Lecture #12b: Jewish Identity and the Significance of the Holocaust in the Teachings of the Rebbe of Slonim (Part 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


Given the Slonimer Rebbe's approach to kiddush Hashem in the Holocaust, we are still left with two fundamental questions.  First, why is there special significance to the idea of the Jewish nation being partners specifically in the act of kiddush Hashem, in giving up their lives, over and above their partnership in any other commandment or act? Second, why was all of this significant specifically in this generation, at this time? Does the collective kiddush Hashem achieved in our generation indicate anything special about this time?


The Rebbe of Slonim answers as follows:


These concepts allow us a glimpse into the sealed parasha of the Holocaust, the theme of the suffering called chevley Moshiach [the painful period that precedes the Messiah] that Jewry must undergo before the Messiah's arrival.  For in order to attain the ultimate perfection, Jewry as a whole must demonstrate self-sacrifice, to fulfill the words (Tehillim 50:5): "Gather to Me My devout ones, those who make My covenant by sacrifice."  This is consistent with the statement of Torat Kohanim cited above (Sifra 9:6): "I took you out of Egypt solely on condition that you offer yourselves to sanctify My Name."  This must take place before the attainment of ultimate perfection because it is the very condition on which the chosen-ness of the Jewish People rests – they must be killed to sanctify God's name.  Since we are pointing the era preceding the coming of the Messiah, it would be inadequate to have all the thoughts and intent for kiddush Hashem but lack its actualization.  If we can combine the deeds of all the martyrs who were killed during this awesome annihilation with all the heartfeltintents, it will be as if all of Jewry had simultaneously offered itself for kiddush Hashem.  One may read this into Rambam's words, "The entire House of Israel is commanded to sanctify this great Name" (Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:1).  This is the appropriate preparation for the sufferings that precede the Messiah's coming – whose purpose is for all of Jewry to fulfill the mitzva of kiddush Hashem.  (ibid., pp. 55-56)


The Exodus from Egypt acquires its significance from the willingness of the Jewish People to give up their lives to sanctify God's name.  Why is this so? God redeemed us in order to enter into a covenant with us.  "Covenant" signifies specialness and sanctity.  In other words, a nullification of all other bonds, such that the bond between the two parties to the covenant becomes an absolute one.  Our covenant with God implies a nullification of any connection to any other deity and any other culture, but in its fullest sense it also means that we sever our connection with any other phenomenon at all.  "There is nothing other than Him" – hence, it takes an absolute relinquishing of everything in order to bring about full realization of the covenant.  Giving up one's life is not only a concentration of will and courage at a time of extreme crisis; it is the very essence of the covenant.  When a Jew is truly willing to give up his life, he is saying to God: I have nothing but You. 


Following this declaration, all of life assumes a different meaning.  We will award only partial, relative importance to everything else, depending on the question of whether it can be part of our covenant with God.  Is it possible to give up this thing, this pleasure, this activity, for God? Hence, the giving up of life on the national level for the sake of His Name is not a "be-di'avad" (post facto) situation, nor is it an extraordinary fulfillment of God's requirements.  Rather, it represents the essence of the covenant between Israel and God.  Hence, it retroactively justifies God's redemption of the nation from Egypt, as well as the future, final redemption.


D. "Tikkun" of souls prior to the coming of the Messiah


It remains for us to try to understand why this took place now, in this generation. Why is it that "the Supreme Providence has no patience" to wait for the Jewish People to engage in repentance, so that we could be redeemed with light rather than in darkness? The Rebbe of Slonim concludes his words by alluding to this question:


In this context we recall a statement of the Ba'al Shem Tov that the ultimate goal of creation is that no soul should remain distanced from Hashem.  Almost all of the Jews who were killed to sanctify God's name were totally unaware of why they were being taken and were absolutely incapable of escaping.  A good many of them were completely cut off from Judaism – and by their selection to die for being Jews were drawn back to Hashem.  By being killed for kiddush Hashem, they brought tikkun – elevation and perfection – to all of Jewry. The distanced ones were elevated and united with their brethren in fulfillment of kiddush Hashem.  The ultimate perfection that will result from the speedy arrival of our righteous Messiah in our time was thus brought closer.  (ibid., pp. 57-58)


It was specifically during the generation when Judaism reached its lowest level that Divine Providence intervened in order to elevate all of Israel to the lofty level of "sanctifiers of God's Name."  Jews who have chosen to leave the path of religious faith and Torah have no merits arising from their own will; how, then, can they be included within the nation of Israel of all generations? How can their souls be purified and readied for redemption?


Moreover, the Rebbe mentions here the well-known principle set forth by the Ba'al Shem Tov, based on the teaching of the Ari z"l, according to which the purpose of spiritual activity in history is to elevate the sparks of Divinity that were scattered with the primordial "shattering of the vessels."  The Rebbe awards special emphasis here, as in the teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov, to the "tikkun" (repair) of the souls of Israel, which contain sparks of holiness but are held captive within the "husks" surrounding them – foreign cultures, deceit, desires, etc.  According to the Ba'al Shem Tov, in a latter to his brother-in-law in Chevron, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov, this was the aim of the Ba'al Shem Tov's activity and that of chassidut in general.  When all the souls are perfected, the Messiah will be able to come and redeem Israel.  The Ba'al Shem Tov recounts that on one occasion of meditation, when his soul went up to heaven, he had a conversation with the Messiah:


I asked the Messiah: "When will my master come?" And he answered me: "By this shall you know.  When your teachings are publicized and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings are disseminated outward, the teaching that I have taught you and which you have grasped, and they, too, are able to perform yichudim [unifications in the upper worlds] and elevations [of Divine sparks] as you do, then all of the husks will be finished, and it will be a time of favor and salvation."


I wondered at this, and was greatly troubled at the length of time involved: When could this happen? But while I was there, I learned three things with special qualities, and three holy Names, and they are easy to learn and to explain.  And when I grew calmer, I thought: By means of this, all the people of my generation may reach the same level and ability that I have… In other words, they will be able to elevate souls to the heavens, and they will study and grasp as I do. (Ba'al Shem Tov's letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov, 5507)[1]


This letter requires some in-depth discussion of its allusions and the purpose of the Ba'al Shem Tov's activity as described here.  In any event, repair of souls is a central objective in the Ba'al Shem Tov's dissemination of chassidut, and the coming of the Messiah is conditional upon it.


A few generations after the appearance of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Enlightenment spread over Europe, and with it – apostasy and assimilation of Jews.  Not only did chassidut not succeed in illuminating all of Jewry, but – quite the opposite – large numbers of Jews abandoned God and His Torah.  The purpose of the redemption is that "none should be left forsaken" – there should remain no sparks that have not been redeemed from their captivity, souls, or parts of souls, that do not participate in the redemption of the Jewish People because they are distanced from holiness.  That which chassidut did not succeed in achieving through "tikkun" undertaken with love and mercy, was achieved in the Holocaust through destruction and the Divine attribute of justice. 


The Holocaust was a general phenomenon of justice with a targeted purpose: the "tikkun" of all Jewish souls through the giving up of their lives for kiddush Hashem, even without any such conscious choice, simply by virtue of having been judged and murdered as Jews.  The Holocaust is not a punishment for heresy, but rather a "tikkun" (repair) for it.  Moreover, it did not arise because of some reason (sin), but rather to attain a purpose (kiddush Hashem and the "tikkun" of the souls).


According to the teaching of the Rebbe of Slonim, it is clear that we are very close to the appearance of the Messiah.  What else needs to happen or to be done? Are we really so close? Why has heresy not disappeared from the world? Why is it still taking time? What is the significance of the revival of the Jewish nation in the land of Israel following the Holocaust? We shall leave these questions open for the time being, to be addressed through the teachings of the Rebbe of Slonim in a future lecture.


Let us conclude with his thoughts on the "Av Ha-Rachamim" prayer, and the significance of the commemoration of martyrs throughout the generations and of the Holocaust in particular:


In light of the above, there is special significance to commemorating the memory of the martyrs, just as [Chazal] instituted the "Av ha-Rachamim" prayer for every Shabbat, and just as we recite "Yizkor" for those who were killed and slaughtered for the sanctification of God's Name.  The purpose is to connect with them and to be included together with them in the category of "Holy Israel," and to raise all of the kiddush Hashem in [our] thought to the actual kiddush Hashem of those martyrs.  For all of the holy thoughts join with them, and together this constitutes a kiddush Hashem that is complete.  The bond with all of the martyrs is a connection that brings much blessing, for through this the sanctity and purity will guard him.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  Based on Mor Altshuler, Ha-Sod Ha-Meshichi Shel Ha-Chassidut, pp. 240-245.