The true test of emunah does not come without trials and tribulations, but rather in the most dark and difficult times. And no period of Jewish history was as trying as the years of the Holocaust. Many believing Jews saw the enormous tragedies that had befallen so many Jewish communities, and simply could not see how G-d could hide His face and allow this to happen to His people. And yet, there were illustrious leaders whose faith in G-d never faltered.
One of those leaders was the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kolonymos Kalman Shapira, whose profound faith and lofty ideas have come down to us in a book containing his sermons known as the Aish Kodesh. His unwavering voice can be heard on every page, in almost every line as he reaches out to strengthen his followers. And perhaps he is also trying to strengthen himself. When the Nazi bombing of Poland began on September 1, 1939, the victims included the rebbe’s wife, son and daughter-in-law. I discovered one of his profound explanations while trying to understand the deeper meaning of Psalm 130.
Psalm 130 begins with the following words that we often say when praying on behalf of someone who is ill: “Song of Ascents! From out of the depths I have called upon You, O G-d! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.”
Writing on the eve of Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance 1942) from the Warsaw ghetto, Rabbi Kolonymos Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, comments on this verse: When we pray out loud, the sound arouses greater kavanah (intention) And with greater intention there is also a stronger voice. But alas, what can we do when they (the Nazis) do not allow us to cry out or gather together to pray. We can only approach G-d secretly, but nonetheless our prayers are from the depths of our heart. This is what is meant in Psalm 130 by the double expression of “listen” and “hearken.” When a Jew prays and he is answered, his subsequent prayers are even stronger and he is stimulated to greater passion. But now we have not been answered, and the situation has become even more grievous. We have sunk from one depth to another (mimaamakim), from one crisis to another, and though I called upon You I was not answered and rescued. Nevertheless, I take strength and call upon You again for help and assistance.
His powerful explanation reflects the changes and the worsening conditions for the believing Jew. At that point in time, and after one deportation after another, how could anyone still believe? Tens of thousands of Jews had already died of starvation or had been sent in cattle cars to Treblinka. And yet, the rebbe emphasizes that he still cries out for help; the entire Jewish people cry out for His salvation. And in his very last entry in January, 1943, he makes a personal petition: “I cannot write anymore. But I beg of you that after these years of rage are over that anyone who finds my writings will have them printed so that others can learn from them. With the expectation of the salvation of Hashem keheref ayin (immediately).”
Rabbi Kolonymos Kalman Shapira had served as the rebbe of Piaseczno, Poland, since 1919 (when he was just 30 years old), but when the Germans invaded Poland and conquered Warsaw the entire Jewish population of the town was sent to nearby Warsaw. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shapira’s role as the leader and the voice of his flock did not end. From 1940 to 1943 he wrote the series of sermons that became famous as the Aish Kodesh. Time and again, the rebbe expressed his incredible and total faith in Hashem, and this, despite being an eyewitness to the deportations and suffering of his people: In a space that normally would accommodate 20,000 people, over a half million Jews were forced to live in a ghetto with little food or water.
Before the horrors of the Holocaust began, Rabbi Shapira had become the advocate for Peasecod, the many young people who were struggling with the meaning of the ancient texts and their own identities as traditional Jews. In a book published in 1932 called Chovat Hatalmidim (The Student’s Obligation) he writes about the responsibility of the teachers and rabbis of his generation to ensure that “a child be imbued with the vision of his own potential greatness.” The responsibility of transmitting the Torah, according to the rebbe, must take in to account not only great ideas and concepts but primarily the character of the young men. In the eyes of the Aish Kodesh every child had tremendous potential for growth. And if nurtured properly, the love for Torah would remain with him for his entire life. Nonetheless, it was the responsibility of the rabbis and teachers to guide, direct and assist in that process.
The name of the book that contains his powerful sermons reflects both the eternity of the Torah and the Jewish people. The fire that was kindled and destroyed over 90 synagogues on the night of November 9, 1938, (Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass) and continued in the crematoria of Buchenwald, Treblinka and Auschwitz during the Holocaust could not extinguish the spirit of Am Yisrael. It is indeed a “holy fire.”
When Chaninah ben Tradyon, one of the ten martyrs we read about on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, was about to die by fire, his students asked him what he saw. And he told them that he saw a scroll of the Law going up in flames, but the letters were flying up to Heaven. Namely, the Romans may be trying to destroy the physical scroll of the Law, but they cannot ever destroy our inner soul – our Torah! The words and lessons of the Torah are eternal. How true were his words to his students; how true were his words to all generations!
Following the rebbe’s last entry he decided to conceal all that he had written. He placed the writings in a canister and buried them underground. Soon after, along with thousands of others, he was transported to the Trawniki camp. In what became known as “Operation Harvest Festival,” the Nazis killed over 43,000 Jews. Among the victims was the Aish Kodesh.
Writing in an entry days before Rosh Hashanah, 1941, the Aish Kodesh writes about the tremendous pain that he feels. “But if we were capable of responding to all the pain of our current suffering with emotion and distress … it would be impossible to survive even for a single day.”
The immense depth of the emunah of the Aish Kodesh is almost incomprehensible to us today, and yet all those who read and study his words and sermons can only be uplifted. That is the legacy that he left the world. May his memory be only for a blessing!