Parashat Hukat in the Warsaw Ghetto (July 5, 1941)

Rabbi Shimon Huberband, a student of the Piaseczno Rebbe, recorded a tragic incident that was circulating through the Ghetto in the summer of 1941:

In late June a couple appeared before the rabbi; he was roughly thirty years old, and she was much younger.  The husband said that he had been seized from his bed on Passover of that year and was sent off to a labor camp.  There he suffered greatly; he was beaten with terrible blows, and suffered from infections and lice.  Many of his comrades died from the blows and from shootings, but he was lucky enough to survive.  In the most difficult moments, he kept before his eyes the image of his young, beautiful wife.

When he returned home, drained of all his energy, he found a stranger in his bedroom.  His wife wept and expressed regret.  People told her that everyone who had been taken to the labor camp had died there.  Had she known that he was alive, this never would have happened.  She wept, he wept; and the divorce was carried out.

The Rebbe spoke that Shabbat on the need for personal balance in the face of awful tragedy. On the one hand, he said, we should direct our attention to our spiritual lives, separating from the mundane physical experiences. He alluded to a teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov that appears with some frequency in his prewar writings: paraphrasing Moses’ words on Deuteronomy 5:5, I stood between God and you–it is the “I” (אנכי) that stands between God and an individual. The Rebbe noted that a strong self-consciousness can interfere with one’s spiritual growth:

A person who wishes to elevate himself further and develop a closer connection with God, however, must diminish his sense of self and accustom himself that all his divine service be solely for the sake of God. His fear is not self-directed, nor is his desire for reward, rather all his emotions are directed toward his desire to serve Hashem. This depends on the degree to which he is able to diminish his sense of self [אנכיות]. Every person can accustom himself to this according to his level of spiritual development; if not perpetually then at least occasionally he may rise to his pure level of divine service.

Yet, continued the Rebbe, how is it possible for a person to diminish one’s sense of self when one is in pain, experiencing the terrible tragedies of the Warsaw Ghetto?

When Jacob is suffering, while it is true that this provides atonement for his sins, nevertheless this accustoms the person to be ever more aware of his physical condition, for he is daily immersed in his own suffering: “I have pain,” “I have need.” Is it possible for a person to be struck and not experience physical pain? Since his daily preoccupation is over his very life which is hanging in the balance before him, and he is immersed in his pain and suffering, he regresses to a lower form of Divine service which is predicated upon this awareness of his physical condition.

The solution, taught the Rebbe, is to direct that heightened self-consciousness of suffering into sympathy for the plight of others.

In order to arouse Divine mercy above for the Jewish people, and to temper the harshness of Divine judgement, we must arouse within ourselves mercy for our fellow Jew. Not only are we required to provide them with whatever we are capable of giving, but the very mercy which we arouse within ourselves has an affect in the Heavenly realm. We must not become accustomed to Jewish suffering, that is, we should not become numbed to the overwhelming degree of suffering such that our mercy for Jews be deadened. On the contrary, the heart should melt, Heaven forbid, at the bitterness of this suffering. Arousing mercy within us will have affect two things: firstly, our prayers on behalf of the Jewish people will be more heart-felt, and secondly, as is known from the Holy literature, there are times when a decree of salvation for the Jews has already been issued in Heaven, but its implementation is delayed due to its other-worldliness and its inability to descend to this world and assume physical garb. Consequently, when a person has more than an intellectual awareness alone that Jews have an obligation to support one another, rather he manifests mercy with his entire being, then his prayers are beneficial in drawing down the salvation into this world and the realm of the physical, since he has made himself into a vessel of mercy, both in his heart and with his entire character.

Post script 2018: The Rebbe’s words here, spoken in July 1941, reflect his principal preoccupation with the welfare of his Hasidic congregation and the larger Jewish population of the Ghetto. The larger arc of his thought, however, would certainly support expanding this passage to concern, sympathy and prayer for the welfare of all people.

Forthcoming October 2018:

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