Rabbi Israel Becker
Uprising: 75th Yahrtzeit of Roiza and Avraham Yitzchok
In 2016, I was honored to present the opening remarks at the Tucson Jewish Community’s Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, That year’s commemoration was dedicated to the million-and-a-half Jewish children who perished.
I had been presented with this honor many times over the past decades, but that time was different. When thinking about the merciless slaughter of children, I found myself inadequate and unable to describe my feelings. I thought about my own brothers, Yeshaya, Yechezkel and Tovya, and my sister, Ruth, who perished. I thought about my cousins,Roiza and Avraham Yitzchok, my Tante Menucha’s children, who were killed when the Nazis fire-bombed Mila 11, the building which my mother,her sisters and extended family occupied during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I was at a loss for words. What message could I share?
After much contemplation, and rewinding in time more than 3,000 years, I found a description of Nazi-like cruelty in the Torah. “The diabolic Pharaoh had summoned the Jewish midwives and ordered them, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women and you see them on the birth stool: If it is a son, you are to kill him’” (Exodus 1:16). This was a torturous order, to force Jewish women to murder Jewish children. But in defiance of Pharaoh they risked their lives and blatantly disobeyed his order. The Torah records, “But the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the King of Egypt spoke to them, and they gave the boys life.”
The verse seems to contain a superfluous phrase at the end. When the verse says they did not do as the King of Egypt requested, obviously that tells us they did not comply and the babies would live. Why does the verse add, “and they gave the boys life?” Rashi, the greatest Torah commentator, explains that the Torah is indicating here that the midwives not only avoided killing the babies, but they extended themselves in the opposite direction and supplied them with food and water.
Pharaoh epitomized evil. Yet the midwives defied him and taught us a profound lesson. When they were confronted with his inhumane cruelty they responded with exactly the opposite, with a passion to do good. In the world today, when we see so much inhumanity around us, it is our task to respond by generating good, helping one another with genuine kindness, love and compassion. In a similar vein, when painfully remembering the merciless, inhumane killing of a million-and-a-half Jewish children, if we emulate the midwives we will emerge with renewed strength and vitality despite our pain.
Like the midwives, we must respond to the ugliness in the world around us by generating compassion, and because the Nazis tried to destroy Judaism by snatching away our children, we must use the lesson of the midwives to give life to the Jewish children of today, to share with them the joy and vitality of Judaism in every way possible, to teach and to show, by our own example, that Judaism is alive and amazingly beautiful.