The Extinguishing and Rekindling of the Holy Fire'

The Admor of Piaseczno delivered a sermon almost every Shabbat at his house in the Warsaw Ghetto. His writings are enjoying renewed popularity in the religious Zionist movement.

For nearly three years, Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira held the title of Admor of Piaseczno ("Admor" is a Hebrew acronym for Adonenu Morenu Verabenu - our master, our teacher, our rabbi - and is a title commonly used with Hasidic rabbis). He regularly delivered a Shabbat sermon in his home in the Warsaw Ghetto. He began the custom upon the outbreak of the Second World War, on September 1, 1939, and kept it up - though skipping a few Sabbaths - until July 1942, four days before the start of the mass deportations from the ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka. The time and the place of the sermons naturally led the rabbi to focus on the theological and educational confrontation with the disasters that were befalling his congregation and his people.

Shapira transcribed the sermons immediately after the conclusion of Shabbat. When he felt that his life was in danger, he hid the manuscript in the same milk canister in which many documents from the ghetto were hidden, as part of what later came to be known as the "Ringelblum archive" (after the historian who oversaw the documentation project, Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum).

Shapira wanted to transfer the material to his brother, Rabbi Yeshayahu Shapira, one of the leading thinkers of Hapoel Hamizrahi movement, who was known as the "Pioneer Admor" and who died in Tel Aviv. However, he died in 1945, and the Ringelblum archive was not discovered until the end of the 1940s. Indeed, even after its discovery, Shapira's writings were not immediately identified as part of it. The son of the Pioneer Admor, Yosef Shapira, who was a minister without portfolio in the national unity government of 1984-88, relates: "Some of my uncle's students knew about the existence of the writings, but it was not until the 1950s that Baruch Duvdevani, then the director-general of the Jewish Agency's Immigration Department, came to Warsaw, and it was he who located my uncle's sermons in the archive."Finally, in 1960, the writings were published, under the title of Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire).

For years, only a handful of Hasidim, along with a few Holocaust researchers, took an interest in the material. The academics were quick to discern its importance. Dr. Mendel Piekarz, one of the leading scholars of the Hasidic movement in Israel, who has studied Esh Kodesh at length, explains: "This is the most important theological document from the period of the Holocaust itself, in the largest ghetto in Europe. It is the story of the Admor's coping with the terrible crisis. And the fact that the sermons covered a period of almost three years also make it possible for us to perceive the changes that occurred in the course of time."

Less sure of himself

Those changes were in fact very substantial and significant. Disasters befell the Admor, too - his wife died of an illness a few years before the war, and his mother, son and daughter-in-law were killed in the massive German bombing of Warsaw that launched the war - but in his sermons, at least, he tries to instill his followers with faith, and perhaps to strengthen himself as well. At the beginning of the war (March 1940) he was still explaining the troubles as punishment for people having been enthralled by the secular culture ("Henceforth, when God comes to your help and you are saved from him [from Amalek, the personification of the arch-enemy of the Jews] and he shall be expunged, you will already know that all the wisdom of this world contains not an iota of good"). In a sermon of August 1941, he castigates those who are exploiting the calamities as an excuse to evade a life of Torah and precepts: "There are some people who are relying too much on the troubles and are constantly idle and talk stuff and nonsense the whole day. Is it impossible for them to use these hours, in any event, to study things that are not philosophical in nature, or to recite Psalms?"

Even in his Hanukkah sermon in 1941, more than two years after the start of the war, he is still moralizing, maintaining that all the questions he was being asked - which were apparently very numerous - had their source in historical ignorance and a paucity of faith: "And truly, what place is there for argumentation, heaven forbid, and for questions? Because those who say that Israel has never yet undergone torments such as those of the present are mistaken: there were such in the destruction of the Temple and at Betar [the devastation in the wake of the rebellion against the Romans led by Bar-Kochba, 132-135 C.E.]." In other words, the Admor is saying, in the past, too, the Jewish people suffered similar calamities, but their faith was not broken, so what is it about you people in the Warsaw Ghetto, that your faith should be broken?

However, as the horrors intensified the Admor adopts a tone that shows him to be less sure of himself. It was not by accident that the succession of sermons stops on the Shabbat before the fast of the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av - July 1942 - immediately before the onset of the large-scale death transports from the ghetto to Treblinka. These deportations broke even the rebbe's spirit, the more so because in one of them his beloved daughter Rechtche (Rachel-Yehudit), the last remaining member of his immediate family, was taken. Toward his followers in the ghetto the Admor now fell into a deeply meaningful silence (as he himself perished only a year and a half later, at the end of 1943), though he revealed a little more of his inner thoughts in his writings.

There are no more new sermons, but the rebbe added "reflections" to several of his earlier sermons. Thus, to the sermon in which he castigated some in the ghetto for exploiting the distress to show contempt for the Torah, he added the following note: "Those remarks were made in 5701 [the Hebrew year, corresponding to 1941], when the troubles were very many and very bitter ... In any event, we were still able to lament them and to tell about some of the events ... and to chastise and strengthen those who were alive for Torah and work. Not so toward the end of 5702 ... when there was no one to chastise and no heart to stir them to work and Torah ... And it is only in full redemption and the resurrection of the dead that He can build and heal the destroyed building."

The most significant reflection has to do with his comment that the Jewish people had already experienced disasters of the type of World War II in the past, so there was no reason for them to lose their faith now. A year later, he adds: "Only the troubles that befell us until the latter part of 5702 existed in the past, but in my view, unnatural troubles and bad and unnatural deaths such as the perverse and evil murderers inflicted on the House of Israel from the end of 5702 are unexampled in the writings of the Sages and in the chronicles of Israel, and may God have mercy and save us from their hands."

In fact, in one of the Admor's last sermons, on the eve of Purim 5702 (March 1942), he tried to encourage his listeners to take heart and be strengthened, but also spoke frankly about his own difficulties in believing the words he himself was uttering: "And especially with the troubles continuing, even he who would strengthen himself and the rest of Israel from the beginning also grew weary of becoming strengthened and tired of finding consolation. Even if he should want to make an effort and speak words of consolation and strengthening, he lacks speech, because during the continuing time of troubles he has already spoken and reiterated everything he could say, and these things have already become irrelevant and will have no effect on him or on his listeners."

According to the present Admor of Piaseczno, Rabbi Kalman Shapira (the grandson of the Pioneer Admor), who lives in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, recent years have seen a dramatic change in the attitude toward the author of Esh Kodesh: "If in the past he was known by Hasidim and Holocaust researchers, today his writings are especially widespread among the students in the hesder yeshivas" (referring to combined religious study and army service). Nor is interest confined solely to Esh Kodesh; on the contrary, two earlier works, relating to the obligations and training of yeshiva students, are attracting even greater attention.

Those books, Piekarz says, expressed "the Admor's desire to refresh the Hasidic way of life and thought," and in fact to restore the ancient glories of the Hasidic movement: the personal ties of the followers with the rebbe, the devotion to prayer, and so on. He was even nostalgic for the ancient custom of group drinking of liquor. The two books - "The Students' Obligation" and "Training the Student" - were intended to show the students how to reach the coveted atmosphere in which the spirit is uplifted.

Nadav Rath, a student at Ramat Gan Yeshiva (a religious-Zionist institution, which places an emphasis on the Hasidic orientation), who sells books for a living, attests to the Admor's new popularity: "In the previous yeshiva I attended - Torat Haim Yeshiva, in Gush Katif [in the Gaza Strip] - "The Students' Obligation" was actually a compulsory book. It's the same in the Ramat Gan Yeshiva: the books of the "Holy Fire" are very popular, and as a bookseller I know they are also popular in other yeshivas."

There would appear to be a close connection between this popularity and the current general fashion of neo-Hasidism in the religious Zionist movement. More specifically, though, the renewed popularity of the Admor of Piaseczno can be attributed to one person: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the "singing rabbi" (who fused the culture of the 1960s with Hasidic music), who died in 1994. His consciousness rooted in both Hasidism and the Holocaust, Carlebach was a longtime admirer of Esh Kodesh.

In his concerts Carlebach often recounted a wonderful encounter he had with a Tel Aviv street cleaner who turned out to be one of the Admor's students. Carlebach insisted that the man teach him something from his rabbi's doctrine, and after no little persuasion he agree to state the message: "The greatest thing in the world is to do good for someone."

That altruistic concept captivated Mimi Feigelson, who attended a performance by Carlebach at Jerusalem's Pargod Theater in 1986. She later became a devoted follower of Carlebach and a lecturer on Hasidism, and made the Esh Kodesh - referring to the Admor himself - her revered master. Nor did she make do with only this: a few years later she decided to light an extra pair of candles every Friday evening, in place of Rechtche, the Admor's daughter, who perished in the Holocaust. She believes that just as Carlebach was the one who revealed the Admor to her, his influence is dominant in the whole rediscovery of the man and his writings in the religious Zionist movement.

It was also Carlebach who was instrumental in getting Reuven and Zehava Gilmore, close friends of his from the United States, to call their son, who was born in 1974, Esh Kodesh. Three and a half years ago, in October 2000, Gilmore was murdered in a terrorist attack while working as a guard at National Insurance Institute headquarters in East Jerusalem. Shortly afterward, the residents of one of the settler outposts in Samaria decided to call their site Esh Kodesh.

One of the outpost's residents (who declined to have his name published) explains that the site is also named for the original Esh Kodesh, and not only for the guard. "Some of us [there are seven families living in the outpost] were familiar with the book even before. We also knew Rabbi Binyamin Herling, a man of Samaria, who was murdered at Mount Ebal, who was also a student of the book. We felt the existence of a tie between the Admor, who died for his Judaism in the Holocaust, and the guard who was named for him and was murdered in Jerusalem."

So it came about that, in another of the twists and turns of the Jewish-Israeli situation, the Admor who was murdered in the Holocaust has been memorialized in an outpost on a Samaria hilltop.