The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
Seems like we just blessed the new month of Kislev. Yet, here it is still Chanukah, and we are about to bentch Rosh Chodesh Teves. Rosh Chodesh actually falls on the sixth and seventh days of Chanukah (Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 3 and 4). The Chanukah lights lit in Teves are intended to illuminate the month that has seen much darkness.
The tenth day of Teves, a fast day (Assara b’Teves), commemorates the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem. On the eighth of Teves the Greeks forced seventy-two Sages to translate the Torah into Greek – a most unfortunate occurrence that brought spiritual darkness upon the Jewish people.
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, each month is associated with a letter of the aleph-beis. Teves was formed by means of the letter ayin, which has a numerical value of seventy – a number that figures prominently in Judaism. There are seventy different facets to the Torah and seventy ways to interpret them; seventy souls from the house of Yaakov descended to Mitzrayim; seventy elders were appointed by Moshe Rabbeinu, and there are seventy languages corresponding to seventy nations.
The literal interpretation of ayin is “eye” – the organ of the body that most influences the heart, for good or for bad. It is within the power of a human being to subdue his evil inclination, and to that end the flames of the fifteen candles lit on the last two nights of Chanukah come to suffuse us with holiness. The mispar katan of 15 (1 plus 5) equals 6. With the insertion of just that one letter (vav – six), the month of Teves is transformed to tovas (goodness).
The yahrtzeits of many tzaddikim are observed in Teves, notable among them Avrohom Avinu (1 Teves); Ezra HaSofer (9 Teves); Reuven ben Yaakov Avinu (14 Teves); R’ Yaakov ben Wolf Krantz – Dubna Maggid (17 Teves); Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon – Rambam (20 Teves); Shimon ben Yaakov Avinu (21 Teves; R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi – Baal HaTanya (24 Teves); R’ Shmuel ben Avrohom Borenstein – Shem MiShmuel (24 Teves); R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch and R’ Pinchas ben R’ Chaim Hirschprung (27 Teves).
Since the Yom Tov of Rosh Chodesh has special meaning for women and the month of Teves has special significance to this columnist, I share with you the following…
Our parents/grandparents were raised in a simpler world, one devoid of luxuries that we take for granted. They didn’t know of automatic washing machines and dishwashers, food processors or blow driers. Shopping malls and designer clothes were foreign entities. Yet, in a simple but loving environment they learned early on to participate in, contribute to and appreciate the good life – one filled with meaning and value, commitment and devotion, and an innate recognition of having been sent down to earth with a divine purpose by the Master of the World.
In the spring of 1944, that purpose became murky in the minds of two young ladies – one married with an infant daughter, the other her visiting single 19-year old sister – when their idyllic existence came to a crashing halt.
Ordered to leave all their possessions behind, save for what they’d be able to carry in their hands, the armed soldiers who showed up suddenly at their door informed them that they were going to work. The filled-to-capacity bus they were made to board transported them to the ghetto of Kolosvar where, along with countless others, they were housed in squalid tents for several anxiety-ridden weeks – after which they were herded like cattle into over-crowded train cars.
The days aboard that train seemed like endless years. An elderly occupant of their car gave up her struggle to breathe and her lifeless form contributed to the already unbearable stench of human sweat and waste, intermingling with the searing tears of the suffering.
When it came time for them to disembark they were greeted by a lively band and a large banner that read “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
The two sisters clutching their meager belongings and holding on to one another dared to entertain the thought that this was but a temporary sojourn, and that they would soon be returning home. The younger of them carried her baby niece in her arms as they warily stepped off the train.
Soldiers with rifles and dogs at their sides stood by menacingly while the infamous and evil Dr. Mengele, stick in hand, barked orders at his captives. The single sister was told to hand the child over to the other, no question posed as to the child’s parentage.
They frantically begged to be allowed to go together but were forcibly separated. One was ordered to the left, the other to the right.
One perished in the gas chambers, the other survived.
Above the din of the blaring music (a twisted ploy by the Nazis perpetrated to confuse their captives), the newly arrived pathetic beings, barely able to stand straight after their grotesque confinement, were unable to discern the desperate shouts of those gesturing wildly from behind the barbed wire fence ahead.
“This must be where the mentally retarded are locked up and kept,” thought the younger sister as she beheld the bald-headed figures in their ill fitting smocks that hung from frighteningly thin frames. Little did she fathom then that among the “crazies” was another sister of hers who frantically searched each fresh transport for her younger sibling.
The two sisters miraculously thrown together in one barracks embraced and brought each other up to date, shared their fears, and protected one another with a fierce devotion during their two hellish years in Auschwitz. Together they came upon the horror of the fate that met their parents – when their cold-blooded overseer pointed to the distant chimneys and billowing smoke that emanated from them and exclaimed, “There they are! What’s left of them is what you see and smell drifting to the skies!”
Those who overcame the unspeakable savagery somehow emerged from the ashes to reclaim their rightful heritage and to resume productive lives. The two young single sisters who had leaned on each other for the duration of the war and gleaned chizuk from one another during incredibly harsh times, wept together as time lay bare the grim reality of the cruel fate suffered by their loving kin, including their parents and older, married siblings with their little ones.
In 1947, my mother (the younger of the two sisters) married my father. The war may have been over, but life in communist Hungary was no picnic for Jews who were under constant surveillance, had little freedom to move about and even less in rights and privileges. Before long, the young couple liquidated what little assets they had, strapped their six-month old infant to her father’s back harness-style and set out on their arduous journey in the dead of the night.
The danger lay in being discovered by Russian troops patrolling the grounds. As they trod for hours through the dark woods and unfamiliar terrain, what were the chances of their baby not uttering a peep? Miraculously she did not. (My parents claimed I was an angel; I rather credit an angel, dispatched by the Almighty to guide us to safety.)
Once they crossed into the borders of Czechoslovakia, a Jewish family helped them out, and from there they were able to arrange travel by sea to Israel.
Each of us has a unique and special mission in life. Every experience is a teacher and each struggle makes us stronger and brings us closer to our potential. We can choose to use our intelligence, abilities, talents and skills for the greater good… to improve ourselves, to help others and to enrich society.
As I will light a Yahrzeit candle for my dear mom, Sara bas Bentzion, a”h, on the 27th of Teves, I will express my gratitude to Hashem for having endowed me with the gift of parents who epitomized the noble characteristics of our elite ancestors. At the same time I will try to keep in mind that I have been entrusted to carry on a monumental legacy and hand it down to my own children and grandchildren.
Me’ayin yavo ezri… ezri me’im Hashem…
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