They are human malachim who died al kiddush Hashem with the most sacred thoughts on their minds and Hashem’s name on their lips.
Haunting. Haunting and uplifting is the only way I can describe the feeling I had listening to a new music CD that I purchased. It’s called Shiras HaTorah and it contains dveikusdike niggunim that were sung primarily by Litvishe gedolim. Being of Galicianer-Romanian extraction myself, I was hesitant to buy it, as I have more of a taste for Chassidishe songs. But hearing that it has the song that the ger tzedek, Avrohom ben Avrohom, sang as he was being led to his death al kiddush Hashem, I grabbed it. For years, I have told this story with its many details to my talmidim and campers, and I have always wanted to hear and learn this song that was well-known in Yeshivas Volozhin and sung by Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer on Motzoei Yom Kippur.
While listening to the niggun, I pictured Polish soldiers marching this martyr through the streets of Vilna to a public square for his execution. As he passed the home of the Vilna Gaon, the Gaon called out to him from his window and said, “Reb Avrohom, go with zerizus!” The holy ger had a question in halachah: Should he proceed quickly to his death because of “zerizin makdimin lemitzvos” or should he walk slowly in order to preserve every remaining moment of his life and thus fulfill “vechai bohem”? The Gaon, who was made aware of his question, answered clearly, “Zerizin makdimin. Go quickly.”
As he came closer to being mekadeish Sheim Shomayim, he started singing with great simchah words that we say every morning: “Avol anachnu amecha bnei brisecha. But we are Your people, members of Your covenant, children of Avrohom, Your beloved, to whom you took an oath at Har Hamoriah. The offspring of Yitzchok, his only son, who was bound atop the mizbei’ach.” From amidst the flames, Reb Avrohom’s neshamah ascended to heaven. What holiness. What inner strength.
Haunting. Haunting and uplifting. Why, I recall having that exact feeling many years ago as a young bochur in yeshiva. I remembered the joy of having just acquired the sefer Kovetz Shiurim, containing chiddushim of Rav Elchonon Wasserman. In those days, you couldn’t buy it in a seforim store. It had to be ordered from his son, Rav Simcha Wasserman, who lived in Los Angeles at the time. When the sefer finally arrived, it was a true simchah. Reading the introduction to the sefer sent chills down my spine and left an indelible impression on me to this day. So much so that I find it important to read to my talmidim.
In it, there is a first-person account by someone who was with Rav Elchonon during the last moments before he was taken away as a korban to the Ninth Fort in Kovna, where, sadly, many Yidden lost their lives. He and his companions were learning Maseches Niddah, when they were interrupted and taken from their Gemaros on the 11th of Tammuz, 1941. Rav Efraim Oshry, who survived the war and was later a noted rov in New York, publicized the following:
“Rav Elchonon spoke in a calm and serene manner as always. His tone of voice was no different than usual. On his face was the same serious, sincere, look as always. There was no evident feeling of his personal pain and no attempt to bid farewell to his son, Naftali. He spoke to everyone…to Klal Yisroel.
“‘In Heaven,’ he said, ‘they probably consider us to be tzaddikim, because they want us to atone for Klal Yisroel with our bodies. If so, we must indeed do teshuvah, immediately, on the spot. The time is short. The Ninth Fort, the place of our merit, the kiddush Hashem of the Jews of Slabodka and Kovna, is close. We must have in mind that if we repent, we will be able to save our brothers and sisters in America.
“‘There should not chalilah enter a faulty thought, which is pigul and renders the sacrifice unacceptable. We are about to fulfill the greatest mitzvah. With fire, Hashem kindled and destroyed, and with fire He will rebuild it (Bava Kamma 60b). The fire that burns our bodies will be the very same fire that rebuilds the Jewish nation.’”
Soon after, these holy angels ascended heavenward in a storm. How bold. How hallowed. How awesome.
The mind wanders, traveling to Telshe, Lithuania, where the fate of our brethren was much the same. On the 20th of Tammuz, a day commemorated annually in the Telshe Yeshiva, the kedoshei Telshe were rounded up to be sacrificed as korbanos to Hashem. I can still hear the booming voice of my rosh yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter, reverberating in the bais medrash as he described some of those last moments in his yahrtzeit shiur daas.
“When the Nazi beast delivered heavy blows to the head of the Telzer Rov, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, he tried adding insult to injury, taunting him by saying, “Herr Rabbiner, where is your G-d?” The lowly Nazi tried, but he failed. Without flinching, without any fear, the holy rov answered with pride, “He is not only my G-d. He is your G-d as well and the world will yet see this.”
Another niggun on the CD is most inspiring. It is a version of Adon Olam sung in Litvishe yeshivos on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What makes it more emotional, however, is the fact that this song was sung by the members of the distinguished Kelmer Talmud Torah as they marched proudly to the valley of death holding Sifrei Torah.
Hearing this niggun, one can envision the kadosh, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz, one of the heads of the Talmud Torah, leading the procession. Before they were marched off, Rav Doniel asked permission to go back to his house for a few minutes. When he returned, he was asked why he went back. He answered, “We are about to be brought as a korban to Hashem. As a korban, we must be pleasant and desirable, so I went back to brush my teeth before we move on.” Kodesh Kodoshim.
Who can fathom the heroism of the holy Yidden in the Warsaw Ghetto who stared death in the face and continued to live a Yiddishe life with Torah and avodah as usual? It was Pesach night when the beginning of the ghetto’s liquidation was in progress. Outside, there was cannon fire and there were explosions, but inside, a seder was taking place, with tefillah, divrei Torah, and lively songs. Seventy people, led by Rav Heschel Rappaport, sat around a table focused on their Creator and celebrating Yetzias Mitzrayim.
Finally, when the fire and smoke grew closer and it was impossible to continue, Rav Heschel said to them, “The time has come. It is precisely during these final moments that we must be strong, lest the thought that Hashem has abandoned us cross our mind. We wanted very badly to live, but it is Hashem’s will that we sanctify His name and that we accept this with joy.” Shortly after, the cursed SS men found them and led them out to their final destination (Witness to History).
Now I am looking at a picture of Jewish strength and brazenness. There I see this precious group of Yidden facing a group of SS men. These soldiers looked big and tough, armed and in uniform, towering over simple and unarmed Yidden. But oh what cowards they were. There is a Lilliputian Nazi trying to stare down a Jew to break his spirits, but the Yid, none other than the very same Rav Heschel Rappaport, would have nothing of it. He stared boldly right back at the officer’s face, not yielding to the scoundrel in the slightest.
This picture, in essence, is emblematic of the history of Klal Yisroel throughout the generations. The gentiles constantly oppressed us and tried to break our spirits, but we remained steadfast and loyal to Hashem, not submitting to their demands. And we remain strong to this day.
We must constantly remember the trials and travails of the previous generations and learn from them. Just as they persevered and were korbanos, dying al kiddush Hashem, we must train ourselves to live al kiddush Hashem. Many of us face pain and personal nisyonos, and in a way it is harder to live with hardships and not question Hashem. In addition, the foreign winds of the outside world blow harder day by day, trying to steer us off course. There is no limit to how low the moral level of the world can sink.
As the sons of the avos hakedoshim, we are endowed with the inner strength to overcome these obstacles. As we learn in this week’s sedrah, Bilam Harasha realized that with all of his powers, he could not bring the destruction of the Bnei Yisroel, so he exclaimed, “How can I curse? G-d has not cursed. How can I anger? Hashem is not angry. For from its origins I see it rocklike and from the hills do I see it” (Bamidbar 23 8-9). Rashi explains that the rocks and the hills refer to the avos and imahos, who were firmly established in their connection to Hashem and have passed on this strength to future generations.
May we merit utilizing this inner strength to overcome the nisyonos until the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.