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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Emor 5773 "Kaddish or Kiddush"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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To most of the world, Gora-Kalwaria is a small insignificant Polish town twenty miles southeast of Warsaw. In the Torah world however, it is the village of Ger, where the great dynasty of Gerrer Chassidus began with the leadership of the saintly Chiddushei Harim in 1859.

My first internship as a social work student a number of years ago, was with Bikur Cholim’s department for Holocaust survivors[1]. One of my clients was an elderly secular Jew, a survivor who was well into his 90’s. As is sometimes the case with elderly people, though his mind was no longer very lucid, when we spoke about the past he would perk up. He was a pleasant man who smiled whenever I would come to see him. We spoke of good times before the war and we spoke about the horrors he endured during the war and in the horrors of the camps. I only saw him cry one time.

We were speaking about Poland and I mentioned that my family’s roots were in Ger. Tears welled up in his pain-ridden eyes and he said, “I saw the Rebbe of Ger! I remember the Rebbe of Ger!” He repeated his statement twice and seemed lost in a different world. That was all he said. It was a moment I cannot convey in words but I sensed the nostalgic admiration and awe he still had for the Rebbe, even so many years later.

The Chassidim in Poland would joke that the Immrei Emes[2], had ten thousand Chasidim who ate on Yom Kippur. It was true – the Rebbe had more than ten thousand Chassidim under the age of Bar Mitzvah.

When survivors reminisce about what Yom Tov was like in Ger it sounds fantastical. The whole town was packed with people and in the Bais Medrash people literally climbed the walls, and hung from windows, to get a glimpse of the Rebbe. There were people in every corner and on every rooftop of the small village.

On February 25-26 1941, the Nazi’s deported well over one-hundred thousand Gerrer Chassidim from Ger to the Warsaw Ghetto. The overwhelming majority of those deportees were destroyed.

The Immrei Emes escaped to Eretz Yisroel but he was deeply pained by the unbearable losses of most of his followers. He died in Yerushalayim on Shavuos in 1948 as the holy city was being shelled by the Jordanians during Israel’s War of Independence.

His son, the Bais Yisroel, assumed the mantle of Gerrer Chassidus. Under his influence and guidance the great legacy of Ger rebuilt from the ashes. Today it has flourished into one of the largest Chassidic sects in the world.

The Bais Yisroel possessed a fiery and staunch personality. People who stood in his presence describe the incredible awe they felt. He was not a man who showed emotion; his Chassidim knew he was dedicated to them and he loved them but his indomitable personality was unyielding.

There was one time however, that the Rebbe, who had lost a wife and two children during the war[3], showed a hint of emotion. By Shalosh Seudos one Shabbos the Rebbe quoted the verse which describes the saga of Noach and the flood. The Torah writes, “Noach did ‘all’ that Hashem had commanded him, so he did[4]”. Rashi explains that ‘all’ refers to the fact that Noach built the Ark. However, a few verses later when the Torah seems to repeat the same words, (7:5) “Noach did all that Hashem had commanded him”? Rashi explains that the second verse refers to the fact that Noach entered the Ark. Was it not obvious that after building the Ark Noach would enter it to escape the raging flood?

The Bais Yisroel explained, “When Noach saw that the destruction of the world was imminent, he had little will to survive. Noach understood that his whole world, and everything familiar to him, was about to be eradicated and he did not want to live. But Hashem commanded him to enter the Ark! G-d willed him to survive and rebuild, and therefore it was his Divinely-ordained mission. The greatness of Noach was that he complied against his will.”

The message of the Bais Yisroel was clear. It was not easy to emerge from that world of terror and indescribable pain. In a sense, it would have been far easier to have perished in the smokestacks of the crematorium than to have to live with those horrific images, and to bear witness to the atrocities they endured. It was almost too daunting a task to rebuild and not allow themselves to fall prey to despair and despondency[5]. But G-d miraculously saved each survivor and plucked them from the Ark. Therefore, they had a mission to rebuild.

Just as Klal Yisroel were designated to be an elite and holy nation, so too, the Kohanim were chosen to be the elite of the elite; the Chosen Leaders of the Chosen Nation. Along with privileges comes added responsibility and more austere restrictions.

One of the more difficult laws imposed on the Kohanim was the prohibition for them to come into contact with a dead body. A Kohain may only become impure from a dead body if the dead person is one of his seven closest relatives[6] or if there is no one else who can bury the dead person (mais mitzvah). However, if the Kohain’s best friend or an uncle whom he was close with dies, the Koahin may not attend the funeral, because it will render him impure.

When the Torah relates these laws it commences with an introductory verse. “G-d said to Moshe: Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and you shall say to them: Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people.[7]” Rashi quotes the Gemara in Yevamos[8] which addresses the apparent redundancy in the verse, “say to the Koahnim…and you shall say to them”. The Gemara explains that G-d was instructing Moshe that there must be a double ‘saying’ (i.e. instructing) here. Not only was Moshe himself to instruct these laws to the Kohanim but he was also, “lihazhir hagedolim al hak’tanim”, to admonish the adult Kohanim to ensure that these laws be safeguarded by the younger Kohanim as well. Simply understood, the Torah is cautioning the older kohanim to be vigilant that the younger Kohanim not defile themselves.

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Schneinbaum[9] views the Gemarah’s admonishment homiletically: Why is it necessary for the Torah to reprimand the elders regarding the youth specifically in regard to the laws of death and contamination?

During challenging times of personal grief and anguish we have a proclivity to become so absorbed in our pain and loss that we tend to neglect the needs of those who depend on us and need us. In his vernacular, “we tend to say ‘kaddish’ for the deceased and neglect to say ‘kiddush’ for the living”.

In times of loss it is a daunting task for one to maintain his objectivity and to reflect upon the needs of others, especially the needs of those who are suffering from the same tragedy. Children, more than adults, struggle to make sense out of life and the world, and they often irrationally internalize much of the external evil they see around them[10].

This difficulty is further compacted by our underestimation of the perceptivity of a child; children see much more than we’d like to think they do. Therefore, in stressful times of pathos and pain, the times when we may neglect to fully address the fears and experiences of our children, that is the time that our love and comfort is most crucial.

The days of Sefiras Ha’omer contain an almost paradoxical mood of anticipation and excitement, balanced with mourning and sorrow. The gemara[11] relates us that twenty-four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva died during this time period, because they did not treat each other with adequate respect as befitting men of such great stature. The loss of such a magnanimous group of Torah scholars was incredibly debilitating. The Torah world reeled in shock, stunned at the sudden loss of the most budding scholars of their generation. But surely no one’s grief paralleled that of Rabbi Akiva himself.

The story of Rabbi Akiva is one of the most beloved passages of Talmudic lore. Akiva was an ignorant shepherd who had a deep-rooted enmity for Torah scholars. At the age of forty, his life literally began anew. Within a relatively short time he rose to become a scholar of unimaginable proportions, dwarfing the erudition of scholars twice his age. For twenty-four years Rabbi Akiva taught Torah, ultimately amassing twenty-four thousand students….and then it was all gone! All he had toiled and strove to accomplish was destroyed. Would anyone have a complaint against Rabbi Akiva for giving up at that point?

Rabbi Akiva however, did not surrender to his grief. With brazen resilience Rabbi Akiva gathered five new students and began anew. An uncompromising sense of mission drove Rabbi Akiva and he taught those five students who ultimately preserved the unbroken chain of Torah tradition.

The post- Holocaust generation often did not speak about the atrocities they had endured during the war. Not only did they not want to burden their children with the pain they had suffered, but they had to focus on rebuilding and could not afford to wallow in their anguish.

It was a generation of tenacious resilience, who personified the legacy of Rabbi Akiva[12].

The world of technology is constantly in flux, improving our quality of life. And yet, at the same time, there is a dearth of emotion and love. Our devices have touch screens, while our generation, and especially our children, suffer from being out of touch with the inner reality and emotional selves.

Dr. William Glasser[13] notes that every human being struggles to create a reality that makes sense to him/her. Psychosis occurs when one creates a reality in an unhealthy or destructive way. A healthy reality requires one to feel valuable and valued and the ability to love others and to feel loved.

If every human being requires love and a sense of inner value, children require it even more. Youth is a time of maturation, but it is also a period of great uncertainties and vulnerability. It is incumbent upon those who have endured more of life’s challenges to guide and encourage those who need it most.

“Noach did all G-d had commanded him, so he did”

“To admonish the older ones about the younger ones.”

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[1] H.E.A.R.T.s – Holocaust Education and Relief team. Working there was an incredible opportunity to have the chance to meet and hear a bit about the struggles and challenges of a few holy survivors.

[2] the third Gerrer Rebbe and the son of the Sfas Emes

[3] he remarried but never had children after the war

[4] Bereishis 6:22

[5] as many survivors did, and who can blame them?

[6] wife, father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter

[7] 21:1

[8] 114a

[9] Peninim al HaTorah, Volume 5

[10] They may even blame themselves, as that is the only rational explanation they can accept. “Somehow it must be my fault” can become the unfortunate conclusion of many a child whenever he faces a situation he cannot comprehend, especially when, G-d forbid, there is a lack of parental harmony in his home.

[11] Yevamos 61b

[12] [In our time however, when we have rebuilt unimaginably, and as survivors are painfully fading, we have an obligation to educate our youth about those horrific times.]

[13] “Reality Therapy”

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