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Klal Yisrael Is Always Free

Yonoson Rosenblum

"In that merit will Klal Yisrael continue to exist”

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Nesivos begins his commentary on the Haggadah, Ma’aseh Nissim, with a question that has, unfortunately, recurred constantly throughout Jewish history: If a prisoner were freed from jail, would he celebrate the anniversary of his release in subsequent years if, in the meantime, he had been returned to an even crueler and more impregnable prison? And if not, why do we sit at our festive tables and invite guests to join us in celebrating the Seder, even though we are now sunk in a long galus?

Following the Rambam, the Nesivos argues that the opening paragraph of the Haggadah — Ha lachma anya — was only added after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, when the Jewish People were in the Babylonian Exile, precisely to answer this question.

And the answer is that Hashem took us as His nation in front of the entire world, revealing His glory to an unprecedented extent. And He will rescue us from all subsequent exiles, whether we are deserving or not, in order that His Name not be desecrated. It is that assurance, which is a direct consequence of the great miracles Hashem performed on our behalf in Egypt, that we gather to celebrate.

 

AT NO TIME in our history did the Nesivos’s question present itself with such force as during the darkest days of the Holocaust. On my first visit to Poland last November, our superb guide, Rabbi Ilan Segal, shared numerous stories of Sedorim conducted under the most difficult conditions imaginable — during the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto, amid the last roundups in the Krakow Ghetto, and in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

As we stood in the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, from which the transports took hundreds of thousands of Jews to Treblinka and other death camps, Rav Segal read from an eyewitness account that appeared in the Bais Yaakov Journal (Sivan 5721) of the last days of the ghetto. The witness was the wife of one of a group Gerrer chassidim, who retained their beards, despite the strict prohibitions against them, and continued learning in the ghetto, under the leadership of Rav Hirsch Rappaport.

The Nazis yemach shemam, entered the ghetto in force on April 19, 1943, Erev Pesach. On Seder night, around 70 Jews gathered in two rooms, men and women separate, in the house in which they had been hiding in an attic. The Gerrer chassidim were joined by about 20 other Jews who had found refuge in the building. One of those was a famous doctor. Though he was nonobservant, he had drawn close to the chassidim in the ghetto. “When my soul departs,” he told them, “I want it to do so together with kosher Jews.”

The Germans were going through the ghetto street by street and setting fire to every remaining building. The Seder participants were poised at every moment to have to flee the flames of their abode, but for whatever reason, the Germans did not set fire to their building that night.

Indeed, not until they finished davening Mussaf on Rosh Chodesh Iyar was the group of chassidim forced to leave their hiding place. A photo still exists of Rav Hirsch Rappaport standing face-to-face with Jurgen Stroop, the SS commander who put down the ghetto revolt. His face betrays no fear; he almost seems to be laughing at the taller Nazi, dressed in battle gear, who, according to eyewitnesses, shouted at Rav Rappaport and the chassidim with him, “Because of you I wasn’t able to wipe out the ghetto.”

In his final two-hour derashah, Rav Rappaport had prepared his followers for this moment: “We have nothing to fear, chalilah, with regard to the existence of Klal Yisrael,” he told them. “After the Spanish Inquisition, Klal Yisrael remained. The main thing for us is to devote ourselves to [dying] al kiddush Hashem. And in that merit will Klal Yisrael continue to exist.”

 

TWO DAYS LATER, as we walked through the streets where the Krakow Ghetto once stood, Rabbi Segal read from the account of the last Seder in the Krakow Ghetto that Reb Moshe Brachfeld used to share every year at the Seder table with his offspring. Mendel and Moshe Brachfeld were the last two remaining survivors of their family, and they vowed never to be parted from one another no matter what happened.

Five weeks before Pesach 5003, the Germans liquidated the ghetto and declared it Judenrein. The brothers went into hiding, moving from attic to attic. Prior to Pesach, they managed to create a makeshift oven — a blech, heated by igniting flammable paint — on which to bake a few matzos.

According to a recounting of that time by Moshe Brachfeld’s grandson Yakov (“Passover in Hell,” Aish.com), as the time for the Seder drew near, Moshe, the younger brother, protested, “There is no way I can have a Seder tonight. The Seder is to celebrate our freedom, our going out of exile. Yet here we sit, our lives in danger, our family all gone — our parents, our sister and her children were all killed, the entire city is up in flames. The Nazis, with their wild dogs searching for us, won’t be happy until every Jew is dead. Isn’t this worse than the lives the Jews lived in Egypt? What kind of freedom are we celebrating tonight?”

His older brother Mendel provided the answer — an answer that Moshe would quote every Seder thereafter. “Every night in Maariv, we praise Hashem for taking us out of Egypt to everlasting freedom (l’cheirus olam). The freedom referred to is not physical freedom; it’s spiritual freedom we recognize. Pesach celebrates going from being Egyptian slaves to becoming a newborn nation — a nation that Hashem calls His own. When we sit down at the Seder table, we celebrate becoming a G-dly nation. That is something that cannot be taken away from us. No matter how much they beat, torture, and kill our physical bodies, our souls remain free to serve Hashem.”

 

IN HIS MEMOIRS, Rabbi Sinai Adler devotes a chapter to Pesach in Mauthausen. (Rabbi Segal shared this account at the gates to the Birkenau extermination camp.) There the prisoners recited the Haggadah from memory as they walked around a courtyard, during the few moments of “free time” granted them each day. “At least the Jews in Mitzrayim had ‘poor bread,’ they thought to themselves. Even that we do not have. We have been placed under overseers even crueler than the Egyptians.”

Rabbi Adler found his consolation in the fourth language of Geulah — lakachti Li l’am (I have taken you to Me as a Nation): “The Germans can enslave our bodies, but our souls they cannot enslave. And our spirit they cannot break and cause us to forget that in every generation they rise up to destroy us, but, in the end, Hashem saves us from their hands.” As they sang “L’shanah haba’ah bi’Yerushalayim,” at the conclusion of that Seder, Rabbi Adler could not help thinking how far away Yerushalayim seemed from their present slavery. But the next year, he was in Yerushalayim, together with others saved from the Nazis.

 

THE COMMON THREAD running through all these accounts is how powerful is the recognition of being part of Klal Yisrael, Hashem’s Chosen People. Just as Hashem created the world mei’ayin, so too did He create the Klal Yisrael mei’ayin. Where do we find Avraham in the Torah? the Gemara asks. In the verse: Eilu toldos shamayim v’aretz b’hibaram. Avraham is formed from the same letters as the word for the formation (b’hibaram) of the heavens and the earth.

The Haggadah emphasizes that just as Hashem’s smiting of the firstborn was not through any intermediary so too the creation of Klal Yisrael: “I took your father… I led him throughout the Land, I multiplied his offspring, I gave him Yitzchak, I gave Yaakov and Eisav to Yitzchak.”

Nothing can exist in Hashem’s presence when He fully reveals His glory. That is how the firstborn of the Egyptians died. Only the Jewish People could survive because we are one with Hashem: “Beni bechori Yisrael.”

May we all be zocheh to rejoice in that knowledge this Seder night.

Chag kasher v’samei’ach.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 757. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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