Jogging the Memory
Summoning up the past is not always so easy
have been back to Ohr Somayach twice in recent months — once for a pre-Shavuos dinner and this past Shabbos for a mentor's mission, in which balabatim and rabbanim from America pair off with college students for a week of learning and shared conviviality.
Though Ohr Somayach is far from my only alma mater, the feelings aroused are very different from those strolling around the University of Chicago quadrangle. The latter brings back many happy memories, but the former is the place where, together with my wife, my entire life changed dramatically over the summer of 1979. Many of our closest friends to this day are those who went through the same experience with us.
It helps that the Ohr Somayach beis medrash remains, as far as I can tell, absolutely unchanged from the time I was there, right down to the sets of seforim that the talmidim keep on their desks. At the pre-Shavuos gathering, sitting opposite from me, was one of the first people I met when I walked into my first Gemara shiur. Today, he directs one of the yeshivah's major programs. Further down the table sat Rabbi Mordechai Pearlman, one of my favorite Gemara rebbis. Only Rav Mendel Weinbach and Rav Nachman Bulman, zichronam livrachah, were missing.
On this past Leil Shabbos, Rosh Yeshivah Rav Nota Schiller told the college students, "We deal in evidence, not absolute proofs." Those words brought me straight back to a conversation in his office with my wife and myself, just a few weeks after we arrived in Israel on our honeymoon.
One of the mentors mentioned that he is a relative of Rav Yisroel Rakovsky, the longtime rosh yeshivah of Ohr Somayach Monsey. I was given Rav Rakovsky as a chavrusa for all of one day back then, to convince me to stay. It must have worked. Everything he said to me that day remains emblazoned in my memory. I remember him showing me in the Gemara a seemingly implausible derashah of Chazal on a verse, and telling me that the Malbim has a sefer of 613 hermeneutical rules in which he demonstrates that these derashos are all systematic. I also recall his ability to identify the exact source of any verse cited in the Gemara. As he explained, "We all remember what's important to us."
On these recent visits, I discovered how easy it is to return, as if in a time capsule, to that magical summer when our entire future was turned upside down. The reminders are everywhere.
The Pain of Distance
But summoning up the past, especially when it is not one's personal past, is not always so easy.
The most disconcerting thing about a recent visit to Berlin was the feeling of normalcy. I did not feel that I was standing in the very city from which a great fire went out that consumed the entire European Jewish world.
The eastern section of the city, formerly known as East Berlin, in which most of the Orthodox community is located, is highly cosmopolitan, and few of those seen on the street fit the stereotype of the classic Aryan. Not once did I feel threatened as I walked back and forth between my hotel and the focal point of the community at 33 Brunnenstrasse. (Granted, shortly after my visit, there were some serious anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany.)
True, I have read numerous Holocaust memoirs, seen reels of documentary films from the camps, visited four or five of the world's best Holocaust museums, and studied the development and execution of the Nazi master plan — but even that was not enough to keep the history of Berlin, the former Nazi capital, constantly before me.
It's not that reminders were totally absent. On my first night in the city, we walked past the old Reichstag, the 1933 arson attack on which provided Hitler, yemach shemo, with the pretext he needed to suspend civil liberties and assume dictatorial control. And later in the trip, someone pointed out the stolperstein — small brass, cobblestone-sized plaques placed in the sidewalk in front of buildings with the names, dates of birth, dates of deportation, and of death, if known, of those deported from that address. The project was initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992.
But these reminders were insufficient to remove the overall ambience of being in a "normal" European city.
My disquiet about not feeling the horror of the Holocaust while in Berlin pales, however, compared to similar feelings of being disconnected from the past in Jerusalem, my home for nearly 40 years. I remember my grandmother telling me how her own grandmother told her when she was a girl that only the greatest tzaddikim merit to see the Holy City. Yet despite hundreds of visits to the Kosel, only rarely do I access that awe or awaken in the morning filled with joy that I'm among those privileged to live and raise his family in Jerusalem. Perhaps the knowledge, unavoidable in my case, that one does not have to be a tzaddik to visit, or even to live here, has cost me the sense of wonderment of my great-great-grandmother.
Occasionally, looking out over the magnificent view from my Har Nof balcony to Ein Kerem opposite and the lush valley in between, I wonder whether those coming up to Jerusalem for the regalim came over those same hills rising before me and whether that will again be part of the route when the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt. But for the most part my thoughts about my city are far more mundane.
Never do I feel more distant from what I should be feeling than on Tishah B'Av. One Tishah B'Av, after the haneitz minyan at the Kosel, an acquaintance asked me to bring a message about a bris that afternoon to the late Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapira, who was to be the sandek. Rav Shapira's yeshivah was then in Har Nof, and I entered the beis medrash during Kinnos to find the Rosh Yeshivah on the floor with tears literally pouring down his face.
I will never forget the sight, or the reminder of how distant I am from that intense sense of loss. The Beis Hamikdash, the korbonos, Yerushalayim filled with an endless stream of pilgrims, are far too removed from anything I have ever seen or experienced to make them present in my mind. There are no memories to be reignited by a return to the source of those memories. No documentaries or memoirs either.
Back to the Present
Yet we are told that the key to one day seeing the rebuilt Yerushalayim is to mourn for what we have lost. How can we mourn for what we have never experienced?
Rav Moshe Shapira hinted to a possible approach based on the status of Tishah B'Av as a moed. A moed signifies that to which everything is moving. The grave is referred to as the beis moed lekol chai (Iyov 30:23), the place to which all life goes. And the Ohel Moed — the Tent of Assembly —was the destination toward which the Jewish People journeyed on the pilgrimage festivals.
The commentators learn that the same verse that hints to Tishah B'Av as a moed hints to Rosh Chodesh as a moed (see Rashi to Eichah 1:15) The reappearance of the moon, one of the heavenly bodies, on Rosh Chodesh demonstrates to us that chiddush, renewal, is possible within the natural order itself — that everything we now experience as the natural order will one day be transformed and a new light brought to the world.
From that point of view, perhaps we can begin our mourning by focusing on the present, on that which we can see with our own eyes, and considering how far we are from the world that Hashem wants for us and which it is His intention to bring into being. We live in a world in which Hashem's sovereignty is denied. The British government today insists that every child, even those in Torah schools, be taught that naturalistic — i.e., godless, explanations for the Creation of the universe and the inception of life are perfectly adequate (which is, inter alia, scientific nonsense).
And His chosen people remain generally despised, often no more so than on elite campuses once thought the repositories of Western civilization. Contemplation of where we are today, and the distance that must be traversed until knowledge of Hashem fills the world, should be quite enough to put us in profound mourning
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, Jewish Ethics, The Three Weeks & Tisha B'Av
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