Dedicated to the Memory of the Slain

18 10 2013

From 1927 until his death in 1983, R’ Menachem Mendel Kasher published thirty-eight volumes of what was to be considered not only his personal masterpiece, but one of the profoundest anthologies of Torah learning to be printed in the 20th century. As of the time of my writing this, forty-five volumes have been published, the remaining seven having been put together posthumously by his son-in-law, his students and the tireless scholars at Bet Torah Sheleimah – the institute that he had founded.

Titled Torah Sheleimah (תורה שלמה; “The Complete Torah”), these forty-five volumes constitute the first four books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers); appended to each verse is every passage within the early rabbinic literature that quotes that verse – a corpus that the author defines as ranging from the halakhic midrashim through to the Geonic period, but which is inclusive of works that are traditionally ascribed to authors during that time, despite their actually possessing a later provenance (like the Zohar, to pick but one example), and a handful of texts (like Sefer Hasidim) that were included for reasons of which I am not aware. As a result, the first parsha of the Torah, Parshat Bereishit (a total of 146 verses) takes up 388 pages: the first of the forty-five volumes. The first thirty of those pages are devoted to expositions of and commentaries upon the parsha’s first word, בראשית.

A Gerrer hasid, R’ Kasher was born in Warsaw in 1895. At the instruction of his rebbe, R’ Avraham Mordechai Alter (the Imrei Emes), R’ Kasher moved to Palestine and established the Sefas Emes Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His being there enabled him to help his rebbe escape Poland and move to Palestine after the outbreak of World War II, but it was there that he and so many others had to watch helplessly as millions more were turned to smoke. His efforts in preserving and transmitting the work of the Rogatchover has earned him great renown, and for his Torah Sheleimah he received the Israel Prize in 1963.

I am very fortunate to have been able to add this forty-five-volume set to my growing collection, and can testify to its incredible beauty. The author’s tremendous ambition and the scope of his phenomenal knowledge are absolutely breathtaking. I haven’t been so much in awe of a single work of scholarship since I first discovered Seder haDorot, or R’ Saul Lieberman’s Tosefta Kifeshutah, and I stand humbled by both the vastness of the tradition and the towering genius of its brilliant expositors.

While opening the eighth volume of Torah Sheleimah recently, to look upon R’ Kasher’s presentation of Parshat Shemot (the first parsha in the book of Exodus), I was struck by a somewhat arresting poem that the author presents by way of a dedication. Prior to this poem is a brief preface, chiefly concerned with the specific manuscripts and versions upon which he relied, and which is signed:

ותושלם מלאכת הקודש, ביומא תליתאה, לירחא תליתאה, שנת בשב”ת

The sacred work [of compiling this volume] was completed on the third day of the third month (3rd Sivan = May 25th), 1944.

After this poem is found a brief dedicatory message, somewhat brutal in its bald emotion:

החלק הזה כולל פרשת שמות, ובו פרשת עינוייהם וסבלותיהם של בני ישראל בראשית עלותם כאומה על במת ההיסטוריה העולמית

עלה בגורלו של הספר הנוכחי לצאת לאור בימי דמים ועינויים, ושוב בני ישראל נאנחים תחת סבלותיהם האיומים

אך נהיה חוטאים לאמת אם נשווה את שברנו בימים אלו, לצער שנצטערו בני ישראל במצרים. הנחש הקדמוני גדל ונתפתח במשך שלושת אלפים שנה. לרשות עמלק ושותפיו עומדים כל כלי המדע להשחית ולהשמיד ולאבד. בחרי-אף וללא שבעה הסתערו פראים, טמאים וזדים על בני עמנו שבאירופה לגדוע אותם מן החיים, כאיש כאשה, כסב כעולל

אנו, שבדרך נס ניצלנו ממבול-הדמים האירופאי שנשפך על העולם כולו ועל עמנו שבעים ושבעה, נתקיים בנו: “ויקוצו מפני בני ישראל”, אף “וימררו את חייהם”. מגיע ללבותינו הד דברי משה רבנו אוהב ישראל: “למה הרעתה לעם הזה?” ואזנינו קשובות לתחינת נעים זמירות ישראל: למה ברחוק תעמוד

אין אנו מבינים לדרכי ההשגחה. “כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם ולא דרכיכם דרכי”. ואנו תקווה שגם בימינו תתקיים תשובת ה’ למשה רבינו: “עתה הראת…” ונזכה לראות חיש-מהר ובקרוב בימינו את ישועת אלהינו, ומי שאמר לעולמו די, יאמר לצרותינו די, והרשעה כעשן תכלה, והשוכן בשמים ירים קרן עמו, ונגיל בפריחת תורתנו הקדושה ובמשוש ארצנו הבנויה בקודש, בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון

My translation:

This volume includes Parshat Shemot, in which is recorded the suffering and the oppression of the children of Israel when they first entered as a people upon the stage of world history.

It is the fate of this present edition to be published during days of blood and suffering, when the children of Israel are again groaning under their fearful oppression.

But we would be unfaithful to reality were we to equate our torment in these days with the anguish that was experienced by the children of Israel in Egypt. The primal serpent has grown and expanded over the last three thousand years; in the service of Amalek and his allies stand all of the tools of technology to eradicate, annihilate and destroy. With furious anger and without ever being sated, the savage, the unclean and the wicked have laid siege to our people in Europe, severing them from the source of life: women together with men, the old with the very young.

For those of us who by miraculous means have been saved from the torrent of European blood that has been poured upon the entire world and upon our people sevenfold¹, in us has been established: “They became sick because of the children of Israel”², such that “it made their lives bitter”³. An echo of the words of Moshe Rabbeinu, the lover of Israel, reaches our hearts: “Why have you made things so bad for this people?”⁴ And our ears are attuned to the plaintive cry of David⁵: “Why do you stand from afar!?”⁶

We do not understand the ways of providence. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor your ways mine”⁷. But we do hope that in our days will also be established Hashem’s response to Moshe Rabbeinu: “Now, see…”⁸, and that we will merit to see quickly and soon our God’s salvation. Let He who said to His world, “Enough!”⁹, say to our sorrows, “Enough!” May wickedness dissipate like smoke and may the one who dwells in the heavens raise up the horn of his people. May we rejoice in the blossoming of our holy Torah, and in the joy of our land, rebuilt in holiness, when Hashem returns the captivity of Zion.

¹ Lit. seventy-sevenfold (cf: Gen 4:24).
² Exodus 1:12
³ Exodus 1:14
⁴ Exodus 5:22
⁵ Lit. “of the pleasing [composer] of the songs of Israel” (cf: 2 Samuel 23:1).
⁶ ≈ Psalms 10:1
⁷ Isaiah 55:8
⁸ Deuteronomy 4:35
⁹ cf: Hagigah 12a, Genesis Rabbah 46:3

On the following page stands R’ Kasher’s poem. It is titled בכה אבכה מר: “Bitterly shall I weep”. As with the passage above, typological constraints have required me to strip the Hebrew of some of its punctuation, but I have attempted to reflect it in my translation below:

בכה אבכה מר על חרבן עיר-מולדי ורשא
קהלה קדושה של ששים רבוא נפש-ישראל
עיר מלאה חכמים וסופרים, והתורה מורשה לה
אהה, צדיקיה וחסידיה, תמימיה וקדושיה
אנשים ונשים, ישישים וטף, נשרפו ונכרתו ונשחטו
הה, לדמים אשר נשפכו כמים
דמי בני ישראל ובנותיו, הטהורים והזכים
הה, לישיבות, בתי-המדרש ובתי-החסידים על רבבות לומדיהם
מי ימלל תפארת גדלתה והוד קדשתה
ועתה נרמסה ונהרסה ברגל-רשעה
בלא הפוגות אקונן על חללי בת עמי
הרוגי פולין, רוסיה, אשכנז, צרפת, בלגיה, הולנד, ליטה ולטביה, רומניה ואונגריה
גדול שברנו, עצמו מכאובינו, רבת אמללנו
אתה ה’ ידעת כלם
מצבת-זכרון, מנחת עני, מגשה לזכר קדושינו

Bitterly shall I weep for the razing of Warsaw, the city of my birth,
A sacred community of sixty myriad souls of Israel –
A city filled with wise men and scribes, for the Torah was its inheritance,
Woe for its righteous, its pious, its pure and its holy,
Men and women, the elderly and the infants are burned, cut down and slaughtered –
Woe for the blood that flows like water,
The blood of the sons and the daughters of Israel, the pure and the blameless!
Woe for the yeshivot, the study houses and the hasidic institutions with their myriad students!
Who can relate the glory of its greatness or the splendour of its sanctity,
Which is now trampled down and crushed beneath the foot of iniquity!
Without rest I will lament the slain of my people,
The murdered of Poland, of Russia, of Germany, of France, of Belgium, of Holland, of Lithuania and of Latvia, of Romania and of Hungary –
Great is our agony, powerful is our pain, enormous is our grief:
You, Hashem, know all of it!
This memorial monument, this paltry tribute, is dedicated to the memory of our slain.

That this was written in May of 1944 is itself chilling. This was less than a month after the first transports from the Hungarian countryside had begun rolling towards Auschwitz. At the time of this poem’s composition, close to 500,000 Jews were yet to be murdered.