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Kenny Schiowitz

The Survivor Nation

This past week, our family suffered the passing of our Bobby, Mrs. Blanche Steinmetz, Batsheva Beila bas Moshe a”h. Bobby was a survivor of Auschwitz and was laid to rest this past Friday, Jan. 27, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Her story of survival, and of her generation, reflects the experiences of other survivor generations in our history, beginning with our escape from the Egyptian persecution. In many ways, our nation can be described and defined as the Survivor Nation.

This past week’s parsha, Bo (Shmos, chapters 12-13), interrupts the narrative of the exodus to teach a series of mitzvos and lessons that will be relevant only after we would leave: Rosh Chodesh, the first-born animals, the redemption of the first-born donkey, tefillin, Pesach, and the annual retelling of the story. The Torah comments that we will observe these mitzvos when we “enter into the land that Hashem promised our forefathers”. In retrospect, this is logical. At the time, however, this message must have stretched the imaginations of the slaves who were on the cusp of a freedom that they could not recognize. Seemingly, Hashem intended to inspire us about our missions and to set our vision on the future, even at this early stage. Would it be possible for a generation who was born into slavery to create a nation state, a religion, and a new narrative? Time would tell.

The Midrash Tanchamu (Beshalach 15) notes that after the Splitting of the Sea, Moshe tore the Jewish People away from the shores of the sea against their will (Shmos 15:23). The midrash speculates that this was because they wanted to continue to collect the jewels of the Egyptians that were washing up onto the beaches of Yam Suf. This midrash foreshadows the People’s recurring desire to return to Egypt to re-experience the comforts, the food and the wealth of the place that they knew. The slaves were taken from slavery but the slavery would be harder to remove from the human psyche and they would not easily gain confidence in the source of their next meal.

Similarly, Ibn Ezra (14:13) notes the fear of the 600,000 adult men who felt trapped between the sea and the hundreds of Egyptian chariots. Despite their larger numbers, they were unable to consider fighting their oppressors who had subjugated and demoralized them over the past centuries. For this reason, he argues, this generation would not be able to fight the Canaanite nations, and this would have to wait for the subsequent generation who would gain the necessary courage. The survivor generation would be laid to rest in the wilderness, unable to carry out this mission. They would be defined by complaints and rebellion, as described in the book of Bamidbar.

This analysis is often offered in critique, or in pity, of the survivor nation that failed to reach its potential. However, I think that this judgment fails to appreciate the enormity of the challenge and their extraordinary accomplishments. This generation marched forward with courage and optimism and displayed youthful faith in Hashem (Yirmiyahu 2:2) despite the profound tragedy that they had witnessed throughout their lives. Their ability to raise children who would be loyal, faithful and confident was super-human. These children would successfully establish a nation in our Promised Land only because of the foundation that was laid by the survivor generation.

Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos, 9) refers to Chananya, Mishael and Azarya as the heroic paradigms of Jewish martyrdom, as they chose the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, rather than bow to his idol. It is striking that the Rambam neglects to mention Rebbe Akiva as the example, who innovated the recitation of Shma at the time of martyrdom and was actually martyred, unlike Chananya, Mishael and Azarya who were miraculously saved. Rambam’s choice highlights the fact that a survivor can also be like a martyr and can create a Kiddush Hashem by upholding Jewish identity despite the risks.

The Rambam lists the mitzva of the daily recitation of Shma immediately after the mitzva of martyrdom (mitzva 10). This represents the Shma of Chananya, Mishael and Azarya who were called upon to continue to say Shma each day, even following the trauma that they experienced. They continued to maintain their faith in Hashem and in our future, and went on to inspire their generation despite the dark times that they survived in. This is the Shma of Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, comparable to the Shma of Rebbe Akiva.

Every generation of oppression in Jewish history was followed by a survivor generation that picked up the remaining pieces and led us in faith and optimism so that we would ultimately survive and thrive. The survivor generation of the Holocaust was most extraordinary. They, like Bobby, witnessed the murder of their families and came to a foreign nation without a dime and without knowing the language of their new lands. They found ways to earn money for survival and they built up Jewish communities, shuls, yeshivos, and mikvaos. They established families that would grow and would carry on their mission. They rebuilt Jewish religion, Jewish identity, and Jewish communities in Israel and in the diaspora. While they never ceased to be haunted by their experiences, they effectively brought our nation forward with extraordinary courage. The following generations added and improved on their work and continue to expand and improve our communities. This is all done as we sit firmly on the shoulders of the giants of the survivor generation. We are humbled and inspired by their accomplishments and must pause to appreciate them, as sadly, we say goodbye to the  survivor of our family.

About the Author
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck and is Associate Principal at the Ramaz Upper School.
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