The Aish Kodesh on Vaera 5700 (Torah from the Warsaw Ghetto, January 1940)

Five months into the Nazi occupation, the Jews of Warsaw struggled to keep up with the barrage of administrative decrees inflicted upon them by the Germans. When the Rebbe spoke on Parashat Vaera, which fell on January 6, 1940, the worst was still far off. The Nazis had replaced the leadership of the Jewish Council with their appointees, the wearing of the mandatory Jewish badge was recently imposed, and a horrific mass arrest and execution of Jews living at 9 Nalewki Street terrified the Ghetto—but the walls had not yet been constructed, and Jews still enjoyed considerable freedom of movement and association. Economic activity, however, was feeling the pressure of the occupation, as recorded by the martyred historian Emmanuel Ringelblum in his diary:

The economic situation is very hard, no basis for a normal economic existence.  Raw supplies are being removed on a large scale and sources are cut off…The doctors’ situation has taken a turn for the worse.  There were doctors who used to earn 1,000 zlotys a day.  Not nowadays.  People simply haven’t the money to be cured….The teachers are so bad off that some of them are going into glass blowing and are willing to take any kind of menial job, janitor or a domestic servant or the like…Decree (2nd of January): ban on posting obituary bills.  Punishment for printing them: culprit to be handed over to the authorities…Every few days another decree, one confiscating furniture, another kitchen utensils, etc…Yesterday, the 5th of January, an ordinance restricting street selling was published. Jews can only sell on the Ghetto streets, beginning with Cracow, Przedmieszcie, Karowa, Krolewska, Sienna, etc. You have to have a special commercial card.  The decree limiting the right of Jews to resettle is being interpreted as aimed against Jewish trade, smuggling, the immigration to Warsaw…The problem of how to protect the big book collections.  The Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair’s books are being used by the refugees to stoke ovens at 6 Leszno Street. 

The Rebbe’s message for Vaera of the Hebrew year 5700 was directed to Jewish leaders: perhaps to the Jewish Council (Judenrat) under Adam Czerniaków, perhaps even to himself (neither would survive the Holocaust—the Rebbe would be martyred in connection with an uprising in November 1943, and Czerników would swallow a cyanide pill in July 1942 when he realized he could not stop the deportation of Jewish children to the death camp Treblinka). The Rebbe drew a parallel to the leadership of Moses during the oppressive era of Pharaoh:

The Jews did not listen to Moses out of shortness of breath and difficult labor…[Moses said], if they have not listened to me, [how will Pharaoh listen to me?]… Rashi explains, “God commanded that Moses and Aaron should lead the Jewish people gently and be patient with them.” 

How is this relevant?  The Jewish people would not listen due to the oppression of Pharaoh, but why does this require Moses and Aharon to lead them gently?  Of what benefit would calm leadership be, if Pharaoh continued to torture them, Heaven forbid?

The Rebbe began the answer to his own question by describing three levels of Divine response.

We pray that God provide us with “grace, kindness, and mercy” (חן, חסד, ורחמים).  First grace, then kindness, and then mercy. This is because grace is invoked for one who is, Heaven forbid, not deserving of rescue, as we learn from the verse and Noah found grace, meaning that even Noah was not deserving of rescue, yet he found grace.  Kindness, which is understood as complete kindness, is also given to the undeserving.  It is only mercy that is intermixed with Divine justice.  Mercy is neither the full measure of Divine justice, nor Divine kindness, for one who is undeserving—rather it is intended for one who is somewhat deserving, hence mercy.

The Rebbe then subtly shifted his discussion from an appeal to Jewish leadership, to a prayer for Divine forbearance for weak Jewish observance of the commandments. Just as the Jews of Moses’ time were unable to respond adequately to the call for redemption, so too the situation of the Jews of Warsaw:

This is why our prayers read in this specific order.  It goes without saying that it is impossible to approach Divine justice itself, amidst suffering and affliction, when we are not fulfilling that which is incumbent upon us. Amidst suffering and affliction, we are not only unfit to approach Divine justice and be vindicated, it is even impossible for us to approach Divine mercy, which requires us to be somewhat worthy.  Therefore, we ask that we be first granted grace and kindness, so that even though we are not worthy, God may save us—and then we will be able to approach Divine mercy, for we will be at least somewhat worthy.  It is not merely the affliction that makes it difficult to for us to study Torah and do all that is incumbent upon us. Even that which we do manage to accomplish, is performed without spirit and vitality, rather with a broken heart and depressed, and without joy—may the Merciful One rescue us….as a consequence of the intensity of [Egyptian] enslavement, it was essential that the Jewish people first attain freedom…

Rebbe concluded his message with an allusion to the sequence of the specific names of God used in the Parashah (see Exodus 6:2,6:9, and 6:12-13). Elokim associated with Divine Justice, while the Tetragrammaton—rendered as Hashem—represents Divine mercy:

Initially, the verse stated, and Elokim spoke, and afterwards, I am Hashem.  Now, however, the verse first states and Hashem spoke. Thus Rashi comments on the phrase and Hashem commanded them regarding the children of Israel to mean, “to lead them gently.”  All conduct with them must not begin with justice, followed by mercy.  Rather, from the beginning, everything should be with gentleness.

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Torah from the Years of Wrath: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh

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