Chayei Sarah: Sarah’s cry

“And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.” (Bereishit 23:1)

Master of the World! You designed Creation
not for chaos but for peace; it was You
Who called to Abraham to banish pagan ways.

You bestowed the blueprint of a life
lived by Your word, establishing
the covenant binding us to You.

You imbued Your people with the attribute
of mercy, condemning the depravity
of claiming children’s blood.

Will there be no limit to the torment
of Your children? I stand before You,
Holy One, and cry to You, “Enough!”

In a beautiful and intricate D’var Torah on Chayei Sarah* from 2011 (first published in Eretz Acheret, no. 12, 2002), Reb Mimi Feigelson brings a teaching on the Parasha by the Piaseczna Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira** (1889 – 1943) who was murdered in the Holocaust. Reb Mimi describes the legacy of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s “torahs” (the name used for Chasidic Torah commentary based on a verse or verses from the Parasha and which the rabbi would deliver in Yiddish during seuda shlishit – the third meal on Shabbat.
The torah that Reb Mimi brings here was written in 1939, and she sees it as a part of an ongoing dialogue which the Rebbe of Piaseczna is conducting with God, against the background of the increasing suffering of the Jewish people. (At the end of this dialogue, in August 1942, the Rebbe says that silence is the only response to God because the suffering is too terrible.)
In this torah the Rebbe addresses the place of suffering in the world and our response to it. He cites the Rebbe of Rymanov on a Talmudic text about the nature of suffering and the Rymanover Rebbe’s conclusion, “that the sufferings will be diluted, so that one will be capable of tolerating them and they will be diluted with mercy.”
Based on the verse above, the Piaseczna Rebbe delves into what the Torah is telling us about Sarah. The repetition of the phrase concerning Sarah’s life is understood as a sign of her great righteousness (even more than Abraham’s since the phrase “the years of Abraham’s life,” is not repeated). The Rebbe further quotes Rashi who asks why Sarah’s death is reported immediately after the Akeida – the binding of Isaac, and replies, “Our Teacher Moshe, the faithful shepherd, juxtaposed the death of Sarah to the Akeida in order to side with us, and to show what happened from too much suffering, God forbid – that her soul departed. And if that is what happened to Sarah, who was such a righteous woman… and she was nevertheless unable to bear great suffering, how much more so is that true of us.”
The Piaseczna Rebbe continues: “One can also say that even our Matriarch Sarah herself, who took the em>Akeida so to heart that her soul departed, did it for the benefit of Israel, to show God how it is impossible for the Jews to tolerate too much suffering, and even someone who by God’s mercy remains alive even after his sufferings, in any case part of his strength and his intelligence and his spirit have been broken and lost – what difference does it make to me if you kill all of me or only part?”
Reb Mimi says that here in 1939 – the Piaseczna Rebbe is still ready to confront God and, like Sarah, tell God that there is no place for such suffering in the world. She says, “…he wants to stand in the shoes of our Matriarch Sarah and say that there is no justification in the Creator’s world for the Akeida! That there is a place where it is impossible to say: “He did not create it a wasteland, He formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18); in other words, the Holy One blessed be He did not create the world in order for chaos to reign in it, but in order “for it to be inhabited”, so that people will have serenity in their lives. Otherwise, it turns out that God Himself is destroying the world! Our Matriarch Sarah serves as a shofar that warns that there is a limit to the suffering of which a person is capable; our Matriarch Sarah serves as a shofar, whose sounded blasts declare that the rules of the game have been broken! Yes, it is she who says: “They broke the rules and we refuse to play!””
She adds, “Sarah’s role in the world is to insist on justice from the Creator, to demand that there be limits placed on what is required of man. To demand a relationship that confirms mutuality and honesty…The Piaseczna Rebbe is telling us that Sarah gave her life in order to teach the Creator a lesson in running the world.”
Reb Mimi proposes another layer to this torah of the Piaseczna Rebbe: “In the previous paragraph he includes the name of our Teacher Moshe in this torah: “That our Teacher Moshe, the faithful shepherd, placed the death of Sarah right after the Akeida“. You ask yourself, why does the Rebbe feel a need to bring Moshe into the discussion? Is the Rebbe trying to give us a lesson in Biblical criticism?”
Reb Mimi suggests that the Piaseczna Rebbe is showing us two role models: Moses and Sarah, and their very different relationships with God.
She continues, “And one could explain the verse “the years of Sarah’s life”, to mean that Sarah ostensibly sinned against the years that would have remained to her had she not taken the Akeida so to heart. But since she did it for the benefit of the Jewish people, the verse hints “the years of Sarah’s life”, meaning that her years after the 127 were all equally good, because she did not sin with them, either, therefore God will have mercy on us and on all of the Jewish people, and will redeem us swiftly spiritually and physically, through revealed acts of lovingkindness.
“The Midrash already juxtaposed the death of Sarah and the Akeida, and hints that Sarah actually “took her own life”. The Piaseczna Rebbe explains the repetition of “the years of Sarah’s life” with a different reading of the Hebrew words, to mean “the two lives of Sarah”: The life she lived and the life she was supposed to live, had she not “given up her life” in order to teach the Creator a lesson about the laws of suffering! The Piaseczna Rebbe explains Rashi: Sarah’s stance is a stance of disappearance. Sarah is a “tzaddika” in the classical sense of the term as well, the Talmudic “tzaddik” who lives according to the letter of the law. But her observance of the letter of the law, the sphere of “heroism” that she represents, stems from the internalization of mercy, “so that the sufferings will be diluted, so that it will be possible to tolerate them and they will be diluted with mercy”. And if not, she is abandoning the fray.
“If our Matriarch Sarah symbolizes for us “a stance of absence”, our Teacher Moshe symbolizes “a stance of presence”. No matter what happens to him, he doesn’t budge an inch. Moses is the one who, even after the Holy One blessed be He forbids him to enter the Land of Israel, continues to pray and to plead. He is the one who inside the hell of the ghetto gets up every morning and prays three daily prayers. On the contrary, he is the one who says to the Creator: “Not only am I not getting up and leaving, but I will continue to plead, I will continue to do my work faithfully, and You will have to confront me every day and explain to me why. You, my Creator, will have to serve as an eternal witness to my sorrow and my sufferings.””
Reb Mimi adds, “These models serve me as well, in my inner experience. They provide alternatives for the way in which we want to deal with the sufferings – great and small – that we undergo. The Piaseczna Rebbe spreads them out before us and creates a place for both of them. I know that in my own life there are days in which I want Sarah’s strength to get up and leave…I also know that there are days when I feel Moshe breathing down my neck, without letting go, and demanding that I stand in place. Sometimes I stand there out of anger. Sometimes out of a longing for God’s closeness…
“And I still ask myself how the Piaseczna Rebbe saw himself first and foremost, as our Matriarch Sarah or as our Teacher Moshe. And I still ask myself how he lived both of them simultaneously.”

**Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was born in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Poland to his father, the Imrei Elimelech of Grodzhisk. Named after his maternal great-grandfather, the renowned Maor VaShemesh, he was a scion of a distinguished family, which included Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Chozeh of Lublin and the Maggid of Kozhnitz.
At the age of three, he was orphaned by the death of his father. In 1905 he married Rachel Chaya Miriam, daughter of his nephew Grand Rabbi Yerachmiel Moshe of Kozhnitz. She helped him prepare his lectures and books, even adding pertinent insights of her own. The couple had two children: a son, Elimelech Ben Zion, and a daughter, Rechil Yehudis, both of whom perished in the Holocaust.
In 1909 he was appointed rabbi of Piaseczna, near Warsaw, and subsequently attracted many chasidim. He was deeply focused on the education of children and young men, establishing the yeshiva Da’as Moshe in 1923, which became one of the largest chasidic yeshivot in Warsaw between the wars.
In his work as a teacher, Rabbi Shapira attempted to reverse the trend toward secularization, which swept the Jewish community in Poland between the wars. The vibrant cultural life of the city, as well as the attractions of political movements such as Zionism eroded the number of students wishing to pursue a yeshiva education. These trends, Rabbi Shapira argued, could only be exacerbated by archaic educational methods, harsh discipline and rote learning, such as were often the practice of the day in yeshivot. According to Rabbi Nehemia Polen (a noted expert on Rabbi Shapira’s work) in his most important work, Chovas haTalmidim (“The Students’ Responsibility”), Rabbi Shapira argued that a child must be imbued “with a vision of his own potential greatness” and be enlisted “as an active participant in his own development.” Likewise, teachers “must learn to speak the language of the student, and graphically convey the delights of a life of closeness to God.” Rabbi Shapira argued for positive, psychologically sensitive, joyous educational methods.
Some similarity had been pointed out between these ideas and the educational ideas set out on a non-religious basis, in much the same years, by Janusz Korczak.
Rabbi Shapira’s only son, his daughter-in-law and his sister-in-law were killed during the Nazi aerial bombing of Warsaw in September, 1939. After the invasion of Poland, Rabbi Shapira was interned with a few of his chasidim in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he ran a secret synagogue. He invested enormous efforts in maintaining Jewish life in the ghetto, including arranging for mikveh immersions and kosher marriages. Rabbi Shapira was able to survive in the ghetto until its liquidation, avoiding the tragic deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, because of the support of the Judenrat. Like other notables, he was given work at Schultz’s shoe factory — a path to ongoing survival.
While most of the “torahs” of the Piaseczna Rebbe were anthologized before the Holocaust, he himself wrote “Esh Kodesh” (Fire of Holiness) which comprises “torahs” which he delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and 1942, relating to the vicissitudes of Jewish life and complex issues of faith in the face of suffering in the ghetto. When it became apparent to Rabbi Shapira that the end of the ghetto and all its inhabitants was near, he buried the book in a canister. This canister was found by a construction worker after the end of the war and was published in Israel in 1960.
After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed in 1943, Rabbi Shapira was taken to the Trawniki work camp near Lublin. Although offered the opportunity to escape from the concentration camp, he apparently refused. Following the Jewish uprising in the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps there was increasing concern among the Nazi authorities that there would be further outbreaks of violence at other concentration camps. For this reason, Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival) was launched. During this operation, carried out on November 3, 1943, all the remaining Jews in Trawniki, including Rabbi Shapira, were shot to death.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira is held as an example of faith under enormous duress. Whereas more traditional portrayals of the Holocaust tend to dwell on the miraculous survival of famous rabbis and on the strength of the faith of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe despite their suffering, the Piaseczna Rebbe does not shy away from describing the deterioration of faith in the ghetto. He also wrestles with the difficulty in continued faith in God’s justice under such circumstances, drawing answers from Kabbalah and other Jewish sources. Notwithstanding these intellectual and emotional struggles, Rabbi Shapira’s faith remained strong and unwavering and he continued to inspire others to the end of his life.
*This poem is based on only one aspect of Reb Mimi Feigelson’s D’var Torah on Chayei Sarah.


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