On Parashat Beshalah (January 20, 1940), a young rebel escaped from the notorious Pawiak Prison, located not far from the Piaseczno Bet Midrash. Andrzej Kott, the 21-year old leader of the military wing of a resistance movement called the Polish People’s Independence Action, was a child of assimilated Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity. Despite his tenuous connections to the Jewish community, the Nazis immediately posted signs around the ghetto offering a 2,000 zloty award for the arrest of “the Jew Andrzej Kott.” More ominously, the Nazis invoked once again their policy of collective punishment. By Thursday they had rounded up 255 Jews, searching primarily for well-known community leaders and professionals but also seizing Jews off the street in apparently random arrests. None of the hostages survived Nazi incarceration.
The Rebbe narrowly missed arrest and execution that week, as he briefly mentions in the following week’s message, delivered in hiding. On the Sabbath of Parashat Beshalah, however, he apparently ignored the commotion in the streets and delivered his shalosh seudos drashah as ever. He began with a passage that describes God’s protection of the Jews in their flight from Egypt, an uncanny parallel to the protection that the Rebbe would soon receive in his personal flight from the Nazis:
And God goes before them…at night in a pillar of fire, to give them light so they may travel day and night…God will not remove…before the people. Prior to this passage, the verses are written in the past tense: It happened when Pharaoh sent; and Moses took; and they traveled from Sukos. Only this verse is written in the present tense: and God goes.
At this point, four months into the German occupation, the Rebbe used the moment to deliver a fairly traditional homiletic message. A major element of Piaseczno Hasidut relies of harnessing emotional experience as an engine to drive spiritual growth. Piaseczno techniques apply not only to positive emotional occurrences such as joy but also, Heaven forbid, to suffering:
This is the intent of and God goes “before them,” God and the Heavenly court, according to the communal need of the Jewish people. Even the fire will be for the purpose of providing light for them in their darkness, and all of the judgment will be for their benefit. We must also use the judgment and the suffering for the purpose of Divine Worship, to go day and night—for this refers to the advance, day and night, of the Jewish people. From this we learn that we should not only make progress in our Divine worship when times are good, but even amidst hardship and darkness, Heaven forbid. When a person is surrounded with ease, it is easy to serve God with joy, love, and fiery devotion. When a person suffers, Heaven forbid, one must use this situation to serve God with broken-heartedness and the pouring out of one’s soul.
Later in the war, after an escapee from the death camp Chelmno reached the Warsaw Ghetto and related his horrific experience to the Jewish underground, the Rebbe would advocate a different theological posture. For now, however, the Rebbe pursued a direction that flowed from his prewar writings, urging his Hasidim to seize the moment and reject themselves to higher levels of spirituality, immediately before he fled the Nazi patrols and went into hiding elsewhere in the Ghetto:
“Rabbi Yosi, when he prayed in one of ruins of Jerusalem, heard a Heavenly voice.” Why didn’t he hear it when he prayed in a synagogue? Isn’t it true that God is present when Jews gather to pray in synagogues? While we cannot arrive at a complete understanding of the greatness of Rabbi Yosi, we nonetheless can infer that he was able to hear the Heavenly voice as a consequence of the increased level of broken-heartedness he experienced while praying in one of the ruins of Jerusalem… let us not waste time. Is there nothing for us to do? Let us learn Torah and recite Psalms, to go day and night, and may God who is Merciful have mercy and overturn the judgment for our benefit, and God goes before them, according to their needs.