A teaching by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczna, from Esh Kodesh, in honor of Yom HaZikaron LaShoah VelaGevura, Holocaust and Heroes Remembrance Day.
In the Song of Songs it says, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” and afterwards “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (1). Now it seems that the order should be reversed, so that first G!d’s desire is for me, and only later does G!d become mine.
But when you give yourself to G!d, then even if you are not deserving of G!d to give Himself to you, and G!d does not desire you as a lover, G!d still gives Himself to you for the sake of the covenant with the Patriarchs and with us when we accepted the Torah. This is “my beloved is mine.” And should you give yourself to G!d again and again, then G!d will give Himself to you not only for the sake of the covenant, but because now G!d truly desires to be close to you — not just the community, but you, yourself. This is the meaning of “his desire is for me,” and so it comes second. So if you do not yet feel G!d’s desire for you, return again and again and offer yourself to Him, until G!d gives Himself to you.
Now when Israel suffers (G!d forbid) — and especially in this suffering that we see now, from which we cannot save ourselves and only G!d can save us — then surely we are giving ourselves to Him with a full heart and He desires us. But we must fix in our memories — in our very innards — how it feels to be threatened so, and how we desire so to be saved, calling out to G!d. Do we call out, “Save me, so that I may go back to business as usual!”? What fools we would be to say such a thing! Rather, we should call out to be saved, so that we can serve G!d even more than before. And we must remember this for the future, for all of our lives and our children’s lives.
This is hinted at in the commandment given to eat the bitter herbs even while still in Egypt. At the Passover seder we eat them “because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt,” but why should the Jews have eaten them while still in Egypt? They had no need to remember, for the bitterness was still all around them! The reason was so that they should internalize the bitterness and remember it even after being redeemed, and remember too why they accepted the yoke of Heaven, so that they will accept it again.
Now there are some people who say, “What did I do wrong that I should accept it again? Don’t I already lay tefillin, don’t I keep Shabbat…?” But you must remember that it depends not only on what you do, but how you do it — how you lay tefillin, how you pray, how you keep Shabbat, how you study Torah.
1) 6:3 and 7:11; from earliest times the Song of Songs has been understood as a love poem between G!d and Israel.
Named after his great-grandfather, Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (known as the Maor VeShemesh and featured often on this site), and a descendant of such great masters as Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Seer of Lublin, and the Kozhinitzer Maggid, Kalonymus Kalmish was at once a traditionalist and a new voice within Hasidism. Faced with the rise of secularism and the deterioration of faith, he met the challenge by developing new methods of education and outreach based on valuing, connecting to, and inspiring his students — a far cry from the more common rejection of all things modern and withdrawal into the yeshiva, where rote learning and heavy-handed discipline were the norm. His writings about education and psychology are in many ways a religious parallel to those of the monumental educator Janusz Korzcak. He bears another resemblance in that, like Janusz Korzcak walking with his orphans to the gas chambers, the Piaseczner refused to abandon his hasidim, remaining with them and caring for them through the Warsaw Ghetto and Trawniki concentration camp, even though he had the opportunity to escape. He was murdered by the Nazis on November 3, 1943, in Aktion Erntefest, “Operation Harvest Festival.” Shortly before, when he saw that the end was near, he took his collected writings from the Holocaust years, entitled Esh Kodesh, “Holy Fire,” and hid them away in a canister, which was unearthed during construction in 1950 and later published in Israel. In these writings he looks unblinkingly at the suffering and evil around him, and while he rejected many traditional explanations he nevertheless never lost faith in the goodness of God.
For further reading, try this English translation of Bnai Machshava Tova, a manual on living a conscious, spiritual life in the face of adversity and physical needs, or Nehemia Polen’s book, The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.