Life Lessons from the Ballerina of Auschwitz

Dr. Edith Eva Eger | Photo by Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens:
Dr. Edith Eva Eger | Photo by Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens:

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there!

FDR was arguably one of the most revered and admired presidents of the great United States. Though he failed to formally acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust, his 12-year presidency propelled our country out of the Great Depression to become the global superpower it is today.

Many thinkers have struggled to identify what exactly was the reason for his astonishing success. But his wife, Eleanor, revealed that one epic disappointment in 1902 influenced him more than anything else to become the legend that he was.

While studying at Harvard, he applied to join The Porcellian—an exclusive student club dating back to 1791, to which his father as well as his cousin, President Teddy Roosevelt, had belonged. Sadly, his application was rejected, and he was crestfallen. He told his relative, W. Sheffield Cowles that this “was the greatest disappointment of [his] life.” However, the inferiority complex he developed by virtue of this propelled him to become an overachiever. Most of the members of The Porcellian were Republicans, and this likely inspired him to break from his own family’s tradition and become a Democrat.

Indeed, things are not as they seem. Failure is success in progress. Had FDR been granted his wish, WWII might well have had a dramatically different outcome!

This profound wisdom is taught to us in the opening verse of Parshas Re’eh, as it reads:

“See, I am giving you today the blessing and the curse”
(Deuteronomy 11:26)

The Kabbalists translate the word “curse” in this verse as “exchange,” wherein G-d notifies us that He is giving us “either a blessing or its exchange.” What is this supposed to mean? Why would the Torah shy away from using the word “curse” and choose the word “exchange” in its place?

In a sermon delivered on this Shabbos on August 13, 1966, the Rebbe explained that in this curious quandary, the Kabbalists were trying to enlighten us as to the very nature of evil as we redefine the meaning of the bad things that happen to us. An item is only exchanged for something similar to it, never with something opposite to it. By calling curses “the exchange of the blessing,” the Torah is telling us that curses are actually blessings in disguise.

(This translation by Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, is the earliest translation of Torah who translated it into the vernacular Aramaic. Living 2000 years ago just prior to the destruction of our Second Temple by the Romans, he was the foremost student of the famous Hillel. The Sages related that his holiness was so intense, that while he was busy studying the holy Torah, a bird flying over him at that moment would be burned!)

When he wrote his commentary on the Torah, the Talmud relates that the Holy Land trembled and a heavenly voice called out: “Who has dared to reveal My secrets to mortal men?” Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel then arose and declared: “I am the one responsible for revealing Your holy secrets to mankind. But not to do myself honor, nor for the glory of my ancestors did I do this, but solely so that the Jews may understand what the Prophets have told them.”

The tomb of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel in the mountains of Safed (Tsfat) | Photo by Michael Jacobson:

His resting place in the Galilee is in a place called Amukah. Legend has it that anyone who prays there for marriage will find his spouse within the year. Thousands of people pray at his grave each year. In fact, one of my cousins met his wife through an amazing encounter just hours after praying at this holy tomb.)

The founding principle behind this paradigm shift is that G-d is essentially good and therefore everything that comes from Him is only good. Hence, the Torah tells us explicitly that “No evil descends from Above” (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 51:3; Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh section 11) and “by the command of the Most High, neither good nor evil come” (Lamentations 3:38).

Essentially what this means is that everything that happens to us is good—if we can see the good, then it’s revealed good; if we can’t, then it’s hidden good. The Ballerina of Auschwitz, Edith Eger, was a guest speaker in our Shul a few years ago. This woman who was forced to dance before Dr. Joseph Mengele for her survival, while her family was being gassed in Auschwitz, endured indescribable suffering. We sat with mouths agape as she declared that “Auschwitz was the greatest classroom I ever experienced. Nothing happens without a reason, and I chose to learn the lessons that G-d was teaching me, despite the harsh manner in which they were taught to me.”

She said that “You cannot heal what you cannot feel. Hence, you have to have the courage to face yourself. Develop the courage to face your demons instead of trying to overcome them… Everything that happens is for a profound reason. And if we’re not ready to understand it, then you have to try harder.”

Watch the full interview with Dr. Edith Eger, titled “The Ballerina of Auschwitz” by clicking here:

Indeed, the Torah is telling us here that there are no such things as curses, only hidden blessings. It’s up to us to utilize our wisdom to decode these setbacks into the advances that they are destined to be. I have personally experienced the greatest lessons of my life through the darkest struggles that I have endured, and I have come to realize that wisdom begins at the end of your comfort zone. In a deeply personal way, I have come to perceive that pain is your teacher, as it will take you to places into which you’d never have willingly ventured.

I know that this is a difficult pill to swallow. It might be the most difficult challenge that you ever have to overcome. As you reflect on the suffering that you’ve been through in your life, given the choice, would you elect to never have experienced that pain? In an acutely mystical manner, the suffering that challenged us to our limit uncovered unknown depths within our beings that we would never otherwise have tapped into.

Making the decision to view things differently is the key to switching from a victim mentality to that of a victor. As Dr. Edith Eger said: “Suffering is universal; victimhood is optional.” Only when we muster the courage to find the light within our own hearts, will the light of consciousness shine on all of humanity, as we usher in the era of higher consciousness—the era of Moshiach.

Rabbi Dovid Vigler
Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens

6100 PGA Blvd, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418 | 561.624.2223

Instagram @JewishGardens

About the Author
Raised in South Africa and educated in some of the finest Yeshivas in Israel, England, New York, and Australia, Rabbi Dovid Vigler strives to share the beauty and depth of Judaism in a clear, conversational, and down-to-earth manner. Whether in private counseling, relatable sermons, weekly email broadcasts, or in his popular Torah classes on social media, he reaches out to every Jew with unconditional love, patience, and compassion. His inspirational talks and uplifting messages can be found on and
Related Topics
Related Posts