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"Stand Up and Be Counted!"

04/22/2020 03:45:08 PM


Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham, CDR, CHC, USN (ret)

Some might find it cruelly ironic that during this time in which the world is suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we read the double portion of Parshiot Tazria-Metzorah having to do with how one suffered from and was “cured” of the “plague” of lashon hara (evil tongue/gossip). This also happens to be the period in the Hebrew Calendar of Sefirat HaOmer (the Counting of the Omer). It is during this period (the first 33 days of Sefirot HaOmer) that we are in communal mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died at this time due to the fact that they were not respectful to each other. It is also the period of time during which we observe and commemorate two days that have become part of the modern-day calendar of Am Yisrael (the People Israel): Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Israeli Soldiers & Victims of Terror). In the history of the United States of America , there are two days which stand out during this time as well: April 19th & April 20th. April 19th is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, and April 20th is the anniversary of the Columbine School Shooting tragedy, both acts being committed by people who can be described as being evil. April 20th also happens to be the birth date of the perpetrator of “the Final Solution,” the more-than-evil Adolf Hitler, may his memory be blotted out forever. When considering all of this, it is very difficult for many people to find hope in their lives. So, please allow me to convey some perspective that might enable hope to be found.

On April 16, 2007, a man named Seung-Hui Cho went on a killing rampage on the campus of Virginia Tech University. Before he was finished, he had killed 32 people. He would have killed more people had Liviu Librescu not been on the scene. At the age of 76 years, Liviu managed to save the students in his Virginia Tech classroom by throwing himself in front of the classroom door and taking the bullets in his own body after telling his students to run and take cover. What is even more remarkable about Liviu Librescu is the fact that he was a survivor of both the Holocaust and the Communist regime of Romania. He had survived the Shoah working in a forced labor camp after which he was deported to a ghetto in Focsani, Romania. He remained in Romania after World War II eventually working in a position at a government aerospace company. However, when he refused to swear allegiance to the Romanian Communist regime followed shortly thereafter with a request to be permitted to move to Israel, he was fired. Here was a man who literally risked his life by declaring to the Romanian government that he was a Jew who wanted to make aliyah. He eventually came to this country and became a teacher. In fact, teaching was his life, he excelled at it, and his students loved him. The way he lived his life and the way he died living his life reminds one of the way Rabbi Akiva lived his life and died.

Rabbi Akiva was perhaps the greatest Rabbi of the Mishnah. Our Tradition teaches us that Rabbi Akiva was ordered by the Romans to stop teaching Torah. When he refused to do so, they burned his body while he was yet alive. As he died, Rabbi Akiva cried out his last words, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!” – “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, HaShem alone!” The Mishnah tells us for that one act alone, Rabbi Akiva gained immediate entry into the Olam HaBa (the World-to-Come) also known as “Paradise” or “Heaven.” Liviu Librescu died in the same manner; he died while engaged in doing what he loved the most: teaching. Even more to the point, he died giving his life in order to save the lives of his students. And for that reason alone, I am certain that, like Rabbi Akiva, he also gained immediate entry into the Olam HaBa.

The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in Masekhet Avodah Zarah 10b teaches, “A person can acquire the world in one moment.” What this means is that in one moment of heroism, a person can show the s/he is worthy of ascending to highest level of Heaven. Often, under intense pressure, good people can lose all perspective. One never knows how s/he will act under such pressure until that moment finally arrives and must be dealt with. Especially at this time, in spite of the overwhelming pressure from those who want to return to “things as they were,” an action that can literally put millions of lives at risk, let each one of us rise to the occasion and do what is right for not only ourselves but for all humanity. Let all of us be like Rabbi Akiva and Liviu Labrescu.




Fri, July 3 2020 11 Tammuz 5780