Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: “Any study of Jewish history is a study of resilience.”

During the Festival of Chanukah, the Chief Rabbi contributed to Thought for the Day.

 

There are few people with life stories as extraordinary as that of Rabbi Yisrael Spira, spiritual leader of the Jews of Bluzhov in Poland before the Second World War.

Tragically, Jewish life in Bluzhov was decimated by the Holocaust. By the festival of Chanukah in 1942, Rabbi Spira was a prisoner at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. A small group of Jews had fashioned makeshift Chanukah candles from tiny scraps of fatty food waste, and threads torn from frayed clothing were used for wicks. A candelabra was cut out of a raw potato and a secret ceremony was arranged.

Rabbi Spira began to chant the blessings over the candles, but, reaching the final blessing, he hesitated: “Blessed are You, Lord, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.” The words of this prayer challenged him. His wife, children and grandchildren had all been brutally murdered by the Nazis. The pain of his loss was overwhelming.

As he steadied himself and continued, one of those present cried out: “There is nothing to be thankful for here, Rabbi. Where are the miracles?” Rabbi Spira responded: “Is our secret presence in this room, despite the danger to our lives, not a miracle? Is the light that we have created in this darkness not a miracle? Is our very survival not a miracle?”

The Israeli psychologist and Nobel Laureate, Professor Daniel Kahneman, points out that the negative experiences in our lives tend to loom larger and feel more intense than positive experiences. However, he maintains that it is possible to train ourselves to take better control of the way our minds process these experiences.

There is greater focus today than ever before on cultivating resilience, so that people can be better equipped to deal with the pressures and anxieties of modern life.

I think that one of the most effective ways of doing that is modelling resilience – talking to and about people who have overcome great adversity and who may even have grown stronger as a result.

Any study of Jewish history is a study of resilience. One of the finest examples is the extraordinary story of the Maccabees’ stubborn survival against the mighty Greek empire, which we celebrate this week, during the festival of Chanukah.

Many people have sought to emulate the sheer courage and tenacity of the Maccabees. Rabbi Spira was one such person. He died aged 99, mourned by tens of thousands of students after a long and full life. But on that Chanukah in Bergen-Belsen, he kindled a flame which provides light to this day.

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