LETTERS OF FIRE
The Torah That Went From the Depths to the Heavens Lost With the Space Shuttle, a Holocaust Memento
Debbi Wilgoren, Washington Post
Wednesday, Febuary19, 2003
The bar mitzvah took place before dawn on a Monday in March, l944, inside a barracks at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
Those men who were strong enough covered the windows and doors with blankets and stood watch to make sure that no SS guards were coming.
Four candles, scrounged from somewhere, gave off enough flickering light for Rabbi Samuel Dasberg to unfurl this tiny Sefer Torah--the five books of Moses, handwritten by a scribe, on a parchment scroll that was just four and a half inches tall.
Thirteen year old Joachim Joseph chanted the blessings just as the rabbi had taught him, and then he chanted aloud from the ancient scroll in the singsong Hebrew melody that has been passed down for hundreds of years.
"There were people listening in the beds all around," Joachim Joseph, who is now a 71 year old Israeli physicist, recalls, describing the narrow triple-decker bunks where the Jewish men and boys slept. "Afterwards everybody congratulated me. Somebody fished out a piece of a chocolate bar that he had been saving and gave it to me. And somebody else fished out a deck of playing cards for me too. Everybody told me, "Now you are a bar mitzvah, now you are an adult. We are so very proud of you. Mazel tov!" And I felt very good.
"And then everything was quickly taken down, and we went out to roll call."
Rabbi Dasberg also gave Joseph a gift that day. He gave him the miniature Torah scroll that they had used, covered in a red velvet wrapper and tucked into a small green box.
He said: "This little Sefer Torah is yours to keep now, because I am pretty sure that I will not get out of this place alive, but maybe you will." "And you know how children are," Joachim Joseph said when the Washington Post interviewed him by long distance phone. "At first, I didn't want to take it, but he insisted. He convinced me. And the condition was; I had to promise that if I ever got out of there, that I must tell the story, the story of my bar mitzvah."
The story of that Sefer Torah was told to the world on January 2lst, when Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, held the scroll aloft during a live teleconference from aboard the space shuttle Columbia.
"This Torah scroll was given by a rabbi to a young, scared, thin, thirteen year old boy in Bergen Belson," Ramon said from inside the space shuttle. "It represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive. It represents their ability to go from black days, from periods of darkness, to reach periods of hope and faith in the future."
When the shuttle disintegrated as it reentered Earth's atmosphere 11 days later, Ramon and the six other astronauts were killed, and the Torah was almost definitely destroyed. But the story of the tiny scroll was reborn.
It is the story of a generation that experienced the worst humanity has to offer, a generation that, 60 years later, is rapidly dying off, leaving only its youngest survivors, museum exhibits and history books to give witness…
Joseph says he has no regrets about sending the Torah into space.
"I'm not sorry that it is gone," he says. "It did what it, perhaps, was destined to do."
Rabbi Chaim Stein shlita is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. A number of years ago Rabbi Stein went to visit the original yeshiva building in the city of Telshe in Lithuania, where he himself had studied before he escaped the Nazi onslaught in October 1940. As he stood with a few others in the abandoned dilapidated building where the passionate discourse of Torah study once resounded and the sounds of Talmudic debate once erupted from its hallowed walls, the eerie silence was palpable and painful.
Rabbi Stein recounted the tragic story of the great sage, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon. After the Roman conquest of Yerushalayim and the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash, the Romans forbid the study and teaching of Torah.
The gemara relates, “They found Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon who was sitting engaged in Torah study, and convening gatherings in public, and a Torah scroll was resting on his lap. They brought him and wrapped him in a Torah scroll, encircled him with bundles of vine shoots and set them on fire. The Romans then brought tufts of wool, soaked them in water, and placed them over his heart, so that his soul would not depart quickly…
[As the fire raged] his students asked him, “Rebbe, what do you see?” He answered them, “גוילין נשרפין ואותיות פורחות - the blank parchment is burning and the letters are taking flight.”
Rabbi Stein explained that Rabbi Chanina’s words are legendary. The Nazis burned the building and decimated its students. But it was only the parchment that burned. ‘The letters’ of all the Torah that was studied and taught in the Telshe yeshiva ‘took flight’ and crossed the world until it was replanted in America.
So it is throughout the generations of our persecution in exile. Our enemies have destroyed us and burned numerous Torahs throughout the millennia. But it’s only the physical scroll, the parchment, that could be burned. The Torah itself however, is indestructible. As the parchment caught fire and began to burn, its letters ascended to heaven, many times returning in new scrolls in new locations.
Klal Yisroel must never forget its exalted status. For along with the great privilege of being G-d’s Chosen Nation, comes tremendous responsibility. In its description of the Tochacha, the Torah warns that if we fail to live up to our responsibilities we will suffer dire punishments.
The Torah describes the retribution that will befall us in explicitly unbearable detail. We have witnessed the veracity and tragic fruition of every word of those painfully foreboding predictions.
Towards the end of the Torah’s account of the Tochacha G-d promises that despite all the horrors and travails that Klal Yisroel will be forced to endure they will never be destroyed. “But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them – for I am Hashem, their G-d.”
The Meshech Chochma writes at length about the repeated pattern of the Jewish People in exile. He also prophetically forewarns that the time was ripe for a great tempest to brew in the Jewish world that would uproot their very roots because of, ‘those who think Berlin is Jerusalem’.
He begins however, by declaring the miracle of our survival. “Behold from when Israel became a nation, throughout the many years, the multitudes of those who dwell on earth could not believe that they (the Jewish people) would endure in such wondrous fashion. It cannot be fathomed by any rational intelligent person who understands history and the patterns of thousands of years in regards to any weak and vulnerable nation. This alone is an incredible and great wonder, that a nation could endure for a Divinely ordained lofty purpose, which was prophesized about thousands of years before it occurred.”
Our very existence is the greatest miracle of all. The fact that Torah is still being taught and that we still proudly adhere to its mitzvos and way of life, despite all we have survived and prospered defies logical explanation.
The Torah scrolls of many communities have been consumed by the nefarious fires of our most heinous and implacable enemies. The scrolls of Babylonia, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, and Russia have been almost completely consumed. But the fires could not singe even one letter. The letters were transported to new lands and a new generation where it continues to be studied and promulgated in eternally cyclic tradition.
The holiday of Lag Baomer celebrates the cessation of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand disciples. Pri Chodosh questions why that is reason for celebration. The Gemara states that as a result of their deaths, “the world became spiritually desolate”. Why should the fact that they ceased to die be reason to celebrate?
He therefore suggests that the real cause for celebration is for what occurred after all of Rabbi Akiva’s students had died out. The gemara recounts, “Rabbi Akiva came to our Sages in the south and taught them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai], and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. It was they who preserved the Torah at that time.” There is a tradition that Rabbi Akiva began teaching the five students on Lag Baomer.
After Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand students died he was already an old man. Their tragic and untimely deaths surely weighed heavily on him and caused him untold pain and sorrow. A lesser man would have succumbed to despair. Yet Rabbi Akiva plunged ahead. With indomitable heart and spirit he cast aside his personal grief to ensure the continued dissemination of Torah to subsequent generations.
Rabbi Gedalia Schorr zt’l explained, “Lag Baomer is a day on which one should strengthen himself in Torah study. Even if one has not learned properly, and has had periods of failure, on Lag Baomer he should strengthen himself and take a lesson from Rabbi Akiva… Just as Rabbi Akiva did not despair, so too, a Jew should not allow past failures and difficult situations to lead him to despair; rather, he should immerse himself in Torah with renewed strength.”
The fires of Lag Baomer symbolize the eternal fire of Torah. In those flames also represents the fact that we are to be the light unto the nations, a guiding light in the morally depraved darkness. The fires of Lag Baomer stands in stark contradistinction with the fires our enemies have ignited to destroy and eradicate every scintilla of our being. Their fires have consumed nothing but parchment while our fires burn heavenward with the eternal light of the letters.
The parchment may be destroyed----but the story will go on. The story will continue. The story will live on.
“Despite all this, I will not annul My covenant with them.”
“The blank parchment is burning and the letters are taking flight.”
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 I had seen part of this article referenced in another article. When I contacted the author this week to ask her for the full article, she replied: “Sure -- here it is. I will never forget that story. Just yesterday, someone asked me what is my favorite story I ever wrote, and I cited this one. Thanks for writing, Debbi Wilgoren”
 Avoda Zara 18a
 Today there is a branch of the Telshe yeshiva in Cleveland, Chicago, and Riverdale.
 Literally – rebuke; the Torah writes the Tochacha twice - in Parshas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:14-46) and in Parshas Ki Savo (Devorim, chapter 28)
 Vayikra 26:44
 Yevamos 62b
 Kaf HaChaim (Oh’c 493:26)
 Ohr Gedalyahu (Lag Baomer)
 As personified by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his illustrious teacher Rabbi Akiva who studied Torah despite the personal peril involved in doing so.
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