“Rabbi, this is too much for me to handle.”
“Rabbi, why is this happening?”
“Rabbi, how will this end?”
These are just some of the questions posed to me over the last few weeks since Oct. 7.
The truth is, I wish I had the answers.
I wish there were a simple and obvious way to understand the evils of the world around us, the atrocities committed against our people in Israel, and the antisemitism that has been rapidly spreading across the United States and elsewhere in the West.
The inability of leaders and politicians, including some local ones, to condemn antisemitism and unequivocally support Israel’s war of self-defense has been heartbreaking and at times frightening and debilitating.
But then last week, I attended a birthday party.
Not just any birthday party. This was the 90th birthday of my wife’s Zaidy, Rabbi Nissan Mangel.
Zaidy Mangel is one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz. In honor of his 90th birthday and nearly 80 years since his liberation, Zaidy celebrated by taking his entire family to see the site of the inferno that he emerged from.
So, together with my wife, Sarah, and our five children, and more than 90 cousins, aunts and uncles, we made the journey to Poland to celebrate Zaidy.
A somber place for a celebration you may be thinking. Well, I thought that, too, at first. But then, there at Auschwitz, a factory of horrors and inhumanity, Zaidy told an incredible counter-narrative story of miracles.
Right there at the location of the infamous selection that sent millions to their deaths, Zaidy turned to us and said, “Do you understand what a miracle it was that I was chosen for life? No adult thought they would survive the selection, let alone a child. Do you see the miracle?”
At the location of Dr Joseph Mengele’s infamous experiment infirmary, Zaidy continued, “Anyone that went into this so-called hospital knew that this was their end. Do you see how G-d saved me? Not once, but twice I was in this infirmary and I emerged unscathed. Children, do you see the miracle? Mengele is gone and we are here!”
Standing at the remnants of the gas chambers that consumed over a million souls, Zaidy would not claim the victimhood he
rightfully earned. Instead, he said: “Look here! Whoever walked into these ovens was never seen again! I was inside these gas chambers, and G-d saved me. Do you see why we need to thank Him?”
Like this it went, on and on, which got me thinking. Is this the secret to Zaidy’s unlikely survival?
Was Zaidy among the relatively few who survived the horrors of the Holocaust because, throughout the misery, he clung firmly to his faith and belief that everything comes from G-d, and accepted with humility that we cannot understand His ways. Because he trusted in Him, his eyes were open to notice the miracles he experienced in Auschwitz and was thankful for them all the while.
As we face a historic rise in antisemitism, are we noticing the miracles of our survival today as they play out in real time? If we are to emerge stronger from the horrific circumstances of today, we must open ourselves up to experiencing the miracles of our existence. The daily stories that are emerging from war in Israel. The miracle of unprecedented Jewish unity that has solidified in the last few weeks. The miracle of Jewish observance which has dramatically increased as a result of the unity we are experiencing.
Once we open our eyes to the miracles around us, we can then be thankful to G-d for them. And of course, we can demand some more.
How do we do that? Let’s start by showing some appreciation.
Double down on your Jewish pride. Instead of taking down your mezuzah, find a friend who does not have one and encourage them to put one up. Wrap tefillin, light Shabbat candles or find another mitzvah that you connect with and do it publicly. And all the while, remind G-d that we expect more miracles because we know He can do it.
When we arrived at Auschwitz, Zaidy pointed to the cattle car that transported scores of Jews in the most inhumane fashion. Packed in the ventless moving prison, many did not survive even the journey to Auschwitz. Standing there at the location of his disembarkment from the cattle car, Zaidy proclaimed, “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who performed a miracle for me at this location!”
Because, indeed, Zaidy saw a miracle in his arrival at Auschwitz.
If there is a miracle to be found in arriving at Auschwitz in 1944, we can find the miracles today.
When we are thankful for them, we become worthy of even more. PJC
Rabbi Henoch Rosenfeld is the director of Chabad Young Professionals of Pittsburgh.