A teaching by Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, from Sfas Emes, Parshat Emor, in honor of Yom HaZikaron LaShoah VelaGevura, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.
I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel, I the Lord Who sanctifies you, Who brings you out from the Land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord. Leviticus 22:32-33
Whenever a Jew sacrifices himself for the sake of God’s holy name, accepting God’s sovereignty, he awakens the power of the Exodus from Egypt, for the purpose of the Exodus was “to be your God.” And it is this power that enables him to sacrifice himself.
The verse specifies “among the Children of Israel,” for God’s holiness is held within the whole community together (klal israel), as it is written, “The people are a part of God” (1), and as our holy rabbis wrote, “In every community of ten God resides” (2), and “community” implies that they are truly one, with one heart. Where “among the Children of Israel” does God reside? In their hearts, for their souls are truly close, and it is only their material bodies that prevent such union. But when one sacrifices himself, the material is no more, and so he truly enters klal israel and then God is sanctified.
This is why our holy rabbis established the reading of the Exodus from Egypt before the reciting of the Shema, for through accepting God’s sovereignty in the Shema [even unto death, as in the verse, “with all your soul” (3)], we also enter that union.
1) Deuteronomy 32:9; usually translated “God’s portion is His people,” but both are valid. 2) Sanhedrin 39a 3) The story is told in Berachot 61b of Rabbi Akiva at his execution by the Romans as punishment for daring to teach Torah: after having his skin scraped off and being set afire, Rabbi Akiva called out, “All my life I’ve been waiting to fulfill the concept, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ Now I finally have the chance to fulfill those words.” With his last breath, he cried out the words of Shema.
I chose this teaching in honor of the martyrs of the Shoah, murdered some forty years after the Sfas Emes gave this Torah. While most did not have a choice in living or dying, they had a choice in how they lived and died, and we know how many lived with integrity until the last moment, and died rather than give up that integrity, some of them even going to their deaths with the words of the Shema on their lips.
We can’t know if the Sfas Emes had such deaths in mind when he spoke this teaching. There is a tradition that the Hasidic masters, especially from the Seer of Lublin on, knew about the Holocaust. Or perhaps this is a case of Torah being applicable to all times, in every situation.
Either way, it is important to note that the Sfas Emes does not limit his concept of mesirat nefesh, self sacrifice, to martyrdom. A more literal translation of the opening phrase would be “In every moment that a Jew sacrifices himself,” implying a continuous sacrifice offered through a way of life, and of course there is his conclusion assuring us that, if we even say the Shema with the proper intent, the complete joining of ourselves to our God and one another, we can effect the same unity and awaken the power of the Exodus.
I’d like to finish with a story told by Shlomo Carlebach about the Seer of Lublin, the grandfather of Polish Hasidism, of which the Sfas Emes was a scion.
So the Seer of Lublin was so holy and so removed from materialism that if someone still sunk in materialism touched him, it actually caused him pain. Getting a hair cut was problematic: the local barbers would spend the week before purifying themselves, in the hopes that one of them would get himself high enough to give the Seer a haircut. One Erev Shabbat the rebbe needed a haircut and none of the local barbers could touch him, so his disciples brought in an itinerant barber, in the hopes that perhaps he was secretly a holy soul. As soon as he put his hands on the Seer, the rebbe melted in pleasure. After the haircut, the disciples pulled the barber aside and asked who he was, what kind of holy work had he been doing, to cause the rebbe such delight at his touch?
The barber had no answer. Instead he pulled off his shirt, and the disciples saw that his back was covered in horrible scars. He explained: “For my work I wander from town to town. One time I came into a market place and found a big commotion, a woman and her children crying and screaming. Some crime had been committed, and instead of bothering to find the real criminal the police had just grabbed the nearest Jew and started giving him one hundred lashes. His wife and children were the ones screaming, crying out to Heaven. I looked at this poor Jew getting the lashes, and I knew that he would never survive. So I told the police I had done the crime. They released the Jew, who ran back to his family, and they tied me up in his place. I didn’t think I would make it through much more than fifty lashes, so I started to pray, ‘Master of the World, I did this only for You. I don’t know this Jew and he can’t ever pay me back. Please save me.’ Then I fainted, and when I woke up, the hundred lashes were over.”