Hope & Despair: Reb Kalman

Hope & Despair: Reb Kalman
An eye with an image of planet earth as its iris illustrating a post about hope

Hope and despair.

I would like to share a teaching from a 20th century Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Shapira. Reb Kalman is also known as the Piaseczner Rebbe. Piaseczno is a suburb of the Polish city, Warsaw.

Reb Kalman  was a distinguished educator, with child centered philosophy of education. He was a Hasidic teacher who led meditation and trained people to facilitate spiritual direction groups. And he was a loving son, husband, father, and father-in-law.

In 1940, after the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, Jews of the region were confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. This ghetto was a prison and forced labour camp, with starvation-level food rations, poor sanitation, and a high death rate. It was also a center of resistance: cultural, physical, and spiritual. 

In the Warsaw Ghetto, Reb Kalman continued to speak and teach and facilitate Jewish practice.

I want to share—in my own words—one of Reb Kalman’s teachings about vision and hope. It’s based on a 1942 dvar Torah he offered on Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat of Vison. This is the Shabbat just before Tisha B’Av. In other words, this very morning, 80 years ago.

History rhymes. Because themes of human nature and human community cut across time. Some of these themes are beautiful. And some are terrible, terrifying.

Destruction and restoration is a theme. Despair and hope is a theme. Where do we find ourselves in this cycle? Where do want to find ourselves?

Maybe we have heard Megillat Eicha, the book of Lamentations, before. It’s a heartbreaking book. Five poems about devastation, grief, blame, and self-reflection.

Maybe the book broke our hearts open. And we cried, a little bit. Or a lot. With empathy.

But, you know what? Back then, we had no clue.

But now we do.

Now we are like the Israelites in Egypt, in the thick of slavery. Moshe called them to resist. But they said no. Because they had no hope.

But we know something they didn’t. Redemption did come. After oppression, redemption did come.

This is the message of all our prophets. This is their vision. These are their oracles. Doom and comfort

But prophetic vision is a harsh experience. Vision isn’t seeing in a dream. Or in imagination.

Prophetic vision is seeing in real life. Seeing the doom and seeing the comfort. Feeling the despair and feeling the hope. Watching the destruction and anticipating the restoration.

Let’s receive inspiration from our prophets. And engage in practices of hope.

They are within our reach.

Do not go numb. Do continue to care, even when you feel powerless.

Do not let the community fray. Do come together, even if it’s just to cry.

Do not cling to old differences that used to divide the community. Do understand: they are not so important today. Do bridge them, and share the few resources we have.

Do not give up. Do take inspiration from the prophets who dared to hope. And from the voice that cries out at the end of Eicha: God, help us return and we will return! Renew us, we are ready for Eden.

Hashiveinu Adonai Elekha v’nashuva, Chadesh Yameninu K’Kedem.

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