Parashat Emor in the Warsaw Ghetto (May 11, 1940)

The brief sense of relief felt by Warsaw Jews at the beginning of Passover 1941 did not last. Decrees expelling Jews from several towns were scheduled for the intermediate days of the holiday, and pressures upon the Jewish community increased dramatically. Diarists of the Ghetto record widespread confusion among the population over new Nazi policies implemented in early May 1941. For example, non-Jewish Poles wandering through Jewish streets were suddenly subject to seizure, a measure that was apparently connected with the demand for forced labor as the Nazis pushed their offensive on the western front. Ironically, many Poles even began to wear the Jewish armband in order to avoid the decree.

The bizarre and shifting boundaries of the Ghetto prompted Chaim Kaplan to note that “even the mystics freely admit this time that it is an insoluble riddle…Warsaw, like Noah’s Ark in its day, is full of compartments and partitions that block the roads in the very places where up to now there was the most traffic.  Thus for example on the corner of Nalewki and Nowolipki streets, a dividing wall has been made, and a man whose apartment is at Number 2 Nowolipki Street—a distance of only a few steps—is now forced to go around and around, via Nowloipki-Zamenhof-Gesia-Nalewki streets—a half hour’s walk…in any case, beautiful Warsaw has become a jail made up of cell after cell, whose inhabitants are treated like prisoners.”

The Rebbe’s drashah on Emor (May 11) returned to the theme of supra-rational divine “decrees” (hukim), introduced earlier in Passover. As Warsaw Jewry puzzled over frightful Nazi decrees that seemed senseless, the Rebbe exhorted them to affirm the hukim of the Torah in response. On a literary level, it seems as if the Rebbe drew upon the mood of confusion noted in the ghetto, emanating from the irrational persecution, and urged Jews to find solace in the supra-rational nature of the Divine decrees. When Jews submit to the will of the Creator while enduring what seems like self-defeating persecution, then in fact even the smallest religious effort attains great meaning:

Consequently, when it is a time of suffering for Jacob, Heaven forbid, we wonder what possible benefit we could derive from the experience. On the contrary, does it not diminish our study of Torah? Moreover, we are not concentrating on the performance of commandments as we once did.  Since we have become completely annulled before God, however, and we see that there is no one to save us other than the Holy One who is Blessed, therefore from this self-abnegation itself we draw closer to the Blessed one, to such an extent that all of our actions, speech, and thoughts are directed to God, and become fulfilled commandments.  That is to say, when we do everything which is possible for us to do.

Excerpted from Torah from the Years of Wrath: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh

In Cambridge or Boston next Shabbos (May 11)? Please come by and say hello. Very proud to be speaking at the Chabad of Harvard.


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