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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Hope in Heldenplatz

by Rabbi Eitan Cooper (Posted on April 20, 2023)
Topics: Metzora, Sefer Vayikra, Tazria, Torah

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About ten years ago, on a trip to Vienna, Austria, shortly after getting married, I had the opportunity to visit Heldenplatz (“Heroes Square”). Anyone who visits Vienna probably encounters this massive space at the center of the city—it’s hard to miss. 

While today it is a popular site in the city for tourists to visit, in March of 1938 it was the location of Hitler’s formal announcement of the Anschluss—the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. The speech took place in front of thousands of people and was one of Hitler’s more famous addresses. Here I found myself standing, 75 years later, on a trip with my wife. 

Standing in that spot, we looked around, and realized that the sun was setting—we needed to daven mincha. And while I have davened mincha in many inspiring locations before, this mincha was perhaps one of the most memorable of my life. It was memorable because it produced a very strong and unique sense of kavana, which emerged from being in a place where so many of our ancestors’ fate was sealed, where so many cheered on and lended their support to the horrors that the Nazis were perpetrating.

And there we stood, alive and well, newly married, overwhelmed with sadness for what was lost during the Shoah. But also full of pride and gratitude for the Jewish people’s survival. Despite the horrors of the Shoah, we were still standing, and Hitler, who must have seemed so invincible speaking from this very square we were privileged to be davening in, was not. 

This transition—from darkness to light, mafeila l’orah—is noted in a subtle way at the start of this week’s parsha. Tazria-Metzora begins with a description of what a woman must do after giving birth to a male child. It describes the offerings she must bring and the days that she remains טמאה (tmeiah). Upon closer inspection, one finds a short pasuk that seems a bit out of place: 

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עׇרְלָתוֹ׃

On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (Vayikra 12:3)

What is this pasuk doing here? Why are we being informed again of the mitzvah of brit milah, the commandment to circumcise baby boys on the 8th day of life? Haven’t we already learned about this earlier in the Torah?

I’d like to suggest that this verse is in conversation with the start of last week’s parsha (Shmini), which also began with a description of an 8th day—the celebration of the dedication and consecration of the Mishkan. As we read last week, this celebration was tainted by the tragic death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, who offered a fire to Hashem that they were not supposed to. The incredible joy and promise of the 8th day was reversed into unspeakable sorrow and pain for Aharon and for all the Jewish people. 

Read within this context, our pasuk, which describes the birth of a male baby and his bris on the 8th day, serves as a powerful reminder: Despite the trauma the Jewish people had experienced and no doubt internalized after the death of Aharon’s sons, there will still be a future where Jewish babies are born. Not only will they be born, but we will be joyous again—celebrating their bris on the 8th day. 

The 8th day—which in last week’s parsha was a point of pain—is transformed this week into a point of pride. This is precisely the feeling we felt while davening in Heldenplatz. The source of our people’s pain became a source of comfort and pride. 

As we mark the transition from Yom Hashoah this week into the days next week when we will commemorate Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, we have an opportunity to reflect on this important message. We can and must continue to remember our people’s pain. And we can also draw inspiration from where the Jewish people stand today, Thank G-d, alive and well. Shabbat Shalom.