Reb Kalman's Vision

When every head is ailing, every heart is sick, what words of spiritual comfort are possible? When property is stolen, wounds are left untreated, and social supports worn to a shred, what insight can Jewish traditions offer?

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, writing from Occupied Poland during World War II, wrestled with these questions. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Reb Kalman was an experienced spiritual director, community rabbi, and educator, recently widowed after a long and intimate marriage.  In his book on spiritual direction, he taught that spiritual perception is available to everyone. Imagination, intellect, social intuition, and intense emotion point us daily to possibilities, patterns and insights beyond physical reality. As Reb Kalman lost every member of his immediate family, he allowed his intense emotions of suffering to reveal to him hidden resources in his tradition. For the first time, he heard the heartbroken cries and saw the intimate knowledge of pain expressed in familiar stories and teachings. Those cries pointed him to manifestations of God he confessed he previously knew only abstractly: God’s acceptance of despair, God’s own despair, God’s harsh judgment, the truly terrifying nature of beholding God. From 1939 through 1943, he articulated and shared his insights in weekly sermons.

On September 1, 1939, Warsaw was invaded by Nazi Germany in a series of blitzkrieg bombings.  All of Warsaw’s citizens rose to the challenge, cooperating to defend the city.  In his September 16 sermon on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur, Reb Kalman encourages all to rise to the cause. National defense, he implies, is a holy cause. All who are fatally injured will be regarded by heaven as martyrs, and will experience their deaths as uplifting. “When you remember before whom you are being purified then your physical sensations will be nullified,” he writes, or, in other words, “Anyone martyred for the sanctification of God’s name feels no pain at all.”

On September 23, Warsaw surrendered to Germany. In the eight days between September 16 and September 23, Reb Kalman lost all three members of his immediate family. His son, injured in the bombing, died painfully in a crowded, understaffed hospital. His daughter in law, visiting the injured, died when the hospital was bombed. His mother, overcome with grief at the loss of her two grandchildren, shut down and died.

In his November 4 sermon during the week of Chayei Sarah, the Torah portion about the death of our ancestral mother Sarah, Reb Kalman speaks symbolically about the death of his own mother. The story of Sarah’s death appears just after the story of Avraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. Many interpreters say news of the attempted sacrifice caused Sarah’s death, explaining “When Sarah was told…her soul fled, and she died.”  Sarah’s soul teaches us a universal lesson about human suffering. We may find suffering unbearable and physically die. We may remain physically alive and yet feel as though “our soul [has] fled.” God knows this and God does not expect us to handle unlimited amounts of anguish.

In early October 1940, the Nazis announced the mandatory move of local Jews to the Warsaw Ghetto. In his October 24 sermon on Shmini Atzeret[a plaintive day of prayers for fall rain], Reb Kalman concedes that the meaning of his community’s suffering seems to be hidden. But he believes that it will be revealed.  He plays on the meanings of the Hebrew word din. Din can mean “decree,” as in the decree that created the ghetto. Din also refers to “divine judgment,” the power of God to make rules and enforce them according to a plan. Din, says Reb Kalman, is a tremendous revelation of God. God will come through with the established plan. However, until one can see the meaning of the plan, God’s din appears as harsh punishment.  In Egypt thousands of years ago, the Israelites suffered under Pharaoh’s decrees. They could not see what we know now: their deep suffering as slaves signaled the eve of the planned redemption. Redemption is also the plan for the Jews of Poland – may it come quickly!

On November 16, the ghetto was sealed. For the next twenty months, the ghetto population swelled, food rations were cut, slave labor opportunities diminished, children and adults died daily from starvation and typhus – and ghetto inmates maintained, as best they could, a cultural and communal life. Mass execution of Jews had begun, but residents of the Warsaw Ghetto did not know.

In his March 14 1942 sermon for Parshat HaChodesh [first Shabbat of Nissan, the month of Passover, celebration of freedom], Reb Kalman urged ghetto residents to come together in community. No one should feel he or she has to bear suffering alone. Yes, God seems hidden. God has retired, as Talmud teaches, to the inner chambers of heaven to weep for humanity. We too can enter those hidden, spiritually charged chambers of sorrow – if we do it together. Despair experienced alone is simply brokenness. When broken people join together in a community of mutual support, weeping together is a holy activity.

On July 18, 1942, Shabbat Chazon, Reb Kalman spoke about the difficulty of vision. Only a few years ago, says Reb Kalman, we would read about the destruction of Jerusalem. We were moved, we cried, we felt we knew the sufferings of our ancestors. Now we know how little we understood. Our sages taught that there are ten levels of prophecy, and that vision is the harshest of them all. Now we understand this teaching. Now we are actually seeing the suffering described by the prophet Isaiah. Our sage Ulla said, “Let the Messiah come, I will not see it!” Now we understand his meaning. Even our sages did not want to witness “the birth pangs of the Messiah” — the pain that precedes redemption. Our pain must be the birthing contractions of the Messiah.

Four days later the Nazis began the operation that came to be called the “Great Deportation” from the Warsaw Ghetto. Ninety percent of the ghetto’s population – 300,000 people – were rounded up and deported to the execution center at Treblinka. Reb Kalman – along with other writers — buried his sermons in a milk can and asked that whoever finds them send them to Israel. The ghetto’s remaining 30,000 residents organized for resistance. In response, Nazi troops burned down the ghetto in May 1943. All survivors, including Reb Kalman, were arrested. He died in the Trawniki labor camp a few months later.

Had Reb Kalman lived only five years longer, he would have lived to see the birth of the modern state of Israel. And he would have believed that he and others were midwives, maybe even mothers, during the terrible, troubled birth of the Messiah. Many died in this childbirth, and he would not have glorified their deaths. Nor would he have expected the birth and maturation of a nation to be easy and free of ethical and logistical mistakes. He would have seen with his steady, spiritual vision, revealing the pain and compassion in all of life’s passages.

Sources: Nehemia Polen, The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Jason Aronson, 1998); Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work (Jason Aronson, 1996), an interpretive translation by Andrea Cohen-Kiener of Reb Kalman’s Bnei Machshavah Tovah; Rabbi Klonimus Kalmish of Piasetzna, Aish Kodesh [Hebrew] (Vaad Chasidei Piasetzna); Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, translated by J. Hershy Worch (Jason Aronson, 2002); Zivia Lubetkin. In the Days of Destruction and Revolt (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad: Am Oved Publishing House, 1981); Zvika Dror, The Dream, the Revolt, The Vow (Kibbutz Lochamei Hagettaot Institute for Rememberence of the Holocaust and Revolt, 1983); Yitzchak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (University of California Press, 1993); Wladyslav Bartozewski, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Christian’s Testimony, trans. Stephen G. Capillari (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987); Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Mariner Books, 1998).

Image: Rabbi Kalman Kalonymous Shapira, wikipedia

  1. I appreciate this teaching and timeline.
    As long as we inhabit human bodies, there will be suffering. And although I’ve read Reb Kalman’s teachings before, in this year, 2021, as the world marks a year of living under CoronaVirus, these words of hope and light during suffering gain more significance. I especially appreciate this teaching you bring on Shabbat Hazon, when he recalls what it felt like to mourn Jerusalem prior to Nazi occupation, “we felt we knew the sufferings of our ancestors. Now we know how little we understood. ”

    May our understanding alleviate our suffering.

    1. Thank you, Elizheva, for this kind note. I’m glad the piece has resonance for you. Yes, I think often and in many contexts, of the Piacetzner’s teaching of the painful power of seeing things in real time. Wishing you and your family good health!

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