A Path Through the Ashes: The 20th of Tammuz, Yom Hazikaron of the Annihilation of Telshe, Lithuania

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The following article was prepared by Malkeal Yusupov on behalf of  The Alumni Association of Telshe Yeshiva, based on writings and recordings of Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l.

Precepts of Jewish thought are closely tied to everyday realities. The individual Jew can strengthen his emunah and bitachon (belief and trust in G-d) through the daily occurrences that befall him. Primary means for the transmission of fundamental principles in emunah, however, have been left undeveloped. Jewish history is such an uncharted field. Secular sources have been permitted to tread this land with familiarity and to interpret it with an assumed authority from their own perspective, while we have defaulted. We read their writings, accept their “facts,” and in the process unconsciously become products of their outlooks. It is precisely in this field of Jewish history that a non-Torah orientation can be the most detrimental to Jewish thought.

We do, indeed, have an approach of our own: In Parshas Ha’azinu, the Torah gives us guidelines for the viewing and understanding of history from a true perspective: Remember days of yore, understand the years of every generation (Devarim 32: 7). If one wishes to comprehend an event in history, one cannot look at it in the limited scope of the finite here and now; rather, one must understand the event as having a place in the historical continuum. A historical occurrence extends itself beyond the isolation of time and space, and reaches towards the past and the future, to acquire true significance. But one must invariably begin with Creation and the Creator. As the Vilna Gaon explained, to understand” the years of every generation,” one must first “remember the days of yore” – the Six Days of Creation. For in those days lies the complete plan of the development of the universe and humankind in it. This, the Gaon taught, is the only way to understand history.

Secular sources view history in perspectives of their own, predicated on economic, social, and political principles. By contrast, the Torah directs us to view history as the unfolding of the Divine plan: History is the metamorphosis of man through the stages of destruction and redemption, continuing toward his final redemption in the days of Moshiach. And all such events, the redemptions and the destructions, are perceived as fundamental testimony to the presence of G-d in this world, and are understood as experiential units in hashgachah pratis, the active force of the Hand of G-d.

Redemption and destruction – familiar themes in Jewish history, and we, too, know them well. We, today, are all children of the Holocaust. Some have lived through it and some were born afterward. But all of us are deeply affected by it. Yet, the Holocaust has been left untapped as a resource in the teaching and imbuing of emunah in the hearts of those who came after it.

We are one generation removed, and this awesome occurrence somehow slipped out of the consciousness of most people. People forget, either due to preoccupation with daily matters, or because of inability to view the Holocaust in its true perspective and to reconcile it within themselves.

We are late in dealing with the Holocaust. Chazal explain the corrosive effect time has on the experiential quality of an occurrence. A medrash on Megillas Eichah (the Prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations on the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash) comments on the verse: Hashem destroyed without mercy. Chazal say that a hundred years after the Churban (destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash], Rabbi Yochanan was able to explain this verse in sixty different ways, whereas Rabbeinu Hakadosh Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi who lived one generation before him, was able to explain it in twenty four ways. The Sages tell us that because Rabbeinu Hakadosh was one generation closer to the Churban, even though he did not live in the time of the Churban itself, he and his colleagues felt the intensity of the lamentation and the sorrow that much more deeply. After explaining the pasuk in twenty-four different ways, he would break down and weep. He did not have the emotional stamina to continue. Rabbi Yochanan and his companions, who lived one generation later, were that much more removed from the Churban and could therefore deal with it at greater length.

We are only one generation removed from the Churban of European Jewry, and yet the memory fades from our minds. Our emotional bankruptcy permits us to speak about it casually, in a detached manner, and even forget about it.

We cannot permit the Churban, which has destroyed so many of our people and so much of our spiritual life, to pass into oblivion. We must reach out to it and grasp it before too much time elapses. Every detail is, of course, of utmost importance. But first, we must approach the entire concept of Churban at its harshest, and attempt to determine what it signifies in our relationship with G-d. Truly understanding this most recent Churban does not begin with a particular event of a generation ago. It must begin with works written 2,500 years ago. Jeremiah the Prophet had written “Hashem destroyed without mercy,” regarding the destruction of the First Beis Hamikdash. Yet, this pasuk has been understood to extend beyond that Churban to include Churban in all times. The Churban of the Beis Hamikdash becomes the paradigm for all future Churbanos, and the Lamentations which the Prophet wrote with Divine inspiration encompass all sorrow, pain and mourning. All cries of loss and despair are united: Chazal interpret Jeremiah’s outcry of – For these do I weep,” as referring to events that occurred during the destruction of the Second Temple, even though the Prophet lived at the time of the First Temple … we lack the power to make kinas (lamentations) of our own, so our lamentations find voice through the words of the Navi. His words are a vehicle for us to view and to understand the events of our time in the broad historical continuum, through an emunah perspective.

When referring to Tishah B’Av (the day the Temple was destroyed) the Prophet Jeremiah calls the day moed, a word that usually refers to a festival. The Telshe Rov, HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, explains that the word moed is derived from the word vaad – appointment. It is a time of appointment of Hashem with the world, when His greatness is manifested. This greatness can be seen from two aspects: through the miracles of redemption, joy and happiness – the exodus from Egypt; or through destruction, pain and sorrow the exodus from Jerusalem, destruction so great that it could only have been administered by Divine plan … two separate moments in the history of Klal Yisroel: Geula and Churban, redemption and destruction. From the time the Second Temple was destroyed through the present, and on until the final redemption, we are caught in one long moment of “going out of Jerusalem,” punctuated by especially harrowing experiences, such as the Holocaust.

How does one approach these moments of anguish in the history of the Jewish People? What brings about this destruction? The Navi explains that the exile from Jerusalem is a result of sin, in a relationship of crime and subsequent punishment, whether we understand the sin or not. Punishment is not brought without sin and there is no Churban that is not punishment.

However, we are deeply troubled: other nations also sin, and yet their punishment is not so severe. But, when other nations sin, their actions do not make the imprint on the universality of history that the deeds of Klal Yisroel do (Medrash Eichah). History is not impressed by insignificant individuals; only the great Klal Yisroel occupies a central position in history as the Am Hanivchar (Chosen Nation) whose choosiness is manifested through times of redemption and through times of destruction. Churban is testimony to the status of Klal Yisroel as the Am Hanivchar. An orphan grows up wild and uncared for … he has no one to reprimand him and chastise him for his errant ways. Not so the child with parents. The Churban should thus become a source of inspiration and encouragement for us. We are assured that we do have a Father in Heaven Who cares for us and is concerned enough with our spiritual status to demonstrate His disfavor.

During times of destruction, it is written, “And G-d will cause your enemies to rejoice over you” – not that G-d is happy with the downfall of Klal Yisroel, for He only rejoices when He performs acts of kindness for Klal Yisroel. G-d weeps with us at times of destruction, as a father cries for the pain of his son upon whom he was forced to inflict a needed punishment … He is very much with us in our suffering, and through His presence He shares our sorrow.

Churban has many facets. When the European kehillos (communities) were destroyed, all aspects of their lives were destroyed, too: the economic life, social life, the organized structure of a thousand years’ standing. We cannot begin to understand the extent of this Churban until we research extensively into Jewish life at that time. What was the Polish community like? What was the nature of the Lithuanian community? The Hungarian? The kehillos of Berlin, Warsaw, Pressburg, Kovno, Lemberg? When we have gathered the facts and have a genuine understanding of these communities, then we can begin to realize the magnitude of the Churban, how deeply we suffered then and how deeply we still suffer today.

There is one aspect of the punishment, however, that is so sweeping that it is apparently without any element of mercy whatsoever – the destruction of the spiritual life in Europe. “Hashem destroys without mercy all the dwellings ((נאות of Yaakov.” The Medrash explain נאות as if it came from the root נאה beautiful, i.e., the beauty of Yaakov, the talmidei chachamim, the great Torah Sages, who lost their lives and the empires of Torah life that they had built, al Kiddush Hashem. We weep at the uprooting of hundreds of years of spiritual growth, which was lost with their destruction, at the uprooting of the centuries of tradition and scholarship that had found its full flowering in prewar Europe. The towering personalities who had led these spiritual empires had even more than yeshivos and kehillos to their credit. These people were of pivotal importance to the spiritual development of the entire world.

The gaon and tzaddik Rav Daniel Movshavitz of Kelm once pointed out that at the very same time that the Vilna Gaon was studying Torah in Vilna and illuminating great Divine truths to the world, Emmanuel Kant was in Berlin expounding on the ethical imperative, arriving at truths by human thought. His truth was not developed at parlor discussions and street corner arguments, but as a direct result of the study of the Gaon in a small, dimly lit room secluded from the world. Through his study of Torah and his findings, vibrations of truth were created which penetrated the halls of learning in Berlin, making it possible for Kant to arrive at his philosophical projections. Every truth in the world comes from the truth of Torah; every Torah scholar brings this into the world, making it more accessible to secular thinkers. These are people of historical significance, the leaders of Am Hanivchar, the “dwellings of Yaakov.” the source of the inner splendor and glory of our people.

Thus the loss of Churban Europe was of a scope even broader than the six million kedoshim (martyrs). With their death, great sources of truth also went up in smoke.

Sometimes Churban reaches such proportions that the fear is evoked that Hashem has turned away from us. We fear, not that Hashem is smiting us too severely, but that He has abandoned us … When the decree was issued for the slaughter of the asarah harugei malchus – the ten Rabbinical giants, including Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues killed by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple – Rabbi Yishmael ascended to the heavens to inquire if this decree was indeed from Hashem. He was answered: “The decree has been issued from before Me. Go and accept it.”

The fundamental concept of Churban is that it is a decree issued by Hashem for the achievement of an ultimate purpose. When one has become so overwhelmed by destruction that he feels Hashem has left him, he must not turn away from Torah in frustration and anger, but should turn to the Torah to seek reassurance that whatever occurs “has been issued from before Me.”

In the early days of Hitler’s rise to power, we were confused and frightened, not knowing what the next day would bring. Then, someone reprinted and distributed the comments of Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk on Bechukosai from his sefer Meshech Chachmah – his predictions of the great destruction that would emanate from Berlin. The accuracy of his remarks was frightening – and yet reassuring … He was gone since 1926, but he had looked into the Chumash and he knew…

This essay from Meshech Chachmah should become part of every yeshivah’s curriculum.

The Nitra Rov, in a telegram to the Vaad Hatzalah (rescue committee) of the Agudas Harabbonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of United States) during World War II, remarked: For those who doubt and ask, there are no answers. For those who do not doubt, there are no questions.

From our vantage point, we must also respond to this terrible Churban with “Sit in loneliness and be silent” – not asking questions, but contemplating our condition: How lonely we are without feeling the reassuring presence of Hashem’s recognizable acts of kindness. But we must remember at the same time, “He will not forsake us forever.” Thinking into the depth and breadth of this Churban heightens one’s understanding of this concept. For if, Heaven forbid, Hashem would have forsaken us, this Churban could never have occurred. The Churban itself is evidence and testimony to the fact that “we have a Father in Heaven.”

All that has occurred has its place in the Divine plan of “Remember the days of yore.” A whole world of facts lies in the events of this Churban and these facts are infinite in number. It is our duty to find pertinent facts and to collate the proper material. The little that I know revealed entire worlds of insight to me … random incidents that the children of the Telshe Rav related to me.

When the Nazi beat the Telshe Rav upon the head with hammer blows and taunted him: “Where is your G-d, Herr Rabbiner?” the Telshe Rav replied, “He is not only my G-d, He is your G-d; and the world will yet see this.” This was might and Kiddush Hashem. How would the others interpret his actions? – as a weakness? At the time when the Nazis took the Telshe community to their intended slaughter at the lake nearby, the Telshe Rav said in a drashah (homiletic commentary): “If we will be scrupulous in kashrus, in Shabbos, in taharas hamishpacha (laws of family purity), the enemy will have no dominion over us.” And from that day on plans were changed; they were taken away from Telshe and were confined in a ghetto. The entire community suffered no harm until the first breach in kashrus.

Were we abandoned? Do we have a Tatteh in Himmel (Father in Heaven)?

When the Rav could no longer stand on his feet, not having enough strength to carry even a Gemara, he directed his young daughter (the sons were gone) to take out the Gemara Sanhedrin, to open it up to the topic of Kiddush Hashem, and to begin reading … Such was their Paration. Are these cowards? Or are these “valiant men of might performing His words”?

I see these events as Jewry in a microcosm, not just isolated incidents that occurred in Telshe. But Telshe is where I begin, and this is what I know of Telshe. And just as Telshe had a brand of Kiddush Hashem all its own, so did Kovno … So did Satmar and Pressburg … so did Warsaw and Lemberg. But how does one discover the individuality of each community? Each person generalizes from his own experiences, from what he witnessed, from what he heard, to gain insight into the character of his particular community and its heritage. From what each saw and heard, a man from Warsaw understands Warsaw, the survivor of Kovno understands Kovno, and he who observed his own Rebbe could understand the strength of Rav Menachem Ziemba.

There is so much to be researched. And when this is done and collated, it must be taught through a perspective of emunah. Then, out of the Churban, children will emerge fortified, understanding the significance of the Tishah B’Av: Moed as an encounter with G-d … they will emerge fortified, understanding that the vow “He will not forsake us” is indeed binding forever.

After all, we are dealing with but a moment in history, and all moments together lead up gradually to that final moment for which we all wait longingly – “When Moshiach will come.”

 

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