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From darkness to light

When I was 19, while I was in seminary, I went to Poland for 10 days. This trip included 3 major anniversaries: Sarah Schenirer’s yahrzeit, Elimelech of Lizhensk’s yahrzeit, and the Siyum Hashas. The Siyum Hashas was very special because we were in the exact location that the Daf Yomi was founded by Rav Meir Shapiro — in Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin.

The three main locations people gathered for the Siyum Hashas was (this was in February 2005) Madison Square Garden (NYC), Binyanei Ha’aumah (Jerusalem) and the remnants of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin (Lublin) — all connected on live screens through a satellite. It was truly a euphoric event, etched in my memory forever. The happiness that was being celebrated that evening, after a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of a “page a day of Talmud” was truly tangible. Men were crying, singing, dancing and celebrating in the exact building of its origins — all while connected live with thousands upon thousands of other Jews in Israel and America. I was stunned by the thickness of joy that permeated the air and even though I had not been a participant of the “daf yomi” and I certainly wasn’t having a siyum for anything I had done, watching Torah come alive that night was a truly remarkable experience. But let’s rewind to just a few hours before. 

Earlier that same day we had gone to visit Majdanek (concentration camp) which in my opinion was a far more painful experience than visiting Auschwitz. Auschwitz was very touristy, like a museum that history had been tampered with…it even had a gift shop. A gift shop! But Majdanek, in stark contrast, was literally left as it was from the time it was used as a concentration camp. Almost identical in looks from the days of the Holocaust, it was surreal and haunting. The climax of that horrific afternoon was standing under a dome monument that covered a HUGE pile of human ash with crushed bones inside. It was like standing in front of a murder scene — except it was tens of thousands of murders all piled up into one black mound. It was truly the most horrific moment of my entire life, and I can tap back into that feeling of indescribable pain just by closing my eyes. My soul was frozen, my eyes would not dry, and my lips would not move…for hours. I was absolutely horrified because NOTHING I had ever learned, seen, watched or knew about the Holocaust came even close to this experience. 

These two experiences, euphoria and wordless pain, were on the same day. After having cried all day, and feeling so shaken up and drowning in sadness, I sat there that same evening and experienced one of the most incredibly joyous scenes I ever had in my life. 

I often think about that day in Poland, especially when it comes to Yom Hazikaron spilling into Yom Ha’atzmaut. I am sure that many Jews could say that one time they had a funeral and a wedding on the same day, or a shiva and a bris the same morning, or for Israelis, maybe they had a bar mitzvah the night of a pigua (terrorist attack) that had happened earlier that day. Life in general, and especially for Jews, our days could be filled with extreme feelings. We can feel absolute opposite experiences one could  possibly feel in just a span of a few hours. How does one hold on to two totally opposing circumstances in one day? Humans are not stick shifts- we can’t just change gears. Or can we?

This question, specifically about that segue from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut, was asked to Miriam Peretz, a mother who lost two sons who were separately killed while fighting for Israel. Miriam’s answer was that if you look at creation, we see that G-d created dark before light. The meaning behind this is, we can only truly emerge into light if we are coming from a place of darkness. This might seem morbid, but it is so accurate. Even our first moments on this earth are from darkness to light; the womb into the world. The most heroic and memorable moments of our life many times stem from very dark places. It’s almost as if darkness is a springboard for light. Not a foundation, but a springboard. We use the dark times in our lives to hopefully jump into a better place in the future. 

This year more than ever, the Jewish people felt Yom Hazikaron more deeply — on a totally different level. I cry every Yom Hazikaron when the siren goes off, but they are usually silent private tears. This year it was an outright uncontrollable cry. The level of heaviness shadowed the contrast of total numbers from last year’s fallen soldiers and civilians to this year. Since the Yom Kippur war, there had never been numbers like this, until this year. 

I was recently listening to a podcast where the host was describing horrific details of the famous Kishinev pogrom which occurred in April 1903. This podcast was recorded before October 7th, and when he was describing the evil of the pogrom, he said that the evil perpetrated that day was from medieval times and incredibly primitive in its grotesque manners of war. And that was in 1903! But what he described sounded almost identical to October 7th in its level of atrocities (without comparing the numbers killed/injured.) Cutting of breasts of women, mutilating bodies, smashing baby’s heads, burning people in their homes, rape and the list goes on. And on Simchat Torah this year, history repeated itself as if it was a pogrom from 1903 or from medieval times. 

Logic would dictate that if Yom Hazikaron was more painful this year than other years, for good reason, it would only make sense that it dampened and lessened the happiness of Yom Ha’atzmaut. I mean honestly, every year it is a very hard adjustment but this year specifically it felt impossible to celebrate after such a horrific day. But, and I think anyone would back me up on this, the happiness this year was more palpable than ever before. The singing, the dancing, the musical hallels, the jubilation at the community gatherings- it was more joyous than previous years without a doubt. How could that be? 

The same way that the Siyum Hashas answered the question of Majdanek. Majdanek screamed: “How can we ever go on from this?” and Siyum Hashas yelled back “This is how”. Yom Hazikaron yells out at us, “How are we meant to move on from here?” and Yom Ha’atzmaut shouts back “THIS is how”. Did the six million perish in vain? No, we have Madison Square Garden and Binyanei Haumah (now stadiums) filled with thousands upon thousands of Jews to testify that they did not. Did every soldier and civilian ever killed for being a Jew or an Israeli die in vain? No, we have Medinat Yisrael’s existence to testify they did not. The reason we can have a Jewish state, celebrate independence and live free lives is because of all those who were killed fighting for that freedom. 

This year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut added another dimension of doubt with the hostages still being held in Gaza. But the truth is that light really does come from darkness, and two diametrically opposed feelings can exist simultaneously, especially if one manifests from the other. We can hold the pain of every single day since October 7th until today in one hand, and in the other appreciate and celebrate that after 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish nation came home and re-sanctified the land, built an army that fights off neighboring counties that are far bigger than them, resuscitated a dead language, and became pioneers in innovation! The Jewish individuals who built this country up from the darkness of the Holocaust and Farhud all away to what it is today, were truly trailblazers. They helped future Jews recognize that light can stem from darkness if harvested by willful people. And the Jewish people are certainly a willful people. 

About the Author
Sarah Bechor is a freelance writer in addition to her full-time job as a content writer. She made Aliyah in 2007 and now lives with her husband and 4 children in Gush Etzion.
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