When Polgar’s expectant mother Vera arrived in Auschwitz in May of 1944 along with nearly half of Hungary’s Jewish population, the death camp was operating at peak efficiency, liquidating more than 132,000 inmates per month. The chances of anybody surviving Auschwitz were already not much more than one in ten, but for a pregnant woman they were far slimmer, which is why it was standard practice for Jewish inmate doctors to perform clandestine abortions as a life-saving measure for the mothers, who were otherwise almost certain to be cremated along with their newborn babies.
After one doctor offered Vera an abortion, her mother came to her in a dream, telling her: “Veruska, you are eight months pregnant, and you don’t do this because the fetus is already alive and ready to leave. Believe in God and He will be with you. Maybe a miracle will happen, but don’t do it!” The next day, Vera refused the doctor’s offer, and barely a month later – against all odds – her daughter Angela was not only born, but managed to survive; hidden until the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops the following month.
This week’s Torah reading introduces us to another child whose birth and survival seem to defy all odds. Like Angela Polgar thousands of years later, Moshe, the future savior of the Jews, is born in a brutal labor camp, facing near-certain death at the hands of his oppressors, and like Angela, he too manages to survive by hiding. And although Egyptian genocide was directed exclusively against the males, like the Nazi’s, they too pursued a carefully orchestrated plan designed to rob their victims of all hope, ultimately compelling the men of that generation to divorce their wives en masse rather than condemn their unborn children to near-certain death.
But just as Vera Polgar was visited by her mother in a dream, our oral tradition teaches us that Moshe’s father Amram – the leader of that generation – was also visited by a family member bearing a strikingly similar message: “His daughter [Miriam] said to him: Father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh’s decree was only against the males, but yours is against both the males and the females… [As a result of Miriam’s rebuke] they all remarried their wives.” (Talmud tractate Sota: 14a)
Both Angela Polgar and Moshe were born as a result of an act of faith that defied reason and logic. It made no sense to bring children into a world where the only choices were death or a short life of pointless suffering and despair. But in both cases that’s exactly what their parents did, because when all is said and done, the value of even a single moment of life is beyond our ability to measure or comprehend. The inherent goodness of life has always been a basic axiom of Jewish belief, and is arguably one of the most important concepts we’ve bequeathed to the world. It factors heavily into our approach to major life issues, such as abortion and euthanasia. It should also influence the way we live our daily lives.
King David exhorts us to “Serve God with joy.” (Psalms 100:2) because joy is the emotion that we naturally feel when we see life for what it really is, without distortion. If we could see things as they truly are, we would realize that the mere fact that we woke up this morning is tantamount to winning the lottery. The winner of the ten million dollar jackpot doesn’t notice when he breaks a few dishes. Similarly, people who get a new lease on life aren’t bothered by things that used to be a big deal to them because they’re way too happy to be alive to even notice them.
This doesn’t mean that life is always going to feel good. There is no known antidote to our penchant for feeling down at times, nor should we ever judge or deny our feelings when we do. But in order for us to live productive and happy lives, we must maintain a healthy sense of perspective regarding our emotions. Positive thoughts and feelings, such as hopefulness, enthusiasm, compassion, a sense of humor and lightheartedness are all reliable indicators that we are heading in the right direction because life is inherently good. Negativity in any of its forms, on the other hand, is a pretty sure sign that we’re not.
Pain and suffering are a real part of life, and should never be minimized. That’s precisely why we must nurture our underlying faith in life’s essential goodness. This belief cannot come from our intellect alone, since we can just as easily rationalize that life is bitter and unfair. Rather, we must realize the simple truth that already lies within us – that no matter how difficult life can be, it’s worth it. Recognition of this simple truth brought redemption to Angela Polgar, Moshe and ultimately, the entire Jewish people. It can no doubt do the same for us as well.