When Bergen-Belsen was liberated on April 15, 1945, the sight that greeted the British soldiers was hellish, even by concentration camp standards. In a desperate attempt to bury the dead before the Allies arrived, 2,000 inmates had been made to dig massive burial pits, and yet there were still over 10,000 rotting corpses in heaps all over the camp. In addition to a lack of food, water and basic sanitation, the camp was overrun with typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis.
Over 38,000 prisoners were liberated, but tragically, only ten thousand survived. Many died after liberation due to food bestowed upon them by unsuspecting Allied soldiers that was too rich for their starved bodies to handle.
Howard Klein should have died as well. Ordered by camp guards to drag corpses into the pits, he became so exhausted that he fell in with them.
A short while later, a young woman named Nancy spotted him among the bodies and realized he was still alive. She managed to haul him out of the pit, though no one thought he would live. At her insistence, he was moved to a bunk in one of the barracks. For a week he was too ill to move or speak, but Nancy nursed him back to health.
One day, while she was out trying to get food, he disappeared, having been moved to a hospital by the British. Nancy tried to find him, but eventually gave up looking. Howard spent the next six months recovering in the hospital.
Howard immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where he discovered by chance that Nancy lived, too. He turned up at her door unannounced with a bouquet of flowers, but, as she would later recount, “He just stood there having no idea what to say.” Howard explained: “How does one say thank you to someone for saving your life?”
Three years later they were married.
How did one inmate survive those overwhelming days after liberation when so many others perished?
There is an interesting dialogue between the Jewish people and Moshe in this week’s portion of Vaetchanan, often lost amid the more famous subjects we read this Shabbat.
This Shabbat, after Tisha B’Av, is Shabbat Nachamu, of consolation, We are comforted after the terrible loss of both our Temples. Indeed, the haftarah we read from Isaiah begins, “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.”
As such, one might suggest that all of the topics we read of this week should offer some form of consolation after weeks of mourning. And so it is in this week’s portion we read perhaps the most famous paragraph in the Torah: the first chapter of Shema. And it is no accident that the Ten Commandments are repeated this week, as Moshe recounts them to the generation that will soon enter Israel.
There is an often missed detail in the Ten Commandments, both here in Vaetchanan and in the first recounting in Shemot: the tense changes. In the first two commandments it seems Hashem is speaking directly to the Jewish people (“I am the Lord your G-d; I took you out of Egypt … have no other gods aside from Me”). But afterwards, the verses continue in what seems to be Moshe’s voice (“Don’t take G-d’s name in vain … the seventh day is Shabbat for Hashem your G-d…”).
Why do the Ten Commandments begin with G-d speaking directly to the Jewish people only to see Moshe take over for the last eight?
Jewish tradition (Makkot 24a) teaches that in fact G-d spoke the first two commandments directly, but the people could not handle it, so Moshe transmitted the remaining 611 mitzvot. This is based on the verses in Vaetchanan, in which Moshe recounts to the next generation that their parents at Sinai could not handle direct contact with G-d and begged Moshe to mediate instead.
But didn’t G-d know that the Jewish people would not be able to handle His voice? Why set them up for failure? Indeed, Rashi suggests that Moshe is castigating the people for not wanting to receive the entire Torah directly from G-d; after all, how could Torah received by way of man ever be as meaningful and valuable as that received directly from G-d? Should the Jewish people not embrace the opportunity to come closer to G-d?
And yet, Moshe recounts that G-d agreed with the Jewish people, saying: “What they are saying is good!” So what is this debate between Moshe and G-d?
We so often seek exceptional moments that come so rarely and seem to overpower us. But in the journey of life, we need to value the normal.
The Torah suggests on multiple occasions that fantastic highs do not last. Sinai was an incredible experience, full of sound and fury, thunder and lighting and blasts of the shofar. The only problem was … it did not last. Much like the Jewish people on the morning after Eliyahu brought fire down on Mount Carmel, six weeks after hearing G-d’s voice at Sinai, the Jews frolicked with a golden calf. Shock treatment does not work.
Moshe is described amongst other things, as the paragon of truth: “Moshe emet ve’Torato emet.” Truth is powerful, and splits mountains, but sometimes “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is not the most productive way to go. Sometimes truth needs to sit down.
Imagine your daughter is getting married. On the day of the wedding you arrive at the hall early for photographs, and your daughter suddenly turns to you with a worried look and asks: “Do you like my wedding dress?”
Now, don’t get me wrong: if you don’t think your daughter, on her wedding day, in her wedding dress, is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, then you need therapy. But your answer isn’t about truth, is it?
Sometimes, a softened approach accomplishes far more than overwhelming shock treatment we are often tempted to pursue.
Those Bergen-Belsen inmates could not handle the candy bars shared by their well-meaning liberators. They needed a long, slow nursing of love in order to eventually regain their health.
As the second generation prepared to enter Israel, to conquer the land, Moshe reminded them that some conquests need to happen gradually — something we would all do well to remember.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.