Monday, April 2, 2012

Pesach in Czernowitz

The year was 1946. The Skulener Rebbe had been living in Czernowitz, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. It later fell into German and Romanian hands until the Soviet forces liberated the city in 1944. Czernowitz is currently divided between Romania and Ukraine. A number of Rebbes and other tzaddidim arrived in Czernowitz after the war to regroup and decide where to settle. But nobody really knew what to do or where to go. It was only one year after the hororrs of the camps. Just as an aside, Rav Aharon Kotler could not decide whether to go to Israel or the United States. He did the goral hagrah (the Vilna Gaon's method of opening to a random page of Torah, and looking for the first pasuk that stands out, in order to decide a difficult question). The first pasuk that caught his eye spoke of Aharon going out into the wilderness to meet Moshe. And so it was decided. Rav Aharon Kotler, like his namesake in the Torah, Aharon, would go out into the wilderness, the United States (then considered a spiritual wilderness), to meet Moshe, Rav Moshe Feistein, already in the States. Similarly, when Rav Shach couldn't decide whether or not to leave Europe, he opened to the parshah. It was lech-lecha: go from your land and your people and your father's house. He then knew what to do. But back to the story. The Skulener Rebbe found himself in a situation where all those who had come from the camps had not a penny to their name. In addition, the Rebbe was the only person in town that had the resources to bake shemurah matzah for Pesach. Due to his infinite chesed (kindness) he decided to go to work for the sake of the people. He would bake and he would bake, until the resources ran dry, and he would then distribute three matzos to anyone and everyone who knocked on his door. Three matzos and no more.

A young man came to his home, and was given his three matzos. He told the Rebbe that he needed six matzos. The Rebbe said that he was very, very sorry, but he must provide for all of the Jewish inhabitants of the city. The young man would not take no for an answer. He said that his father asked for six matzos, and he could not disobey. "What is your name?" asked the Rebbe. "Moshe Hager," answered the boy. "And just who is your father?" asked the Rebbe. "Reb Baruch Hager.". The Rebbe was astounded. The Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe asking for six matzos! But despite his great esteem for the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a rule is a rule. He reminded the Rebbe's son that only three matzos were required for the seder, so why the adamant request? The young man said that on the grounds of kibud av (honoring one's father) he must take home six matzos. The Rebbe reluctantly agreed, and handed over six matzos.

Days later, as the Rebbe had finished giving out shemurah matzah for Pesach, Reb Moshe Hager returned. He had come back with three matzos. The Rebbe was astounded, once again, and inquired as to the turn of events. The young man had refused to go home with less than six matzos, and here he was returning three! The young man replied, "my father knew that the Rebbe was going to expend all of his energies toward baking matzah and handing out matzah to the needy. My father said that considering the Rebbe's overwhelming chesed he might unwittingly give away all the matzos, leaving none for his own seder." The Rebbe was touched, and took the three matzos. On his way out, Reb Moshe Hager checked with the gabbaim (assistants to the Rebbe). And so it was. The Rebbe had unknowingly given away all of the matzos, leaving none for himself.

Speaking of honoring one's father on Pesach, a comical ma'aseh involving the sharp Reb Aharon of Belz as a child. The Belzer Rebbe, Reb Yissachar Dov Rokeach, was sitting at the seder table with his family all around. He wanted his young son, Reb Aharon (later to be Rebbe) to say the ma nishtana, and ask why this night is different from all other nights. In the general spirit of the seder he wanted his son to ask questions. But young Reb Aharon sat in silence. The Rebbe started doing out of the ordinary and outlandish things to arouse his son to ask questions, throwing his hands in the air with wild gesticulations. But Reb Aharon remained silent. "Don't my actions seem strange to you?" questioned the Rebbe in utter and complete frustration. The boy answered sharply, "father I always show you honor, and would never question anything you do!"

Bluzhever Rebbe on Pesach in Bergen-Belsen

The Bluzhever Rebbe, Reb Yisrael Spiro, was one of the great chassidic leaders of the last century. His wife and children were slaughtered in the Holocaust. High on the Nazis' most-wanted list, the Rebbe himself had been interned in labor camps, and at some point was shipped to Bergen-Belsen. As Pesach approached that first year there was talk among the inmates about obtaining matzah. Needless to say, there was very little hope, and few dwelt on the subject matter for any length of time. While there were some that had been able to don tefilin on almost a daily basis, and others who stealthily managed to light shabbos candles on given weeks, and still others who under the cover of night davened b'tzibbur (prayed with a group), obtaining matzah would actually entail a much more serious set of difficulties, namely finding a small oven, and getting the ingredients for the baking. There was no hope in this particular situation.

But there were a few who decided to go to the Bluzhever Rebbe. Perhaps he could come up with some sort of strategy. The Bluzhever Rebbe, like other "Wunderrabbiner," was particularly hated by the Nazis. But the Rebbe had a special way about him. Oddly enough, there was one kommandant in the camp that saw the Rebbe as a sort of curiosity and, from time to time, would go over to the Rebbe, and engage him in conversation. It is needless to say, however, that he left no doubt as to who was in charge. Their conversations took place clandestinely, lest someone from the high command find out, and reprimand the kommandant. That wouldn't be good for the Jews either. After meditating on the matter for some time, the Rebbe decided to take a chance; a big chance. When the opportunity arose he casually struck up a conversation with the kommandant in private, and a few minutes into the conversation began to explain that a holiday of the utmost importance for the Jews was almost at hand. "And it is essential for the observance of this holiday," he explained to the kommandant, "that we have a sort of bread baked in a very particular fashion. Is there anything that Herr kommandant could do to perhaps obtain for us a very small oven and some flower and water so that we may bake some of this bread? Of course it would be done in stealth and out of sight." The kommandant, with eyes now opened so wide that they looked as if they were about to burst, gave the Rebbe a long, hard stare. The Rebbe now believed that he had overstepped the bounds of his camaraderie with the Nazi, and began to back away. He began to fear for his life. The kommandant took his eyes off of the Rebbe, and let out a little chuckle. He began to walk away, and said, shockingly, "I'll see what I could do." The Rebbe did not repeat this story to the other inmates. There was really no point in getting their hopes up. But there was a shred of hope implanted in the Rebbe's own mind.

About a week later, when Pesach was almost at hand, the kommandant called for the Rebbe. He was instructed to send two men to a certain gate, and to carry a package to the bunker. The kommandant had, in fact, procured a small oven, and small amounts of flower and water to go with it. Word of the oven spread among the Jews of Bergen-Belsen, and many believed that a miracle was at hand. A small group of Jews began preparations at the first opportunity. It was late into the night, and they began the baking. The oven was tiny, and could only bake a few pieces of matzah at one time, but the joy and elation among those who stood around the oven were so great and palpable that nobody dared complain about the size.

Someone had spotted a Nazi walking toward the bunker, and the operation was quickly halted. "Keep on working," whispered one of the Jews, "it's only the kommandant." But as the kommandant came closer, those who looked him in the face saw clearly that this was not the same kommandant. Yes, it was the kommandant who had obtained an oven for the Jews, but by the look on his face his graciousness was now but a fleeting memory. His eyes spoke of evil, punishment and death. He was a blood thirsty Nazi like all the rest. He marched up to the group, and exclaimed, "a letter was intercepted from this camp! I am going to find out who in this camp smuggled out a letter! Because of this letter I have been reprimanded and have gone down in rank!" With these words he went over to the tiny oven, and with one great malicious stomp, smashed the oven flat with his boot. One stomp, and there was nothing left. The oven was completely destroyed. The Jews began to cry. The mitzvah was so close. But all they were left with now was about a dozen pieces of matzah. They had only begun to bake.

It was erev Pesach, and the obvious question arose: who should get the matzah? Who out of all the Jews in Bergen-Belsen hungry for food, and hungry to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach was going to get a piece? Discussions broke out among the inmates. Nobody had an answer. The Rebbe, of course was asked to decide, but this would be a weighty and momentous decision. He needed more time. He contemplated the profound consequences that lie ahead as to who would and who would not get to eat matzah that Pesach in Bergen-Belson. The Rebbe finally came to an answer. "The adults, the oldest among us will get the few matzohs. But just then came a voice. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu! binoreinu uviskeineineinu!" It was a woman's voice. She lay on the ground, almost lifeless, looking as if she could not go on for even another few minutes. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu," she cried out with what little strength she had left in her emaciated and broken body. "When Moshe Rabbeinu came to Paroh at the commandment of Hashem, he said 'let my people go,' and he said, 'binoreinu uvizkeineinu neileich,' the young ones go first. They were going out to the wilderness for matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), and Hashem put the young ones before the old ones. If this was the case with matan Torah, then here too, we must put the young ones first, the children, and give them the little matzah that we have so that they could fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach. Because we have the hope that we will be liberated at some point. And we don't know what will happen to us in this destroyed world afterwords. People could go astray. Children could go astray. But if they have this mitzvah of matzah now on this Pesach in Bergen-Belsen, then they will have it with them for the rest of their lives. The Rebbe went over to this woman, and said, "binoreinu uvizkeineinu. You are absolutely right." And so, that year on Pesach, amidst the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, the matzah was given to the children during the secret Pesach seder led by the Bluzhever Rebbe.

After liberation the Rebbe married this woman, and they began a new life. She became known as the Bluzhever Rebbetzin.

I was watching a documentary recently on Peter Bergson, the activist who tried to save Jews from Nazi hands during the Holocaust. It is only in recent years that his efforts have come to light. Stephen Wise, head of the reform movement of Judaism who had ample political contacts did little if nothing to help Jews escape Europe at the time. He told the president directly that the major issue in the Holocaust was not that of Jews. Wise, along with a host of other high-profile non-orthodox Jewish leaders, have blood on their hands until this day. What I did not know was that Rav Aharon Kotler and other orthodox leaders presided over organizations that did try to influence the fate of the Jews in Europe. 400 orthodox rabbis marched on Washington in an attempt to publicize the machinations of the Nazi empire. In general, although they fought hard, these groups were not successful in influencing the president, as Stephen Wise was constantly telling the president that these religious Jews were nothing but rabble-rousers. Thank you Stephen Wise and your cronies.

But that is not why I brought up the documentary on Peter Bergson. It was mentioned that many of the Jews who were deported to Auschwitz around Pesach time came with small amounts of flower. They believed, as the Germans had told them, that they were being taken on train rides to be resettled. So as Pesach approached they brought flower with them. Few knew that it would be their last day. The Sonderkommandos were in charge of collecting the gassed bodies and throwing them into the ovens of the crematoria. They also gathered their belongings and found the flower. One of the Sonderkommandos was a Chassidic Jew named Moshe Grossman. He had already lost his wife and children. Using the flower, he made matzah in the ovens of the crematoria as an "act of defiance" against the Nazis. The matzah was distributed to a number of prisoners, and as they gathered around on Pesach night they said, in the words of the Haggadah, "this year we are slaves, next year we will be free."

I'm really not sure how I feel about this episode. On the one hand, the matzah was baked among human remains; skin, blood, hair, nails. Surely it was an act of defiance, but still, I'm not so sure about this being a heroic act. Please tell me what you think.

Talking to Hashem

The Klausenberger Rebbe used to tell a story on Pesach: There was a tzaddik (righteous person) who decided one year that he was going to out-due all of his work in previous years in regard to the mitzvah of clearing the house of chometz (leavened bread, which is prohibited on the Passover holiday). His soul was on fire as the month of Adar came to a close and the month of Nissan began. This year he would do all the shopping for food himself. He would bake the matzah by hand, supervising the entire process himself in the matzah factory. He would scrub the floors, clean out the cupboards, and inspect every item in the house down to the last strap and shoelace. He worked until the house was completely clean and chometz-free.

When it came time for the seder meal the man had an unusual feeling of exhilaration. He lowered his spoon into his soup, and gasped. There was a wheat kernel in the soup! This now rendered the soup, the pot it was cooked in, and all of the utensils used for making and serving the soup, unfit. All of those weeks; all of that work for naught. He now had chometz in his home.

Through kabbalistic methods he inquired of the heavens, "how could it happen? How did it come to be?" The answer that came was that a bird had flown over the house, and dropped the kernel of wheat down the chimney. The kernel dropped down straight into the pot of soup that was being cooked underneath. The reason that the man was sent this tiny kernel which disrupted the entire festival? It was because in all of his weeks of preparations he had never asked from a blessing from above. He relied solely on his own efforts.

We could run ourselves ragged in an effort to make an endeavor successful. But we, down below, can only do so much. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes of talking to G-d, and asking for his blessing for our undertaking to be met with success.

Women and Matzah

One Erev Pesach, the wife of Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Apter Rebbe and author of Ohev Yisrael (the lover of fellow Jews), was busy in the kitchen taking care of last minute preparations for the impending seder. She was bustling and in the midst of great activity when she heard a knock at the door. Too engrossed in her work, she let someone else in the house welcome the visitor. Two town collectors of tzedakah (charity) were at the door, asking if there was any small change or Pesach goods in the house so that they can buy and distribute matzah and wine to the poor who had not yet been taken care of for the Yom Tov. Having no money on herself, and with the Rebbetzin astir in the kitchen, she spotted a few matzos tied up in a napkin on the table. She ran over, and handed them to the men.

When the Rebbetzin finally made her way from the kitchen into the dining room, she sensed that something was amiss. She surveyed the room, now aglow with Pesach utensils and wares. The room shined with a Yom Tov radiance, and the Rebbetzin contemplated the notion that she had gone to such measures in preparation for the Pesach holiday, that the shechina (divine presence) might even descend into the dining room itself, in this mikdash me'at (small sanctuary of the home), as if to validate her kavanah, namely, that everything was prepared leshaim shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Everything was perfectly prepared for the seder. Well, almost everything. The table was lacking. "The matzah!" she cried out. It was just that day that her husband had personally baked the matzos with the utmost, meticulous care and with the deepest of kavanahs (intentions) in order to fulfill the mitzvah of matzah with the utmost holiness. This was his shemura matzah for the seder (specially guarded matzos from the time that the wheat is cut). Shaken, she pondered the situation, and finally grabbed hold of herself. She reasoned that there was only one recourse. And that was to take three ordinary matzos, and tie them up into the same napkin that had been "guarding" the shemurah matzos.

Hours later, after the seder was complete, there was a knock at the door. A disgruntled man led his wife into the home of the Rebbe, and began to complain. Apparently, the man wanted a divorce, because his wife had refused to cook in separate utensils for Pesach without shruyah (today knows as gebrokhts. The extra pious do not want water to come in contact with the matzah even after it is baked, lest it get puffed or "cooked" and become chametz, leavened bread, which is forbidden on Pesach). The irate man argued that the Rebbe had to agree that this was grounds for divorce. The Apter Rebbe called his wife into the room. "What type of matzah was used for tonight's seder?" questioned the Rebbe. Too afraid to give over the truth and let her husband's anger flare, she stood paralyzed. "It's OK, said the Rebbe. Nothing will happen to you. Just tell me. What type of matzah was used for tonight's seder?" She began to tremble, but finally admitted that it was not shemurah matzah, but plain, ordinary matzah. And she told the entire story. The Rebbe turned his attention to the quarelling couple. "You see, I knew the whole time that it was not sheurah matzah that was being used for tonight's seder. But rather than get upset at my wife, and speak words that I might later regret, I sat in silence, and felt that I had fulfilled the mitzvah of matzah in its entirety. And I did this for the sake of shalom bayis (peace in the home). And now, you wanted to divorce your wife because she used gebrakhts!" The couple understood well, and after a few more minutes under the Rebbe's care, a peaceful reconciliation was forged.

Word had gotten out, and had reached Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, that the poor women in the matzah factories were being overworked, from early morning until late night, without even adequate break. Reb Levi Yitzchak got up in shul, and said the following, "for years we have suffered the crushing consequences of the blood libels thrown against us by the anti-semite gentiles. They accuse us of using Christian blood as the secret ingredient when we knead and bake our matzos. But I tell you today that it is not Christian blood that we use, but the blood of our own daughters of Israel, who are being overworked in our bakeries!"

The Rebbe Reb Elimelech was once asked what the biggest mitzvah of baking matzos was. He replied, "making sure that the almanos (widows) don't get yelled at in the bakeries."

Friday, March 30, 2012

Go'eil Yisrael Money (Shabbos Hagadol)

The Sadigura Rebbe had a minhag (custom) of telling the following story after bedikas chometz (the search for leavened bread before Passover). There was a poor Jew who lived on the outskirts of the city of Kolbanov. He ran an old, dilapidated tavern and inn, which had been on lease from the local squire. Business had always been slow and, month after month, year after year, he failed to make payments to the squire. The squire threatened the poor Jew repeatedly, but to no avail. He simply did not bring in enough money to pay his lease.

After months of the same old sob story from the Jew, the squire's anger began to rage. On the morning of shabbos hagadol (sabbath preceding Passover), he sent a band of Cossacks to rile up this Jew and his family, and to ransack his house and his belongings. The drunk mob threw the cholent pot through the window, overturned his table and chairs, and splashed the sewage bucket onto the poor man and his wife. The innkeeper was left wretched and miserable in his broken down home, and to make matters worse, there was no longer any cholent, their sole staple for shabbos, to eat.

Not knowing where to turn, the innkeeper rushed to the local shul, where he could hear, and perhaps gain consolation, from the shabbos hagadol drasha (sermon). The Rav of the town was Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, later to become the Apter Rebbe. When the innkeeper arrived, Rav Heschel was in the midst of his grand drasha, as is the custom of shabbos hagadol. Those at the shul crowded around the Rav, basking in his profound and holy words. The innkeeper pushed his way into the crowded sanctuary, and found a tight spot in the back of the room. Standing at the back, he was unable to make out the Rav's exact words. But suddenly, the words came to life. And he heard the following: "In our tefillah (prayers) we find a beracha (blessing) that appears in two tenses. In the beracha following the shema and in the haggadah (prayer book for Passover) we find the words 'ga'al Yisrael - He who redeemed us' referring, of course, to G-d who redeemed us, but in the past tense. This beracha refers to the geulah (redemption) from our bondage in Egypt. But in the shemoneh esrei we say 'go'eil Yisrael - he who redeems us' in the present tense. This refers to the redemption that takes place from day to day. For example, if there is a poor Jew in some tiny village who can't afford to pay his lease, and the local squire sends his Cossacks to trash his house, and they overturn his tables and destroy everything in sight, then even this Jew will be redeemed from his state of misery and woe." The innkeeper was moved by these words, and ran onto the streets, singing, "go'eil Yisrael, go'eil Yisrael! The Rebbe said 'go'eil Yisrael!' He who 'redeems' Israel!"

The next day, the squire sent his gang yet again, this time expecting a payment. They found the Jew dancing and singing. Incredulous at the sight, they came to the conclusion that he buckled under the pressure of the financial burden, and went mad. Later that day, word came from the squire that he wanted to meet privately with the Jew. The Jew figured that he was in for a beating. On the way, he recalled the Rebbe's words, "He who 'redeems' Israel." He suddenly became confident, and there was a spring in his step. At the squire's residence he was questioned. "Tell me Moshele, why have you become such a happy-go-lucky? You live a pitiful existence, not able to eek out a penny to pay me or to survive yourself. Come here Moshele," said the squire reassuringly. "I'll give you a note with my seal to take down to the winery in town, and they'll give you wine on account for a certain sum. Sell the wine, and earn a little money. You'll then repeat the story over and over, and you will subsequently have enough money to both provide for your family and to pay off your debt to me."

The plan came off without a hitch. He bought and sold, and bought and sold, and soon had enough money all of the items required for the Pesach seder, and meat and fish and wine, as well. He was now able to pay off his debt to the squire. Before Pesach began, he tied together a bunch of coins into a cloth, and hurried over to the house of the Rav. He handed the gift to Rav Heschel, and exclaimed, "Rebbe, I've brought you some go'eil Yisrael money!"

Liska Rebbe on Shabbos Hagadol

Just a quick mai'sah in honor of shabbos hagadol. The Liska Rebbe, Reb Tzvi Hirsch Friedlander, talks of the minhag (custom) in those times, in which the Rav, in his grand shabbos hagadol drasha (sermon), would take two seemingly contradictory statements by the Rambam (Maimonidies), and over the course of his long drasha, try to resolve the apparent contradiction between the two statements. The Liska Rebbe explained that all of this is fine and well, but said that what other Rabbonim do b'machshavah (thought) in front of a packed shul, he does b'mai'sah (deed), in real life.

And the Rebbe explains: the Ramban states, as is stated in the Torah, "ba'erev tochlu matzos - in the evening you should eat matzos." The Rambam also codifies the mitzvah "lo signov - you shall not steal." The Rebbe says that while some Rabbonim might try to resolve the contradiction in their shabbos hagadol drasha, he resolves this contradiction in real life, b'mai'sah. But what is the connection between these two mitzvos? And, better yet, what is their contradiction? You should eat matzos on the first night of Pesach, and you should not steal. So the Rebbe explains that although Liska was well off in certain respects, the city still had its share of poor Jews. Some didn't know where their next meal would come from. But they want to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzos on Pesach like any other Jew. And the Rebbe explains that with all of his resources and with his last pennies, he would bake enough matzah for the ani'im (poor people) of the town, so that if anyone were to knock on his door, he would have three matzos to give out to each person. And this is how the Rebbe reconciles "you should eat matzos at night," and "you should not steal."

(It took me a few seconds to get it too. The Liska Rebbe recognizes the fact that when people are so poor, but want to fulfill a mitzvah so badly, in this case, eating matzah on Pesach, they may, unfortunately, resort to theft. Out of desperation they may steal a few dollars in order to buy matzah for Pesach. But the Rebbe provides for the poor so that they won't have to steal, and can fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach by simply knocking on his door, upon which he will provide unconditionally. So the Rebbe doesn't stand before the mispalelim in shul, and impress the crowd by resolving a seemingly complex contradiction. He takes a real life scenario, and resolves two statements for the good of the people.)