Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Reading Etty Hillesum on Yom Hashoah 2020

Etty Hillesum (WikiCommons)
Etty Hillesum (WikiCommons)

Etty Hillesum began writing her diary at age 27 in 1941 Amsterdam and died two years later in Auschwitz at age 29. She also wrote a series of letters from the Westerbork camp to friends on the outside who saved them. The diary and letters were later published as a nearly-800-page book. There are shorter versions of the book in various languages as well.

When we first meet Etty, she is a spiritual seeker committed to working on herself, with all of her human weaknesses. When we say goodbye to her as she leaves on a train from Westerbork to Auschwitz, we understand that she indeed found the inner peace for which she was looking.

Etty threw a letter from that train, which was later found and reads: Opening the Bible at random I find this: “The Lord is my high tower.” I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special order from The Hague. We left the camp singing.”

The ability to bear witness to Etty’s journey through her writings is an invaluable gift to humanity. I read the book one Yom Kippur from start to finish. I could not put it down, until I had to at the end, and knew that I would be returning to it again and again. Especially in challenging times.

Dina Awwad, a Palestinian woman, and Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon, a Jewish-Israeli woman, chose 100 excerpts from Etty’s diary and made them into cards in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Their intention is to bring individual and collective healing and peace to the world through Etty’s writings. The cards can be ordered via this link.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-10 pandemic, I have found myself turning to her diary and these cards for insight on how to live in this new reality. Today, on Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, “Yom Hashoah V’Hagvurah”, I would like to share with you a few quotes I have found especially helpful in these times (although I highly recommend reading the entire diary and ordering the cards, as it was hard for me to narrow my selection down to just these).

As you meditate on these quotes from Etty’s writings, remember when and under what circumstances she wrote them. I will let her words speak for themselves:

“Suffering is not beneath human dignity. I mean it is possible to suffer with dignity and without. I mean: Most of us in the West don’t understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead. We cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred and despair.”

“Most people carry stereotyped ideas about life in their heads. We have to rid ourselves of all preconceptions, of all slogans, of all sense of security, find the courage to let go of everything, every standard, every conventional bulwark. Only then will life become infinitely rich and overflowing, even in the suffering it deals out to us.”

“You must continue to take yourself seriously. You must remain your own witness, marking well everything that happens in this world, never shutting your eyes to reality. You must come to grips with these terrible times and try to find answers to the many questions they pose. And perhaps the answers will help not only yourself but also others.”

“How really beautiful life really is. An inexplicable feeling. It has no anchor in the reality in which we now live. But surely there are also realities other than those one reads about in the paper and hears in the thoughtless and inflamed talk of frightened people? There is also the reality of that small rose-red cyclamen and of the wide horizon one can keep on rediscovering behind all the noise and confusion of the times.”

“One moment it is Hitler, the next it is Ivan the Terrible; one moment it is inquisition and the next war, pestilence, earthquake, or famine. Ultimately, what matters most is to bear the pain, to cope with it, and to keep a small corner of one’s soul unsullied, come what may.”

“Even as we die a terrible death, we are able to feel right up to the very last moment that life has meaning and beauty, that we have realized our potential and lived a good life.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2020. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.