By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Ours is a time of confusion. Neither Orwell nor Jonathan Swift could have better imagined a world in which black is white, left is right, or up is down. Crass materialism is considered success. Ever more radical ideas and behaviors are considered the norm. Bluster is confused with moral courage.
The media is more than merely complicit in propping up our cardboard “heroes”, its very success seems to depend on performing this dubious function. So-called leaders – in business, politics, and even religion – seem more focused on protecting and enlarging their fiefdoms than on providing anything that might be actual leadership.
How many times have you looked at all the troubles in the world and wondered, “Where are the leaders?”
Where are the men and women who enlarge those they encounter with meaning and wisdom rather than looking to take advantage of them?
Ours are times that feel rudderless, when genuine goodness and courage is in short supply. It was not always thus.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the oldest of the Rebbes Rabbi Yisroel Spira Zatzal of Bluzhev, passed away in Brooklyn. Even following on the heels of the turbulent sixties and the “yuppie” eighties, the time of the Rebbe’s passing seemed a simpler time. Certainly, there were charlatans and self-promoters then as well, but at least there was also this man, a man who personified all that is pious, learned and glorious.
One need only hear a few of the many stories told about him and his life immortalized in Yaffa Eliach’s Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, to learn about his kindness and courage, and to know that there was a time in the not too long ago past when a real hero walked among us.
His pedigree is well known to anyone who continues to revere greatness, even in its absence. Born in 1889, he was the son of the previous Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yehoshua Spira, and grandson of the Rebbe Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech, the author of Tzvi LaTzaddik. From his earliest years, it was clear that he was destined for greatness. At his Bar Mitzvah, he received both the crown of Torah and s’micha by the Maharsham, the renowned Rav of Brezhan.
Not long after his marriage, he became the Rav of the small town of Istrik, near Sanok. As might be expected of his great knowledge, pious nature and noble lineage, Istrik soon became a place where many came seeking his advice.
In 1931, following the death of his father, he was crowned Rebbe, ensuring the continuation of the glorious Dynow-Bluzhev dynasty. However, whatever joys and blessings were to be his in his near future were too soon overwhelmed by the absolute darkness of the Holocaust.
My thoughts of this incredible man come to the fore now, at this time of the year, because of my own chance to meet him and because Tisha b’Av causes us to think of terrible destruction and how to find hope and blessing from out of the ashes of our history. Once, I was given the chance to gain a small glimpse of insight into his thinking. There were just a few moments before we would be able to pray Maariv. The fifteen Jews present in the Hunter synagogue in upstate New York drifted towards the Rebbe, as one Jew politely asked the angelic-looking Chassidic leader how he was feeling, and whether he was enduring the fast well. With his customary loving smile and piercing eyes, the Rebbe replied that for one who was used to fasting and starvation for more than a week at a time, many a time during the Holocaust, fasting for just twenty-four hours was “really not difficult.”
No, for one who had endured what he had endured, such a simple fast was not so much at all. The Holocaust. Hell on earth to those who lived through its vile torments. In the Holocaust, Rabbi Yisroel Spira lost so much dear to him; his wife, his children, even his grandchildren. He had been blessed the leader of a great dynasty only to see it turned to ash before his very eyes.
Would any man begrudge him bitterness? Would any among us second guess him if he turned a fist to the heavens and, like Job, demanded a witness? Would anyone condemn him for giving pained voice to his hurt? Such reactions would have been understandable and understandably human. But Rabbi Yisroel Spira was not simply a man like you and me. He was a man of exceeding courage and grace, rare and genuine. He did not display bitterness or arrogance in the face of his suffering. He did not posture. He was a hero.
He displayed goodness and kindness to his Jewish brothers and sisters, encouraging each to place his trust in the Creator of the world and to await deliverance.
After being saved from the Holocaust, he settled in Brooklyn, where the weight of the Holocaust never left him. He believed he survived solely to ensure that neither he nor anyone else ever forgot those dark, dark times.
In recounting those dark days, he displayed not only the courage of his character but also his great gift as a storyteller. No one who heard him relate his experiences ever forgot what he shared with them. He truly touched the hearts of his listeners.
He told of the Chanukah when he lit candles in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He had no sooner recited the blessings than he was asked, “Rabbi, even here you have lit the candles and said, ‘lehadlik ner‘ and ‘she’asa nissim‘. Fine and good. Painful as it is to me, I can understand. But what justification do you have in saying she’he’cheyanu? How can you bless a God who has ‘kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time’ when all around us, thousands of us are dying before our very eyes?”
The Rebbe held his questioner in his thoughtful and penetrating gaze. Unlike the educators of today, he did not criticize the man who questioned him. He was not brittle or short. Rather, he found what was common between himself and the one challenging him. “I too ask myself this question,” he replied softly. “I looked for an answer and finally found one, When I recited the blessing, I saw that a large crowd had gathered – risking their own lives in so doing – to watch the lighting of the candles. By the very fact that God has such loyal Jews – prepared to give their lives for the lighting of the candles – by that very fact alone we may recite she’hecheyanu.”
Rather than seeing only the horror of his surroundings, he saw the Jews who lived and he blessed their lives!
Another time, he was cutting wood in the concentration camp when he heard a woman cry out. “Jews, have pity on me! Someone find me a knife!”
As he related it, the woman came up to him and said, “Maybe you have a knife?”
“The first thought that went through my mind was that she wanted to kill herself, so I told her that it was forbidden to do such a thing. It was just then that a German guard came by and began to strike her. ‘Why are you asking for a knife?’ he demanded. She didn’t answer his question; she kept repeating, ‘I need a knife.’
“Finally, the German gave her a pocketknife. The woman took it and rushed to a cloth bundle that was lying on the ground. She opened the bundle, and to my amazement it contained a sleeping baby.” The Rebbe stopped in his retelling of the story and his expression changed, as if the event was happening in front of him as he related it. “I stood frozen in place as I understood that she was attempting to circumcise her son.” He shrugged sadly. “What could I do? IN as loud a voice as I could, I said the blessing for the circumcision. She then got up, turned to heaven, and said: ‘Master of the world, eight days ago You gave me a baby in good health. I will return it to You as a perfect Jew.’ She then bent down and circumcised her son.
“When she was done , she closed the bundle and returned to the German. She gave him back his blood-soaked knife with one hand, and her baby with the other.”
Tears filled the Rebbe’s eyes. “I was so moved by what she had done. I thought, certainly this woman’s act has caught the attention of God. No Jewish woman had made such a sacrifice since Sarah watched as Abraham left with his servant and Isaac…”
Having survived the Holocaust, the Rebbe was confronted with the task of how to go forward with his life. Despite his losses, he took heed of God’s dictum that, “man should not be alone” and married again.
During that time when my path and the Rebbe’s crossed in upstate New York, I was able to observe him often. There was so much I wanted to ask him. Seeing him at his summer cottage, sitting in a such a peaceful setting, deep in thought intrigued me. I came to know his grandchildren who were always gracious, kind, and exceedingly friendly. They always managed to hint, without saying so directly, that the great man was tired and preferred not to be disturbed.
So, my “interaction” with the Rebbe was almost entirely observing him. It was obvious that he was a very kind, compassionate, pious and optimistic soul. Although not imposing physically, he walked erect and proud.
Into the summer season in the late 1970’s, one of his grandchildren asked about a ride for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin to go into New York City. By very good fortune, Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz was driving down and I was able to travel with them.
The Rebbe insisted on sitting in the back seat with the Rebbetzin, who seemed at least as thoughtful and introspective as he.
She seemed to be even more so as we got underway. We’d only just started out when it began to drizzle, and the windy, curve-filled mountain road became somewhat slick and slippery. As the curves came to an end and we were now on a more, safe, straight highway, the Rebbetzin remarked that we “must thank God for having saved us from this danger.” What danger? I thought. We have traveled these windy roads tens of times and have rarely viewed them as dangerous! Throughout the trip her conversation was optimistic in tone, constantly referring to God’s grace, goodness, and protection.
I was intrigued as much by her as by him. Who was this special lady?
I knew that the woman who thanked “God for having saved us from this danger” had lost her first husband, Rabbi Israel Abraham, in Belzec’s gas chamber. He did, however, manage to break the iron bars of the cattle car’s only window and squeeze their six-year-old son through, toss him into freedom, sure that Rebbetzin Bronia would find him again. And she did find him, as well as his brother, and spent the duration of the war making sure that the blessing she insisted on receiving from the famed Rabbi of Belz, in the Bochnia ghetto, that she would yet see “fine generations in the future,” would indeed come true. She kept reassuring her sons that “we will live through this war.”
She came to insist that, “at times one has to be aggressive about blessing.” And so she was! And, as a result, she became a blessing herself, not only surviving the Holocaust but saving a dynasty.
The Rebbe, from the ashes of history, found a mate worthy of his courage and piety.
After the war, the Rebbe often spoke about his experiences and the courage and dignity of the Jews he had known. At these times, he would often take from his pocket a piece of paper that he always carried with him. It was a scrap that he had received in the concentration camp from a pious man five minutes before the man was executed. It read, “My dear Rebbe, I know that I will be killed. I insistently ask that you merit to be saved and go to Eretz Israel. See that my memory is not forgotten, that my name and the name of wife be commemorated in a Sefer Torah. I leave my remaining 50 zlotys for this task.”
Once, he confided to those close to him, “You know what my passport is for the World to Come? You know what I will say when asked what merit I have to enter?”
Knowing of his experiences in the Holocaust, one person hazarded to say, “The number engraved on your arm?”
The Rebbe shook his head. “Not at all,” the Rebbe replied. “It is this piece of paper. It is the only thing that I will wave in the World of Truth.”
What do we learn about courage from the Rebbe’s example? How is it set apart from what passes for bravery in our world? Perhaps nothing so much as his fundamental humility. Despite everything, he never presumed himself to be more than any other Jew. Indeed, as this final incident makes clear, he felt his actions – and his life – were to serve, not to be served.
As it is told, a note passed between two inmates was intercepted by the Camp wardens. Passing such a note was a terrible breach in the Camp and the Nazis were determined to punish whoever sent the note. But finding the culprit was not that simple. So they brought the Bluzhever Rebbe before them.
“You’re the rabbi,” one said in mocking tones after explaining the crime, “surely you can find who sent it.”
“You have twenty-four hours to deliver the man. If you don’t, then you will suffer the punishment.”
The Rebbe did not hesitate. He opened his shirt and bared his chest. “There is no need to wait. You can kill me right now. I can assure you that I will never give over a fellow Jew to be punished by you or anyone else!” As he said this, he was sure he would be murdered on the spot. However, even these cruel men were impressed by his spirit.
“Rabbi, you are truly a good Jew. But the others are all pigs.”
“You are mistaken,” he replied. “The other Jews are great, wonderful people. I am the lowest among them all!”
That is the way it is with true heroes who show true courage. If we are truly blessed, we know that they walk among us, even during our darkest hours.