After several weeks without recording a drashah, perhaps related to the horrendous typhus outbreak of the late winter of 1941, the Rebbe delivered a series of powerful derashot for the Passover holiday. On the Seventh Day of Pesach he turned his attention to the subject of Torah learning. The memoirs of Chaim Kaplan, a former principal, describe the experience of secret Torah schools for children during the weeks leading up to Passover:
Jewish children learn in secret. In back rooms, on long benches near a table, little schoolchildren sit and learn what it’s like to be Marranos. Before the ghetto was created, when the Nazis were common in our streets, we trembled at the sound of every driven leaf; our hearts turned to water at the sound of any knock on the door. But with the creation of the ghetto, the situation improved somewhat. The Jewish teachers engage in their teaching with confidence that they and their pupils are in relatively little danger. The Jewish police are assumed to be reliable; even if they uncover “forbidden learning” they will not betray us to the heathens. In addition, to a certain extent we do have a semblance of permission. The Self-Aid is authorized to open and support “training points” for Jewish children. We are allowed to feed, direct, and train them; but to educate them is forbidden. But since training is permitted, we allow ourselves education as well. In time of danger the children learn to hide their books. Jewish children are clever–when they set off to acquire forbidden learning they hide their books and notebooks between their trousers and their stomachs, then button their jackets and coats. This is a tried-and-true method, a kind of smuggling that is not readily detected.
The Rebbe began his ma’amar by quoting an unusual Midrash:
שיר השירם רבה ב:ד:א אמר רבי חונייא: לשעבר אדם מראה איקונין באצבעו והיה נזוק, ועכשיו אדם מניח ידו על האזכרה כמה פעמים ואינו נזוק.
Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:4:1: Rabbi Hunya said: once, a person who gestured with his finger at an image would be punished. Now, a person places his hand over a Name many times and is not punished.
The Rebbe, it should be noted parenthetically, had a highly idiosyncratic and precise editing style, analyzed beautifully by Dr. Daniel Reiser in his recently published critical edition of the Rebbe’s wartime writings. The Rebbe would strike out passages of his own composition, but would not do so with any citation from Torah passages (even those that did not mention the name of God) and selected words like “Israel.” Instead, he would place such passages selected for deletion inside round parentheses, as per this photograph below. The Hebrew reads עה׳׳פ (ויתן אל משה)
ככלו וכו׳ לדבר, with the word ויחל written above the line as an insert.
The Rebbe’s respect for the written form of the Biblical text, even in his own draft writings, is explained partially in his comments on Passover 1941, which address the strange Midrash of Rabbi Hunya:
זאת אומרת שהשמות הם כביכול צורות של מעלה, כי איתא כמה פעמים בזוה״ק שקודם שנברא כל איש ואחר פטירתו הוא עומד לפניו ית׳ באותה צורה שהוא בעלה״ז בגופו, כי הצורה רוחני היא, דמות בבואה של נפש שנשתלשלה ונתגלה, בשר ועצמות הפנים הם רק האמצעים שעל ידם נתגלה הצורה, כעין הצבעים שמציירים בהם צורת איזה אדם, שאין לומר שעל הצבעים בלבד כוונותנו כשמדברים איזה איש חכם, רק על הצורה ותחתית נפשו וחכמתו של החכם הזה שנצטיירה בזה, והצבעים רק העצמאים הם…וכעין זה הוא בצורות השמות של קדושה, הדיו הוא רק האמצעי לצייר צורות אותיות אלו, ומה הן הצורות עצמן ולמה דוקא צורות אלו, השתלשלת הארת אורות של קדושה עילאה בהאה לכלל התגלות הן, א׳׳כ כביכול אוקונין של מלך הם.
That is to say, the Names [of God] are, as it were, the Heavenly forms, as we see many times in the holy Zohar that before a person is created and after he passes, he stands before the Blessed One in that form that he physically represented in this world, for the form itself is spiritual, an image that enters into the soul as it descends and is revealed, flesh and bones and a visage that are only the medium through which the form is revealed, like the colors used by an artist to represent the form of some person. One does not say that we mean the colors alone when we speak of some wise person, rather it is the form, the underlying soul and the wisdom of that person that is represented artistically—the colors are only the medium. So too regarding the forms of the holy Names. The ink is merely the medium with which we draw the letters. What are the forms themselves, and why do they manifest themselves in specifically this manner? They are the cascade of emanations of holy, supernal light, that come to take this form. Thus, they are as it were, actually the images of the King.
In other words, the textual, morphological letters–as they are constructed and combined to form words and sentences–are manifestly holy, capturing in some ineffable manner the emanation of God’s presence in the world, in graphical form. The Rebbe reached deeper into mystical sources by citing the medieval Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Gikatilla, who wrote that “the entire Torah is bound up with the Tetragrammaton–that is why it is called ‘The Torah of Hashem–perfect.'” The Rebbe’s focus, however, was on the importance of children learning Torah, and he returned to Talmudic sources by discussing Shabbat 104a:
אמרי ליה רבנן לריב”ל אתו דרדקי האידנא לבי מדרשא ואמרו מילי דאפילו בימי יהושע בן נו”ן לא איתמר כוותייהו אל”ף בי”ת אלף בינה גימ”ל דל”ת גמול דלים מ”ט פשוטה כרעיה דגימ”ל לגבי דל”ת שכן דרכו של גומל חסדים לרוץ אחר דלים ומ”ט פשוטה כרעיה דדל”ת לגבי גימ”ל דלימציה ליה נפשיה ומ”ט מהדר אפיה דדל”ת מגימ”ל דליתן ליה בצינעה כי היכי דלא ליכסיף מיניה
The Rabbis said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: the children are coming now to the Bet Midrash, and they will say things, the likes of which were not even said in the days of Yehoshua bin Nin: Alef bet: aluf binah [learn wisdom]. Gimel dalet: gmul dalim [help the poor]. Why does the gimel extend its foot to the dalet? This is the way of the kind person, to run after the poor. And why does the dalet extend his hand to the gimel? To make himself available. And why does the dalet turn his face away from the gimel? So that the gimel may give to him in secret, and that the dalet would not be embarrassed.
The Rebbe was using this passage to illuminate the mystical concept that the very forms of he Hebrew letters contained deep teachings “the likes of which were not even said in the days of Yehoshua bin Nun.” The shape of the letters gimel and dalet together shed light on the relationship between donor and recipient, with the gimel stepping forward to aid the dalet, who turns his face away in shame yet accepts the proffered assistance:
The very shapes of the letters, explained the Rebbe, represent the “diagramming” of their underlying significance:
בין מחשבה שכבר נצטיירה לבין מחשבה שלא נצטיירה, שמחשבה שנצטיירה, גם במרום יותר מתגלה, משל לאיש המביט על דבר המצויר, שמחשבתו יותר חזקה. והנה נתינוק שלומד צורות האותיות, פועל התגלות במרום גם בצורות האותויות,ומנן התגלות האותיות היתירה שנעשה במרום באותיות נמשך גם לו לתינוק התגלות בצורות האותיות, משא׳׳כ הגדול שלימוד האותיות אינו לומד כי כבר יודע אותו, ורק את פשט הדברים לומד, לכן רק בפשט התורה פועל התגלות במרום וגם לו, משא׳׳כ אלו הקדושים שגילו כ׳׳כ התגלות גם בצורות האותיות ,מ׳׳ט פשוטה כרעי׳ דגימל וכו׳״, קרא אותם הגמרא ׳דרדקי׳.
The difference between a concept that is diagrammed and a concept that is not diagrammed is that the concept that is diagrammed is revealed more clearly even in the supernal realm. This is likened to a person who looks at a graph and understands more fully the concept thereby represented. When a child studies the forms of the letters, the child effects supernal revelation of the forms of the letters, and in so doing draws down to the child the revelation of the forms of the letters. This is not the case with an adult who studies the letters—the adult does not study them because they are already known, and the adult merely studies the simple meaning of the words, and thus only effects the revelation of the simple meaning of the words in the supernal realm, reverberating to the student. Those holy ones, on the other hand, revealed so much regarding the forms of the letters: “why does the gimel extend it’s foot, etc.” The Talmud calls them “children.”
In other words, the Rebbe urged his Hasidim to slow down their learning process in order to look deeper at the subject of their learning, indeed to look at the texts with the tabula rasa mentality of children: an adult with full proficiency in Hebrew would not be able to ask the question, “why does the gimel look like a person walking?” Only by looking deeply–even “unlearning” rote concepts and schemas, at least temporarily–will the student merit to grasp Torah, “the likes of which has not been said even since the days of Yehoshua bin Nun.”
The Rebbe then turned to the incredible power of learning with childlike freshness. One of the characteristics of Piaseczno Hasidism is the attempt to reflect on a given situation from the Divine perspective. Here, the Rebbe cites a Talmudic passage well-known to pedagogues (Ta’anit 7a):
והיינו דאמר ר’ חנינא הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן
As R. Hanina said, “I learned much from my Masters, and even more from my colleagues–but from my students most of all.”
The primary and ultimate Teacher of Torah is God. If this Talmudic dictum is true, asks the Rebbe–then what can God learn from us, his humble students?
לכן כשאנו לומדים דבר חדש והקב׳׳ה לומד אתנו בבחי׳ ״המלמד תורה,״ אז גם במרום התורה מתגלה יותר…
לכן גם כשהאיש חוזר על למודו צריך שבכל פעם יתעמק יותר וילמוד בכל פעם חדשות מהתורה, כדי שיהי׳ הוא ית׳ מלמדו גם עתה, ופועל בזה התגלות במרום ועל ידי ההתגלות שעושה במרום נעשה גם אצלו למטה התגלות.
Thus when we learn something new, and The Holy One teaches us in the capacity of “the One who teaches Torah,” then Torah is further revealed in the supernal realm…
Therefore, when a person reviews Torah learning, one must reach deeper, seeking new insights at every opportunity, in order that the Blessed One become the Teacher again, and effect thereby greater supernal revelation—and through this revelation on high, also effect revelation below with the student.
God, as it were, “knows” the entire Torah. Yet according to the Torah itself, expressed in R. Hanina’s teaching, the “most” important elements of the Torah are not expressed in the supernal realm until they are grasped, even diagrammed, in the physical realm. The Rebbe explains that God is waiting for us to learn the Torah in the lower world–so that the Torah may be learned in return in the upper world. And the deepest, most powerful teachings of the Torah are accessible only to those students who commit to learn with limitless, child-like questioning.
One can only imagine the impact the Rebbe’s words must have had on his audience at 5 Dzielna street, celebrating the second Passover of Warsaw under the heavy Nazi oppression. The Rebbe was always cognizant of the suffering of his congregants, and concluded his message with the salvific power of learning:
ומכל דבר שעושה ד׳ צריכים ללמוד, כי כשהב״ד הלקו למי מלקות הי׳ זה תורה כי קיימו מצוה בתורה ללקות למי שנתחייבו מלקות, לכן גם היסורים שד׳ מייסר אותנו תורה הם, וכשהאיש לומד מהם, אז נעשה הקב״ה בשעה זו מלמד תורה, ׳ומתלמידי יותר מכולם,׳ ונעשה התגלות מעלה ומטה ועל ידי התגלות בטלה ההסתרת פנים ונמתקין הדינין…
We must also learn from everything that God does, for when a Bet Din delivers lashes to someone who is guilty of lashes, this is also Torah: keeping the commandment of delivering lashes. Thus even the tribulations that God visits upon us are Torah, and when a person learns from them, then the Holy One enters at that moment into the capacity of the One who teaches Torah—“and from my students most of all”—effecting revelation on high and in the mundane world. Through this revelation, the hiding of the face is nullified, and the judgments are sweetened…
In other words: when the Jews see the Torah in everything around them–not just the text, but the very fabric of their lives, even in the depths of the Warsaw Ghetto–when they grasp the hidden secrets of Torah, taught during the terrible phase of hester panim, “the hiding of the Divine face,” then the need for additional revelation is obviated, and God no longer need “teach” in this modality.
This approach to understanding the Holocaust is something the Rebbe hesitated to state explicitly, and was more characteristic of his earlier derashot. By the spring of 1942–and especially after and escapee from the death camp Chelmno arrived in the Ghetto and informed the Jewish underground of what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish deportees–the Rebbe would abandon this argument altogether. This is not to say that he rejected his earlier attempts to frame the persecution in a Torah context. He never repudiated his theological position, even to his very last will and testament, buried with the manuscripts in January 1943. Scholars will continue to debate the complexities of the Rebbe’s thought, but for his Hasidim in the Ghetto, he ended on a note expressing steadfast hope in redemption, connected to the Song at the Sea, read on the Seventh Day of Passover:
ובשהש׳׳ר פ׳׳ד איתא ‘צדיקים העמידה לי בחרבנה יותר מצדיקים שהעמידה לי בבנינה’ וזה לימוד שהקב׳׳ה מלמד אותנו ועי׳׳ז נעשה התגלות למעלה ולמטה והמתקת הדינים והמשכת הרחמים כנ׳׳ל. וזה ‘ויאמינו בד׳ ובמשה עבדו’, ואיתא בשהש׳׳ר שעל זמן היותם במצרים קאי, שגם אז בהיותם בצרה האמינו לכן ,אז ישיר.
In Song of Songs Rabah it is written, “the righteous stood for Me in times of destruction even more than the righteous stood for Me in times of rebuilding…” This is the meaning of “and they believed in God and in Moshe, God’s servant.” It is written in Song of Songs Rabah that this refers to the time when the Jews were in Egypt, that even at a time of suffering they believed—thus, “at that time he sang.”
Material taken from a shiur delivered at Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, based on research from Torah from the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh.