Last week (the reason I didn’t submit a column here), I had the privilege of leading a trip to Poland, together with Yehuda Geberer, a historian, popular pod-caster and professional tour guide. This was my second opportunity to do so, the last being under the auspices of Torah Umesorah seventeen years ago. Much has changed during those years and much has not. Last time, I lectured and shared Torah from Polish and Lithuanian gedolim to fellow rabbonim and a number of roshei yeshiva and mashgichim of yeshivos. This time, we went only to Poland and I had the zechus to learn hashkofah and divrei Torah with 45 members and friends of my shul. What remained the same was the heavy weight of the tragedy and evil of Churban Europa.
Trudging through Majdanek and Auschwitz, staying overnight in Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (and learning Daf Yomi where Rav Meir Shapiro created it), sitting in the ruins of Ger learning a Sefas Emes with my chaveirim and Noam Elimelech in Lizhensk, we could only mourn what was and what could have been. As the meforshim tell us about the days of the Omer, we are not just mourning the immense loss of the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva, but what could have been had each of them gone on to their potential of founding their own yeshivos. Each one of us thought and ruminated about how different the world could have been without Hitler and the Nazis ym”sh.
But something positive also happened that changed my perspective on what is happening in Eretz Yisroel today. We are all troubled and horrified by the most open schism in Israeli society in the past seventy-five years. The hatred, invective and lies about religious Jews – I won’t use the word chareidim, because all who keep Shabbos, kashrus and wear tefillin are targets together – has metastasized into a national malady. A writer I respect, Yonasan Rosenblum, has written, quoting Liel Leibowitz in Tablet, that “…the months of demonstrations have long since passed from the realm of the political to the metaphysical…soft appeals to brotherhood and shared destiny aren’t likely to resolve [the conflict].”
My respect for the author remains intact, but our trip to Poland demonstrated that this conclusion is not necessarily correct. Some of our readers who demand more factual empirical evidence may not accept my anecdotal approach, but we all know what we witnessed and experienced. On our first morning in Poland, our exhausted group was davening Shacharis in Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, when a large group of secular Israelis entered the room. They later explained that they were on a nesiah tarbuti – a cultural mission – and were planning to be passive visitors to a dead yeshiva and non-existent rituals. Instead, my chaveirim (to my immense pride and nachas) instinctively removed their tefillin, inviting “our guests” to perform the ancient mitzvah. Not only did no one refuse, but glee was evident on their radiant faces.
Some of our menagnim began singing Am Yisroel Chai, which the paper- kippah-wearing men, both young and old, seemed to know. We danced for a long time, exchanged some hugs and each went on to our scheduled excursions. Later, we met at another stop, this time singing and dancing once again as old friends. I assume that everyone already knows what happened at the demonstration in Bnei Brak, where frum and frei also danced and sang Shabbos niggunim together after sharing cholent and kugel. Eretz Yisroel can be a point of estrangement or affinity, as can Auschwitz and Majdanek. However, I now firmly believe that when removed from the influences of ideology and political agendas, the pintele Yid and common Yiddishe neshomah surfaces.
I cried often during the past few days, but once was silently and totally internalized. As a kohein, there were many places I couldn’t enter, staying outside with my son and several other duchaners. My group heard Torah perspectives on churban, Jewish suffering, the Tochacha and netzach Yisroel. But I noticed just a few feet away a large group of secular Israelis listening to their tour guide, an elderly gentleman without a yarmulka or any other sign of Judaism other than his language. My private tears were for those sixty or so innocents who were undoubtedly being inculcated with kefirah and at the very least falsehoods about Jewish history, destiny and future. Yes, my heart went out to them, because at that moment, decency did not allow interruption to dance, sing or even offer alternative views.
My point is simply that the tinokos shenishbu – the seventy-five years of Israelis who have been raised upon heresy, lies and toxic blasphemy – are innocent victims of what my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, taught was the erev rav of our time. They are all waiting, whether they know it or not, for the buttons on their hearts and neshamos to be pushed with love, caring…and some kugel. Rav Elchonon Wasserman wrote in his classic Ikvisa D’Meshicha (chapter 21) that “in our days, the Jews have chosen two forms of idolatry, to which they offer their sacrifices. One is socialism and one is nationalism. The latter can be summarized in three words, “nihiyeh kechol hagoyim – we wish to be like all the nations.” More recently, the great leader of the teshuvah movement in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Uri Zohar, summed it up in the title of his book, “We Were Robbed.” Not just one generation, but many have had their Jewish hearts, roots and, yes, even brains removed by the lobotomy of secular Zionism.
Pessimists would say that it is too late for multiple organ transplants to the Jewish body and soul. This is understandable and even logical. I, too, shared a tale of such woe when we were entering the satanic environs of Auschwitz. The story comes in several versions. This is mostly the one told by Rav Tzvi Hirsh Zilberstein, Veitzener Rov (introduction to Sefer Mekadshei Hashem, page 26): “The two holy brothers, Rav Elimelech and Rav Zusha, traveled in golus to achieve hamtokas hadinim. This means that they used their knowledge of Kabbolah, personal courage and mesirus nefesh to suffer many blows and pain to reduce or revoke decrees that had been ordained against various Jewish communities. One day, they approached a city between Poland and Germany, but one of them appeared to be having a heart attack, causing them to leave, never to return. They asked, ‘Where in the world are we?’ They were told, ‘You are in Birkenow.’ These dinim could not be sweetened even by the avodah of the two sweet brothers.”
The Veitzener Rov continues, “Those of us who arrived at Auschwitz, reacting with horror to the sight of the smokestacks and crematoria, also asked, ‘Where are we?’ We, too, were told that we have arrived in Birkenow. Then we understood what had happened with the two brothers. They had experienced the coming catastrophe, but were powerless to intervene, no matter their willingness to suffer for us.” So it is true that some endeavors are hopeless. But I would contend that there is a great difference between then and now. The rebbe Reb Meilich and the rebbe Reb Zusha were battling Amaleik and the Soton from whom we can never expect any rachmonus or understanding. But we are now engaged in a milchemes achim. It is true, as my rebbi taught, there is actual evil arraigned against us. But there are also thousands who don’t know who or what we are.
Imagine, Agudas Yisrael has called its P.R. efforts against the New York Times “Know Us.” These are people completely set upon our destruction. Yet, we ask – either plead or demand – that they take the time to get to know who we really are. Is it not a kal vachomer that we must reach out to people who would dance with us and share our hearts if they knew how? I have no casuistry or verbal trickery to offer, only what I saw and experienced in the blood-soaked earth of Poland. I expect nothing good from the likes of those who were at the very least accomplices in the crime of genocide. However, I do feel that if Klal Yisroel could make a tremendous effort at this propitious time to reach out to our estranged and brainwashed brethren, we could turn the tide.
People with sincerity asked me, “What is the point of going to a Europe that is indeed almost juderein, as the Nazis wished? I, too, have agonized over the question, but this time I feel that we have the answer. We sometimes have to go far to find ourselves. We don’t have to be in a rut to admit that we are busy. Everyone has things to do and places to go. Yonasan Rosenblum titled his eloquent piece, “Without a Connection to the Past, There is No Future.” Perhaps this doesn’t only apply to our estranged brothers, but to ourselves as well. Seeing the glory that was and the churban which Europe is now wakes us up to the need to borrow the meaning of Hashem’s Name, Havaya, as was, is and will be, or past, present, future. We, too, must contemplate the past and the future so that our present can be both meaningful and powerful. Trips to Europe are not about geography; they are self-exploration. May we all reach out to our lost brethren with the power of our past so that they, too, can go hand in hand with us into a glorious future.