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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

Monday, the 28th of Nisan, is Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day which was designated by the Knesset to coincide not only with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising but also to remember that it was during the period of Sefira when, as the Knesset resolution articulated it, “the great-grandparents of the Nazis, the Crusaders,” massacred Jewish communities in Germany at the end of the Eleventh Century. 

I share with you a heart–rending but also inspiring incident which took place on the first night of Pesach 1944 in Bergen-Belsen. The entire community of Rotterdam had just been transferred to Bergen-Belsen with their revered leader, Rabbi Aharon Davids. I need not tell you how awful conditions were in the camp: Daily back-breaking work and barely subsistence nourishment.  How, the Jews of Rotterdam asked their rabbi, can we observe Pesach this year? On that Seder night Rabbi Davids sat at the head of a table in the men’s barracks and conducted the Seder from memory for his starving brethren. The highlight of our Seder, of course, is when we have completed the Mitzvah of Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, lift up the Matzot, and recite the Bracha of:

אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו על אכילת מצה

What is one to do when not only is there absolutely no possibility of having Matzah for Pesach but when one’s very survival depends on eating bread, the only food the Nazis supplied, on Pesach?

Just at that point of his Seder Rabbi Davids lifted his voice and proclaimed:

אבינו שבשמים
Our Father in heaven—

הנה גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ולחוג את חג הפסח באכילת מצה ובשמירת איסור חמץ
It is clear to You that we desire to do Your will and to celebrate Pesach by eating Matzah and refraining from Chametz.

אך על זאת דאבה לבנו--
but we are sick at heart—

שהשיעבוד מעכב אותנו ואנחנו נמצאים בסכנת נפשות--
because our oppression prevents us [from fulfilling these Mitzvot] and we are in mortal danger.

הננו מוכנים ומזומנים לקיים מצוותך וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם וליזהר מאזהרה השמר לך ושמור נפשך מאוד --
We are ready and willing to fulfill your commandment that "we live by the Mitzvot and not die by them” and to heed the warning {Devarim 4:9}: "Protect yourself and keep your soul alive.”

ועל כן תפילתנו לך שתחיינו ותקיימנו ותגאלנו במהרה --
We, therefore pray to You, that You keep us alive, sustain us and redeem us speedily—

לשמור חוקיך ולעשות רצונך לעבדך בלבב שלם--
so that we may observe Your statutes, do Your will, and serve you wholeheartedly—Amen.

Rabbi Davids then reached for a piece of bread, took a bite, and urged his fellow Jews to do the same. (Rabbi Davids and his son died shortly before the liberation of the camp. His wife and daughters survived and made Aliyah. A copy of Rabbi David’s awe-inspiring Tefilah was given to her by eyewitnesses.)

There is much to say about this but anything I could say would simply detract from the power of this extraordinary document.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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