Acharei Mot - BETAR AND HEROES OF THE GHETTO
IN A LEADING article in Hadarom, the scholarly Torah publication of the Rabbinical Council, the late Rabbi Henkin, who was dean of the orthodox rabbinate in America, makes the point that the mourning period which we observe during the days of Sefirah, is associated with the revolt of Bar Kochba more than 18 centuries ago which culminated in the destruction of the great fortress of Betar where thousands of our people were slain by the legions of Rome. The rebellion came as a result of oppression by Hadrian, the emperor of Rome. He severely limited religious freedom of the Jews in Israel, rebuilt the sacred city of Jerusalem as a pagan city, and planned to build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Bet Hamikdash. Thereupon, Bar Kochba, with the support of Rabbi Akiba and his disciples, raised the banner of rebellion. The final and severest battle took place at the fortress of Betar. Julius Severus, the ablest general of Rome, laid siege to that city for one year, and its fall marked the final defeat of that uprising. Rabbi Henkin is of the opinion that the Sefirah mourning is in commemoration of those tragic events.
The truth of this assertion is corroborated by a statement in the Talmud (Berachot 48 b). In discussing the structure of birkat hamazon which we recite after meals, Rav Nachman declares that it is composed of several paragraphs which have to do with crucial events in the history of our people. Moseh tiken lahem birkat hazan heshaah sheyorad lahem mahn. Moses ordained the first blessing when God caused manna to come down to feed His famished people. Yehoshua tiken Iahem birkat ha'aretz beshaah shenichnasu la'aretz. The second benediction was introduced by Josuha when Israel entered the Holy Land. He thanked God for "the good land that He has given unto us." The third berachah was instituted by a father and son team-David and Solomon. David u'Shelomoh tiknu boveh Yerushalayim.-The first part of the blessing was an expression of gratitude by King David, for having been able to weld all the tribes of Israel with their diverse characteristics into one nation, and for having been privileged to make Jerusalem the eternal city of the Jewish people. His son Shlomoh completed the berachah by adding words of thanksgiving for the Bet Hamikdash, the most sacred edifice of the nation, which he had the zechut to build.
For many centuries these three blessings constituted the birkat hamazon and were referred to as the shalosh berachot, the "Three Benedictions." They were expressions of deep gratitude for great blessings and achievements.
The fourth, and final berachah, was introduced late, after the defeat of Bar Kochba and the fall of Betar. When the remains of the martyrs of Betar were discovered not to have disintegrated to the point of producing an offensive odor, and when they finally received proper burial, the sages who were gathered in Yavneh ordained the recitation of the birkat hatov vehametiv.
The question that one may ask is what connection is there betveen this blessing and the tragic events? Furthermore, isn't it strange that the great men of Yavneh would introduce a glowing benediction of gratitude for one of the severest and bloodiest defeats in Jewish history? One would expect that after so cruel a blow the sages would compose a special kinah, an extra lamentation, to be recited on a special day of mourning. But a blessing of hatov vehemetiv-is most paradoxical and odd!
Friends, I see in this berachah not only an expression of gratitude for the fact that the harzgei Betar were given proper burial, but also a declaration of pride in the martyrs of that beleaguered fortress who, despite the insurmountable odds that they faced for a year of privation and plunder, did not behave in a demeaning or cowardly manner, did not bring serichah, a bad odor upon the Jewish people or an ugly stain on the fair name of Israel. They fought and died like lions, every one of them-man, woman and child.
We have lived through a similar period when Jews raised the banner of rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto on Pesach, 1943. With crude homemade weapons the people of the Ghetto fought the Nazis, and that battle became the symbol of Jewish courage in the face of insurmountable odds. A new respect filled the world for the men and women who fought without hope of victory. Everyone knew that from a military point of view the revolt was senseless. But the Jews in Warsaw were saturated with the spirit of the heroes of Betar. Rather than face unspeakable cruelty and be dragged to death, they resolved to fight and die like lions.
As a matter of historic fact, Warsaw was not the only place where Jews fought back. Similar uprisings took place in more than two scores of cities in White Russia, Lithuania and Poland. The world did nothing, absolutely nothing, to help them. Not only did it remain passive, but what was worse, it remained silent.
Those who glibly and disparagingly say that the Jews in the ghettos permitted themselves to he slaughtered like sheep, should recall that the Poles of Warsaw who had a government-in-exile and superior means of attack at their disposal, revolted against the Nazis in August 1944, seventeen months after the uprising in the Ghetto. The French, with the Free French and DeGaulle, had no uprisings to speak of until the Allied Armies were near the gates of Paris. The same was true in Prague and in other places.
It is a known fact that the only revolts in the concentration camps were undertaken not by Chetniks or the Free French, but by Jews.
Ah yes, as we mourn the irreparable losses of six million of our brethren, let us also repeat with pride the hatov vehametiv-that wherever and whenever there was a chance, our people fought the powerful tyrant; that wherever there was the slightest opportunity they did not permit themselves to be dragged to their death like sheep but fought and died like lions.
The berachah is also an expression of the great optimism of Rabbi Akiba and his talmidim with which they inspired generations of their people. No yiuish, and no loss of hope.
The Yerushalmi in Taanit and the Midrash Lamentations state that the hatov vehametiv was placed next to the blessing of boneh Yerusholayim to teach us that both have a great deal to do with the future geulah, with the coming redemption. The wounds of Betar will be healed when Jerusalem will be completely rebuilt by our people.