The kabbahlists, the Jewish mystics, would say there is a “Torah-way” to do any action that might come your way, from giving charity to tying your shoes. The students of the rabbis of old would pay attention to every last detail of how their teachers conducted themselves, trying to tease some insight into proper conduct from every detail of their lives.
The Piasatzner Rebbe, Kalman Kalanimous Shapira, extends the idea of the role model right into the grave. He taught a d’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion, Chayye Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” which draws a profound message from not just the life of Sarah, but from her death.
The Piasatzner Rebbe himself is an amazing role model to any rabbi. He is also known as the Aish Kodesh, the “holy fire,” which is the name of a collection of most remarkable sermons he wrote during the Holocaust. He’s also known as the “Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe,” because he was the leading rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising. After the rebellion was crushed, the Aish Kodesh was sent to Treblinka, where the Nazis murdered him.
The Aish Kodesh went willingly to his fate. He had family in Israel, who begged him to come when it became clear that Europe was inhospitable to Jews. He refused to leave his community and his people. He stayed with them, teaching Torah to the very end. His writings were found after the war, buried in the Warsaw ghetto in a metal box, with a note requesting that they be sent to his brother in Israel. The teachings made their way to Israel, and his brother had them published.
The Piasatzner rebbe begins his d’var Torah by quoting the beginning of this week’s Torah reading: וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָרָה , the life of Sarah was 100 years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
The repetition of “years” after each number, unusual even in Hebrew, is explained by the medieval commentator Rashi as meaning that even past 100, Sarah was like a girl of 20 in being free from sin, and like a girl of 7 in beauty and fairness, and all the years of Sarah were equal in goodness. In this interpretation, Sarah comes off even ahead of Abraham in goodness.
The Piasatzner then brings a quote from the Maor U’Shemesh, comparing the covenant of salt and the covenant of suffering. Just as a little bit of salt prepares the meat and makes it suitable for consumption, but too much salt renders the meat inedible, it spoils the meat. Similarly, the Piasatzner tells us, a little bit of suffering is acceptable, it may draw compassion on us—I suppose we might say it builds character—but too much suffering will destroy us.
Rashi explains that the reason the episode of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in last week’s parsha is right next to the death of Sarah in this week’s parsha is because she couldn’t bear the suffering of knowing what was happening with Isaac, and her soul fled, she died. The Piasatzner explains that Moses put the death of Sarah next to the Akedah (yes, an Orthodox rabbi said that Moses was responsible for the editing, not God!) is to give good advice, and to show, God forbid, what is the effect of suffering that is too much to bear—it causes the soul to flee. If it could do this to such a great righteous person like Sarah, who was as innocent at 127 as at 20, all of whose years were equal in goodness, and yet she could not bear this suffering, all the more so to the rest of us mere mortals.
The Piasatzner says that Sarah accepted this great suffering on herself, even at the cost of her own life, for the benefit of Israel. SHE DID IT TO WARN GOD, to show God that it would be impossible for Israel to bear excessive suffering. That even someone like herself, who by the grace of God could remain alive, too much suffering breaks up her strength and spirit and wisdom, and these are broken and disappear from her.
Based on the merit of Sarah’s sacrifice, the Piasatzner closes his d’var Torah with a prayer that God will take mercy on us and on all Israel, and save us quickly, spiritually and physically with revealed lovingkindness.
This teaching of the Piasatzner’s is all the more remarkable when put in the context that a few weeks before he gave over this teaching, on Shabbat Shuva, he saw his own son killed. As one of my teachers, Rav Mimi Feigelson, said, it’s as if he was saying to God, you’re putting the binding of Isaac on us every day, we can’t take it.
Here he was—living in a place where every day people were experiencing the Hell that Sarah experienced, or worse, and yet he was still there, true to God and the Torah. A few years ago I shared this teaching with a friend, David Spiro, who is actually related to the Aish Kodesh. He shared it with his father, Herzl Spiro, who came back with a very profound comment:
“Living through bad things and preserving our capacity to choose to do what is good is perhaps the heart of Jewish wisdom.”
That’s a beautiful “meta-message” to the lesson we learn both from Sarah and the Piasatzner himself. When we are forced to go through bad things, we don’t turn to the “dark side.” Rather, we can go through Hell, and still preserve our capacity to choose the good.
The temptation to do otherwise can be very great. The other day there was a touching feature in the paper which presented a series of emails that a soldier in Iraq had written to the folks back home—the last email was sent a few days before he was killed in action. A few months ago, there were a couple of US soldiers who were arrested and charged with murdering civilians. The soldier wrote to the people back home that they shouldn’t jump to judgment too fast because they have no idea what it’s like in the war zone and how that effects people; and he said the US soldiers in Japan and Germany during the second world war undoubtedly weren’t such angels either. To his credit, a day later he wrote back and said, “no, if those guys were guilty of what they were charged with, they should be punished.” But the initial reaction, even from someone who comes across as a moral and ethical soldier, was that going through bad things can justify a lot of misbehavior.
The most horrifying recent example of bad things being used as an excuse to choose more bad things is the way the Bush Administration has chosen to pursue the war in Iraq, in effect saying it’s OK to torture people. “Harsh interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forcing people to stay in uncomfortable positions for hours at a time, being subjected to loud noises, and other forms of psychological pressure are banned by the Geneva Convention. President Bush has justified these techniques by saying “These are dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist networks and their plans of new attacks. The security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.”
On the other hand, all of our values as Americans, the importance we place on freedom and civil liberties, depend on our ability to withstand the temptation to do bad things simply because other people are doing bad things to us.
In September, the Senate passed a bill which gives the President the power to decide which methods of torture are OK to use, and which denies detainees one of the most fundamental rights of all in our legal system, the right to habeas corpus. “During the debate on this amendment, Senator Arlen Specter said that the bill sends us back 900 years because it denies habeas corpus rights and allows the President to detain people indefinitely. He also said the bill violates core Constitutional protections. Then he voted for it.”
Being opposed to such actions does not mean someone is “soft on terrorism.” It means he’s firm about the rights and principles upon which America was founded.
The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense brings with it a hope that things will change. Rumsfeld was widely considered one of the chief architects of the “alternative interrogation techniques” program. Human rights groups, including Rabbis for Human Rights, are lobbying the Senate to make sure that in the confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense designee Robert Gates the candidate is explicitly asked about interrogation policies and the importance of abiding by laws prohibiting torture and abuse.
Jewish history is full of examples of times when we were confronted with darkness and yet continued to choose to do what is right and good. We have before us the example of the death of Sarah, who chose to do good, to offer herself to spare the Jewish people too much suffering. We have the example the Piasatzner rebbe, continuing to teach Torah and staying with his people in the face of the barbaric behavior of the Nazis. While the Israeli military may make too many mistakes that cost civilian lives, in principle they remain commited to tohar haneshek, to the purity of arms, a code of behavior during war that emphasizes the need to avoid harm to civilians, even if it comes at the cost of increased danger to our own troops.
The Talmud cautions us against using someone else’s bad behavior as an excuse for bad behavior of our own. The Talmud tells us it is forbidden to steal from a thief, even to steal your own stuff back – because to do so gives you a taste for thievery, you might find yourself tempted to steal from other people as well once you see what it’s like. We are cautioned that we must follow the rules and go through the courts to get our stuff back from the thief.
The real test of a person – or of a people, a nation – comes when the chips are down. I agree with Dr. Spiro: continuing to do good even as we live through bad things IS at the heart of Jewish wisdom. May it be a lesson we all take to heart.