By Mimi Feigelson | 24/09/2009
“And Sarah's life was a hundred and twenty and seven years; the years of Sarah's life” (Genesis 23:1)
I met the Piaseczna Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, for the first time in the summer of 1986. It was at the Pargod Theater in Jerusalem. I was sitting in the second row, in the first seat to the left of the aisle. When I met him I knew that he was the one from whom I wanted to learn. The fact that he had returned his soul to heaven at the Travniki camp, not far from Lublin, on the 4th of Mar Heshvan, in November 1944, at the age of 54, didn't constitute a barrier between him and me. On the contrary, I felt very close to him.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira left behind a family, disciples and “torahs”. “Torahs” is the name used for Hasidic Torah commentary, which is composed primarily, but not solely, of short or long explanations of a sacred text that the rabbi would give in Yiddish during the seuda shlishit (the “third meal”) of the Sabbath, and that relate mainly to some verse or other from the weekly Torah reading. Only rarely did the rabbi himself write them down. Most of these books were published only years after the rabbi's death, rather than during his lifetime.
Most of the “torahs” of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira were anthologized and published before the Holocaust. But the rabbi became posthumously famous mainly for his book, “Esh Kodesh” (Fire of Holiness), which he himself wrote. The book consists of “torahs” that he delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and 1942, and which relate to the exigencies of Jewish life and faith in the ghetto. The last “torah” was given on the Sabbath preceding the Ninth of Av, 1942. One version has it that the manuscript was found in the jars of Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who documented the Warsaw Ghetto.
The “torah” before us, which is from the Sabbath of the weekly portion “Hayyei Sarah”, and was written in 1939, contains something that can touch my/our problems, on two main levels. The first level is the theological dimension: the attempt to confront the question of evil, the place of God in man's suffering, and the various possibilities that are available to man as a solution for this distress. The second level is the personal dimension (and I am deliberately avoiding the use of the concept “feminist”): the character of Sarah as a window onto one of the possibilities available to the women in the Hasidic world.
Let's put it this way: Of all the “torahs” of the Piaseczna Rebbe, to me this “torah” expresses the great distress and the great power that the rebbe contained within himself. On the personal level, this “torah” serves as a life preserver, when my relationship with the Creator becomes intolerable. It serves for me as a screen of words, when I remain speechless before my Creator. It grabs me by the neck and doesn't allow me to flee, when flight seems the only option. It also creates for me a place upon which and within which to stand. This “torah” leaves me with the feeling that the Piaseczna Rebbe can even contain me.
The years of Sarah's life were all equally good. And let us understand the implications for us, since to none of the righteous women mentioned in the Torah was as much greatness ascribed as to Sarah. And what is even more amazing is that even in describing our Patriarch Abraham about whom it is implied that he was without sin, the verse did not repeat a second time “the years of Abraham's life”, as in the case of Sarah, implying that they were all equally good.
In the sacred book about the weekly portion Va'era, written by the holy and godly man, our teacher Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov [1745-1815], it is written: “The Talmud is called a covenant with salt, and it is called a covenant with suffering. Just as salt sweetens the meat, so does suffering cleanse, etc. What is salt? If one adds more than the proper amount, it's impossible to enjoy the meat, but only if we salt it properly. So will our sufferings be diluted, so that we will be able to tolerate them, and they will be diluted with mercy.” Up to this point, I am quoting his sacred words.
“And Rashi [the 11th century Biblical commentator] asks: Why is the death of Sarah written right after the Akeda, the story of the binding of Isaac?... Our Teacher Moses, the faithful shepherd, juxtaposed the death of Sarah to the Akeda in order to side with us, and to show what happened from too much suffering, God forbid – that her soul departed. And if that is what happened to Sarah, who was such a tzaddeikes [a righteous woman, in Yiddish]... and she was nevertheless unable to bear great suffering, how much more so is that true of us.”
The rebbe opens with a seemingly innocent question: Why does the Torah go to such lengths to describe Sarah's greatness (since the words “the years of Sarah's life” are written twice)? By asking the question, the rebbe reveals a small part of his interior world. He called Sarah a tzaddeikes. In the spiritual world in which the Piaseczna Rebbe lived, the concept tzaddik – a righteous person – isn't used carelessly. It carries within it the entire spiritual, theological and social baggage of the Hasidic world. The rebbe's use of this concept in order to describe Sarah requires us to see Sarah as a “Hasidic tzaddik”. In our short “torah”, he calls Sarah a “tzaddeikes” twice (!), despite the fact that he could have used the common epithet “our Matriarch Sarah”; similarly, we find in the “torah” for the weekly portion Hukkat, in 1941, that the rebbe uses this concept in relation to Miriam, and here too, despite the fact that she has a traditional epithet, “Miriam the Prophetess”.
Wife and daughter
In my reading of these specific “torahs” of the Piaseczna Rebbe, I permit myself to see them as corroboration of what I have been told about the two most important women in his life, his wife – Miriam – and his daughter – Rachel Yehudit, whom he affectionately called Rechtche. In the “torah” expounded on Hukkat, it is easy to see that the rebbe's description of Miriam the Prophetess actually applies to his rebbetzin, who he describes as a Torah scholar in her own right. She is even said to have completed a written response to a legal question that he had not completed. Similarly, the Piaseczna Rebbe is said to have studied Torah with his daughter, whom he calls – in a letter written after she was taken from the ghetto in August 1942 – ‘Rachel Yehudit Shtalita'. The title appended to her given name is a feminized version of the acronym customarily added to the names of outstanding rabbis.
These descriptions and this evidence lends fuel to the argument that the Piaseczna Rebbe recognized in his near environment that which has existed for some time in our camp: Women who not only study Torah and are Torah scholars, but who also serve the community as rabbis. In the book by Y. Alfasi [“Hasidism”, Maariv Publishing House, 1977 (in Hebrew)], there is a list of women who served as Hasidic “tzaddikot”, women with status as spiritual leaders. Women who received “kvitlach” [requests on small slips of paper, usually submitted to a rebbe] and answered questions on religious law. To be historically accurate, it wouldn't be correct to describe the situation as “egalitarian” or “democratic”. These women were almost always the wives, daughters or mothers of rabbis; and nevertheless, the naturalness with which the Piaseczna Rebbe describes the status of women in roles of leadership and scholarship makes us adopt him as a role model in the search for models for female leadership in our tradition. Sarah the “tzaddeikes” and Miriam the “tzaddeikes” serve as existing and relevant models in the philosophy of the “Esh Kodesh” (the Fire of Holiness, the name of a book of the rebbe's writings, and by extension an epithet for the rebbe himself).
Reciprocity and integrity
Let's return to the “torah” itself. The rebbe begins by quoting the “torah” of the Rymanov Rebbe about a section of the Talmud in the fifth chapter of the tractate of Berakhot, a text that is often cited in discussions about the nature of suffering and the distinction between various types of suffering: “So that the sufferings will be diluted, so that one will be capable of tolerating them and they will be diluted with mercy”. That is the demand of the Rymanov Rebbe: Sufferings that are tolerable, and sufferings that are diluted with mercy. In the words of the Piaseczna Rebbe I hear him, in the year 1939, chiding God, still somewhat gently, for the sufferings to which he is being subjected. Only a few weeks earlier, on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Piaseczna Rebbe had asked: “If the Holy One, blessed be He, observes the entire Torah, in what way is he observing teshuva (repentance)…?”
On these two Sabbaths, the rebbe is prepared to enter a dialogue with the Creator concerning the sufferings of the Jewish people. A dialogue that will become increasingly harsh over the ensuing years, and that will end after the Sabbath before the fast of the Ninth of Av, in August 1942 – a “torah” in which the rebbe will say that the only thing left is to remain silent in the face of the Creator, because the vision is too terrible to be borne by words.
But here – in 1939 – the Piaseczna Rebbe is still ready to confront the Creator and demand that he repent! We have to remember that as a Hasidic leader, the Piaseczna Rebbe has a double role: to be responsible for his congregation, on the one hand, and to serve as a representative of the Creator, on the other. In this double role he wants to stand in the shoes of our Matriarch Sarah and say that there is no justification in the Creator's world for the Akeda! That there is a place where it is impossible to say: “He did not create it a wasteland, He formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18); in other words, the Holy One blessed be He did not create the world in order for chaos to reign in it, but in order “for it to be inhabited”, so that people will have serenity in their lives. Otherwise, it turns out that God himself is destroying the world! Our Matriarch Sarah serves as a shofar that warns that there is a limit to the suffering of which a person is capable; our Matriarch Sarah serves as a shofar, whose sounded blasts declare that the rules of the game have been broken! Yes, it is she who says: “They broke the rules and we refuse to play!”
And the Piaseczna Rebbe continues in his “torah”:
“One can also say that even our Matriarch Sarah herself, who took the Akeda so to heart that her soul departed, did it for the benefit of Israel, to show God how it is impossible for the Jews to tolerate too much suffering, and even someone who by God's mercy remains alive even after his sufferings, in any case part of his strength and his intelligence and his spirit have been broken and lost – What difference does it make to me if you kill all of it or only part?”
Sarah's role in the world is to insist on justice from the Creator, to demand that there be limits placed on what is required of man. To demand a relationship that confirms mutuality and honesty. God's obligation to observe commandments, as described in the “torah” of the Sabbath before Yom Kippur in 1939, can make it possible to have a normative relationship with the Creator.
The Piaseczna Rebbe is telling us that Sarah gave her life in order to teach the Creator a lesson in running the world. Sarah, as a woman, as a person with breasts [shada'im in Hebrew], understands the significance of the name Shadai, one of the names of God, as the Talmud explains it: “I am the Lord Shadai, I am the one who said to the world ‘dai' [enough]" (Hagiga, Chapter 12). The Piaseczna Rebbe, as a leader, as a person who nurses his flock, says to the Creator, “dai”.
There is another layer to this “torah” of the Piaseczna Rebbe. In the previous paragraph he includes the name of our Teacher Moses in this “torah”: “That our Teacher Moses, the faithful shepherd, placed the death of Sarah right after the Akeda”. You ask yourself, why does the rebbe feel a need to bring Moses into the discussion? Is the rebbe trying to give us a lesson in Biblical criticism?
We are used to learning about comparisons between Noah's leadership and Abraham's leadership: the flood as opposed to Sodom. We are also familiar with “The Gates of Reincarnation”, a kabalistic text that enumerates many biblical personalities and who they reincarnated into, which compares Noah and Moses. But here I understand that the Piaseczna Rebbe wants to pose our Teacher Moses and our Matriarch Sarah (the tzaddeikes) as two different possible role models for how we want to live our lives, and how we want to internalize our connection to the Creator in them.
And one could explain the verse “the years of Sarah's life”, to mean that Sarah ostensibly sinned against the years that would have remained to her had she not taken the Akeda so to heart. But since she did it for the benefit of the Jewish people, the verse hints “the years of Sarah's life”, meaning that her years after the 127 were all equally good, because she did not sin with them, either, therefore God will have mercy on us and on all of the Jewish people, and will redeem us swiftly spiritually and physically, through revealed acts of lovingkindness.
The Midrash already juxtaposed the death of Sarah and the Akeda, and hints that Sarah actually “took her own life”. The Piaseczna Rebbe explains the repetition of “the years of Sarah's life” with a different reading of the Hebrew words, to mean “the two lives of Sarah”: The life she lived and the life she was supposed to live, had she not “given up her life” in order to teach the Creator a lesson about the laws of suffering! The Piaseczna Rebbe explains Rashi: Sarah's stance is a stance of disappearance. Sarah is a “tzaddika” in the classical sense of the term as well, the Talmudic “tzaddik” who lives according to the letter of the law. But her observance of the letter of the law, the sphere of “heroism” that she represents, stems from the internalization of mercy, “so that the sufferings will be diluted, so that it will be possible to tolerate them and they will be diluted with mercy”. And if not, she is abandoning the fray.
If our Matriarch Sarah symbolizes for us “a stance of absence”, our Teacher Moses symbolizes “a stance of presence”. No matter what happens to him, he doesn't budge an inch. Moses is the one who, even after the Holy One blessed be He forbids him to enter the Land of Israel, continues to pray and to plead. He is the one who inside the hell of the ghetto gets up every morning and prays three daily prayers. On the contrary, he is the one who says to the Creator: “Not only am I not getting up and leaving, but I will continue to plead, I will continue to do my work faithfully, and You will have to confront me every day and explain to me why. You, my Creator, will have to serve as an eternal witness to my sorrow and my sufferings.”
These two models can explain how there were people who continued to observe the Torah and the commandments inside the ghettos and the camps, alongside people who were not willing to accept the “Akeda” that was demanded of them day after day, and abandoned everything.
These models serve me as well, in my inner experience. They provide alternatives for the way in which we want to deal with the sufferings – great and small – that we undergo. The Piaseczna Rebbe spreads them out before us and creates a place for both of them. I know that in my own life there are days in which I want Sarah's strength to get up and leave. To seize the name “Shadai” and to say “dai”, enough. I also know that there are days when I feel Moses breathing down my neck, without letting go, and demanding that I stand in place. Sometimes I stand there out of anger. Sometimes out of a longing for God's closeness. Sometimes I stand there because I have nowhere to go. Sometimes I'm there and not there. Sometimes I am “touching and not touching”.
And I still ask myself how the Piaseczna Rebbe saw himself first and foremost, as our Matriarch Sarah or as our Teacher Moses. And I still ask myself how he lived both of them simultaneously.
How many favors?
I would like to return to my starting point. August 1986, the Pargod Theater, Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is onstage telling the story about the holy hunchback, the street sweeper, whom he met years earlier on Hayarkon Street. Reb Shlomo relates that the street sweeper was hesitant at first. He said to Reb Shlomo: “You think that after five years in concentration camps I can remember a single word my rebbe said?” Shlomo insisted: “I'm sure that if you were really a disciple of the Piaseczna Rebbe, there certainly must be at least one “torah” of his that you remember, and I promise you that if you tell me, I'll tell it everywhere I go in the world”. Reb Shlomo describes how the street sweeper went to wash his hands; one talks about the rebbe only out of holiness. And then he said: “I can't describe to you the Sabbath meals and the words of Torah between courses. But there is one thing that the rabbi always used to say: ‘Kinderlach, gedenk sze, di groiser zach in di velt iz toen eimetsen a toivah'” [‘Children, please remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do someone a favor']. He said that this statement was what revived him in moments of devastation. He told how many “favors” could be done in a concentration camp. He told how many “favors” one can do when one sweeps the streets of Tel Aviv.
Two questions echoed in my head for years, and remained unanswered. In the current situation, when a huge “research study” is published that denies the Holocaust, I thought that I myself still have the privilege of knowing survivors and knowing with certainty what happened, but what will happen to my great-grandchildren, and to their great-grandchildren? How can I guarantee that my descendants will never doubt, even for a moment, the enormity of the horror that took place? And on another plane, another question preoccupied me: What is the essence of my connection with Reb Shlomo? Am I ready and willing to accept him as a rebbe, and thus tie my soul to his, and to consider him my spiritual mentor? Was I capable of such spiritual commitment?
One day, while preparing for Sabbath, I listened to a tape by Reb Shlomo. He was singing: “And bequeath us your holy Sabbath, oh Lord our God, with love and with willingness”, and while he was singing, he inserted a few words in English. I remember him singing “Remember the six million on the great Shabbos”, and suddenly I understood that if he were my rebbe, I could learn something from everything he says, and that I must light an additional pair of Sabbath candles (since I was a little girl I've been lighting two candles) for someone who, had the Holocaust not taken place, would have been lighting Sabbath candles along with her daughters. I realized that I could hand down this custom to my children until the end of time, and thus they would grow up with the awareness of the Sabbath candles that the Germans didn't succeed in extinguishing. And I also felt that this was a way to bring the Holocaust home in a way that adds light, the light of the Sabbath. And I began to do so from that Sabbath on. Four candles: two of my own and two of some other woman, unknown to me.
In January 1989, I traveled with Reb Shlomo to Poland, and I thought that perhaps if I heard a story or saw a picture of a woman, then I would know that I was lighting her Sabbath candles. It didn't happen, and I returned to Jerusalem somewhat brokenhearted. That year, I studied the “Esh Kodesh” every Sabbath. I thought that this was the present I could give the rebbe: to sit in Jerusalem and study the “Esh Kodesh”. When I got to the Sabbath of the weekly portion Hukkat and studied the “torah” I mentioned earlier, I thought to myself that my name is Miriam, and the rebbe's wife was named Miriam – and maybe I have to light the Sabbath candles of the rebbe's wife. But then I discovered that she had died before the Holocaust. I knew that the rebbe had a daughter – Rechtche – Rachel Yehudit. Perhaps she was the source of my candles.
I sought the answer, and found it. Rabbi Dr. Nehemiah Polen, who wrote his doctoral thesis about the Piaseczna Rebbe, agreed to meet with me later that year when I visited Boston. He told me that the rebbe loved his daughter very much, that he used to kiss her, even on the face. That she would look after her younger cousins when they came to visit, that she would climb trees with them. He told me that the rebbe used to learn with her. I told myself: “A rebbe's daughter who climbs trees, who learns, whose father kisses her on the face – she must be the source of my candles”.
I was happy that I had found what I was looking for. For three days I was in euphoria. On Thursday night, I began to think about the fact that the next day I was about to light Rechtche's candles, and I became weak-kneed. I said to myself: “Only because you want to light her Sabbath candles you think it's all right? Who are you to light her candles?!” I went to Reb Shlomo and told him the whole story. Without a moment's hesitation he looked me in the eye and said: “If you don't do it, who will do it? If you don't do it, who will do it?”
And since then, every Sabbath, I light my two candles and Rechtche's two candles.
Mimi Feigelson teaches Rabbinic Literature at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles