The Hasidim of the Piaseczno Rebbe who gathered for the Seudah Shelishit in his Beit Midrash on 5 Dzielna Street in Warsaw must have been unusually somber that fateful June 1940 afternoon. Over the previous week, ominous news had filtered into the Ghetto: France had fallen to the powerful Nazi armed forced. With the collapse of this major western power, Hitler was nearing his high-water mark of European domination, occupying the continent from the English Channel to the borders of the Soviet Union. Many in the Ghetto had hoped that France would be able to halt the advance of German forces, but in the summer of 1940 it looked as if the “1000-year Reich” was ever closer to becoming a reality. Germany appeared invincible.
The Rebbe, by contrast, was undaunted. Taking his cue from the weekly parashah, he fearlessly delivered a bold, undiluted message of courage. His starting point was Caleb’s call to action, exhorting the Jewish people, once a slave nation, to begin the conquest of Israel. Contradicting the fearful report of the other spies, who bemoaned that the military odds facing the Israelites were hopeless, Caleb and Joshua remained steadfast in their faith in the Divine promise.
Let us go up and take it over, for we certainly can. Let us understand: the spies certainly spoke meaningfully and reasonably, but the nation is powerful…and the cities are fortified. Why did Caleb not argue with them to rebut their rationale and their arguments? Instead, he simply said, let us go up.
Who in the audience could not help but hear the subtext? In the Torah, the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel and came back with a realistic assessment: attempting to conquer the land was absolutely futile, well beyond the military capabilities of the Jewish people. Caleb, however, did not even bother to respond to their reasoned arguments. Through thinly veiled rhetoric, the Rebbe argued that Warsaw Jews should not succumb to despair:
Such must be the faith of the Jew. Not only when he sees an opening and path to his salvation, that is that he reasonably believes, according to the course of natural events, that God will save him, and thereby he is strengthened; but also at the time when he does not see, Heaven forbid, any reasonable opening through the course of natural events for his salvation, he must still believe that God will save him and he is thereby strengthened in his faith and trust. On the contrary, at such a time it is better that he not engage in intellectual convolutions to find some rationale and opening through natural means, since it is clear that he will not find one—consequently it is possible that his faith will be diminished. This diminution in his faith and trust in God might serve to prevent his salvation, Heaven forbid. Rather, he must declare that it is all true, that the nation that lives there is in fact powerful, it is true that the cities are fortified. Nonetheless, I proclaim my faith in God, that God is beyond limitation and nature, that God will save us. Let us go up and take it over, beyond reason and beyond logic. Such faith and trust in God draws our salvation closer.
The Rebbe’s message is clear: Jews were not to give credence to the doomsayers of the Ghetto. Like Caleb’s report to Moses on the enemy forces in Canaan, the Jews need not focus on the power of the German army, they need only proclaim let us go up and take it over, for we certainly can. The Third Reich, no matter how powerful, is no match for the Almighty.
Torah from the Years of Wrath: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh