How Dangerous Times Can Help Us Lead Better Lives
On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded Holland. Just four days later, the Dutch army surrendered, and three days after that, the entire country was under German occupation. The Nazi invasion and occupation of neutral Holland came as a complete shock to the Dutch, who had believed their country would remain unaffected by unfolding German aggression, as was the case during the First World War.
This particular aspect of World War II history is deeply personal for me. Both my grandparents — my mother’s parents — lived in Rotterdam in 1940. They were not yet married, although they had already been engaged for seven years. My grandfather, Uri Cohen, arrived together with his parents in Holland in 1933, as immigrants from Hamburg, Germany. They reasoned that Holland’s neutrality would protect them in the event that Hitler decided to execute his openly stated plans to persecute the Jews. My grandfather, then 23 years old, quickly learned to speak Dutch and went into the cheese production business. He met my grandmother, Rivka Jacobsen, but although they decided to get married, her parents delayed the wedding, and kept on delaying it, fearful that Uri would be unable to support a family on his meager income.
Surprisingly, within a couple of months of the Nazi invasion and occupation, my grandparents were married. It was a tiny wedding — just a handful of people were there to witness the ceremony, which was followed by a low-key party. I have only ever seen one photograph of their wedding: a fuzzy image of my grandmother standing on a balcony in her wedding dress. My grandparents miraculously survived the Holocaust by hiding behind a false wall in the home a gentile friend. Their parents — my great-grandparents — and most other members of the family were not so lucky. In 1942, along with the vast majority of the Dutch Jewish community, they were deported to Westerbork Concentration Camp, and eventually to their deaths in Poland.
I once asked my grandfather why he and my grandmother had decided to marry so soon after the occupation — a particularly astonishing decision in light of their extended engagement and the reason behind it. My grandfather looked at me long and hard, and then told me one of the most remarkable things I ever heard him say. The Nazi invasion, he explained, had made them realize how fragile their lives were, and how valuable life was. It was ludicrous for them to delay their marriage until the “right moment” — after all, who knew what the future held? Only one thing was certain, he said: if there was going to be a future for Dutch Jewry, he and my grandmother needed to make sure it included Jewish children. Waiting for a convenient moment was no longer an option, and so they decided to get married in the Summer of 1940, in the midst of escalating Nazi persecution.
My late mother Miriam was born in June 1941. She was followed by two brothers also born during the war, one of whom died of malnutrition soon after birth. My mother was taken into the care of a childless young gentile couple, who passed her off as their own baby, and her brother was also hidden with non-Jews. Both she and her brother survived the Holocaust and went on to build large families of their own.
I was reminded of my grandfather’s account of his wartime wedding while reading through this week’s Torah portion. Bechukotai records the devastating “tochacha” — or “admonitions” — customarily read in an undertone because of its severity. If we do not observe God’s commandments, we are warned, disaster and tragedy will befall us at every turn, and ultimately we will be exiled from the Promised Land. Reading through these verses is like reading through a chronicle of Jewish history. Each devastating warning can be matched up with multiple tragic events in our past.
Strangely enough, this section is followed by a chapter discussing the laws of charitable pledges based on the value of individuals. A man aged 20-60 who promises to donate his own value to the Temple coffers will need redeem his vow with 50 silver shekels, while if he promises the value of a child aged 5-20, for example, his pledge is worth 20 shekels. Each age group and gender has its own value, and rather than pledging a specified amount of money, one is able to quantify a donation by identifying one or another of the individuals on the list.
The commentators are puzzled, particularly over the list’s proximity to the dire warnings of the “tochacha. Why is this set of laws placed at the end of the book of Leviticus, and not earlier on where it belongs? The Kli Yakar offers a stunning solution. Anyone who survives a mass catastrophe might react by giving up on life and the value of human existence. So the Torah deliberately places these laws after the “tochacha” to inform us that notwithstanding even the most tragic loss of life, one must remember that life is precious. Our response to such devastation must be to invest in life, and to acknowledge just how valuable each person is.
I’m pretty sure my grandfather never saw this Kli Yakar. Nonetheless he intuitively understood that in the face of tragedy one needs to create new life and a potential future. Today, too, as we live in the shadow of growing international chaos, and in a world less certain and less safe then it has been at any time since the Holocaust, we simply cannot afford to throw up our hands and give up. The proximity of these two sections of the Torah should remind us that every life is important, and has the potential to ensure our future. We must nurture and invest in our children and community, so that out of a potentially barren landscape, new life can emerge stronger and better than anything that preceded it.