Beloved by his entire generation and revered for his incredible knowledge of Torah, he was given the chance to get out of 1939 Poland; safe passage to America had been secured and a new life was waiting for him and his entire family.
But Rav Elchanan Wasserman would not hear of staying in America: “How can I stay here in safety while my flock remains under the shadow of the executioner?” he said, refusing to leave abandon his community alone it needed him the most. Rav Elchanan, one of the Torah giants of his generation, returned to Kovno.
Caught teaching a secret underground Talmud class in the Kovno ghetto in 1941, Rav Elchanan was murdered along with most of his students, in the infamous Ninth Fortress.
While being led to his death he was overheard telling his students that just as the Kohanim had to have the proper intent that their sacrifices be accepted by the entire Jewish people, they, too, should try to fill their hearts and minds with thoughts worthy of being accepted as sacrifices for the entire Jewish people.
Was he right to return to Europe? Could things have been different if the long list of Torah giants had given their flocks a different message when the storm clouds were gathering over Europe? Of course, those of us born in freedom cannot presume to understand, let alone judge, that generation, be they Torah scholars or simple peasants.
Indeed, one is reminded of the midrashic comment concerning Ya’acov’s inability to discern that Yosef was alive in Egypt, due to his loss of ruach hakodesh, or divine inspiration. Some believe these great Torah giants were prevented by Divine decree from seeing what should have been obvious, while others simply see this as a lesson the Jewish people needed to learn, that even great Torah scholars can be mistaken.
But one stands in awe of a person who chose to return to the Kovno of 1940, knowing what awaited him, motivated simply by a love for the Jewish people.
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This week’s portion, the beginning of the book of Devarim, is always read the Shabbat prior to the ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple when Jews all over the world fast and mourn the destruction of both Temples and all that those destructions represented. Many suggest that the connection between this week’s portion and the ninth of Av is a verse which bears a striking resemblance to the first verse of the book of Lamentations (Eicha) which we read on Tisha’ B’Av:
“Eicha esah levadi’; tarchachem u’masa’achem, ve’rivchem?” (How can I bear alone [on my own] your trouble, burdens and quarrels?)
This verse, describing Moshe’s apparent frustration with the Jewish people’s constant complaints and contentiousness, begins with the same word that both begins and ultimately names, the book of lamentations — eicha, a word that cries of how and why, and expresses an inability to come to terms with a painful reality beyond comprehension.
Less noticed however, is the fact that this verse contains another feature in common with the verse of Eicha (Lamentations): the pain of being alone. Moshe’s pain seems to emanate from the fact that he carries his burden alone, and the unanswerable question posed by Jeremiah (Yirmiyahu HaNavi) as well, is “How doth she (the city) sit alone (and desolate) who once was filled with people?” (Eicha 1:1)
Why does this one verse ensure this entire portion’s placement as the introduction to Tisha B’Av, the saddest and most painful day of the year?
The Kli Yakar (Rav Ephraim of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) makes a fascinating point on the opening verse of Devarim. Take a close look at this verse:
“Eileh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael, be’ever haYarden” (These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan River) (1:1).
This is the first time the phrase “kol Yisrael” appears in the Torah. Indeed, this phrase appears nowhere else in the Torah outside of the book of Devarim (where it appears 11 times!) This phrase opens this book, and also forms its conclusion — the last words of the Torah are, again:
“Asher asah Moshe, le’einei kol Yisrael” (that Moshe did [accomplished?] before ([n the eyes of] all of Israel) (Devarim 34:12).
One might suggest that perhaps this phrase alludes to the purpose of the entire book of Devarim.
Until now the Jewish people are consistently referred to as B’nei YIsrael, the children of Israel, implying their worth as part of one family; only now are they referred to as kol Yisrael, all of Israel, perhaps because this is the final stage in the birth of the nation of Israel. A family is all about unity, but it is also an exclusive group, you are either born into it or you aren’t, and most people are not really part of “the family.”
But Judaism is not just a family, we are a nation, and of all the principles of Jewish nationhood, none is as important as the fact that we are “all of Israel” or we are none of us.
Indeed, the essence of the destruction we mourn this coming week was described by Jeremiah as “How doth she sit alone?” (Eicha 1:1) Loneliness is the root of destruction, because when one of us is alone, we are no longer the Jewish people we were meant to be. Hence, Moshe’s reference to the burden he bore “alone.” It was this loneliness that provided the root of the destruction we are still mourning after 2,000 years.
It is interesting that in the entire Torah there is only one thing that is described as “not good” and that is to be alone — “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” (It is not good for man to be alone) (Bereishit 2:18 ).
In fact, if being alone is “not good,” which would be the opposite of “good,” the essence of all that is good is being together. Indeed, the first act of creation described as “good” is the creation of light, and light is all about oneness. Think about it: imagine being in a great hall with many chandeliers illuminating the hall. While you can clearly point out the many chandeliers in the hall, you cannot differentiate between the different particles of light they each provide.
In the story of creation, the Torah refers to the different stages of creation as good (tov) but there is no mention of “good” on the second day, because that was the day when Hashem separated the waters, and if good is all about oneness and togetherness, then even separation with the goal of ultimately re-uniting is not yet “good.” The third day, on the other hand, is the only day in which the word “good” (tov) is used twice, because the third day is when the waters are brought back together.
And that may be the purpose of the entire book of Devarim, as well as the underlying reason for this week’s portion being read every year on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.
Tisha B’av was born in loneliness and otherness. The Talmud tells us the second Temple was destroyed because Jews hated one another for their differences (sinat chinam as understood by the Netziv in his introduction to the book of Bereishit). And thus, the third Temple will be rebuilt, as Rav Kook suggests, through our love for each other (ahavat chinam) because of our differences.
To fulfill our mission in the world — which is to be a light unto the nations, a beacon of what oneness and togetherness (light) is all about — we must learn to be one with each other, no matter our differences.
As we mourn on this Tisha B’av for what is lost, may we come closer to the oneness we yearn for may so that we may soon start rejoicing in what we have begun to rebuild.
A version of this column was published in 2012.