The changing nature of retrospection and repentance

We all face various tests in our life. Elul is a month that calls upon the introspective individual to reflect on the struggles confronted during the past year.

 THE DAYS leading up to Yom Kippur allow us to begin the process of repair. (photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)
THE DAYS leading up to Yom Kippur allow us to begin the process of repair.
(photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)

We recently made a shiva visit to a friend of ours whose father had passed away. She told us that her father had fought in the 1948 War of Independence. Prior to that, his life’s journey to safety and survival led him to flee the Nazis from the USSR, head south through Uzbekistan, cross the border into Iran, and make his way to Palestine. Indeed, Iran was once a safe place for Jews and served as an important transit point to this country.

Mikhal Dekel, an Israeli-born American professor and author, has written a very thorough book called Tehran Children. She tells the story of the flight of her father‘s family from the German onslaught in Poland. It is a riveting story of trial, tribulation and courage. 

Escaping Hitler’s hordes and surviving was a positive development and a key to a future for a Jewish family. Arriving in the Land of Israel was a happy ending for refugees from Hitler’s Europe. But the route through Russia, Siberia, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, Aden and Egypt was harrowing. Iran was the place where Jewish representatives were able to work freely to get the Tehran children to the Land of Israel.

Today we know the Islamic Republic of Iran as a hostile place to Jews and Israel. The ancient Persians were generally good to the Jews. Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-530 BCE) encouraged the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Things changed after Cyrus. At one point there was even a royal decree approving of Haman’s genocide plan for all of the Jewish people. But things got better when Esther and Mordechai succeeded at defeating Haman and his nefarious plans and restored better times for the Jews. 

Iranian Jews pray at the Abrishami synagogue at Palestine street in Tehran December 24, 2015.. (credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)Iranian Jews pray at the Abrishami synagogue at Palestine street in Tehran December 24, 2015.. (credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)

Over the centuries, Jewish life continued in Iran. The Jewish communities had both prosperous, positive times and challenging times. But they maintained themselves as Jews and as a community. Until the last quarter of the 20th century, during the reign of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, relations with Israel were good, until he was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. 

Consequently, the Jewish people have experienced a welcoming Iran that was supportive of the Jewish state. On the other hand, we have experienced an Iran in which life for Jews became more difficult than in the past. In recent times, Iran has become the avowed enemy of the State of Israel (and the West) and has sworn that it will annihilate Israel.

Serving God

The change in the nature of relationships between nations, in which two nations were allies for a time, and then became enemies, is something that has transpired over time in numerous instances and multiple geographic locales. Take the USSR and the US, for example. The two nations were allies when fighting Nazi Germany during WWII and became Cold War adversaries shortly after WWII ended.

The ever-changing relationships and internal conflicts that characterize allies and enemies among nations are reflected within individuals as well. The month of Elul and the approaching High Holy Days address such a dichotomy within each individual. We are commanded to love God with all of our “heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The Mishna (Brachot 9:5) interprets this phrase to mean “with your good inclination and with your evil inclination.”

What does this esoteric instruction mean in real life? Serving God with our good inclination is accomplished by allowing it to lead us to have faith and to do good deeds. How do we serve the Lord with our evil inclination? The answer is by overcoming the evil inclination, winning the battle with our evil inclination, and not getting trapped by the nefarious temptations it uses to make us stumble and err. 

The tests that life gives us

We recently read a book by Jack Fairweather, called The Volunteer. It is the story of a righteous Pole, Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance, who willingly went to Auschwitz with the goal of exposing the evil there and destroying it. 

Another member of the Polish resistance who was imprisoned in Auschwitz was the gynecologist Dr. Wladyslaw Dering. He served as a doctor in the camp and first used his position to save prisoners, including Pilecki. But, as time passed, he participated as a surgeon in the vile Nazi medical experiments in sterilization using chemical injections and X-rays. He performed more than a hundred castrations and hysterectomies, mostly on Jewish inmates. 

After the war, the Polish government investigated him as a possible war criminal. He fled to London. He was cleared of being a war criminal in a 1948 trial. 

In 1964, Dering sued the author Leon Uris for libel. The July 1964 edition of Commentary magazine had a full report of the trial (“The Dering Case: A Surgeon at Auschwitz” by Mary Ellman). The following is a short excerpt: “From April 13 until May 6 of this year, the London newspapers reported what must be the strangest libel case ever brought to court, even in a city more inured to libel proceedings than most – Dering v. Uris and Others. The plaintiff, Wladyslaw Alexander Dering – a Pole who is now a British subject, and who had been a prisoner-doctor at Auschwitz – accused the defendants, Leon Uris and his publishers, William Timber & Co., of intolerable insult in the following passage from the novel Exodus:

“Here in Block X [at Auschwitz], Dr. Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr. Schumann sterilized by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr. Dering performed 17,000 “experiments” in surgery without anesthetics.”

The printers of Exodus – for under English libel law, a printer can also be held liable – capitulated before the trial, made their apology and paid £500. Uris and his publishers were more stubborn. They did not defend the accuracy of every detail in the passage; what they did set out to prove was its substantial truth.”

In the outcome of the trial, the judge ordered the publisher to pay Dering a halfpenny in damages, which was the smallest coin in England. Dering was ordered to pay £25,000 to cover the legal fees of the defense.

Dering clearly had a good inclination. He was originally part of the Polish resistance. But with time in Auschwitz, he played the game with the Nazis and could not resist their evil ways. Not everyone did that. Many paid with their lives for their sense of justice and morality, and others survived. A Jewish prisoner nurse, Dr. Alina Brewda, was acquainted with Dering before the war and was asked to assist in the operations. She courageously declined. 

Of course, the Dering case is an extreme example of capitulation to the evil inclination. Auschwitz, to say the least, was one of the most horrific and evil places human history has ever known. But everyone is challenged in some manner or form by the respective circumstances of his/her life. Some pass the test and some fail. 

We all face various tests in our life. Elul is a month that calls upon the introspective individual to reflect on the struggles confronted during the past year. No doubt our good inclination was victorious far more frequently than our evil inclination. 

Nevertheless, if we lost the battle on occasion, now is the time of the year to think and use retrospection, and where necessary, regret, to make positive resolutions and move forward into a bright and hopeful new year. 

A recent oleh, Heshie Billet served as a pulpit rabbi for 44 years in the United States and is a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A recent olah, Rookie Billet retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.