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Dealing with the Suffering of the Holocaust: The Teachings of the "Esh Kodesh"

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Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Rebbe of Piaseczno, composed "Esh Kodesh," an extraordinary collection of sermons, in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. This work is outstanding in its honesty, its power, and its religious and existential depths, especially considering the impossible and nightmarish circumstances of its writing.  Because of its historical and philosophical importance, "Esh Kodesh" has been researched and discussed at length.  Among the articles written about it, I will make mention of only three of the most comprehensive.  M. Piekarz uses the derashot to reconstruct a sort of existential and spiritual biography of the Rebbe during the four-year period of writing the book (Polish Chassidism: Ideological Trends Between the World Wars and During the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 5759), pp. 373-411 [Heb.]).  E. Schweid looks at the Rebbe's teachings from before the Holocaust and analyzes in depth some philosophical and psychological aspects of his thought during the Holocaust (From Destruction to Salvation: Reactions in Ultra-Orthodox Thought to the Holocaust in Its Time (Tel Aviv, 1994), pp. 105-154 [Heb.]).  Rav Shagar emphasized the special character of the Rebbe's approach to suffering.  Readers seeking to read further are directed to these works (Broken Vessels (Efrat, 5764), pp. 134-140 [Heb.]).  What follows is based in part on some of their conclusions, with some additional thoughts.


A.  Biography


The Rebbe Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira was the son of Rabbi Elimelekh of Grodzinsk and his second wife, Chana Bracha, the daughter of the Rebbe of Hanchin, and was born in 1889.  He took up his first rabbinical post in 1909, and was appointed rabbi of the Polish town of Piaseczno in 1913.  He was the descendant of a dynasty of tzaddikim from Lizhensk, Kozhnitz, and Moglanitze.  At the age of 16, he married Chaya Rachel Miriam, daughter of the Rebbe of Kozhnitz.  In 1923, he founded the yeshiva Da'at Moshe, which he headed.  His devotion to education led him to write several books before the Holocaust, but of these only Chovat Ha-Talmidim was printed at the time, in 1932. The other books were published by Piaseczno chassidim in Israel after the war. 


At the beginning of the war, the Rebbe suffered a terrible blow when his son, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law and mother were all taken within the space of a month.  He lived in the ghetto until its liquidation in 1943.  He died in a camp near Lublin, where the survivors of the ghetto were murdered in what was known as the "reaping festival" at the end of 1943.


The name "Esh Kodesh" (Holy Fire) was given to the book by Piaseczno chassidim in Israel.  The story of how this manuscript came to be saved is a wonder in its own right.  It was discovered in Poland in the late 1950's by Barukh Duvdevani, who photographed it on microfilm and brought it to the chassidim in Israel, who then published it in 1960. 


B.        No Denial, No Justification


A person who is suffering will typically react in one of two ways: a. denial or suppression; b. justification.


The first reaction means creating an existential or philosophical perspective that diminishes the importance of the actual suffering.  A religious person, for instance, may say:  "True life, real happiness, is not to be found in this world, but rather in the World to Come." From the depths of his faith, he will then relate to his suffering in the here-and-now as a transient, insignificant episode in relation to eternal life.  Clearly, such a position – enlisting a philosophical point of view and applying it to actual distress – may also have existential validity.  It is like a person who is forced to walk barefoot in a field that is full of stones and thorns, and who tells himself all the time, "in another quarter of an hour I will be out of this; all of this will be over," thereby blunting the intensity of his pain in the present.


The second reaction does not diminish the suffering, but rather awards it some reason and meaning.  Suffering is exacerbated when we perceive it as a decree of fate, as arbitrary.  If, on the other hand, the suffering is just, if it is deliberate and appropriate, then it may be borne by one's conscious mind, even though it is painful.  In other words, suffering is a psychosomatic phenomenon; it is comprised of a physical element and a psychological element.  The latter is bound up with our perception of the suffering; if it is just, then it is easier to bear.


The Rebbe of Piaseczno rejects both options.  Concerning the first, he says:


There are calamities for which it is possible to accept consolation.  A person may have had an illness from which he recovered.  Although he had been in great danger and in tremendous pain, when with God's help he was healed, he was immediately consoled for all the pain he endured.  Similarly, if money was lost, then when God restores the lost fortune, consolation follows quickly.  But when lives are lost, it is impossible to accept solace.  It is true that when the pain is due to the loss of family and loved ones, or to the loss of other Jewish people because they were precious and are sorely missed, it is possible to take comfort in other surviving relatives and different friends.  But any decent person mourns the loss of others not simply because he misses them; it is not only his yearning for them that causes pain and distress.  The real cause of his grief is the death of the other – the loss of life. 

(Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, translated by J.H. Worch [Jason Aronson], p.200, Shabbat Nachamu – August 9, 1941)


The Rebbe presents an existential position that also assumes religious grounding.  Life, in the simplest sense, is good; that is our unmediated experience of it.  The desire to live, and acceptance of the normal order of life, is part of the fundamental law of Creation; it is not a spiritual shortcoming or deficiency.  Therefore, the simple feeling of the goodness of life, and the evil of its absence, is the most proper and natural attitude.  Our sources support this view: the Torah promises long life to those who perform the mitzvot; hence, the existential experience of the goodness of life itself is also God's blessing to those who perform His will.  Untimely, death is thus rightly perceived as evil – not only for us, because we miss those who pass on (after all, the passing of someone who is very old still leaves us with a sense of loss and a longing, even though it is not experienced as "evil"), but first and foremost for the dead person himself, who has lost his life, which was fundamentally good. 


This clear existential position leaves no room for denial or suppression by invoking the World to Come or the like; it proposes that the evil of death be acknowledged and addressed directly.  Any other reaction is false; either it is not being uttered honestly, from the heart, or it requires that one nullify the heart.


The other possibility – the justification of suffering – was available to the Rebbe of Piaseczno, and he even mentioned it at the beginning of the war.  However, as time went on, the troubles grew increasingly severe, with the Nazi madness attaining unimagined dimensions.  The Rebbe concluded that the suffering of the Holocaust could not be dealt with by justification in any familiar sense of the expression, since it truly exceeded any sort of suffering invoked by memory or tradition in teaching about punishment or repair for sins.  In 5703, three years after the beginning of the war, the Rebbe wrote:


[Note added by author on the eve of the holy Sabbath, Kislev 18-November 27, 1942.]  No such torment as was endured until the middle of 1942 has ever transpired previously in history.  The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murderers that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers, solely for the suffering of Israel, since the middle of 1942, are, according to my knowledge of the words of our sages of blessed memory, and of the chronicles of the Jewish people in general, unprecedented and unparalleled.  May God have mercy upon us, and save us from their hands, in the blink of an eye.  (See note on p. 251, see also p. 209 in the note)


If the punishment is really of such a different order of magnitude, so qualitatively different, then it cannot be considered a punishment for the sins of the nation or the like, for if it were so, it should have assumed the familiar modes of punishment. (Rav Yitzchak Hutner refused to call the Shoah by that name, insisting that despite its extent, it was ultimately no more than another blow like others that Am Yisrael had received over the course of its history.  Clearly, the Rebbe of Piaseczno experienced the Holocaust in a completely different way and drew a different conclusion.)


Moreover, even when God punishes, He does not act out of a drive for revenge.  Punishment must have a constructive purpose – it is meant to teach a lesson, to lead to soul-searching, to repentance, etc.  "When you are in distress and all of these things have befallen you… then you will return to the Lord your God, and obey Him" (Devarim 4:30).  Here, however, the Rebbe witnessed good, wholehearted Jews losing their faith.  Something had been lost, as it were, in the vital equilibrium of Divine justice. If everything was being destroyed – if there was no more education, no more society, no more beit midrash or synagogue, if it was impossible to study Torah, and all of this lasted for several years, then how could any repentance and return to God grow out of it?


Worse still – in the personal, internal sense as well there is a point of equilibrium up to which suffering may be a catalyst for improvement and repair, prayer and soul-searching, but beyond which body and soul alike are broken and the person is shattered.  At that point, there is no longer a person to pray or to be improved in the most fundamental existential sense.  The purpose of suffering may be compared to the function of a vaccination, or even to an illness.  So long as the body is generally healthy, it develops antibodies; it prevails, and is even strengthened as a result of the encounter with the bacteria.  However, if the dose is too heavy, or the attacks on the body are too frequent, then the effect will be detrimental; the immune system may collapse altogether, and the body will no longer be able to mount a positive combative response.  In the spiritual realm, the same principle applies.


Indeed, the Rebbe declares, the dose is too high; there is no longer any strength to pray or to study.  This being the case, what is it that God desires to achieve? What purpose is there to such suffering?


Every Jewish person prays to God and cries out to Him, blessed be He, regarding any calamity [that it should not occur].  And when, God forbid, the trouble is even greater, he cries out even more, as it is written (Esther 4:1), "And Mordechai cried a great and bitter cry."  Even when there is no impending calamity, we pray to God because prayer itself is closeness to God.  When we pray, we pray with a full voice, as it is written in sacred literature, "The voice awakens the intention (kavana), the intention awakens the voice." But what can we do when they do not permit us to cry out, or even to congregate for prayer, and we are forced to pray in hidden places, and every Jewish heart must lament this alone? At least in the depths of his heart, every Jew must shout out to God about it.  (p.124)


In other words, so long as suffering leads to repentance – or even just to a cry to God, without repentance – it contributes towards bringing us closer to God, as we learn from Mordekhai's reaction in Megillat Esther.  Crying out to God is itself a form of closeness; therefore, it is a positive result arising from suffering.  But if the objective conditions do not allow for prayer, then what value can there be to the suffering? Here it must be noted that the Rebbe is under no illusions; he is well aware that the objective and social dimension of prayer plays a not-insignificant role in the positive inspiration and motivation that arises from it.  When a Jew is forced to pray alone, in silence and in hiding, unable to cry out – simply to cry out! – and unable to reveal what is in his heart to God along with his fellow Jews, then even the fountain of the heart is blocked.  The intensity of the suffering grows even more oppressive when we discover that we cannot even cry out to God.  What, then, remains for us?!


Elsewhere, the Rebbe recounts bitterly the melancholy and frustration gripping him and those around him when he discovers that the more their troubles intensify and continue, so their enthusiasm and desire to pray and to serve God diminish – not only under the influence of theological questions, but simply because there is no more strength:


At kiddush, after services on the holy Sabbath, I remarked, "I would have thought that in such troubled times as these, when Rosh Hashanah comes around, the prayers of Jewish people would be shouted, and the outpourings of the heart would gush like a torrent of water.  But although we trust in God that our prayers have been effective, everyone can see that before the war, our prayers were louder and more passionate and offered with a greater outpouring of the heart than the prayers that were uttered during Rosh Hashanah this year.  This is simply because our bodies are so weakened and Jews have no more strength.  But, in addition, we observe that in general Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, lack the trepidation and passion with which they were celebrated previously."  [Now, as I am writing this, I can add that others have told my they agree: They have observed it too.]


What has caused this to happen? Firstly, as King David said (Tehillim 138:3), "On this day when I called, You answered me, and strengthened me with strength in my soul." When a Jewish person prays, and his prayers are answered, his subsequent prayers are even stronger and stimulated to greater passion.  But when he prays and then sees that not only are his prayers not answered but his troubles actually increase, may the Merciful One protect us, a person's heart falls and he can not arouse himself to passionate prayer.


The second reason is, as we have already said, for anything to really happen, for faith and for joy, there needs to be a real person to experience the faith and the joy – but when the person has been wholly crushed and squashed, there is no one left to rejoice.  (p. 230)


Every Jew knows that his prayers are not always answered.  Rashi teaches that "iyun tefilla," in its negative sense, means the expectation that my requests will be fulfilled; concerning this it is written, "An expectation that is deferred makes the heart sick" (Mishlei 13:12) (see Berakhot 55a and Rashi ad loc.).  Nevertheless, over the course of months and years of continuous suffering accompanied with prayer, those suffering in the Holocaust expected at least some sign, if not real salvation.  All of these prayers had apparently been rejected, and there was no more will to pray.


Moreover, as noted above, even if a person finds within himself the religious faith that motivates him to pray, he must still remain a "person."  In order to be able to pray, he has to exist above a certain minimum level of healthy consciousness, with a sense of continuity, life-force, a desire to live, etc.  When he is completely bent and broken, there is simply no person left to pray.


The suffering therefore appears to be devoid of any purpose.  If the only possible effect is a loss of faith or a weakening of religious commitment, then how can this be of any benefit? Hence, the path of justifying God's judgment is irrelevant in the context of the suffering of the Holocaust, since this was quite unlike any punishment that the nation had ever known, and especially because it exceeded the point of equilibrium of God's attribute of justice, shattering the last remnants of dignity and decent human existence.


C.        Despair?


The perspective set forth above shuts out any possible theory of theodicy, since the punishment seems devoid of any purpose.  However, we must also consider its existential significance: if there is no prayer or repentance, nor any possibility of understanding God's actions, then we are seemingly led in the direction of frustration and despair.  Is this an accurate expression of the feeling of the Rebbe of Piaseczno? Did he really experience his situation as a dead end? Furthermore, it must be remembered, the Rebbe did not write all this as a personal diary.  He grappled with these questions within the context of sermons to his chassidim.  How could such a sermon strengthen them? Did he offer them any positive horizon?


An answer to this question – or at least an indication of a direction – is to be found in the concluding section of the sermon quoted above:


The same applies to passion and arousal in prayer.  The Jew is falling now, lying prone and crushed, there is no one to be aroused in prayer.


However, King David said (Tehillim 130:1), "Out of my straits I called upon God." That is, I called not just from one straitened circumstance, but from straits-plural.  Though I called upon You when I fell into my first crises, and not only was not answered and rescued but plunged even deeper into crisis – straits within straits – nevertheless, I take strength and call upon You again.  (Sacred Fire, p. 230)


The Rebbe concludes the first sermon that we quoted above in the same vein:


At least in the depths of his heart, every Jew must shout out to God about it.  (ibid., p. 124)


When a person considers his deplorable state, his inability to pray, this in itself serves as catalyst.  The sorrow over the inability to cry out gives rise to a cry from a more primal place – the cry for the right to cry.  So long as there is some spark in him that has not been crushed by his troubles, allowing him to examine his spiritual state from the outside, as it were, then even if it reveals the deplorable state that he is in, so long as that spark exists, there is still meaning to his existence. 


In sharing his existential distress with his chassidim, the Rebbe arouses in them feelings of understanding and partnership, drawing them out of the unbearable deluge of dark thoughts and troubles, towards a perspective from which they may grieve together over their physical and spiritual situation.


D.        To Weep with God


The Rebbe of Piascezno states that the lack of will to engage in Torah or prayer when one is surrounded by illness, hunger, terror, and death is not only the result of the physical and psychological reality that is being forced upon them, but is also born of the moral feeling that doing so would represent an unfeeling, insensitive escape from the existential situation:


There are times when a person wonders about himself, thinking, "I am broken, I am ready to burst into tears at any moment, and in fact I break down in tears from time to time.  How can I possibly learn Torah? What can I do to find the strength not just to learn Torah, but to discover new Torah and a chassidut (piety)?" Then there are times when a person beats his heart, saying, "Is it not simply my supercilious heart allowing me to be so stubborn, to learn Torah in the midst of my pain, and in the midst of the pain of the Jews, whose suffering is so great?" And then he answers himself, "But I am so broken.  I have cried so much, my whole life is fraught with grief and dejection." He is lost inside his introspective, self-analytical confusion.  (ibid., pp.315-316)


The Rebbe's question is: Does the almost natural religious reaction of retreating into the warm and safe embrace of Torah study or prayer not represent an unnatural hardening of the heart?


Further on in the same sermon, the Rebbe offers another insight into his anguish.  The helplessness and despair caused by unceasing sorrow has two sources: a. the lack of hope; and b. the experience of loneliness.  The difficulty in praying or studying and the retreat into one's own sorrow are the result of a sense of God's abandonment, leaving me alone; He does not hear me.  However, in the depths of this feeling there is perhaps a spark of consolation, which the Rebbe reveals through an analysis of God's revelation to Moshe during the time of Bnei Yisrael's suffering.  As we know, prophecy comes to a person only when he is in a state of joy (see, for example, Rambam's commentary on Avot 6:5, based on Berakhot 31a), for it is only out of joy and uplifting the spirit that a person may attain closeness to God:


It could be asked: How could Moses have had a prophetic revelation, when to receive prophecy a person must be in a state of simcha (joy)? Aside from the fact that Pharaoh was trying to kill him, Moses was anguished over the pain of the Jewish people.  Moses had such empathy with the pain of the Jews that he later said to God, "Please forgive their sin.  If not, blot me out from this book that You have written." (Shemot 32:32).  (Ibid., p.315)


A person who is suffering or full of sorrow is far from God.  His spirit cannot uplift itself to draw close to Him, for "strength and gladness are in His place" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 16:27); hence, sorrow and despair cannot bring him close to God.  Is this truly the case? The Rebbe discovers, from the midrash, that sometimes it is specifically out of the depths of our weeping and anguish that God is revealed to us:


This is the very reason why God appeared to Moses for the first time from within the burning thorn bush.  Rashi (Shemot 3:2) explains the choice of the thorn bush by quoting the verse (Tehillim 91:15) "I am with him in his pain."


So long as God has only "strength and rejoicing in His abode" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 16:27) then prophets, too, can prophesy only when they also are be-simcha (joyous).  But when God is, as it were, together with the Jews in their pain and trouble, then prophecy may also come to the prophet who is likewise in pain over the plight of the Jews.


In the Talmud (Chagiga 5b) we learn: "It is written (Yirmiyahu 13:17), 'My soul weeps in mistarim (concealment).' Is there then any weeping on the face of the Holy Blessed One, as it is written, 'Beauty and splendor before Him; strength and rejoicing in His abode' (I Divrei Ha-yamim 16:27)? There is no contradiction.  One verse refers to the inner chambers, while the other chambers." Thus, we learn that while in the outer chambers of heaven there is always "strength and rejoicing" before God, within the inner chambers, God weeps in His distress, as it were, over the pain of the Jews.


So it is possible that at a time of hesther panim (concealment of the Divine Face), which is to say, when God hides Himself within the inner chambers, a Jew may also enter and be alone with God there, each Jew at his own level.  There, within the inner chambers, Torah and worship are revealed to each person who enters.  We have already spoken about how the Oral Torah was revealed primarily in exile, in Babylon, and how the holy Zohar was only revealed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar when they were living in a cave, fleeing the Romans government, afraid for their lives.  (ibid., p.315)


The Master of the universe does not ignore the suffering of Am Yisrael.  He weeps together with us.  The faith and continuous sense of God's closeness – "there is no place that is devoid of Him" – means that God is with us literally.  Hence, our weeping is not something external to God; rather, He joins in it.  It is possible to hear the silent, inner weeping of the Divine Presence that joins with the weeping of Am Yisrael and the weeping of each and every individual Jew.  This joint weeping creates a renewed intimacy with God – the sort of intimacy that sometimes develops between people who reveal their shared suffering to each other.  And if this gives rise to prayer or Torah, then it is not Torah that is extraneous to the suffering, but rather Torah that is born of that suffering; not only is it not alienated from it, but it has the power to comfort and console:


And then he answers himself, "But I am so broken.  I have cried so much, my whole life is fraught with grief and dejection." He is lost inside his introspective, self-analytical confusion.  But as we have said above, it is the Holy Blessed One who is crying within the inner chambers, and whoever presses himself close to God through Torah is able to weep there together with God, and also to learn Torah with Him.


This is the difference.  The pain and grief that one suffers over his own situation, alone in isolation, can break a person.  He may even fall so far that he becomes immobilized by it.  But the crying that a person does together with God makes him strong.  He cries and takes strength.  He is shattered, and then emboldened to study and to worship (p.316).


God's "inner sanctuaries" are not in the heavens.  They are the recesses of the soul, of man's innermost existence.  Submission to suffering happens in the outer sanctuaries – in the world of "asiya" – the tangible, objective world.  But when the soul finds the strength to look beyond the suffering, or when it looks inward to that deep place within the sorrow that is not embittered or despairing towards life but rather a genuine sorrow over its situation, over the situation of the Divine Presence, over the absurdity of existence – then it encounters the "inner sanctuary," and there it discovers that its weeping is not alone.


In many of his sermons, the Rebbe of Piaseczno raises the question: why is the world not destroyed by the depths of the evil and suffering within it? How is God in His goodness able to bear such a world? How is it that the screams and cries do not explode the world? This question has a paradoxical answer that pertains to God's own suffering:


And so, the world continues to exist steadfast; it is not obliterated by God's pain and His voice at the suffering of his people and the destruction of His house, because God's pain never enters into the world.  (Ibid., p.287)


God's sorrow is "without limit, greater than the world" (ibid.) – apparently because, from the perspective of the infinite perfection of Divine goodness, the suffering and evil of this world are truly unbearable – since every sorrow or suffering is the result of the contrast between reality as it is, and what it can and should be.  If God's sorrow were to be imposed on the world, the world would necessarily cease to exist.  Hence, there is no choice but for God to enter His "inner sanctuaries" – a higher, "internal" place, hidden from the world, where He may weep.[1][1] Metaphorically, we may imagine a mother who observes her children enduring terrible suffering.  She has to weep, but if she is observed to be weeping openly, it will break them completely.  Therefore, she enters an inner room and weeps there.  It is in this hidden, inner maternal place that God's weeping takes place.


However, His decision to weep in a hidden place is itself the source of our sense of alienation and loneliness.  In this case, the compassion contradicts itself.  The holding back from weeping openly – lest God's tears drown the world, as it were – renders the suffering even more unbearable, for it means that God is not with us!


The solution to this paradox has already been indicated above.  Our weeping in the beit midrash, the Torah and the prayer that are born of suffering and troubles – they are the "inner sanctuaries" of our world, and there the "empty space" for God's weeping comes about in our world.  It is as though we are saying to God, "Come out from Your hiding.  Be with us – even with weeping; the main thing is that You are with us."



[1] The Rebbe must be referring here to the "sefira" of "bina," which is the great 'mother' of Divine manifestation; the source of mercy.  There, in that maternal place, it is possible to weep.  But "bina" lies beyond the sefirot that are manifest in this world; therefore, God's weeping is not discernible in the world, and evil and suffering continue.

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