Detail of a page from the Bergen-Belsen ledger
Detail of a page from the Bergen-Belsen ledger Courtesy of Kedem auction house

On Pesach in Bergen-Belsen, Rabbi Aaron Issachar-Bernard Davids, who was Chief Rabbi of Rotterdam, Holland before the war, instructed his fellow prisoners to eat chametz; a decision he made due to the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh— the paramount rule that preserving life takes precedence above all other commandments.

During that clandestine Pesach Seder in the concentration camp, Rabbi Davids recited the regular blessings for matzah, but then added the following prayer, specially crafted for the unique and specific situation:

[Translation] “Before eating chametz say the following with intent & devotion: Our Father in Heaven! It is known to You that we desire to fulfill Your will and observe the Passover holiday by eating matzah and safeguarding against chametz. But our hearts are pained at the captivity which prevents us, and we find ourselves in danger of our lives. We are hereby ready to fulfill Your commandments ‘And you shall live by them (the commandments)’ and not die by them, and to observe the caution of ‘guard yourself and watch your soul/life very much.’ Therefore, our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe Your laws and fulfill Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen!”

I always wondered what God was doing during this Seder at Bergen-Belsen. I imagine that Hakadosh Baruch-Hu was crying at the tragedy and simultaneously smiling at the holiness of this moment. Even in the most horrid of locations and in the most challenging of experiences, when everything was taken away from these Jews, this group of Pesach commemorators showed themselves to be truly free people, contributing a sense of eternality to the genetic makeup of our people.

In every generation we are, as a community and as individuals, confronted with pressures and experiences that enslave us. Some are extremely challenging—like those in Bergen-Belsen—and some are not filled with as much darkness, but are perplexing nonetheless. The Pesach agenda is to remove the chametz – the obstacles, the barriers and the stagnation that hinder our engagement – with a purposeful lifestyle.

Bedikat chametz (searching for the chametz) is about recognizing that the darkness that clouds the crevices of our existence can be minimized or even fully dissipated. That process begins with the realization that a search is required, and that the leavening process that occurs in our lives can be reversed. Rabbi Davids showed us that no condition can forcibly deter us from celebrating the true Pesach experience – the opportunity to lead our lives as free people.

May we all be blessed to engage in a Pesach experience that inspires us.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone Stone (www.ots.org.il), an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He was formerly Vice President of Yeshiva University for University and Community Life and before that, Dean of the David Mitzner Dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.