Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bluzhever Rebbe on Pesach (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 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 Rebbe. Perhaps he could think up some idea. 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 in 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 believed now that he had overstepped the bounds of his little camaraderie with the Nazi, and began to back away. He began to fear for his life. The kommandant took his eyes off 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; it was in hand's reach. 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? Discussion groups broke out. 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 Paro 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 the camp, the matzah was given to the chidren.

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 are nothing but trouble. 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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Martin Grossman Affair

The following is a letter I sent to one of the Jewish papers regarding the execution of Martin Gross, and to my surprise, it was printed.

Communal Priorities

As a ba'al teshuva I am bothered by a number of phenomena I have encountered in the frum world to this point. The latest issue involves the appeals being made on behalf of death-row inmate Martin Grossman, the 19-year-old who brutally beat up an officer, and then shot her in the head at point-blank range with her own gun.

Let's put on the backburner the fact that this is a horrific crime. What I don't get is why the frum community, time and time again, concentrates its collective effort on one cause - which is sometimes questionable, as in the Grossman case - but hardly lifts a finger for the 90 percent or so of Jews out there who are dying on a daily basis through assimilation, intermarriage and apathy.

These Jews, all with neshamos as precious as ours, can be granted life in olam habah and menuchas hanefesh through Torah and mitzvos in olam hazeh with a little more help from our community.

Sure, we have an Ohr Sameach here and an Aish there. But can we honestly say we are using more than a small amount of our spiritual resources for the millions of Jews dying all around us? The holy Chofetz Chaim said if go out and see people drowning, and someone helps him, that's a wonderful thing. But if you go out and see people drowning in the river every day, then you have a chiyuv to jump in and save as many people as you can.

And if you can't swim, hire a lifeguard (donate to a kiruv organization or someone who does kiruv).

Yisroel Rosenzweig
New York

Eize hu chacham, haro'eh es hanolad (who is wise? The one who sees the consequences down the road). How many people are actually taken off of death row? Not many. Could you imagine what the world would have said if they actually did let someone off, and it was a Jew? Think of the the consequences and the backlash against the Jewish community that this would have created. "Of course he got off, he's a Jew. Finally, it's come out - the Jews control the media, the banks, Hollywood, and now they control the judicial system, as well!" Think hard if you don't get it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Chassidim on Yom Kippur Katan

For Yom Kippur Katan, a story of the Chofetz Chaim.

The day before rosh chodesh, the new month, some have the custom of davening Yom Kippur Katan (a "mini" Yom Kippur - the day of atonement - service). Yom Kippur Katan is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law). The minhag (custom) began in the 16th Century in the mystical city of Tzfas. The hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and at the beginning of each month we bless the new moon. The commandment is the first in the Torah, in parshas Bo, in which Hashem says to Moshe, "hachodesh hazeh rosh chadashim... - 'this month is the beginning of months,'" and when the Torah uses the lashon (language) of "zeh -'this,'" it means that something is actually being pointed to (for a list of more examples of the word "zeh" refer to "Koidenov and Alexander" on this website). In this case Hashem is telling Moshe that when the moon looks like "this," when it is this shape and size, you are to bless it, and new month begins. And so, since the new month is a time of renewal it was decided that one should do teshuvah (repentance), supplicate toward the heavens and seek atonement for sins and misdeeds committed over the past month, just as we do on Yom Kippur, when we're seeking a clean slate for the coming year, and beseeching heaven to be inscribed in the book of life. In the words of the holy Shela in regard to Yom Kippur Katan, "one must make restitution both in money and in personal acts in order that he may enter the new month as pure as a new-born infant." Some also have the custom of fasting on this day. And now to the story:

The Chofetz Chaim was taking a trip from Radin to Warsaw. Whenever he took a train ride he looked for a fellow Jew to sit next to on the journey so that he could talk with him in learning. The Chofetz Chaim usually presented himself as a commoner. Before he boarded on this occasion he noticed a Jew, and asked him if he was coming aboard that train. It came out that they were both going from Radin to Warsaw. On the train, the Chofetz Chaim found that the man was not particularly learned, but this was no matter of concern for the Chofetz Chaim. As a rule he spoke little when encountering someone he did not know, because he enjoyed learning about people's lives. "From everyone there is something to be learned," was his motto. As soon as the first stop after Radin came, the man bid the Chofetz Chaim farewell, and made for the exit. The Chofetz Chaim called out to him asking if he did not say that he was going all the way to Warsaw. The man responded that he was an ani (a poor man), and that he didn't have enough money to go all the way to Warsaw in one train ride. He explained that he would get off of the train, try to sell some of his little trinkets, and with the little money he was able to make, he would buy a ticket to the next stop where he would repeat the procedure, until he made it all the way to Warsaw.

When the Chofetz Chaim arrived in Warsaw it was the day before rosh chodesh. He began to look for a shul at which he could daven Yom Kippur Katan. He walked into a Shtiebel (small Synagogue), and inquired as to whether they davened Yom Kippur Katan there. It turned out to be a Gerrer shtiebel, and the chassidim responded that no, they don't do so because it is not the Rebbe's custom. And so the Chofetz Chaim told them a story. He told them the story of the man he met on the train on the way to Warsaw, and because of his poverty he was forced to get off at every stop along the way, make a few dollars and refuel in a manner of speaking, and then get back on the train until the next stop, until he made his way all the way to Warsaw. "And so," said the Chofetz Chaim, "the Gerrer Rebbe has the spiritual resources to carry him from one Yom Kippur to the next. But we, the ordinary people, need to make stops along the way. We need to supplicate to Hashem, ask for forgiveness for our sins in the passing month, and do teshuva so that we will gain the resources to make it through the next month unscathed. The stops along the way for this man were necessary for him to regroup and get his bearing, just as the stops at rosh chodesh are a time for us to reflect and ascend to a greater spiritual level so that we can make it all the way to our destination, Yom Kippur itself." The chassidim stood with there mouths gaping, staring at this unknown holy man who had presented himself as an everyman off the street. And the story ends there. But the big question! Did they or did they not daven Yom Kippur Katan? In all likelihood they did not, and the Chofetz Chaim had to go on searching. It is unlikely that the chassidim would have gone against their Rebbe's minhag (custom).

What do you think?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Koidenov and Alexander

The Koidenover Rebbe of Bnei Brak came to New York last year, and told a story. The Rebbe has revived Koidenover chassidus over the past number of years, and has established a prestigious yeshiva ketana (elementary school), which is already highly sought after.

In his lecture, the Rebbe was discussing the state of affairs in today's broken world. He spoke of gashmius (materialism), and the preoccupation with the dollar. He said that he had recently visited Tel Aviv, and had stopped by a library that contained old and rare seforim (religious books). He pulled a book from a shelf, and it was a sefer written by an ani (a poor person). The author happened to be the nephew of the first Alexander Rebbe. He thought that by publishing a sefer that included a few stories of his uncle, he might make a few dollars.

In one of the stories, the Alexander Rebbe was presiding over a beis din (religious court). One party claimed that he had been cheated out $500, while the other claimed that it was rightfully his. After hearing the lengthy arguments the beis din ruled in favor of the man who claimed he had been cheated, leaving the other man furious and enraged. Those present tried to calm him down, but the man insisted that the money belonged to him, and he and refused to accept the ruling of the court. After the beis din broke up for the day an announcement was made that it was time to daven mincha (the afternoon prayer). As the frantic man was hurrying out of the room, someone took hold of his arm, and said that they needed him for a minyan (quorum of ten men to pray). "Mincha? Mincha??" exclaimed the man. "I just lost money, and you expect me to think about davening mincha?" He stormed out of the room. The Alexander Rebbe began to pace back and forth, with his head in his hands. Someone asked what was bothering the him, and the Rebbe cried out, "twenty years! Twenty years this man has been my chosid, and this is what he learns from me? He can't daven mincha? I can no longer be a Rebbe of chassidim." Those assembled were in shock. The Rebbe was clearly distressed, and they knew not to take his words lightly. The Rebbe was crying, and insisted that he was not fit to be a leader. It took the Rebbe a few days to get over the incident, and after desperate pleas and appeals by his chassidim, the Rebbe agreed to stay on as their leader.

"He couldn't daven mincha. He couldn't daven mincha!" exclaimed the Koidenover Rebbe, astonished, as if the story were taking place then and there. "And so," concluded the Rebbe, "this is the type of thing that happens in our times on a regular basis. Stocks, bonds, the market. Nobody could make a dollar fast enough. And everyone worries excessively over their money." The Rebbe then spoke words of chizuk (strength) and inspiration despite his adverse assessment of the materialism of our times, and after this five-minute modulation in emotion and spirt, he was able to leave his audience uplifted and assured of the available spiritual treasures of even our times.

And in this week's parsha, parshas ki sisah, we have a reference to the dangers of money. The pasuk states, "zeh yitnu...this is what they shall give," referring to the half shekel contribution by which the nation would be counted for the census. When the Torah states, "zeh, this," it means that "this" actually refers to something tangible that was shown to Moshe Rabbeinu or the Bnei Yisroel. In this case it was "c'min matbei'a shel aish, a sort of fiery coin," indicating the half shekel that was to be given. And, so too, in parshas Bo, the pasuk says, "hachodesh hazeh, this month," referring to the shape and size of the moon that Hashem showed Moshe. He indicated that when the moon is this size "zeh," we are to bless it. And, so too, in parshas beha'aloscha, "v'zeh ma'aseh hamenora, and this is the work of the menorah," with "zeh" indicating the fiery menorah that Hashem showed to Moshe after he expressed difficulty making the menorah himself. And, so too, in parshas beshalach, "zeh keili v'anveihu, this is my G-d, and I will exalt him." On the world "zeh," the Bnei Yisroel pointed up to the heavens. Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, in Noam Elimelech, explains the significance of the fiery coin in this week's parsha. Fire could be used for useful purposes, such as cooking or heating a home, and it can also be used for negative purposes, such as burning down a house and causing destruction. And, so too, just as the coin, money, could be used for positive things, such as chesed and giving to the poor, it can also be the root of all evil. It could lead to gaivah (haughtiness) and kavod (honor). And the message is that we have to be inordinately careful in our dealings with money. In some cases it could lead to an inappropriate elevation of the self, and in the worst case it could come to play in our dealings bein adam l'mokom (between ourselves and G-d), as with the man in the above story.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Reb Shlomo Halberstam HaNavi

It was a wonderful Purim this year at Bobov, so why not a story about founding Bobover Rebbe, Reb Shlomo Halberstam. When I read this story in the Pshevorsker Rebbe's sefer, Shelosh Esrei Oros-Sipurei Kadosh, I really got a good laugh. In actuallity though it's a very sad story, but it tells of Reb Shlomo Halberstam's nevuah (prophesy). Of course that's a bit of a joke too.

Reb Shlomo Halberstam was av beis din (head of the religious court), in the city of Vyzhnytsia, known as Viznitz, before he became Rebbe. The people didn't get along with him, and he didn't get along with the people. While there, Reb Halberstam said that it's been tried and tested in Viznitz, and whenever a new Rabbi is appointed the people always have machlokes (disagreement) with him. HaBa'al Baruch Ta'am, author of sefer Baruch Ta'am, is a gadol (great man; giant) in Torah, and not a Rebbe of chassidim, and the people have machlokes with him. The gaon Rav Tzvi Hirsch had a position as Rav, and he was actualy a Rebbe. He wasn't well known and kept a low profile, but the people still had machlokes with him. There was another Rav who a gadol in Torah who was also a Rebbe of chassidim, and they still had machlokes with him. "And so to conclude," said Reb Halberstam, "I am not a gadol, nor I am not a Rebbe, and the people still have machlokes with me! This city has no mazel, and there will always be machlokes in Viznitz."

And so the Rebbe's words proved correct. Viznitz may have been transplanted from Poland to Bnei Brak, but there is still machlokes in Viznitz. The machlokes is just as bad, or even worse, then in Bobov or Satmar, with people literally beating each other up in the streets. There are stories of chassidim stealing each others Streimels and then ransoming them off to their owners. Like Bobov and Satmar, there will be two competing Rebbes when the present Rebbe passes away. Not to mention the Vizniter Rebbe of Monsey.

It should be noted, however, that while in the city of Viznitz, Reb Halberstam was responsible for the establishment of the first yeshiva in Poland.