Never Lose Hope
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech is very relevant to the High Holiday season that’s just around the corner. Rosh Hashanah initiates the Ten Days of Repentance. Because this is a time of judgment when all of mankind come before Hashem, it is most propitious to examine our ways and do Teshuva.
Yet many people have a low opinion of themselves and despair of their ability to improve. Parshat Nitzavim, however, is optimistic and assures us in no uncertain terms that the Jews will be successful in their quest to return to Hashem. “It will be when all these things come upon you—the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you—then you will take it to your heart among the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you; and you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” It is therefore essential that we always retain an outlook of hope and self-confidence.
The Rabbis reinforce the mindset of never giving up in physical and spiritual matters. They say, “Even if the sharp sword is on one’s neck, he should not despair of divine mercy.” Most of us have heard many accounts of Holocaust survivors and their experiences under the Nazis. The other night on the History Channel, I heard a unique story that illustrates many profound teachings of Judaism. I was not able to get all the details, especially the name of the storyteller, whom I will refer to as the Survivor.
This person, while still in his teens, was carted off to Auschwitz. The harsh conditions took their toll, and he soon became ill. During that time, word went out among the camp inmates that there was to be a “selection.” This always caused great fear, as all the prisoners had to line up before the Nazi “doctor,” who would determine who would live and who would die.
In this instance the “physician” making the call would be none other than the infamous Joseph Mengele, the ultimate doctor of doom. The Survivor stood in line until he faced the “angel of death”, who took one look at him and waved him to the left, which everyone knew meant the gas chamber. As he started to walk in that direction he could not reconcile himself to his fate and determined that he must do something, anything, to alter the outcome somehow-tiniest chance though there was.
Bear in mind that the chances of anyone surviving a Nazi decree of death were essentially non existent and required an immensely unlikely miracle. But that is precisely what can happen when the “sharp sword” is pressing, and you retain the courage and determination to take action, no matter how desperate.
The Survivor stood once again before Mengele. He pleaded with him, saying that he was young and and could still do much work for the Germans. Then, without having any idea why he did so, he blurted out that his father was a great scholar and journalist who had written significant books. (He would later say that he could not explain what motivated him to tell Mengele about his father. Why would that Nazi be impressed or care about his father’s stature, and how would that nugget of information help keep him alive?)
Suddenly, however, Mengele leaned back and concentrated. Sitting next to him was a Jewish doctor who served as his assistant. He turned to the Jew and asked him, “Do you know this man’s father?” In point of fact he did not know that prisoner or his father, but he understood what was happening. He turned to Mengele and told him that of course he knew about his father, who was a very significant scholar.
Mengele then sat back and gave the matter more thought. He asked the Jewish doctor that if he were inclined to give him the Jewish prisoner as a gift, would he want him? The assistant responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. The generous Angel of Death then graciously turned over the inmate to his Jewish assistant as a “gift.” The sharp sword was removed from the condemned Jew’s neck through an amazing miracle. The Jewish doctor took care of the Survivor, and both managed to survive the Holocaust. Many years later, the Survivor attended a medical conference in France where his Auschwitz savior was present. The doctor recognized the Survivor immediately, although his appearance was completely changed from the Auschwitz days. The two had a tearful and joyous reunion.
The Rabbis say that if one saves a single life, it is as though he saved an entire world. That is also true when it is your own life that you save. This story illustrates that we must never give up and always make efforts, no matter how remote and hopeless they appear.
This also applies to the spiritual realm. “Even if a person has been a sinner all his life and does Teshuva at the end, it is effective.” We should be concerned about ourselves and others at this time. If we are trying to bring someone back to Judaism, we should never give up or say that we have done everything possible and now it’s hopeless.
We must make that extra effort even when we feel the sharpness of the sword upon our necks. For the mercy of Hashem is always there for those who seek it. May we merit to achieve it.
In this time of social isolation, we should seek ways to avoid boredom by staying occupied with meaningful activity. The world of virtual reality allows us to stay in touch with friends and attend all kinds of classes available online.
But that can only take you so far. Comes Shabbat and Yom Tov, and you need books, especially on the parsha. I personally recommend Eternally Yours on Genesis http://bit.ly/EY-Genesis and Exodus http://bit.ly/EY-Exodus, and my newest one on Numbers http://bit.ly/EY-Numbers2. They are easy to read, interesting, and thought-provoking conversation starters. I am especially interested in your feedback and hope you can write a brief review and post it on Amazon.