Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30) They Tried to Bury Us but Didn’t Know We Were Seeds

 Shortly before Moses died, he wrote a text of the Torah and gave the scroll to his (Levi) tribe (Deut. 31:9). Although Torah scrolls have been preserved over the generations, they have also been disgraced by our enemies. Here is one example. For many years during the Roman occupation of Israel, it was forbidden to publicly teach Torah. It’s hard to believe that the mighty Roman Empire actually cared that a small Jewish minority taught texts instructing them on how to maximize potential and be a light to the world. But the Romans understood that when Jews are proud of their past and live as Jews in the present, there will always be a Jewish future. Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon paid with his life for teaching Torah in public. The Talmud vividly recounts the story of his death. They brought him to be sentenced, and wrapped him in the Torah scroll, and encircled him with bundles of branches, and they set fire to it. And they brought wool and soaked them in water, and placed them on his heart, so that he would die slowly and painfully. His daughter said to him: Father, must I see you like this? Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon said to her: If I alone were being burned, it would be difficult for me, but now that I am burning along with a Torah scroll, He who will seek retribution for the insult accorded to the Torah scroll will also seek retribution for the insult accorded to me. His students said to him: Our teacher, what do you see? Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon said to them: I see the parchment burning, but its letters are flying to the heavens. One can understand this story literally but it’s also able to be understood as a thoughtful dialogue between teacher and students about the future of the Jewish people. The students were asking, what do you see as our future? Will we be able to survive without our leadership? R. Chanina answered that the parchment, representing our physical bodies, may be destroyed, but the letters, representing our souls, are flying to the heavens. The word used for ‘flying’ (פורחות) can also mean flower (פרח). His message was that these letters are sprouting and growing for the next generation. The Romans could burn a physical Torah scroll but as long as Jews knew how to read and analyze its contents, there would be a Jewish future. As long as their souls, represented by the letters, were connected to the Torah, there would be hope for a Jewish future. The Romans understood something that anti -Semites throughout the ages understood—Jewish survival is dependent on Jews knowing what’s contained in their books. The following is from the book Faith Amid the Flames, about a Jewish journalist named Yosef Friedenson who survived the war. At the start of World War II, when Poland had been overrun by the Nazis, Mr. Friedenson was a 17-year-old living with his family in Lodz. One day, two German soldiers burst into the family’s apartment. At one point, they demanded the teenager identify the stately tomes on the bookshelf. “The Talmud,” he answered. “At the mention of that word, they became like mad dogs,” Mr. Friedenson recalled many decades later. “They threw the holy books on the floor and trampled them, ripping them to shreds with their heavy boots.”When they had left, the young Yosef asked his father why the Nazis had responded so viciously. “They don’t hate us as a people,” was the response. “They hate us because of our holy books. What is written in them is a contradiction to all they stand for, to their outlook and corrupt mentality.”
A fascinating and telling memorandum was discovered by the noted Holocaust historian Moshe Prager. It was sent on October 25, 1940 by the chief of the German occupation power, I.A. Eckhardt, to the local Nazi district governors in occupied Poland. In it, he instructs German officials to refuse exit visas to “Ostjuden,” Jews from Eastern Europe.Eckhardt explains that these Jews, as Rabbiner un Talmudlehrer, Rabbis and Talmud scholars, would, if allowed to emigrate, foster die geistige erneuerung, spiritual revival, of the Jewish people in other places. The mighty Roman Empire wanted to destroy Jewish texts, the powerful Medieval Church burned cartloads of Jewish texts, and the former Soviet Union confiscated Hebrew books if someone tried to bring them into their country. Sometimes Jews have no idea how much we possess; it’s the power to transform the world into a better place. Keeping Jews from their heritage by making sure they don’t learn their books is the common denominator to powerful regimes with armies and weapons of mass destruction. It seems that our small nation, who survived without a land or language for almost 2000 years, has so much power that our enemies want us destroyed. Go figure. We pose no threat other than that we stand for peace, goodness, and helping those less fortunate than us and we understand that these messages come from an all-powerful and loving G-d. Isn’t that a message worth living and dying for? Isn’t it something we want to make sure exists in the future? Each of us should do our best to plant the seeds for the next generation and the best way to do that is become familiar the very texts our enemies know contain infinite power. If we’re not doing that, at least we can support institutions that are dedicated to that idea. As the old Mexican proverb goes, they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds. Those who came before us planted the seeds that brought us to where we are today. May each of us become a seed for the next chapter of the Jewish future.   (Sources: Avodah Zara 18a; Minchas Asher Parshas Valeilech)
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