Etzion News

An English E-Newsletter for Yeshivat Har Etzion Alumni 
 Shavuot 5767


     Reflections on the Trip to Poland
by Rav Yair Kahn
Iyar 5767


Before Pesach, I joined the Yeshiva on a trip to Poland.  At first, when traveling through Poland, I was struck by the fact that there is almost nothing left.  Of course, our tour guide described the past in great detail, but I can hear lectures in Israel as well.  Is this what I came to Poland for, to hear about what once was?  What is left of the death camp in Treblinka?  The crematoria and gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis.  All one can see is a monument constructed after the war.  What does one see in Birkenau?  Huge wide open spaces covered with grass that used to be a death camp.  It looks so serene.  We saw a woman walking through the camp with a baby stroller.  A man riding through on a bike.  Only a few barracks remain intact.  All that is left of the gas chambers is a long ditch.  We stared at the ditch, trying to see what no longer could be seen.  The Lupachova Forest, where so many Jews were shot and buried in mass graves, seems so quiet and peaceful.  It looks like a perfect place for a picnic, with its noble majestic trees, so straight yet gently swaying in the wind.


No, there is not much left to see, but nevertheless, being in the very place where those monstrous events actually occurred had a very profound impact.  I bent down and touched the ground, the same ground that had soaked up the blood of our ancestors, the earth that still hides their bones.  I picked up a rock that had witnessed the slaughter of our nation and asked for its testimony.  I closed my eyes, so that I could see the Jews being shoved into gas chambers under the vigilant watch of the Nazi guards.  I closed my ears, so that I could hear the barking of the dogs, the shouts of the guards, the screaming of the victims.  I listened more closely and I heard someone yell out “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.  Somehow everything became real.  I was there in the very same place, standing on the very same ground, looking at the very same trees.


The war came to an end.  The allies rejoiced, but the Jewish People mourned.  Six million Jews were slaughtered. European Jewry was destroyed.  What was left of our nation?  Scattered survivors, broken in body and in spirit.  What was left of our unique destiny?  We were a People that had nothing but a past.  There was no future to speak of and the present was just too horrible. 


Three years later, the State of Israel was established.  Like the mythical Phoenix, the Jewish People rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.  What had been a broken nation suddenly stood up and declared statehood.  They established Jewish sovereignty over significant portions of the land of Israel.  After 2,000 years of exile, Jewish life returned to the same land that was promised to our forefathers.  Once again Jews walked in the same paths traveled during the first and second commonwealth.  The same land, the same paths, the same ground.


This dramatic historical about-face, from almost total destruction to the beginning of the realization of the dream to return to Zion, in such a short span, is incomprehensible.  For the religious Jew, there is only one explanation: Mei-eit Hashem Hayta zot hee niflat be-eineinu – these events are due to divine intervention; from a human perspective, however, they are absurd.


God communicates with the Jewish People through the historical process.  According to our Sages, when national tragedy befalls, the Almighty is informing us that we must mend our ways.  Therefore, the Torah demands that in response to national calamity, we must cry out to God in prayer and mend our ways.  Maimonides writes: “However if we do not cry out and sound the trumpets, but rather claim that what occurred was simply the way of the world and the calamity occurred through chance, this is the path of those who are grossly insensitive.”  In other words, the Torah explicitly demands that we identify God as the source of tragic events that defy historic causality.  Clearly, an identical reaction must be applied to inexplicable events that reflect God's grace and love of the Jewish People as well.  Therefore, we find that our sages demanded that Hallel - psalms of praise – be recited as a reaction to divine salvation.


Where are we to look when searching for God?  Do we limit ourselves to the miraculous, or do we perceive the hand of providence in the dramatic events which shape Jewish history?  Can one ignore the dramatic sweep of events which began with the Holocaust and culminated with Jewish sovereignty over land of Israel, after 2,000 years of exile?  May one be so grossly insensitive that he does not notice the hand of Providence orchestrating these meta-historical events?


If one weaves the fifth of Iyar into the fabric of historical events, if one treats Yom Ha-Atzmaut not as an isolated point, but as one point of a line, if one integrates the establishment of the State of Israel into the broader context of world events, one who believes in God will readily perceive the hand of God, as it were.  If one considers the re-birth of the Jewish nation in 1948 from the perspective of the death and destruction of 1945, he will cry out “Me’eit Hashem hayta zot hee niflat bi-eineinu, zeh ha-yom asa Hashem nagila ve-nismecha bo.”  These events are due to divine intervention, it is wondrous to our eyes. This is the day in which God acted, let us rejoice and be happy in Him.


(Excerpted from an article by Rav Kahn on The Religious Significance of the Establishment of a Secular State)