Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Apter Rebbe and author of Ohev Yisrael (the lover of fellow Jews)

Women and Matzah

One Erev Pesach, the wife of Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Apter Rebbe and author of Ohev Yisrael (the lover of fellow Jews), was busy in the kitchen taking care of last minute preparations for the impending seder. She was bustling and in the midst of great activity when she heard a knock at the door. Too engrossed in her work, she let someone else in the house welcome the visitor. Two town collectors of tzedakah (charity) were at the door, asking if there was any small change or Pesach goods in the house so that they can buy and distribute matzah and wine to the poor who had not yet been taken care of for the Yom Tov. Having no money on herself, and with the Rebbetzin astir in the kitchen, she spotted a few matzos tied up in a napkin on the table. She ran over, and handed them to the men.

When the Rebbetzin finally made her way from the kitchen into the dining room, she sensed that something was amiss. She surveyed the room, now aglow with Pesach utensils and wares. The room shined with a Yom Tov radiance, and the Rebbetzin contemplated the notion that she had gone to such measures in preparation for the Pesach holiday, that the shechina (divine presence) might even descend into the dining room itself, in this mikdash me'at (small sanctuary of the home), as if to validate her kavanah, namely, that everything was prepared leshaim shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Everything was perfectly prepared for the seder. Well, almost everything. The table was lacking. "The matzah!" she cried out. It was just that day that her husband had personally baked the matzos with the utmost, meticulous care and with the deepest of kavanahs (intentions) in order to fulfill the mitzvah of matzah with the utmost holiness. This was his shemura matzah for the seder (specially guarded matzos from the time that the wheat is cut). Shaken, she pondered the situation, and finally grabbed hold of herself. She reasoned that there was only one recourse. And that was to take three ordinary matzos, and tie them up into the same napkin that had been "guarding" the shemurah matzos.

Hours later, after the seder was complete, there was a knock at the door. A disgruntled man led his wife into the home of the Rebbe, and began to complain. Apparently, the man wanted a divorce, because his wife had refused to cook in separate utensils for Pesach without shruyah (today knows as gebrokhts. The extra pious do not want water to come in contact with the matzah even after it is baked, lest it get puffed or "cooked" and become chametz, leavened bread, which is forbidden on Pesach). The irate man argued that the Rebbe had to agree that this was grounds for divorce. The Apter Rebbe called his wife into the room. "What type of matzah was used for tonight's seder?" questioned the Rebbe. Too afraid to give over the truth and let her husband's anger flare, she stood paralyzed. "It's OK, said the Rebbe. Nothing will happen to you. Just tell me. What type of matzah was used for tonight's seder?" She began to tremble, but finally admitted that it was not shemurah matzah, but plain, ordinary matzah. And she told the entire story. The Rebbe turned his attention to the quarelling couple. "You see, I knew the whole time that it was not sheurah matzah that was being used for tonight's seder. But rather than get upset at my wife, and speak words that I might later regret, I sat in silence, and felt that I had fulfilled the mitzvah of matzah in its entirety. And I did this for the sake of shalom bayis (peace in the home). And now, you wanted to divorce your wife because she used gebrakhts!" The couple understood well, and after a few more minutes under the Rebbe's care, a peaceful reconciliation was forged.

Word had gotten out, and had reached Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, that the poor women in the matzah factories were being overworked, from early morning until late night, without even adequate break. Reb Levi Yitzchak got up in shul, and said the following, "for years we have suffered the crushing consequences of the blood libels thrown against us by the anti-semite gentiles. They accuse us of using Christian blood as the secret ingredient when we knead and bake our matzos. But I tell you today that it is not Christian blood that we use, but the blood of our own daughters of Israel, who are being overworked in our bakeries!"

The Rebbe Reb Elimelech was once asked what the biggest mitzvah of baking matzos was. He replied, "making sure that the almanos (widows) don't get yelled at in the bakeries."

Bluzhever Rebbe on Pesach in Bergen-Belsen

Pesach in Czernowitz

The year was 1946. The Skulener Rebbe had been living in Czernowitz, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. It later fell into German and Romanian hands until the Soviet forces liberated the city in 1944. Czernowitz is currently divided between Romania and Ukraine. A number of Rebbes and other tzaddidim arrived in Czernowitz after the war to regroup and decide where to settle. But nobody really knew what to do or where to go. It was only one year after the hororrs of the camps. Just as an aside, Rav Aharon Kotler could not decide whether to go to Israel or the United States. He did the goral hagrah (the Vilna Gaon's method of opening to a random page of Torah, and looking for the first pasuk that stands out, in order to decide a difficult question). The first pasuk that caught his eye spoke of Aharon going out into the wilderness to meet Moshe. And so it was decided. Rav Aharon Kotler, like his namesake in the Torah, Aharon, would go out into the wilderness, the United States (then considered a spiritual wilderness), to meet Moshe, Rav Moshe Feistein, already in the States. Similarly, when Rav Shach couldn't decide whether or not to leave Europe, he opened to the parshah. It was lech-lecha: go from your land and your people and your father's house. He then knew what to do. But back to the story. The Skulener Rebbe found himself in a situation where all those who had come from the camps had not a penny to their name. In addition, the Rebbe was the only person in town that had the resources to bake shemurah matzah for Pesach. Due to his infinite chesed (kindness) he decided to go to work for the sake of the people. He would bake and he would bake, until the resources ran dry, and he would then distribute three matzos to anyone and everyone who knocked on his door. Three matzos and no more.

A young man came to his home, and was given his three matzos. He told the Rebbe that he needed six matzos. The Rebbe said that he was very, very sorry, but he must provide for all of the Jewish inhabitants of the city. The young man would not take no for an answer. He said that his father asked for six matzos, and he could not disobey. "What is your name?" asked the Rebbe. "Moshe Hager," answered the boy. "And just who is your father?" asked the Rebbe. "Reb Baruch Hager.". The Rebbe was astounded. The Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe asking for six matzos! But despite his great esteem for the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a rule is a rule. He reminded the Rebbe's son that only three matzos were required for the seder, so why the adamant request? The young man said that on the grounds of kibud av (honoring one's father) he must take home six matzos. The Rebbe reluctantly agreed, and handed over six matzos. 

Days later, as the Rebbe had finished giving out shemurah matzah for Pesach, Reb Moshe Hager returned. He had come back with three matzos. The Rebbe was astounded, once again, and inquired as to the turn of events. The young man had refused to go home with less than six matzos, and here he was returning three! The young man replied, "my father knew that the Rebbe was going to expend all of his energies toward baking matzah and handing out matzah to the needy. My father said that considering the Rebbe's overwhelming chesed he might unwittingly give away all the matzos, leaving none for his own seder." The Rebbe was touched, and took the three matzos. On his way out, Reb Moshe Hager checked with the gabbaim (assistants to the Rebbe). And so it was. The Rebbe had unknowingly given away all of the matzos, leaving none for himself.

Bluzhever Rebbe on Pesach in Bergen-Belsen

The Bluzhever Rebbe, Reb Yisrael Spiro, was one of the great chassidic leaders of the last century. His wife and children were slaughtered in the Holocaust. High on the Nazis' most-wanted list, the Rebbe himself had been interned in labor camps, and at some point was shipped to Bergen-Belsen. As Pesach approached that first year there was talk among the inmates about obtaining matzah. Needless to say, there was very little hope, and few dwelt on the subject matter for any length of time. While there were some that had been able to don tefilin on almost a daily basis, and others who stealthily managed to light shabbos candles on given weeks, and still others who under the cover of night davened b'tzibbur (prayed with a group), obtaining matzah would actually entail a much more serious set of difficulties, namely finding a small oven, and getting the ingredients for the baking. There was no hope in this particular situation. 
But there were a few who decided to go to the Bluzhever Rebbe. Perhaps he could come up with some sort of strategy. The Bluzhever Rebbe, like other "Wunderrabbiner," was particularly hated by the Nazis. But the Rebbe had a special way about him. Oddly enough, there was one kommandant in the camp that saw the Rebbe as a sort of curiosity and, from time to time, would go over to the Rebbe, and engage him in conversation. It is needless to say, however, that he left no doubt as to who was in charge. Their conversations took place clandestinely, lest someone from the high command find out, and reprimand the kommandant.That wouldn't be good for the Jews either. After meditating on the matter for some time, the Rebbe decided to take a chance; a big chance. When the opportunity arose he casually struck up a conversation with the kommandant in private, and a few minutes into the conversation began to explain that a holiday of the utmost importance for the Jews was almost at hand. "And it is essential for the observance of this holiday," he explained to the kommandant, "that we have a sort of bread baked in a very particular fashion. Is there anything that Herr kommandant could do to perhaps obtain for us a very small oven and some flower and water so that we may bake some of this bread? Of course it would be done in stealth and out of sight." The kommandant, with eyes now opened so wide that they looked as if they were about to burst, gave the Rebbe a long, hard stare. The Rebbe now believed that he had overstepped the bounds of his camaraderie with the Nazi, and began to back away. He began to fear for his life. The kommandant took his eyes off of the Rebbe, and let out a little chuckle. He began to walk away, and said, shockingly, "I'll see what I could do." The Rebbe did not repeat this story to the other inmates. There was really no point in getting their hopes up. But there was a shred of hope implanted in the Rebbe's own mind.
About a week later, when Pesach was almost at hand, the kommandant called for the Rebbe. He was instructed to send two men to a certain gate, and to carry a package to the bunker. The kommandant had, in fact, procured a small oven, and small amounts of flower and water to go with it. Word of the oven spread among the Jews of Bergen-Belsen, and many believed that a miracle was at hand. A small group of Jews began preparations at the first opportunity. It was late into the night, and they began the baking. The oven was tiny, and could only bake a few pieces of matzah at one time, but the joy and elation among those who stood around the oven were so great and palpable that nobody dared complain about the size.

Someone had spotted a Nazi walking toward the bunker, and the operation was quickly halted. "Keep on working," whispered one of the Jews, "it's only the kommandant." But as the kommandant came closer, those who looked him in the face saw clearly that this was not the same kommandant. Yes, it was the kommandant who had obtained an oven for the Jews, but by the look on his face his graciousness was now but a fleeting memory. His eyes spoke of evil, punishment and death. He was a blood thirsty Nazi like all the rest. He marched up to the group, and exclaimed, "a letter was intercepted from this camp! I am going to find out who in this camp smuggled out a letter! Because of this letter I have been reprimanded and have gone down in rank!" With these words he went over to the tiny oven, and with one great malicious stomp, smashed the oven flat with his boot. One stomp, and there was nothing left. The oven was completely destroyed. The Jews began to cry. The mitzvah was so close. But all they were left with now was about a dozen pieces of matzah. They had only begun to bake.  
It was erev Pesach, and the obvious question arose: who should get the matzah? Who out of all the Jews in Bergen-Belsen hungry for food, and hungry to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach was going to get a piece? Discussions broke out among the inmates. Nobody had an answer. The Rebbe, of course was asked to decide, but this would be a weighty and momentous decision. He needed more time. He contemplated the profound consequences that lie ahead as to who would and who would not get to eat matzah that Pesach in Bergen-Belson. The Rebbe finally came to an answer. "The adults, the oldest among us will get the few matzohs. But just then came a voice. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu! binoreinu uviskeineineinu!" It was a woman's voice. She lay on the ground, almost lifeless, looking as if she could not go on for even another few minutes. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu," she cried out with what little strength she had left in her emaciated and broken body. "When Moshe Rabbeinu came to Paroh at the commandment of Hashem, he said 'let my people go,' and he said, 'binoreinu uvizkeineinu neileich,' the young ones go first. They were going out to the wilderness for matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), and Hashem put the young ones before the old ones. If this was the case with matan Torah, then here too, we must put the young ones first, the children, and give them the little matzah that we have so that they could fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach. Because we have the hope that we will be liberated at some point. And we don't know what will happen to us in this destroyed world afterwords. People could go astray. Children could go astray. But if they have this mitzvah of matzah now on this Pesach in Bergen-Belsen, then they will have it with them for the rest of their lives. The Rebbe went over to this woman, and said, "binoreinu uvizkeineinu. You are absolutely right." And so, that year on Pesach, amidst the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, the matzah was given to the children during the secret Pesach seder led by the Bluzhever Rebbe.
After liberation the Rebbe married this woman, and they began a new life. She became known as the Bluzhever Rebbetzin.

I was watching a documentary recently on Peter Bergson, the activist who tried to save Jews from Nazi hands during the Holocaust. It is only in recent years that his efforts have come to light. Stephen Wise, head of the reform movement of Judaism who had ample political contacts did little if nothing to help Jews escape Europe at the time. He told the president directly that the major issue in the Holocaust was not that of Jews. Wise, along with a host of other high-profile non-orthodox Jewish leaders, have blood on their hands until this day. What I did not know was that Rav Aharon Kotler and other orthodox leaders presided over organizations that did try to influence the fate of the Jews in Europe. 400 orthodox rabbis marched on Washington in an attempt to publicize the machinations of the Nazi empire. In general, although they fought hard, these groups were not successful in influencing the president, as Stephen Wise was constantly telling the president that these religious Jews were nothing but rabble-rousers. Thank you Stephen Wise and your cronies.  
But that is not why I brought up the documentary on Peter Bergson. It was mentioned that many of the Jews who were deported to Auschwitz around Pesach time came with small amounts of flower. They believed, as the Germans had told them, that they were being taken on train rides to be resettled. So as Pesach approached they brought flower with them. Few knew that it would be their last day. The Sonderkommandos were in charge of collecting the gassed bodies and throwing them into the ovens of the crematoria. They also gathered their belongings and found the flower. One of the Sonderkommandos was a Chassidic Jew named Moshe Grossman. He had already lost his wife and children. Using the flower, he made matzah in the ovens of the crematoria as an "act of defiance" against the Nazis. The matzah was distributed to a number of prisoners, and as they gathered around on Pesach night they said, in the words of the Haggadah, "this year we are slaves, next year we will be free."

I'm really not sure how I feel about this episode. On the one hand, the matzah was baked among human remains; skin, blood, hair, nails. Surely it was an act of defiance, but still, I'm not so sure about this being a heroic act. Please tell me what you think.