva boys responded: “We are rejoicing because leaving a world where Nazi beasts reign is cause for celebration! We are soon joining our loved ones in the world of truth and leaving your murderous world behind.”

The commandant was so infuriated at their joy that he ordered them taken out of the gas chamber, promising them an even sorse fate.

But “fate” had a different plan. A much higher ranking officer arrived the next morning with orders to procure a few hundred laborers for an important Nazi project. Happening upon this young group he had them all loaded on trucks bound for safer work; legend has it they all survived the war.

How did a group of boys in Auschwitz find the strength not just to survive, but to actually rejoice, in a gas chamber in Auschwitz?

This week we leave the Sukkah and enter Simchat Torah, signifying the celebration of the completion of the year-long reading of the Torah. What is the connection?

Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his Darash Moshe, points out (quoting the Yotzer of the second day of Sukkot) that the mitzvah of the Sukkah is equivalent to all of the mitzvot in the Torah (“ke’neged kol hamitzvot shkulah”), which is somewhat puzzling. What are we meant to be 

Two of the most famous rabbis in Jewish history debate the nature of these booths we call Sukkot. According to the Talmud (Tractate Sukkah 11b), Rabbi Eliezer says the Sukkot represent the clouds of glory (the ananei kavod) which miraculously protected the Jews in the desert.

Rabbi Akiva, however, believes we are commemorating actual sukkot (booths) that the Jews dwelled in for 40 years in the desert, which protected them from the elements until they finally entered the land of Israel, their permanent home — a strange point of view to say the least.

What was so special about booths in the desert? Obviously, if a nomadic people are wandering the desert for 40 years they will build huts and booths much like the Bedouin still do today. So what is it we are celebrating?

Rav Moshe Feinstein in his Darash Moshe suggests that we think or at least often behave as though the world as we see it is reality and that the mitzvot and Torah Hashem gives us are the illusion. But in truth, this world, with its emphasis on materialism and the things we accrue, is the illusion and it is temporary, whereas Hashem, as represented by the clouds of Glory, is the true reality. If we truly understood this, we would live entirely different lives.

As an example, Rav Moshe says that sometimes financial experts will recommend that a particular stock is almost a guarantee and, as a result, a person will invest heavily only to discover that the experts were wrong. Conversely, sometimes a person will throw money at an idea which makes no sense, or spend a fortune on lottery tickets, and become wealthy overnight.

The Chofetz Chaim points out that all the earnings of a person are determined by Hashem in advance, such that even though we certainly have to do our bit to be partners in the world, that actually has little to do with how much we will actually earn. And if a person could really own this idea he would not be stressed with the fluctuations of the stock market.

Imagine a doctor tells a person he has six months to live: it is fair to assume such a person would reprioritize his life, and the endless email and social media, stock trading and board meetings, would seem much less important. Indeed for those six months, what had appeared to be a death sentence would actually be a life sentence as this person could rediscover the true gift of life.

We forget that we have all been seen by the “doctor,” and it has been determined how much time we have here; the only question is whether we remember this every day.

The clouds of glory, suggests Rav Moshe, represent the world and reality as it truly is, and the Sukkot, the actual huts rabbi Akiva refers to, are the world as we see it. We move into our temporary huts to remember what our priorities should be, and what the world is really about.

This actually explains an interesting question: 

During the festival of Sukkoth we add a one line prayer to the blessings after a meal: “HaRachaman Hu’ Yakim Lanu Sukkat David Ha’Nofalet” (“May the merciful one raise up the fallen Sukkah of David”).

This is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, the holy Temple, yet the Beit ha’Mikdash is referred to here as a Sukkah, a strange term to say the least. A Sukkah, after all, is a temporary hut, which the Temple certainly was not. In fact if there was ever a structure in Judaism which was not meant to be temporary, it was the Temple!

Unless, of course, that is the whole point: the Beit HaMikdash was meant to be an environment where we could so feel Hashem’s presence that we immediately understood what in life was important and what was temporary and a waste of time.

Sukkot challenges us to consider what things in life really last forever.

Perhaps those boys in that terrible place in Auschwitz got a glimpse of what was really important in life, and what really is eternal. And from this understanding, we are ready to embrace and dance with the Torah and see its recipe for a joy-filled meaningful life as the reality and priority and not just a temporary opportunity to rejoice.

Wishing all a wonderful holiday and a chag sameach from Jerusalem.