Finding God in the Darkest Times
My late grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dunner (1913-2007), was a remarkable man. Born in Cologne, Germany, his family was devoutly orthodox in an era when German Jewry had reached the zenith of assimilation. My grandfather aspired to continue in this path, and despite the enormous challenges that he faced in his youth — his mother died when he was just five years old, and his father was reduced to penury by Germany’s interwar economic crisis — he never wavered from his faith-inspired goals.
In 1932, my grandfather enrolled at the prestigious Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, the only institution of its kind in Germany. The seminary trained young orthodox men for the German rabbinate, under the guidance of first-class teachers and mentors, including Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg — a Lithuanian-born Slabodka Yeshiva trained polymath, whose powerful personality and fiery genius left an indelible impression on his students.
The ascendancy of the Nazis, which commenced just a few months after my grandfather started at the seminary, did not deter him in any way; instead, he resolutely continued along his determined path. When Berlin University informed him that the subject of his doctoral thesis was no longer acceptable under the law, as it focused on a Jewish theme, he refused to be disappointed, and persisted along his path towards rabbinic ordination, which was conferred in 1936.
By that time, Germany Jewry was reeling from the draconian antisemitic sanctions imposed by the Nazi authorities; yet rather than seek a career outside the rabbinate or attempting to emigrate, my grandfather accepted the position as rabbi of Konigsberg, once a thriving community at the heart of this East Prussian university town, but by then a shadow of its former self, struggling to deal with the ever-worsening situation.
On the fateful night of November 9, 1938, during the country-wide pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), my grandfather was dragged from his bed by Nazi thugs as his apartment was simultaneously trashed. After being violently beaten, he was marched through the streets until he was eventually thrown into a holding cell at a nearby police station.
I once asked him to describe the experience to me. What was going through his mind as he went through this horrific thing? He had committed no crime, and yet his freedom was being taken away, and his life was in grave danger. He thought for a moment, and then looked at me. “I felt very lucky,” he said.
My grandfather must have seen the surprise on my face, so he explained. “You see, when they eventually put me in a cell, it was with somebody else, and that person could have been anybody. For example, it might easily have been an antisemitic criminal who could have hurt me, or even killed me. But I was lucky. My cellmate turned out to be my dear friend, Martin Miloslawer, the cantor from the big synagogue. He knew all the prayers by heart, and I knew Mishnayot by heart, so we prayed together, and we studied together — I really felt very lucky.”
This story encapsulates my grandfather’s personality, and is redolent of a Midrash quoted by Rashi on a verse in this week’s parsha of Vayeishev (Gen. 37:25): “Joseph’s brothers looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, and their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh.” Rashi points out that Ishmaelite merchants tended to trade fuel oil, not spices. So how was it that the traders who bought Joseph from his brothers were carrying spices?
According to the Midrash, this was not random. God was acutely aware of the unfolding drama between Joseph and his brothers, and although he was being sold into slavery, God did not want Joseph to suffer the foul odor of fuel oil during his journey to Egypt; he therefore arranged for a caravan that was loaded with pleasantly-scented spices.
But while this is a nice idea, and introduces the concept of Divine Providence into a story that is full of negative vibes, in reality, what difference does it make to a person who is being sold into slavery that he is in a pleasant smelling wagon rather than a foul smelling one? How likely was it that Joseph, who had to deal with multiple traumas, would be consoled by his good fortune of being transported in a spice caravan?
It seems that the Midrash is teaching us the same point as my grandfather was in his story. If someone is able to see God’s hand even as they are suffering, they will never feel abandoned. God remains with them even in the midst of their anguish. It is people who see God’s providence at every turn who have the hope that things will improve. If God is not giving up on them, if He is still present in their lives, how could they ever give up on God?
When Joseph saw that his new Ishmaelite owners were transporting spices rather than oil, he realized that God was watching over him, notwithstanding the gravity of his situation. My grandfather, also named Joseph, had a similar moment when he was thrown into jail with his good friend, with whom he could pray and study Torah, and whose presence meant that his life was not in any imminent danger. We, too, can look for that silver lining while we face the challenges of life, identifying God’s presence even as things are tough, and using that as proof that our dark tunnel has a light at the end of it.