The Walls of the Warsaw Ghetto: The Rebbe on Parashat Metsora, 1940

In early April 1940, Warsaw Jews were distressed to witness the initial construction of walls in several parts of the city. Up until this point, the concentration of Jews in certain parts of Warsaw was effected by administrative decree, with few permanent physical structures demarcating the boundaries of the ghetto. Debates raged within the Nazi bureaucracy over the utility of a ghetto and the inconvenience it would pose on the non-Jewish population, disrupting transport and access to various institutions located in the area. Arguments over the specific boundaries of the Jewish district would continue for months, requiring periodic adjustments, but the ominous meaning of the barrier was not lost on the Jews: they were to be sealed in. Czerniaków, as head of the Judenrat, was charged with the implementation of the Nazi order. The Jews were to supply both the materials and the labor.

The Piaseczno Rebbe’s sermon for Parashat Metsora on April 13, 1940 addressed the concerns of the community in his typically Aesopian manner, drawing contemporary relevance from the ancient Torah reading and presenting it in an oblique manner that would be understood on multiple levels by his audience. He began by citing Rashi’s comment regarding the treatment of a physical structure placed under quarantine after it showed signs of the plague known as tsara’at (Leviticus 14). After seven days of quarantine, the home was to be destroyed, and according to the Midrash, the inhabitants of the home then discovered treasures previously hidden in the walls by the Emorites who lived there before the Israelite conquest of Canaan. 

Let us understand: if such is the case, why is one required to seal the house for seven days at the outset, and only afterwards remove the stones? Once the plague is visible, one knows that treasures are to be found there! This is especially true according to the understanding of Nahmanides, cited in the works of my holy father, that plagues on houses and clothing are supernatural occurrences, and are only for the benefit of the Jewish people in order to reveal the hidden treasures. Why then does the Torah command us to render the house impure at the onset of the seven days?

To restate the Rebbe’s question: if the tsara’at is to be understood as a supernatural signal to the Jews that there are hidden treasures in the walls, what is the point of the quarantine? Shouldn’t the Jews simply destroy the walls once the first indications of tsara’at are evident? One can only imagine how his question must have electrified his Hasidim, seeking guidance on the meaning of the walls under construction in Warsaw. The Rebbe’s reference to the Emorite treasure alluded to a hidden benefit in the walls, but at the same time his words contained a hint of rebellion: was he advocating that the construction of walls be sabotaged? He continued:

In truth the intent of the Torah and its commandments are beyond our grasp. We can, however, perceive allusions, for we know and believe that all that God does for us—even, Heaven forbid, when God strikes us—is all for our benefit. At the present time we see, however, we are not solely smitten with physical afflictions but also, Heaven forbid, with those that distance us from the Blessed One. There is neither primary Torah school, nor yeshiva; neither study hall in which to pray as a congregation, nor mikveh, and so on. Consequently a glimmer of doubt, Heaven forbid, arises within us: is it possible that even now God’s intent is for our benefit? If it is for our benefit, God should have chastised us with those things which would have drawn us closer, not with the cessation of Torah study and prayer and Heaven forbid, the fulfillment of the entire Torah!

Before answering his own question, the Rebbe probed further by specifically referring to the present condition of Warsaw Jewry. The punishments of the spring of 1940 seemed to serve only to distance Jews from their spiritual occupation. How could the walls possibly hold good tidings for the suffering Jews of Warsaw? What did they mean, and how should Hasidim relate to their construction? The Rebbe returned to this question by digging deeper into the Talmudic teaching on the Levitical home, which noted that only a member of the priestly caste had the authority to place a home under quarantine. A non-priest, even an expert, may only render an opinion:

…a person must only say it resembles a plague to me, and even a Torah scholar who knows that it is in fact a plague must nonetheless say “it resembles a plague,” because a person is incapable of saying if it is in truth a plague or affliction. It is a matter of perception, such that one must say “it resembles a plague,” whereas in truth it is an act of benevolence for the Jewish people by means of which God does good for us.

The Rebbe’s concluding words contained several distinct messages. First, he validated the suffering of the Jews and its deleterious impact on their spiritual growth. Second, he remained steadfast in his faith that the developments were somehow beneficial in the larger plan of the Almighty. Finally, like the expert who is not a member of the priestly caste, the Rebbe could only state that “it resembles a plague:” he could not definitively pronounce that it was in fact a plague, thereby initiating the quarantine and subsequent discovery of the treasure. By analogy, he could only speculate as to the meaning of the ghetto walls—“it resembles a plague”—but at the same time he believed with perfect faith that there was an ultimate Divine purpose which would ultimately be revealed as a valuable treasure. His response to his Hasidim, troubled by the meaning of the walls, validated their fears but urged them to strengthen their faith in Divine Providence. 

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