On Pesach Sheini, I always think about the survivors of the concentration camps. It was at this time of year that many of the concentration camps in Germany were finally liberated. When I was growing up in Toronto, there was a Yid named Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, who always celebrated the anniversary of his liberation on Pesach Sheini with a festive seudah, where he would describe the miracles and Hashgocha Protis of his survival. Later, he penned his memories in a fascinating memoir called Destined to Survive. I was friendly with his children and thus became familiar with his Pesach Sheini celebration. Be’ezras Hashem, he will once again be celebrating Pesach Sheini this year – the 73rd anniversary of his liberation – with a festive seudah.
I believe that it is no coincidence that the liberation for so many came about at around the time of Pesach Sheini. After all, Pesach Sheini signifies the power the Torah ascribes to a second chance.
The amazing power to succeed at a second chance, to rebuild what was ostensibly destroyed, forever personifies the survivors of Hitler’s atrocities in World War II.
Succeeding at the Impossible
It was reported that immediately after the war, a psychiatrist who examined the Jewish survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps wrote a medical report stating that the survivors had gone through such profound emotional trauma that it would be absolutely impossible for them to marry, raise families, and live normal lives.
Looking at the world in which we live today, it is clear to us that not only did they marry and rebuild, but they served as the greatest role models to three and four generations of descendants.
I often wonder about and try to contemplate the miraculous revival of these Yidden. I ask myself: How did these Jews, after surviving the indescribable horrors and atrocities of World War II, enduring the loss of all that was dear to them, have the fortitude to continue living?
These orphaned, lost souls, who had lost their parents, brothers and sisters to the fires of the crematorium, and who themselves emerged more dead than alive, beaten and bruised physically and emotionally, not only continued to live, but forged ahead to miraculously build and rebuild a generation of Torah-true Jews in the image of what they lost to the fires of Hitler.
From the Depths of Despair to Gadol BaTorah
This past week, Rav Zachariah Gelley zt”l, rov of K’hal Adath Jeshurun of Washington Heights and a true gadol baTorah, passed away. Just contemplate what he went through and how he was able to survive. As a young boy, he fled the Nazis, hiding with his family. At 12 years old, he experienced the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, with death, torture, agony and destruction everywhere. His father was tortured and ultimately succumbed to typhus due to his weakness.
After the war, Rav Gelley returned to this hometown in Czechoslovakia. At age 13, his widowed mother had no way of procuring tefillin for him in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Destitute, she didn’t know what to do. They dug near the home where the sofer had once lived before he, too, had been deported and they found an old pair of abandoned tefillin. Those became his bar mitzvah tefillin. His bar mitzvah seudah consisted of a few apples that his mother had managed to buy.
His travails didn’t end there. He joined the reopened Nitra Yeshiva and resumed the life of a child, making some friends and starting to learn. Then, when Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl managed to procure visas to move the entire yeshiva to America, for some inexplicable reason his visa never came. He had no choice but to remain all alone in Czechoslovakia without friends, without a yeshiva, without anything. He felt so lonely and broken, but he still soldiered on. Eventually, he got papers to travel to England, while his mother and surviving siblings ended up moving to Australia. Again, this young teen was faced with a decision: Should he remain in England without any family so that he could learn Torah in a yeshiva or should he join his family in Melbourne? He agonized, but then decided that Torah is paramount.
Can we even contemplate the gevuras hanefesh of this young survivor who lived among us until last week?
How Much We Owe Them
These unassuming, seemingly simple Jews whom we all knew, most of whom are today in the Olam Ha’emes, were not and are not at all simple. Rather, they were and are men and women of almost indescribable spiritual and emotional strength. These Jews persevered against all odds, successfully transmitting or actually transplanting much of the mesorah and flavor of prewar Europe to the soil of a country and a culture so radically different from theirs.
The vibrant Jewish life that exists today in Jewish centers the world over was, by and large, built by them and stands as the greatest tribute to their superhuman efforts.
Pesach Sheini is a good opportunity to step back and contemplate the beautiful spiritual edifices that these survivors spearheaded and take a moment to think about what they did for us and the extent of the hakoras hatov that we owe them.
As much as we value them in concept, most of us have never taken the time to think about how much they did for us and how, if not for them, our beautiful communities and mosdos of Torah and chesed would not have been built without them.
Nothing Stands in the Way of True Desire
There is one more lesson that I think we can learn from Pesach Sheini and the survivors: With ironclad ratzon, with a true desire to succeed regardless of what obstacles are placed in our path, we can all merit a second chance, even when the odds seem stacked against us. The main thing is to never give up and to never make peace with a situation until it is rectified.
Let’s think about what happened on Pesach Sheini. There were people who were tamei and were thus precluded from offering the Korban Pesach at the right time. There was no way out. They were tamei. They lost the opportunity.
These heilige Yidden, however, could not and would not make peace with the situation. They refused to make peace with their tamei status.
Yes, they were tamei. Yes, it was too late for them to become pure. But they so wanted tosacrifice the Korban Pesach. They so wanted to draw close to Hashem through the bringing of a korban. But it was too late. They had no recourse…
No Peace with Tamei Status
And yet, they were not satisfied. They went to Moshe Rabbeinu and uttered the famous words, “Lomah nigora?” They said, “We are tamei, we are impure, but lomah nigora? Why should we lose out? Why should we be worse off?”
What kind of question was that? The answer was simple: They were tamei! That was theanswer. End of story. The halacha is that a person who is tamei may not bring a korban Pesach.
Our seforim teach us that what they were saying was that they so wanted to perform this mitzvah and they so sought taharah that they successfully created a new mitzvah, a new reality, all through the power of their deep desire. Their longing and their refusal to make peace with being distanced from kedusha invoked a new outpouring of Heavenly mercy that created the parsha of Pesach Sheini, offering them a second chance.
Pesach Sheini is the Yom Tov of second chances. Pesach Sheini symbolizes the fact that even if one became impure, and even when it seems al pi derech hateva that there is nothing to be done, still, the fact that one will not make peace with the situation, the fact that one desires, despite his exposure to tumah, to again become close to Hashem, can open up new treasure troves of siyata diShmaya to create a new reality.
That is what we all so desire and seek with regard to nisyonos. We beg Hashem to create a new reality, even if, al pi derech hateva, it is too late.
We come together to cry out to Him, declaring, “Hashem, lamah nigara? We don’t want to be turned away from You forever!” We paraphrase the words of Dovid Hamelech: “Al tashlicheini milfonecha veruach kodshecha al tikach memeni – Cast me not away from Your Presence, and take not your holy spirit from Me.”
We will daven and we will cry. We will ask Hashem, our Father, to go beyond the rule of law and open up a path of taharah for us, so that we can have a second chance.
Rav Gelley did it. The other survivors did it. We can do it, too.