BY MRS. ROCHEL (SAMUELS) GURION
My grandmother, who is less than five feet in height, is the tallest person I know.
Tall in perseverance, in emotional strength, in service of Hashem, and in fortitude.
Many people have strength because of what they’ve gone through. I’ve found that she has her strength despite the devastation she suffered.
Without sprinkling a plethora of adjectives or waxing poetic with my impression of her experiences, I could simply spit out keywords like “Auschwitz” or “Nazis”, and you’d know exactly which harrowing tragedies I refer to.
However, even in recent years, an average day for her included her departure to work as a social worker, a real lover of her trade. There was also the daily parade of countless neighbors in and out of her tiny Williamsburg apartment. It’s intriguing to ponder the thriving social life and popularity of a woman in her 90s, but there’s no denying it.
On one cold winter morning in particular, I sat on her flowery sofa (flowery sofas are a grandmother staple), while my toddler ran through her house on a vase-smashing mission, and watched the neighborly influx with a mix of awe and amusement.
Waving away their inquiries about her well-being, she was the voice of humorous reassurance.
“I’m still alive! Don’t be so surprised.”
Then she insisted on filling everyone’s stomachs with chocolate and chicken soup.
- • •
Four of our six annual fast days are in commemoration of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, but Asarah B’Teves is the first of them.
After their desert sojourn, the Jews conquered Eretz Yisrael and it remained under exclusive Jewish rule for 400 years. Then, when Hashem told them it was time to settle and make a permanent dwelling, the temporary and portable Mishkan was replaced by the Beis Hamikdash.
For the next 400-plus years, Jewish rule continued, beginning with Dovid Hamelech and Shlomo Hamelech. Overall, there were 800 years of sovereignty, but in the year 3336 (425 BCE), their peaceful existence came to an abrupt halt.
The tenth of Teves came, and the downward spiral began.
King Nevuchadnetzar and his troops came galloping towards Yerushalayim, which was surrounded by protective walls that now became its inhabitants’ death sentence.
The soldiers gathered around every inch of the outer walls, ready to pounce on any attempting escapee. The doomed Jewish nation, trapped in their own space with a limited stockpile of food and supplies, slowly starved and died horrible deaths.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the significance of this: You cannot go up unless you start from below. Redemption must be preceded by galus. Therefore, Asarah B’Teves has a celebratory aspect. Being the commencement of challenging times means it is also the beginning of what will one day be the only road to our freedom.
- • •
Other walls have also had the potential to bring about death.
My grandmother, in her young teens at the time of her death camp experience, was conveyed the devastating news of her brother’s murder by a fellow inmate. Then the news of her mother’s extermination was broken to her, slicing into her already unbearable reality.
The electrified fence began to take on an irresistible allure. With eyes blurred from tears, her mind was made up; she would cancel the generations that would have been later born through her. She made her way over to the fence to end it all.
At that moment, out of the thousands of people wandering the camp, running up behind my young grandmother was her great-aunt.
Barely an inch away from self-inflicted death, she snatched her away, and they both fell backwards into a weakened heap. My grandmother was then awash in her great-aunt’s endeavor to convince her that life was still worth living. My life was saved that day, along with my grandmother and all of her many descendants.
My grandmother now relates her greatest revenge. It is not one of aggression, but one of her success and their failure. Her newborn descendant has bestowed upon her the title of great-great-grandmother.
- • •
A wall is a powerful structure.
It is neutral in nature, neither inherently good nor evil. Using it as one or the other is a matter of choice.
Boundaries are always needed to protect ourselves; a “wall” of laws or rules prevents a country from going haywire, a class from acting out, an inmate from escaping the confines of his imprisonment.
Sometimes, however, the wall we build around ourselves prevents progress. Perhaps we are blockading ourselves from an attack we think might occur. Or protecting ourselves from trying something new for fear of failure.
Fasting is a way to build a wall around our physical desires, tapping instead into our spiritual selves. During the times of the Beis Hamikdash, there was a special method available for connection to Hashem: korbanos.
The tenth of Teves was the start of galus, and the revocation of the opportunity for animal sacrifice.
Fasting is said to be a temporary replacement. One may wonder, how is fasting a substitute for sacrifices of the blood and fat of animals on the Mizbei’ach? The answer is that while fasting, our lack of nourishment makes us lose blood and fat. We are essentially sacrificing parts of ourselves in an apologetic symbol of giving. Thus, this wall of self-restraint can provide us with the ultimate connection to Hashem.
- • •
We all have obstacles that get in the way of our goals in life, spiritual or otherwise. It is only a matter of choosing which walls need construction and which need destruction.
While one wall almost signaled her demise, my grandmother built another wall in its place, a barricade of self-restraint, one that would save her from the physical wall of doom.
Although Asarah B’Teves was the onset of our exile, we can use the walls of self-restraint that come from fasting to connect to Hashem once again. And we can also look forward on this day beyond the walls of galus to Redemption.
Because in order to break down a wall, it first must exist as an obstacle that needs to be broken.
May we all break free from our personal barriers, and from galus as a whole.