In my previous column I wrote that a timeless lesson to be gleaned from the festival of Chanukah is that Hashem controls everything that happens. If there is something that we perceive as good –
the idealistic but militarily inexperienced Maccabees overcoming the powerful, Assyrian Greek army – that is His will. When there is something we perceive as bad – for example, the murders of the three boys this summer and the four men in Har Nof a few weeks ago – it is His will as well.
But that is just one facet of Chanukah. A second universal message is survival in the face of impossible odds. Matityahu and his band of determined but outnumbered and poorly trained men should have been wiped out by the enemy – but to everyone’s shock, they prevailed and were triumphant.
This message of survival resonates deeply in my family. My siblings and I recently observed the yahrzeit of my father, Chaim ben Aron Yosef HaKohen, on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the month that heralds in the holiday of Chanukah. My father – a kohen like Matityahu and his sons – was a Holocaust survivor who overcame the physical and emotional torment he was subjected to. Out of 10 siblings, all older than him, he was the only one to walk out alive from the death camps. (A brother, almost 20 years older, survived by having moved to Canada years earlier.)
Like the Maccabees, my father was tenacious in holding on to his Yiddishkeit, despite the risk to his well-being during his internment in various labor and concentration camps. After the war ended and he was liberated – emaciated, in poor health and devastated by his losses – he chose to embrace life and rebuild his family. Like the “small vial of oil” that had so little potential to keep “the flame burning,” he miraculously ignited the smoldering embers of his family tree, and created new, sturdy branches. He lived to see several great-grandchildren, whose numbers continue to increase. One was even born on his yahrzeit.
During his shiva, which took place during Parshat Chayei Sarah, I glanced at perek 25. In pasuk 8, we read, “And Avraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people.”
It is said that there are no extra words in the Torah and I was intrigued by the mention that Avraham had died and that he was gathered to his people. I remember feeling very comforted by the concept of being “gathered.” The words society uses to denote death convey separation and disconnection: passed away, is gone, departed. Yet the Torah seems to be suggesting that after death there is reunion! Being “gathered” is a way of saying being embraced, gathered into someone’s arms. Is the Torah offering nechama by subtly hinting that death brings reunion with loved ones who preceded you? To this day I have an image of a boat about to dock and hundreds of people excitedly waving to the disembarking “passengers” – the neshamas of those who died and are now being gathered to their “people” in the Other World.
Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal, authors of the Small Miracles series of books, recently put out a new addition, Small Miracles from Beyond: Dreams, Visions and Signs that Link us to the Other Side. The book contains submissions from the public (myself included) who experienced or had family members experience communications and signs from deceased loved ones. The incredible stories submitted tie in with the notion of reunion, where those who were niftar and residing in Olam Habah were able to reach out to their loved ones in this world.
I remember my mother describing how her father, who being middle aged was deemed too old to be a productive slave laborer and was selected for death by the Nazis, had saved her life. She had been planning on going to the camp kitchen to ask if she could help out there – in order to get more scraps of food for herself and her sisters. The night before she decided to go, her father came to her in a dream and told her not to. Awed by what she viewed as an out-of world warning, she stayed away. Soon after, the Jews working in the kitchen were rounded up on a whim and sent to the gas chambers. There were always more Jews to take their place.
I too had a visit from my father after he passed away. It was not life-saving, but he silently let me know (you never hear speech, but you know what they are thinking) that there would be simcha coming. I had been going through an extremely difficult period in my life when he appeared. My mother had recently passed away and I was recovering from a second cancer surgery – after being declared “cured” for many years. Post-op tests to see if the cancer had spread showed a mysterious lesion on my brain that baffled my doctors. Since a biopsy was deemed too risky, I had to wait three months for a follow-up MRI to see if the lesion grew. It would be a long three months.
In my dream my father appeared youthful and energetic. I sensed he was asking about my mother and I told him she was not here. I didn’t want to say she had died. Nonetheless he opened a door to what I guess was their room and to my surprise my son was inside. My father looked at him, gave me a huge smile and a strong hug that I actually felt; I immediately opened my eyes, positive that I would see him – but of course, he wasn’t there.
I didn’t understand why my son was in the dream – but later it became quite clear. Several weeks after my father’s visit, my son met the girl he was going to marry – as did his brother shortly after him.
Chanukah is the story of resilience, of going on despite the likelihood of failure. It symbolizes the eternity of the Jewish people – despite the savage anti-Semites who over the centuries caused millions of Jews to die sanctifying their Yiddishkeit. It was on Rosh Chodesh Kislev six years ago that Indian forces entered the Chabad House in Mumbai and discovered the bodies of the kedoshim, Rav Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, and their guests, who were murdered for being Jews. It was on that day that my granddaughter was born, the yahrzeit of her great-grandfather who survived the Holocaust.
The dead are intertwined with the living, for we are spiritually linked to those who have preceded us by the mesorah they passed down. We are their continuation, and they are watching and loving us from afar – until the day when we will be “gathered” and there will be tichiyat ha’metim and eternal life for us all.