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Faith Facing The Holocaust - Lecture #19a: Esh Kodesh – On the Song that Rises from the Ashes (Part 1)

By: Rav Tamir Granot

In the first shiur on the thought of the Rebbe of Piaseczno, we learned that he rejects approaches that try to deal with suffering either by denying it in one's religious philosophical consciousness or by justifying it.  We proposed, based on excerpts from Esh Kodesh, how suffering should be regarded and addressed from the religious and existential perspective.  We saw that the Rebbe rejects the idea of hester panim (the "hiding of God's face") and proposes that a person achieves closeness to God from the midst of the suffering itself.  We then encountered the great question of the profound tension between the faith that "there is no place that is devoid of Him" and "there is none but Him," on the one hand, and the cry of murdered children on the other. Such events should have shook the world, but seem to have no effect; the world continues to function without being fundamentally affected by such suffering. 


In this shiur, we will complete our spiritual journey to the depths of suffering with the Esh Kodesh, focusing on one particular teaching in which the Rebbe speaks of the song that arises from the ashes.


A.  On Hope


How, from an existential point of view, can a person remain alive and maintain his sanity when one catastrophe follows on the heels of another and the terror and suffering all around seem endless? Clearly, a significant element in spiritual survival is hope; if I believe that there is some chance that ultimately I will emerge into the light and that there will be meaning to life after the suffering, then there is meaning in life and reason to survive, both physically and spiritually.


Seemingly, faith provides hope.  A person who views the world as being controlled by blind fate, by chance, or by the arbitrary will of human beings has no reason to hope that evil will disappear and good will prevail, that ultimately there will be an end to troubles.  This person acknowledges no order or purpose guiding events or history in general; he may therefore sink into despair or apathy.  A believer, on the other hand, may hope for good because he believes that there is Someone Who controls the world, that events have meaning and purpose – even when these are hidden from him - and that the reign of evil is limited by some external boundary. 


Is this actually true? Let us revisit the teaching we examined in the previous lecture:


With what can he strengthen himself, at least a little, so long as salvation has not appeared? And with what can the spirit be elevated, even the tiniest bit, while crushed and broken like this? Firstly, with prayer and with faith that God, Merciful Father, would never utterly reject His children.  It cannot be possible, God forbid, that He would abandon us in such mortal danger as we are now facing for His blessed Name's sake.  Surely, He will have mercy immediately, and rescue us in the blink of an eye. (Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, Sacred FireTorah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, p. 333)


Hope strengthens and fuels one's survival.  However, a basis for hope does not always exist.  Sometimes – and in the Holocaust, there were certainly such times – a person finds himself in the depths of such suffering that he truly sees no light, no horizon.  Sometimes, hope itself is the cause of a person's fall, for when a person sees his hopes dashed, time after time, he loses hope.  And if his hope rests upon faith in God, then he may, heaven forefend, also lose his faith.  Still, is there any substitute, any alternative to hope?


It is clear, amidst all this suffering, that if only everyone knew that they would be rescued tomorrow, then a great majority - even of those who have already despaired - would be able to find courage.  This problem is that they cannot see any end to the darkness.  Many find nothing with which to bolster their spirits, and so, God forbid, they despair and become dispirited.  This is how Rashi explains the meaning of "Be guileless with God your Lord." Even if you are broken and oppressed, nevertheless be artless and whole.  Take strength in God your Lord because you know that God your Lord is with you in your suffering.  Do not attempt to project into the future, saying, "I cannot see an end to the darkness," but simply accept whatever happens to you, and then you will be with God, to be His portion.  Then, naturally, your salvation will draw close, for, as Moshe said (Deut. 9:29), "They are Your people and Your inheritance."  (ibid. p.213).


Wholeheartedness (temimut), according to the Rebbe's interpretation, means a deliberate relinquishing of hope as consolation and as a source of strength.  I relinquish completely any thought of the future, focusing instead on my situation in the present, and here I am wholeheartedly with God.  In other words, I accept whatever is happening to me with the knowledge that God is with me in my distress. 


The hope that all will be well, just like the despair that sees only trouble in the future, contains an element that is not wholehearted.  What is it about hope that is not wholehearted? A person tells himself: "I hope that all will be well" – and it is only this hopeful assumption that allows him to accept the harsh present, which is worth enduring not in and of itself, but because if I survive it, things will be good for me.  Conversely, despair is the nullification of the worth of the present because things are going to be bad; therefore, there is no point in living even now.  In both cases, the present is not accepted for its own sake and in its own right, as it is; it receives some external justification, it must be worthwhile.  Wholeheartedness means accepting my situation as it is willingly, without looking for any external justification.  This is what there is; this is what has been given to me, and this is all I have to sustain me - not out of faith that God awaits me there, over the horizon, but rather out of faith that He is with me right here, even in Hell itself.


B.  The "Magrefa" and the Ashes


Rabba bar Shila said in the name of Rav Matana, citing Shemuel: There was a [vessel known as a] magrefa [shovel] in the Mikdash; there were ten openings in it, each emitting ten musical notes, such that altogether it produced a hundred musical notes.  In the mishnawe learn: it measured a cubit, and was a cubit high, and a handleemerged from it, and it had ten openings – each producing a hundred musical notes, such that in all it produced a thousand musical notes. (Arakhin 10b-11a)


The Gemara describes a musical instrument called a magrefa.  Since we find no biblical reference to any such vessel, the commentators question whether the magrefa really was meant for making music, or whether it was a vessel with another purpose that was also used for making music.  Rashi identifies the magrefa as the vessel used for raking (gerifa) the ashes left over from the sacrifices, and which had special musical qualities attributed to it: "Magrefa – [this refers to the vessel] with which they rake (gorfin) the ashes from the altar … and it is a sort of shovel." The Tosafot disagree and suggests that there were actually two magrefot: with one, they would shovel the ashes while the other, described here, was a musical instrument. 


Admittedly, Rashi's explanation seems more likely, since there is no source in support of the existence of two such vessels with the same name; moreover, why would a musical instrument be referred to as a 'shovel'?[1] On the other hand, it is very difficult to understand why a technical utensil, meant for the performance of one of the minor aspects of the Temple service – the shoveling of the ashes – could also be a musical instrument that produced such an impressive and variegated sound.


The Rebbe of Piaseczno proposes an approach to the question from the midst of the reality in which his sermon was delivered: "We must understand the meaning of Rashi's explanation in light of our own situation" (Esh Kodesh, p. 146).  His explanation rests on two fundamental assumptions:


a. The ashes symbolize or hint to sacrifices.  Here he notes that on a pilgrim festival, the ashes were not removed from the altar, since the abundant accumulation of ashes (from the great number of sacrifices offered) was considered an adornment for the altar.


b. Every sacrifice is offered as a ransom for one's own life or for what is precious to him, such as the ram offered by Avraham in lieu of Yitzchak.  Hence, the ashes are, in some sense, like one's own self, one's own flesh, that has been burned:


The mishna (Tamid 2:2) teaches: "On the Pilgrimage Festivals, the daily rite for removing the ashes from the altar was not performed, because they beautified the altar." The ashes were allowed to pile up, in order to decorate and beautify the altar so that all might see that many sacrifices had been offered.  Let us try to understand what this teaches us, for, surely, everything that was done in the Temple was done for a reason.  We need to understand why the ashes of burnt offerings, and not some other display, were used as evidence of the great number of sacrifices that were offered up on the Festivals.


The explanation is this: All sacrifices brought upon the altar were analogous to the "in place of his son" explicitly noted regarding the Patriarch Abraham, who sacrificed a ram "in place of his son" Isaac (Bereishit 22:12-13).  Anyone seeking atonement for sins, or those bringing burnt offerings as gifts, were required to offer up their souls as a sacrifice to God.  The Torah provided the sacrificial rite as a way of offering an animal in place of one's own soul.  The ritual heaping of the ashes of the animal sacrifices showed that only after the sacrificial rites had been performed, when the accumulated ashes were actually seen, could there be any real appreciation of the magnitude of the sacrifice. (ibid. p.263)


Why is it specifically the ashes of the animal after it has already been burned, which testify to the multiplicity of sacrifices, that has inherent beauty?  The Rebbe finds the answer in contemplation of human death.  It is specifically death, he says, that defines and deepens the value of life, highlighting the value of the people who lived with us; that value is felt all the more clearly when they are no longer with us:


This is also the case when Jews depart at God's will, because it arose thus in the Divine Thought that they would be brought as sacrifices to Him, blessed be He.  For it is only after they have departed that we can appreciate their greatness, in quantity and quality.


In the past, when they were with us, even though we treasured and protected them like the pupil of our eye, the spirit in our body and soul, and as much as we rejoiced and delighted in them, we did not really know how to appreciate them.  We could not know how good things were when they were here with us.  Now that they are missing, may the Merciful One protect us, we can see plainly how very much we miss them.  The heart yearns for them and the pain will not be comforted, except with the words of God to Moses, "So did it arise in the thought before Me" (Menachot 29b).  (ibid. p. 263)


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]The Rambam (Perush Ha-Mishnayot, Tamid, chapter 3, mishna 8), explains that it was given this name because of its form, which was similar to a shovel, but it was not used for this purpose.