Searching for an escapee from the notorious Pawiak Prison, the Nazis arrested 255 Jewish leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto, holding them hostage and demanding that the community turn over the 21-year old resistance fighter Andrzej Kott. The rebel was not found. The Jewish hostages were eventually killed.
The Rebbe was forced to spend that Sabbath (Yitro, January 27, 1940) in hiding from Nazi patrols. The entry for that week begins with an unusual first-person annotation. Immediately after the traditional opening “Blessed is God. Yitro,” the Rebbe added the phrase “in exile” (be-galut). He then struck out the phrase and wrote above it, “On this Sabbath I was in hiding.”
The size and makeup of the Rebbe’s audience that week remains unknown. He may have been speaking with other communal leaders who were also hiding from the Germans. It is not impossible that he was completely alone, recording his thoughts for posterity. The Rebbe’s message, however, was one of defiance and spiritual courage. Certainly reflecting on his immediate situation, the Rebbe emphasized the value of learning Torah under difficult circumstances:
The receiving of the Torah took place in the wilderness. Perhaps this allusion is implicit in the holy work Bet Aharon, which mentions Rashi’s comment on the verse Hear O Israel, “that your heart should not question the Omnipresent.” The holy Bet Aharon explains, “that you should not say, ‘under these circumstances it is possible for me to serve God, but under other circumstances it is impossible for me.’ Rather, under all circumstances one must serve God.” Consequently, had the Jewish people received the Torah in their own land, in the land of Israel, they would have thought that it is only possible to fulfill it in their own places, in their own homes, and not when they are in exile, beset by distractions. Therefore, God gave them the Torah in the wilderness, on the road, while traveling, in order that they might know that the Torah must be fulfilled under all circumstances.
He added emphasis by discussing the first line of that week’s Torah reading, which describes how Yitro went out to the desert to meet his son-in-law Moses. When the Rebbe referred to the attack of the Amalekites on the Jews wandering in Sinai, the allusion to the contemporary Nazi oppressors was painfully obvious:
Amalek reasoned that while the Jewish people were wandering, then Amalek could prevail despite the Jews’ lofty level of spiritual attainment, Heaven forbid. This is the meaning of the verse, Amalek cooled you off on the way….Therefore Yitro said, “if this is the case, it is not sufficient merely to receive the Torah at home. I must rather go there and receive the Torah while traveling as well, and then I can be a Jew even in my home.” In other words, once he heard that after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds there was a war with Amalek, who thought that they could prevail when the Jews were wandering, Yitro realized that he must also travel to the wilderness…
Returning to his opening strikeout, we can only speculate why the Rebbe chose to replace “in exile” with the phrase “in hiding.” Exile, in Hebrew as in English, has a much stronger connotation than “hiding.” For Jews it has powerful associations with the millennial diaspora from the Holy Land, and was traditionally viewed as Divine punishment for human transgression. Writing in 1940, the Rebbe was certainly also aware of the strength of the Zionist movement, which viewed Jewish settlement in Poland negatively, urging Jews to return to the ancient homeland (the Rebbe himself had close family ties in Israel, and yearned to emigrate there). The Rebbe’s subtle alteration seems to soften all of those associations—perhaps to say that so long as he was with his Hasidim, he was not “in exile.” The Kott affair forced him into hiding, but as long as he could comfort his Hasidim with Torah, then he remained fundamentally at home.