When The Going Gets Tough, The Jew Gets Going

When The Going Gets Tough, The Jew Gets Going

There is no education like adversity.—Benjamin Disraeli

The founders of Kinkos and JetBlue, the President/COO of Goldman Sachs, the CEOs of Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Cisco all enjoy professional success, wealth, and power.

But economist Malcom Gladwell identifies another, lesser known commonality: they are dyslexic. In fact, says Gladwell, people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia comprise a disproportionately-high percentage of “highly-successful” business personalities, leading Gladwell to posit that adversity may well produce (or at least contribute to) success. People facing adversity garner a deeper sense of appreciation for opportunity and success because they have had to fight vigorously for both.

The human spirit rises in the face of adversity. When the Jewish people did battle, they were required to leave one side open to permit the enemy to retreat, should they so choose (Bamidbar 31:7 and Sifri ad loc.; see Ramban’s Commandments Omitted by Rambam, No. 5). While this formation was essentially an act of mercy, it also achieved a clever military objective because a cornered and completely-surrounded enemy is likely to rise to the occasion and fight even more vigorously (see Meshech Chochma, Bamidbar 31:7). We give our enemies an “out” because we recognize that, if we don’t, they will mount an even more formidable opposition.

So it is in matters of the spirit. One should be grateful for adversity because it draws one closer to G-d (Tanchuma, Ki Seitzei 2), and Torah only endures when learned and observed under difficult circumstances (Yalkut Shimoni, Koheles 968; Sota 21b). Perhaps that is why we are “to bless adversity just as [we] bless the good” (Berachos 54a; see Shabbos 13b)—because it brings out the best in us.

The robust Jewish mafia in pre-World War II Lodz was comprised of members who, by and large, were not at all observant; on the contrary, their lives were antithetical to the Torah.

When the Nazis (y”s) invaded the city, they seized Torah scrolls and unrolled them alongside an open sewage line. They rounded up some Jews and ordered them to stand on the scrolls and dig mud from the sewer onto them. Those who refused would be shot.

To break their spirit, the Nazis commanded the leader of the Jewish Mafia to grab a shovel and begin dig. The man refused.

“Do it or we will shoot you,” the Nazis barked.

But the leader of the Mafia remained resolute: “there’s no way I’m standing on my G-d’s Torah and humiliating it like this.” He opened his shirt and told the Nazis to shoot him.

And they did.

Rav Shach would marvel at this story. This man’s entire life was contrary to a Torah lifestyle, but when others sought to deprive him of his tenuous connection to that Torah, he did not hesitate to sacrifice his life for it.

G-d’s throws adversity our way “to afflict [us] and to challenge [us], to do good for [us]”—it serves a dual purpose: it challenges, but it also uplifts (Devarim 8:16 and Chofetz Chaim ad loc.). Difficult life tests catapult us to meet those challenges. As Albert Einstein observed, “adversity introduces a man to himself.”

Jewish parents bless their sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe—not the other tribes, not like Moshe or Aharon, and not like Avraham or Yitzchak or Yaakov—because only Ephraim and Menashe grew up in the spiritually inhospitable environment of Egypt (Bereishis 41:50-52). Challenged in this exile, they did not stray—they flourished. Adversity brought out the best in them, and we wish the same for our children. Not to cower in the face of adversity. To own it. To grow from it.

Chanuka celebrates the Jewish penchant for using challenges to bring out our best.

On Chanuka, we thank G-d “for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the salvations, and for the wars.” Now, it’s easy to understand our appreciation for the miracles, the redemption, the mighty deeds, and the salvation. But the wars? For all the world’s clamoring that Israel is an aggressor, the Jewish people are not belligerent or bloodthirsty, nor are we particularly fond of wars.

Yet it was the wars that brought out our A-game.

Under Hellenistic influence, we lost excitement for the Torah and its laws (see Bach, Orach Chaim 670); our appreciation even for the most basic commandments with which we identify—Shabbos, Bris Mila, Rosh Chodesh—had lost its luster. But then the Greeks waged war against us to abolish these and other core components of our Jewish essence. Suddenly, we had to fight for the very things we held dear but perhaps had taken for granted. It was only then that we grasped just how important these things are.

The military victory came and went, and, before long—only about 100 years later—the Maccabee-ruled state already had lost its independence to Roman hegemony. But the war had sparked the Jews to fight for those things we hold dear, and, in so doing, restored our deep appreciation for Torah and Jewish identity. In that sense, the war truly is cause for thanks (Pri Tzaddik, Chanuka).

We are no strangers to adversity, and that has kept us going even in our darkest hours.

It was Chanuka in Bergen-Belsen and, of course, there was no oil, no candle, no Menora, no nothing. But the inimitable Jews still managed to craft a makeshift Menora from a wooden clog, a thread from a concentration camp uniform, and contraband shoe polish. Chanuka would still have its light, if but for a brief moment.

The first night, the Bluzhover Rebbe lit the improvised Menora and recited the first two blessings in a festive melody tinged with sorrow and pain. But before reciting the third blessing, he paused and scanned the room. He then turned back to the Menora, and in a stronger, more purposeful voice recited the third blessing: “Blessed are You our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, preserved us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”

One of the assembled pushed his way to the Rebbe. “How can you thank G-d for allowing us to reach such a terrible occasion? This is ‘keeping us alive’? For this you thank G-d?”

“Like you,” answered the Rebbe, “I hesitated before reciting the third blessing. But then I saw throngs of my fellow Jews willing to sacrifice their meager existence to be here, their faces full of faith and devotion. And then I understood that if I am blessed to see people who maintain hope in the face of such dire circumstances, it is indeed a reason to thank G-d.” As with the wars in Chanuka of old, it was an existential challenge that had brought out our best, and that was reason enough to give thanks.

The inset iconic image—a snapshot of frightening times not long ago—is a testament to that. The pictured Menora belonged to Rabbi Akiva Boruch and Rachel Posner, leaders of the Jewish community in Kiel, Germany. They never hesitated to denounce the Nazi regime, and their deliberate placement of the Menora staring down a Nazi banner was the ultimate act of defiance, as were the words Rachel inscribed on the back of the original photograph: Hanukkah, 5692. ‘Judea dies,’ thus says the banner. ‘Judea will live forever,’ thus respond the lights.

It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to feel it, but we still live in times of relative peace and tranquility for the practice of Judaism.

And yet the message of Chanuka endures. Ironically, it is precisely when we can practice our religion freely that we often fail to evoke the same commitment as when we are persecuted.

Chanuka challenges us to search ourselves and find that commitment. Not the physical courage needed to overcome oppression and religious coercion as in the past, but a more subtle—though no less intense—expression of spiritual courage and resolve.