The Strength to Survive

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A man once approached the Klausenberger Rebbe, R' Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam zt'l and asked him the following question: “Tell me, how is it that so many of the survivors found the courage and the strength not only to survive but to rebuild, to start families, to remain positive and to have faith in society and humanity?” The Rebbe was the correct person to ask, for he had lost his wife and eleven children in the gas chambers and went on to rebuild a chassidic dynasty of thousands.


The Rebbe answered with two words: b’damayich chayi. The young man was startled, but thought he understood. These two words that come from the prophet Yechezkel mean “in your blood, live.” The full verse, which is recited at every bris of a Jewish baby boy, is an allusion to the time in Egypt just prior to the Exodus when Israel was commanded to circumcise its males and to bring the Pesach offering. In the merit of these two commandments, both involving blood, the nation would earn redemption and eternal life as God’s chosen people. “B’damayich Chayi. Through your blood of these commandments, live.”


So the young man commented out loud, thinking he understood that the Rebbe was hinting to the ability to move on after the mesiras nefesh, the incredible sacrifice and efforts they made. Literally they had bled, they had lost their flesh and blood, and that mesiras nefesh earned them the ability to go on.


But the Rebbe corrected the young man. That is not at all what he had meant when he said b’damayich chayi. The secret, the formula to the courage of the survivors, came from someone else, said the Rebbe.


In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we read of the tragic, seemingly premature death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Moshe, feeling the profound pain of his brother, tried to comfort: “vayomer Moshe el Aharon hu asher dibeir Hashem leimor bikrovei ekadeish v’al p’nei chol ha’am ekaveid, this is what God meant when He said, with those closest to Me will I be sanctified.” Rashi comments that Moshe was telling Aharon, I knew that this Mishkan was going to be sanctified by those closest to Hashem and I thought it would be me or you. Now I see that they, your sons are greater than both of us.”


Moshe tries to give some meaning, some context. He attempts to provide an answer or explanation to this profound tragedy and loss.


And what was Aharon’s response? The pasuk concludes, “Va’yidom Aharon, and Aharon was silent.” Moshe’s words were met with silence—complete, utter, and total silence.


We don’t know the source or root of the silence. Perhaps, Aharon was so devastated he had nothing to say. Perhaps, he had such deep faith that he felt no need for answers. We don’t know.


But, said the Klausenberger Rebbe, we do know that Aharon’s silence allowed him to continue to function, to be positive and to do good. He turned to the man and said you asked how we rebuilt our lives - it is simple. B’damayich chayi, with damayich, with the va’yidom of Aharon, with silence we continued to have a life. There are no answers or solutions to devastation and unthinkable tragedy, but the silence allows us to be positive, to be upbeat, to have faith in the world and to go on. For some of us it is a silence of submission. For others a silence of doubt. And for yet others a silence of protest.


Elie Wiesel was once asked, “Is there a tradition of silence in Judaism?” “Yes,” he answered. ”But we don’t talk about it.”


When we recall the horrors of the Holocaust, when we face tragedies in the world today, let us find strength in the beautiful words of the Klausenberger Rebbe, b’damayich chayi, let us find life, and let us find the courage to move forward, with silence.