Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Yom Kippur 5780/2019 - The Yeshiva of Five Students

Fall, 1942 – the Germans were at the gates of Moscow in a push east that seemed unstoppable.  Their drive across North Africa while slowed in Egypt equally showed no signs of being foiled.  The fateful battles of El Alamein and Stalingrad were still yet to come.  Jews were being murdered all across Europe and even Mandatory Palestine was not safe – the city of Tel Aviv had even been bombed by the Italians and some 130 people killed.
In Tel Aviv at that time was the young Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky.  A Slonimer chasid of great promise, he had been the choizer, the one appointed to memorize the teachings given on Shabbat by the Slonimer Rebbe, so they could be transcribed later.  In the mid-1930s the Rebbe had sent his student to the land of Israel where Rabbi Berezovsky was chosen because of his talent to head the Chabad yeshiva in Tel Aviv – the only yeshiva in the city at that time. 
As news of destruction and hopelessness arrived in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Berezovsky would write (and I owe the scholar Tzipora Weinberg for her translations of these quotations), “all was bleaker than bleak, collapsing under oppressive sorrow and anguish, overwhelmed by the feeling that you are alive in a world that is sinking to the depths, everything falling apart. In these days I could find no peace. Slonim is being destroyed, all those close to me, my parents and teachers, brothers and friends led to the slaughter, day in and day out. The entire world is enveloped in pain, and I? Where am I to go? I felt then that I was enduring my own demise, unable to continue.”
Then, Rabbi Berezovsky made a bold decision, he quit the prominent position he held, moved to Jerusalem and opened a new yeshiva dedicated to the teachings of Slonim, his sect.  He had five students.  If we cannot save the lives; we must save the spirit; we will continue to do what they can do no longer, so that their teachings will not disappear from this earth This was an effort born of unadulterated emunah [faith], since there was no possible chance that we could succeed under the circumstances that prevailed at the time.
If Catholicism is a religion of “sacraments,” Protestantism one of “faith,” Islam of “submission” and Buddhism “serenity,” then Judaism is one of “action.”  But just acting cannot be enough.  How should one act?  And why should one act?  The actions must be guided by a story, a cause, and work towards a purpose, a goal.   
And that in Judaism is the cause to of holiness in world, of bringing God’s will, our story, into the world through the sanctification of time, of space, and of our relationships.  We do all three through our reliance on Judaism’s conviction that:
1) All human beings require a Story, and ours is the Torah – in the broadest sense – all of God’s Revelation, all of Jewish Wisdom, from Leviticus to Larry David, capturing what holiness, what our cause, looks like.   
2) That a Story demands Action– for us, yes through the mitzvot specifically, whose wonder and mystery needn’t reveal any practical benefit to us or worldly delight other than their merely being the poetic expressions of our story come to be.  But they alone are not even the limit of our actions.  For more broadly through a Jewish spirit motivating how and why we do in all things we must also act. 
3) And finally that those Actions and that Story are rooted in the fundamental necessity that human beings act from a place of gratitude, of wonder and awe, of respect and love towards their fellow human beings and the world that we should, at all times, be surprised and shocked to find exists and ourselves existing in at all.  That is our Cause, our Goal – that is Holiness.
Rabbi Berezovsky’s case adds one more piece to our lesson as well.  The commitment to the Cause – to the Actions that will invite our Story of Holiness into being – like him, we do not act predicated on “victory” on “finishing.”  Judaism knows of none.  We do a mitzvah so we can do another mitzvah.  We celebrate Yom Kippur now; we celebrate it next year even better.  We are taught that the understanding that comes from studying a passage 100 times cannot be matched by the understanding that comes from studying it for the 101st time.   Founding a yeshiva then, when the fate of World Jewry was itself in question, what else should one do? 
Hence Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us “Judaism requires not a leap of faith but a leap of action.”  No wonder he marched alongside Martin Luther King and felt his “feet were praying” as he did so.  No wonder he spoke against atomic warfare.  Did he believe that his one voice would turn the tide?  Did he think the world was bound to get better?  Perhaps, I don’t know.  But I am certain in saying he felt that ours is a history and tradition that insists you speak, you march, you protest, for what is right regardless. 
I pause to mention that this rubric, this plan, is not limited in its application merely to our religious lives.  It applies to how we approach family, work, politics.  It applies to all these because for us as Jews there should be no distinction between what is religious and what is secular.  Could you really run your business in a way antithetical to Jewish law and ethics?  Could you really operate in a political manner with hatred burning in your heart for “the other” as you seek to show him how he himself is wrong for feeling the exact same way?  Our call to bring the Story of Holiness into the world remains our call and our cause throughout all these.
Now it is always easy to look backwards and see when the Call of the Cause was clear and the Need to Act immediate.  But in our own lives, it can be far from obvious.  Rabbi Berezovsky can teach us about this, too.  He was known, both before the founding of the yeshiva and after it, as a very deliberative man and rabbi.  He always sought the guidance of great sages and other rabbis when he was planning to do something, in his rabbinic career as well as in his personal life.  It was, uniquely in his lifetime, the founding of the yeshiva when he acted boldly and independently.  In this it seems to me we learn a lesson, but of all my remarks today, which I believe are the truest things I can say to you at this time, this one observation I will allow may not be.  It seems to me that we should be like Rabbi Shalom Noah, generally being thoughtful, because much of life does allow for us to be thoughtful when it comes to acting in accordance with our cause – but that when we come upon those handful of moments in life when it really is time to make a bold step, like Rabbi Berezovsky, like Nachson ben Amminadab at the Red Sea, like Heschel and King, you just do it. 
And if your life has many such moments in it?  Then I hope you know when and how to act if you are given so many chances to do so?  And if you aren’t?  Then act you must still, but with calm and consideration as you add to the beauty of holiness in the world. 
About the Holocaust, Rabbi Berezovsky would write, “this chapter is a mystery within mysteries; utterly ineffable. Any attempt to approach it, our minds, our hearts will fail to grasp it- in effect they fall short in want of capacity to decipher what has befallen us.
What then happened to Rabbi Berezovsky?  The yeshiva succeeded beyond all expectations and is now housed in a large and imposing building, sort of north of Zion Square at the end of Ben Yehuda where it hits Jaffa, past the ORT College…  And Rabbi Berezovsky?  His father-in-law was to become the Slonimer Rebbe and upon his death Rabbi Berezovsky became Slonimer Rebbe in his own right.  And while today, many years after his death, the Slonimer Chasidim are split into competing B’nei Brak and Jerusalem sects, outside of their world when one speaks of “The Slonimer Rebbe” our Rabbi Berezovsky is meant.  His magnum opus, Netivot Shalom, is a favorite of Chassidic thought across the Jewish world, imbued with a thoughtfulness and openness that speaks even to the non-religious who seek spiritual enrichment.
But of course, the Slonimer Rebbe didn’t know he’d be the Slonimer Rebbe or famous across the 21st century Jewish world or that there would even be a 21st century Jewish world when he Acted in accordance with our Story of Holiness during his day.  All the more reason his example is one for us to follow as we face the universal human challenges of life.  Let us end with one final passage of his, “At the apex of our deepest loss, there dawns the moment of our rejuvenation. We are but emissaries for those who came before us, dedicating ourselves to carry out what they began. Their light will shine the way for us as we follow in their footsteps.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah

No comments:

Post a Comment