Having walked through the Valley of Death, I feel I can understand Shavuos better.
My wife and I just returned from Auschwitz and other tragic sites in Poland. We were never there before and I had thought we never would be, but an opportunity arose and we took it.
What does this have to do with Shavuos?
Once upon a time, we were slaves in Egypt. Hashem took us out and we marched for seven weeks through the desert. We arrived at Mount Sinai, where we became one with Him. Our kesubah is called the Torah.
Our rabbis teach us that the Final Redemption will resemble the Redemption from Egypt. Mitzraim was real; Har Sinai was real. Auschwitz was real. And so, it is clear, the Final Redemption will be real. If the impossibly bad could happen, the impossibly good can happen.
Having felt the reality of Auschwitz, I think I understand better what Egypt was, how real it was, how terrifying it was, how endless and all-encompassing it seemed.
I have seen the gas chambers. I stood under the “showers.” I have seen the ovens. I have seen a “lake” of ashes, all that physically remains of uncounted thousands of children and their mothers. I stood on the platform where Mengele pointed, right or left. I have seen the torture cells. I have stood where our brethren stood, in their filthy striped rags, for up to nineteen hours during “roll call,” in the brutal sun and freezing cold.
Hitler, may his name be ground to dust, did not torture and kill us in order to conquer the world. He tried to conquer the world in order to kill and torture us.
For the thousands of non-Jews who come there, Auschwitz is a museum. For us, lehavdil, it is reality, a plague that is still killing us.
At the site of the crematoria, I thought about Yom Hadin, the Final Day of Judgment, and the words of the Av Harachamim prayer:
“Father of compassion, who dwells on high, in His powerful compassion may He recall with compassion the devout, the upright, and the perfect ones, the holy congregations who gave their lives for the sanctification of the Name . May He, before our eyes, exact retribution for the spilled blood of His servants ”
In Egypt we dropped down to within a hair’s breadth of eternal destruction, and Hashem lifted us to within a hair’s breadth of Shamayim. When Nachshon ben Aminodov entered the Red Sea up to his nostrils, the sea split for him and for his people.
At Auschwitz, we fell into the cesspool of the world, up to our nostrils in the filth of the nations that hated us. At the Final Redemption, Hashem will lift us high, high, higher than the heavens.
“Anyone who mourns over Jerusalem will merit to see it in its joy” (Taanis 30b).
This Shavuos, let us understand that it is all real. As Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, told me years ago, before our first trip to the Holy Land: “You should know that we can learn the truth even from the English language: Israelis real.
Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, came from the depravity of Moab, just as we have emerged from the depravity of Auschwitz. This is the way of Hashem. “He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute” (Psalm 113).
In the third chapter of Megillas Ruth, Boaz wakes up on the threshing floor and sees a strange woman lying at his feet. Ruth explains to him why she is there. He replies, “And now, my daughter, do not fear. Whatever you say, I will do for you . Now while it is true that I am a redeemer, there is also a redeemer closer than I. Stay the night. Then in the morning, if he will redeem you, fine. Let him redeem. But if he does not want to redeem you, then [I swear that] as Hashem lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”
The Ben Ish Chai explains that these are not only the words of Boaz speaking to Ruth, but also of Hashem speaking to His People. Hashem is saying to Am Yisrael: “Stay through the long night of Exile. Don’t give up. The morning will come. When it does, you have a ‘closer redeemer,’ your own mitzvos and good deeds. Perhaps they will be sufficient to redeem you when Mashiach comes. But if not – even if you do not have sufficient mitzvos and good deeds to save you on that Great Day – if you have been loyal to Me, then I swear that I Myself will redeem you. Do not fear!”