Mrs. Hadassah Waxman, Program Director of Shir HaChodesh, a monthly program of advanced shiurim, welcomed everyone to the Zoom shiur hosted by Congregation Etz Chaim on Sunday, January 8.
The featured speaker was Mrs. Rachel Sharansky Danziger, daughter of the famous Soviet activists/dissidents, Natan and Avital Sharansky.
Mrs. Danziger shared an enlightening shiur on the siege state of mind, drawing examples and ideas from Tanach and sharing wisdom from her famous activist parents’ experience with the Russian Gulag. She began with a question. Why does Hashem tell Ezekiel about the bad news of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash that will take place? Why burden him with this bad news and this sense of hopelessness? She answered that Hashem was concerned not with what people believed then, but what they would believe after the destruction. Would the record show that people would correctly interpret the destruction? After the destruction, it was time to start a relationship with Hashem. Another answer is that by forcing him to know what is going to come and forcing him to be silent, G-d is creating in Ezekiel a state of mind – an illumination of what a siege is. It’s more than an army taking over and not having enough food. “A siege is a feeling of something you can’t control or break through. G-d is forcing him to grapple with that siege state of mind.”
She pointed out that “sometimes you don’t need a physical siege to experience this feeling of siege.” She shared what her parents told her about their struggle after her father was arrested for human rights activity and her mother struggled for her husband to be freed. They told their children that they often had feelings of hopelessness. The day her father was arrested by the KGB, they grabbed him in the street and drove him across Moscow into an area with two separate gates. He was abandoned and locked in a room. They told him the law he violated was treason against the state and it was punishable by death. At that moment, people approached her mother and said: “You are young and beautiful. You’re in Israel. Disconnect from Natan and start a family with someone else.
There were moments even when her mother was traveling from country to country to pressure Russia to let her husband go, that she told herself not to think of what they had said to her. She did have moments when she thought maybe they were right.
Her father was interrogated for 13 months, and the guards would drop the words “death by firing squad” in every conversation. They took great joy in tormenting him with this. They said to him, you have a young beautiful wife; recant and say you really want to stay in Russia.
He heard the words firing squad and he felt he had no way out. He refused to betray his comrades. He felt he was looking into those gun barrels.
She noted how, in Tanach, both King Saul and King David faced a moment of hopelessness at the end of their lives. They both used the word narrow to describe their state of mind. Before his death, King Saul sees an enormous Philistine army and knows he can’t defeat it. The worst thing is he can’t find a navi to help give him guidance. So, he turns to an illicit source for an answer. He goes to a woman who talks to the dead and asks her to conjure up Shmuel HaNavi. She raises Shmuel’s spirt. Shaul tells Shmuel that he is in dire straits: G-d turned away from me, so I called you to ask you what I should do.
Shmuel responds that the L-rd has torn the kingship out of your hands and gave it to David because you didn’t kill all of the Amalekites. He tells him that tomorrow Shaul will be with him. Hashem will deliver the Israelites into the hand of the Philistines. Shmuel repeats twice that the Israelites will be delivered into the hand of the Philistines. It is repeated because G-d is giving Shaul an opportunity to make a similar argument that David makes later. Only in David’s case David asks Hashem to please let the people survive.
After David counts the people, which he does against Yoav’s advice, he immediately experiences regret. G-d tells him that he will be punished. He felt the no-way-out feeling that Shaul experienced.
He asked Hashem to forgive him. When he saw the events unfolding, he told G-d, “I don’t accept it. I alone sinned. These poor sheep. What have they done? Sheep refers to the Jewish people. Let your hand fall on me and my father’s house.” When David sees the people suffering, he asks G-d to not let them suffer.
David brings offerings to the place where his son will bring offerings. In the Beis HaMikdash, we bring offerings and we ask Hashem to step out of natural consequences of our actions. We ask Him to restart our relationship with Him. This is the amplifying echo of David’s actions. We are saying, yes, Hashem, this is the path you deemed because I sinned, but let me step off of this path and forge a new relationship with You.
She notes how, later in the Navi, there is the siege of Aram, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. It was not just a physical siege but a state of mind. A group of lepers are the ones who model the courage to grasp for hope. The person who couldn’t accept Elisha’s prophecy that tomorrow there would be food was stampeded and died. This teaches that the siege state of mind leads to death.
She shared that her father, sitting in prison, used empathy and feeling to respond in order not to betray his movement or to give in to a siege state of mind. He overcame his fear by forcing himself to think of his own death. He said survival was not the ultimate goal, but his values were more important.
She taught that empathy and a sense of responsibility, thinking about more than our own survival, can break the siege state of mind. Sometimes, the siege is real, and we are helpless. Even in moments of siege, we can make a distinction of what is really in our hands and what is not.
When her father was in the Gulag, he asked himself what was in his hands, and it was to say no to the KGB, to be kind, and to keep his mind sharp. He reminded himself whom he was fighting for, and he didn’t give in to passivity and despair.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger concluded that our challenge is to free ourselves from despair and ask what can we do in the next step.