ARTICLES

KEEP HOLDING ON

RABBI DOV COWAN

Jun 22, 2021

 I write this on June 21st, the “Freedom Day “that we were all hoping for when Boris Johnson made his announcement in the Spring. And yet, freedom day will come and go without the lifting of restrictions we were waiting for. For many of us, it’s hard to keep holding on after successive lockdowns, false dawns and never-ending restrictions but hold-on we must.

The truth is that we, as a Nation know better than most the importance of never giving up. This coming Sunday is the fast day of the 17th of Tammuz when we start a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, culminating on Tisha B’Av. Every year, we hit this period of time and are forced to re-live the National pain of exile. However, we are also acutely aware that even though we have spent two thousand years being persecuted we have never given up the dream of returning to our homeland.

Five years ago, after spending a magical shabbat in Prague with thirty Young Professionals, we found ourselves vesting Theresienstadt on the Sunday afternoon before flying back to London.

Any trip to a concentration camp is laden with emotion and this visit was no different. However, just before we left the site and headed to the airport and London, we had the opportunity to see for ourselves what Jewish hope and longing truly means.

There, in the midst of a camp where over 30,000 Jews were murdered, standing very close to the railway track used to transport Jews to Auschwitz, is a small room that had been turned into a makeshift “shul” by some of the prisoners.

There, in the midst of the suffering and cruelty of the Nazi regime, simple Jewish workers had managed to draw a selection of Hebrew liturgical inscriptions along with drawings of Jewish symbols.

As we walked into the room, my eyes were drawn to the prayer written on the front wall. It was a prayer that I recognised instantly, a prayer that we say three times a day in our Amida, the core of Jewish daily prayer services. The words on the wall stated:

ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים

“May our eyes be able to envision your return to Zion in mercy.”

I closed my eyes and imagined my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters, terrorised by the brutal reign of Nazi evil, finding their comfort and hope in the knowledge that one day we will return to Jerusalem. In a place of darkness and despair, they never lost their hope. Facing death and destruction, they gazed with eyes that saw beyond the here and now.

I was reminded of the oft-quoted story from the Talmud at the end of Tractate Makkos, which recounts the visit of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva to the ruins of Yerushalayim. When they arrived at Temple Mount, they saw a fox running out of the area where the Holy of Holies had been. They began to cry, while Rabbi Akiva laughed.

“They said to him, ‘Why are you laughing?’” He responded, “Why are you crying?’”

The Rabbis answered that their tears flowed from the deep pain of seeing the holiest place on earth being desecrated to the extent that wild animals walked on the site of the Holy of Holies.

But Rabbi Akiva was laughing. The Talmud recounts that his joy was borne from the anticipation of the Third Beis Hamikdash becoming a reality. Just as all the prophecies about the Temple's destruction had been actualised, Rebbi Akiva gazed with eyes that saw beyond the here and now and actualised the prophecy of the final redemption.

And so too, two thousand years later, the inmates of Theresienstadt, barely surviving in the throes of the Shoah’s horror, anticipated the redemption. In the darkest place of destruction, we dreamt of rebuilding.

And so too us. We dream of rebuilding. And we have every opportunity to lay our bricks. With every mitzvah and act of chesed; with every effort of Jewish Unity and joy, we lay a brick in the future Beis Hamikdash. Every day is another opportunity for us to bring about the dream of Rebbe Akiva; the dream of Theresienstadt's inmates and the dream of our people for over two millennia so that once again we will be able to gaze upon the rebuilt Yerushalayim.

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