Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Shoftim 5770


שבת טעם החיים שופטים תש”ע

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Shoftim 5770


The True King


Introduction

כי תבוא אל הארץ אשר ה’ אלקיך נתן לך וירשתה וישבת בה ואמרת אשימה עלי מלך ככל הגוים אשר סביבותי, when you come to the Land that HaShem, your G-d, gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.” (Devarim 17: 14)

In this week’s parasha the Torah discusses the mitzvah of appointing a king. It is said (Devarim 17: 14-15) ki savo el haaretz asher HaShem Elokecho nosein loch virishtah viyashavta bah viamarta asimah alai melech kichol hagoyim asher sivivosai som tasim alecho melech asher yivchar HaShem Elokecho bo mikerev achecho tasim alecho melech lo suchal laseis alecho ish nachri asher lo achicha hu, when you come to the Land that HaShem, your G-d, gives you, and possess it, and settle in it, and you will say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.” You shall surely set over yourself a king whom HaShem, your G-d, shall choose; from among your brethren shall you set a king over yourself; you cannot place a king over yourself a foreign man, who is not your brother. The Torah then continues to list the rules that apply to a Jewish king. There are a few questions that must be raised regarding a Jewish king. While all the enumerators of the mitzvos reckon appointing a king as a mitzvah, the Torah seems to indicate that the appointment of a king only applies when the people request a king. Furthermore, in the Book of Shmuel (Chapters 8-12) it is recorded that the people asked for a king and Shmuel the Prophet rebuked them for their request. One must wonder what was wrong with asking for a king if the Torah enumerates appointing a king as a mitzvah. The Radak in the Book of Shmuel elaborates on this issue, and the commentators on the Torah here also discusses this question at length. There is another difficulty with the fact that Shmuel rebuked the people. Yaakov blessed his son Yehudah that his kingship would be perpetuated, and this was reflected in the kingship of Dovid and his descendants, and ultimately in Moshiach, who will be a descendant of Yehudah and Dovid. Was the request of the people in the time of Shmuel merely poor timing or is there a deeper explanation for Shmuel faulting them in their request?

Who is the true king?

In order to answer these questions, we first have to understand the definition of a king. The Ibn Ezra (Bamidbar 6:7) writes that the true king is one who is free from the blandishments of his Evil Inclination. This idea, however, requires explanation. Is the term king merely a borrowed term, and the only king is one who resists temptation? Furthermore, if this was the case, how can we understand that Dovid Hamelech was the true Jewish king, when on some level he succumbed to temptation when he took Bassheva while she was married?

A true king is someone who is self effacing and resists temptation

In the time of the judges who preceded the era of kings, it is said (Shoftim 21:25) bayamim haheim ain melech biYisroel ish hayashar bieinav yaaseh, in those days there was no king in Israel; a man would do whatever seemed proper in his eyes. The simple interpretation of this verse is that since there was no Jewish king, every person acted in a carefree manner. The Chasam Sofer, however, explains this verse in a positive light. He writes that there was no king of the Jewish People, and this was appropriate, as every person knew how to act properly. Furthermore, the Sfas Emes writes that the Mishnah in Avos (3:2) states that if not for the fear of the king, every man would swallow his friends up alive. Nonetheless, if people feared HaShem there would be no need for a king. The concept of a king, writes the Sfas Emes, is because through fearing the king one will come to fear HaShem. Thus, we see that there really is no need for a king over the people, as every man should be a king over himself. This idea is akin to what the commentators write regarding the Mishkan. Prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, there was no need for a Mishkan, as everyone was able to contain the Divine Presence within himself. Once the Jewish People sinned, however, they required a Mishkan as a resting place for the Divine Presence. The Sefarim write that Yehudah and Dovid HaMelech were both self effacing. This means that while they were considered to be kings, they viewed themselves as insignificant and unworthy of leadership. The true king is one who resists temptation, as temptation usually stems from arrogance. This is reflected in the statement of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) that Korach and his entourage accused Moshe of committing adultery. It was only the arrogance of Korach that allowed him to detract from Moshe’s status as a king, and Korach accused Moshe himself of arrogance and hording all the titles for himself and Aharon. The natural sequel to such an accusation is that Moshe should be accused of adultery. Yehudah and Dovid were on such lofty spiritual levels that what appears to us a sin was in reality a sign of their kingship. They were self effacing and had complete control over their desires. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 85:8) states that an angel pushed Yehudah towards Tamar, and the Gemara (Avodah Zara 5a) states that Dovid only acted as he did to demonstrate repentance to future generations. We now have a new definition of a king. A true king is not a monarch with royal robes and obedient subjects. Rather, a genuine king is the person who conquers his Evil Inclination and is humble. This is the king that the nation should seek to appoint.

The Shabbos connection

We are now in the month of Elul and every day we come closer to Rosh HaShanah when we will appoint HaShem as king over ourselves. The greatest preparation we can do for this inauguration ceremony is to humble ourselves and distance ourselves from sin, and then we will surely be worthy of having HaShem alone as our king. On Shabbos we pray that we rejoice in HaShem’s kingship. Shabbos is a time when we can recognize the wonderful gifts that HaShem bestows upon His beloved nation and we can go forth and proclaim HaShem as our king and our salvation.

Shabbos Stories

The Nazi and his Jewish grandchildren

On a trip to Israel, Rabbi Berel Wein attended morning services in a synagogue in Jerusalem. He relates that, unlike his own synagogue, which has benches facing the front of the synagogue, this synagogue had tables and benches, so he was forced to look at those praying opposite him. A tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired man and three blond small boys walked in and sat down opposite him. Rabbi Wein is used to the racial diversity of the citizens in Israel so little surprises him, but this was different; this particular family was definitely Aryan.

More noteworthy than their racial features was the seriousness and intensity of their praying. The children were especially well-behaved and followed the service dutifully without once wavering in their concentration. For Rabbi Wein, accustomed to the more freewheeling American child, it was an unusual experience.

Afterward, the rabbi remarked to a friend that they looked like fine people. His friend said that the man was a microbiologist at Hebrew University who happened to have an extraordinary story to tell. “Would you like to hear it?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, called to his fellow congregant, “Avraham, this is Rabbi Berel Wein. I’m sure he would like to hear your story.”

The two shook hands and agreed to walk home together. As they went, the rabbi listened to him tell the following story:

“I was born and brought up in Germany. My father was an officer in the elite Gestapo killing squad, the Todtenkopf (Deathhead Squad). He served throughout the war and after it was over successfully eluded apprehension. But his crimes were so heinous that years later the West German Republic continued to pursue him. Finally, he was caught and imprisoned for ten years. Later, because he was so old, they reduced his sentence and let him out after four and a half years. My father never talked about his past, and when he was caught, I read about his crimes in the newspaper. It was a bewildering experience to find out that my father led such a monstrous life.

“The family was shaken by the news. I was a teenager and became very confused by all the notoriety. When we went to visit him in prison I couldn’t go in to see him. I felt as if he betrayed me. However, one useful thing came out of this — I developed an interest in the War and found out as much as I could about the Todtenkopf and its role in the Holocaust.

“All this occurred around that time the Eichmann trial was taking place, and Holocaust material began to be published. I read all I could find and was able to get a general picture of what happened to the Jews. What I found out horrified me and the thought that my father took a role — a leading role in the slaughter — made me feel that perhaps our family was tainted with evil. If the conditions were the same, I asked myself, could I too become a killer?

“I took a trip, getting as far away from Germany as possible. It was as if I was haunted by Germany and all things German… On the way, I decided to visit Israel to get some perspective on the victims of the Nazis and find out what was so special about this nation that so consumed Hitler. I needed to come to terms with what was churning inside of me, and I toured the country, working periodically here and there on agricultural settlements.

“While in a kibbutz, I saw a poster advertising a summer’s program at Hebrew University in desert zoology, and I enrolled. I did very well and in the fall was able to register for a graduate program at the university. While I was engaged in graduate work, I also became interested in Judaism.

“I loved Israel so much I just stayed on and applied for citizenship. Also, after about two years of learning about Judaism I decided to study to become a Jew. A few years later I earned my Ph.D. in microbiology and became a Jew. I married and settled in Jerusalem. My wife was a German Lutheran, but she, too, converted. A psychologist might interpret my conversion as sublimating my guilty feelings, but I prefer to think about it as fulfilling my Jewish destiny. Don’t ask me how or why, but here we are — an observant Jewish family. And we are very happy living as Jews.

“About a year ago we learned that my father was not feeling well. My wife thought it would be a mitzvah to visit him and show him his grandchildren. At first I was apprehensive about going back to Germany, a country I now feared. But in the end, I took a sabbatical and we went back to Darmstadt to visit with my father.

“It was quite a scene. My boys wore their yarmulkas, and had their tzitzis (fringes) showing. Their payos (sidecurls) were tucked back behind their ears and, of course, they spoke Hebrew.

“When he first saw us, my father was overwhelmed, and initially, couldn’t bring himself to embrace anyone. Later we got to talk and he seemed to be pleased by the way things were turning out for us.

“My father is very old now, over ninety, and I wanted to know what he did to merit such a long life with such grandchildren, so I asked him point blank what he had done to earn his good fortune.

“I explained to him that we Jews believe that there are consequences to what we do, and the reward system in life is measured very carefully. He looked at me and pondered the question.

“He answered, ‘I can’t think of anything outstanding, but once, in Frankfurt,’ he said, ‘when we were rounding up the Jews, I had the chance to save the life of three Jewish boys who were hiding in a Catholic orphanage. For some reason they aroused my sympathy. I was touched by their plight; they were so lost and forlorn I felt pity for them, so I let them flee. I don’t know what happened to them. But I didn’t kill them.’

“I thought his answer over and told him that according to our tradition his answer made sense.’You know, papa, if you had let four boys go, you would have had four grandchildren.'”

White Angel of Auschwitz

I and untold others were heartbroken by the news from Jerusalem of the death of Rebbitzen Tzila Sorotzkin (formerly Orlean), a noted teacher in the Bais Yaakov seminary in Cracow, and protégé of Sarah Schenirer, founder of the first Bais Yaakov Jewish seminary for women.

What is legendary about the Rebbitzen is the scope of her accomplishments in the Hell known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Much of it I witnessed personally; the rest I heard from my wife, from the Rebbitzen’s seminary students, and from her fellow inmates in Auschwitz, a chapter in heroic history that warrants an entire volume.

FIRST ENCOUNTER IN BIRKENAU

I shall never forget my first encounter with the Rebbitzen (then Mrs. Tzila Orlean) in the women’s infirmary in Birkenau. It was a Shabbos afternoon, and I and some other Auschwitz slave laborers were paving the road near the infirmary. I heard that Rebbitzen Tzila worked in the infirmary.

Contacting an Orlean was a stratagem that could lead to uncovering the whereabouts of my wife, whom the Nazis separated from me on our arrival in Auschwitz. (In fact, finding my spouse was my primary purpose for requesting that the barrack supervisor assign me to work in this area.)

I began checking one infirmary barrack after another. Everyone knew the name Orlean, but no one knew where she could be found. Gathering courage, I marched into the hospital’s main office. I no sooner crossed the threshold when a tall, stately woman blocked my path, shouting “Raus! Vas suchen sie hier?” (Get out! What are you looking for here?)

“I’m looking for Mrs. Orlean,” I answered meekly.

On hearing the name Orlean, she mellowed into contrition. “You’d better go back to work,” she said with some deference. “You’re not allowed to be here. Just tell me where you work. I’ll find her and send her to your group.”

About half an hour later, a young lady strode over to us and said, “My name is Orlean. Is someone looking for me?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I am. My name is Friedenson.”

“Friedenson!” she exclaimed. “From Lodz? There’s a Friedenson here, and I didn’t know about it? How can it be?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I’m the son of Rabbi Eliezer Gershon Friedenson. You should know me. You were at our house for a Bais Yaakov conference in Lodz. It was about eight or nine years ago.”

“Of course I remember your house. And also your mother and two young boys. Are you one of those boys?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I’m not a young boy anymore. I’m already married. I was brought here with my wife.”

“Have you seen her?” she asked.

“How can I see her? I’m not allowed to leave this base. I don’t know if there was a selektion of the women when we arrived, or where she might be now. All I know is that the women who were brought from Starochovitz are in Block 25.”

“Block 25?” she paused to reflect. There was a time when Block 25 had been the last stop before the gas chambers. “I know the block supervisor. She’s a shrew! But wait, I have an idea!”

Turning on her heels, she disappeared. Two minutes later, she returned, flaunting a piece of paper. “I accomplished something,” she proclaimed proudly. “I told the head secretary that I must escort someone from Block 25 to the infirmary. Here’s the pass. If your wife is in Block 25, I will bring her here.”

It didn’t take long, and the Rebbitzen, presenting the pass, brought my wife to the infirmary for “treatment.” When I saw the Rebbitzen the next day I asked her if she hadn’t perhaps jeopardized her job… and maybe even her life… to obtain my wife under false pretenses. I shall never forget her answer: “Here in the camp we are constantly being beaten and punished for no sin. Should I then be afraid of being penalized for doing a mitzvah?”

For that favor and, needless to say, for all the others for proving to me that my wife was still alive, I have remained grateful all my life. During the next six months, the Rebbitzen provided my wife with clothing, medical care and moral support. She brought her into the fold of Bais Yaakov students who worked under her supervision at the infirmary.

But this is not the main focus of my essay. What I want to stress is how the Rebbitzen also cared for complete strangers, people with whom she had no connection.

MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH

After she had helped me find my wife, she asked if I would be returning the next day. I said I didn’t know; it depended on the barrack kapo.

“Try to come,” she said. “Tomorrow is Sunday, and the Germans won’t be here. There’ll be lots of food, enough for you and whomever you wish to bring. You could use a nourishing soup.”

It was predestined that my kapo sent me back there the next day. As the Rebbitzen had recommended, I brought a guest, a Chassidishe young man, who had come from Lodz only a few days earlier and whose piety had made a strong impression on me. All skin and bones, he struck me as a deserving candidate for some nourishing food.

The Rebbitzen was waiting at the barrack door. Lunchtime she brought us two brimming bowls of boiling, freshly made soup. I’m not ashamed to say that I was carried away with joy by the mere sight of the hearty broth, but my friend was beside himself with anguish. “Do you see what’s swimming around in this soup?” he asked apprehensively. “It’s treife, non-kosher meat! I’m not going to eat this! It’s not for me! I overcame the temptation in the ghetto until now, and I’m still living…”

His words brought the Rebbitzen to tears. “You don’t want to eat?” she cried.

“Have you forgotten where you are? You’re in Auschwitz, in the concentration camp, and this soup can keep you alive. You’re not allowed to say you won’t eat. It’s a matter of life and death — the Torah says ‘choose life.’

“Eat, eat! You must eat! It’s a mitzvah to eat! A number of Tzaddikim, righteous people, here said so. There are many religious Jews here who never ate in anyone’s house, but here in the camp they eat everything… It’s a mitzvah to eat! Over there [pointing to a neighboring barrack near the fence] is the Novominsker Rebbe from Warsaw. On your way out, stop in to see him. He’ll tell you whether or not it’s a mitzvah to eat!”

I can’t recall everything the Rebbitzen said in her long speech about matters of life and death, but I do remember how delighted she was when my friend took spoon in hand and dug in. She waited until he finished, then handed him a piece of bread, saying, “I had this for you when I saw you, but I withheld it. I knew if I gave it to you, you wouldn’t eat the soup. Now that I’ve convinced you to eat the soup, take this also, and may it be to your good health! Remember, in Auschwitz you can’t afford to be overly righteous!”

INHUMANE CONDITIONS, THE HUMAN TOUCH

Twice again I was privileged to cross paths with the Rebbitzen in Auschwitz. On both occasions, she helped several of us through serious difficulties. Shortly after that, I lost my work assignment in the women’s camps, and I lost contact with both her and my wife, until after the war.

After the liberation, when I was reunited with my wife, I heard from her and from others who were close with her for many months in Auschwitz numerous accounts of her magnanimous deeds how from her infirmary barrack she organized a legion of Bais Yaakov girls to care for the weak and sick, and to fortify their own faith with lighting Shabbos and Chanukah candles, praying whenever possible, and so on…

To keep their moral fiber intact, to retain their mentschlichkeit (human decency), not to become tainted by the camp, as she was wont to say, presented a formidable task, as the appallingly squalid conditions tended to harden the hearts and pollute the speech. Sapped by starvation and frightened by the licking tongues of the crematoria, an inmate usually developed a savage self-centeredness which brought him to see and think only of himself. Multiply that by famine, filth, foul odor, affliction, flogging, constant fear for one’s life, and the proximity of the gas chambers.

The Rebbitzen, however, never cringed before the challenge. She proclaimed that precisely there, in that hellish abyss, one must strive to intensify one’s refinement, sensitivity and Jewishness. Under her guidance, the girls developed into models of virtue and modesty, smoothing the path of the suffering throughout those grueling years…

It is only partially true that the Rebbitzen accomplished so much because of her special status. Providence had so divined that she come to Auschwitz from Slovakia when she attempted to escape from Cracow in 1941. Auschwitz was not yet an extermination camp, but somewhat of a “respectable” concentration camp. With her advanced education and mastery of languages, she was engaged first as a nurse in the women’s infirmary, and then as secretary in the main office.

She saw this promotion as a “calling sent by the Creator to provide for others,” as she rededicated herself to her imperiled brothers and sisters. For hundreds, she was the embodiment of a “saving angel.”

I described earlier how she implored the Chassidic young man to consume the treif soup. How astonished I was later to learn that she herself ate no treif during the entire length of her stay. One could rationalize that in the infirmary there was no dearth of food, and she could easily bypass the treif. But the truth was that even those who had food in Auschwitz always went hungry. Her determination to avoid treif was a formidable challenge requiring superhuman strength. An even greater feat, perhaps, was not expecting others to do the same.

THE BREADTH OF HER INFLUENCE

The Rebbitzen’s humanitarianism was not limited to singular or sporadic favors. Her work, as my wife has always told me, embodied a secret, coordinated and all encompassing kindness mechanism that functioned as a lifeline to her grieving kinsmen.

How did she do it?

With the influence that came with her work assignment, she planted her students in strategic positions: in the kitchen, bread and clothing commissaries, and barrack management as well as in “nursing.” These placements served a dual purpose; to lighten the burdens of daily life for her assistants as well as for those they assisted. She taught the girls not to exploit their position for their own self aggrandizement but to aspire to loftier ideals: to give of themselves and their resources… shoes and warm garments for those who had to work outdoors in the bitter frost… bread and soup for the weak… caring doctors for the sick… To run this “organization” required Herculean strength, which her assistants soon discovered she more than adequately possessed…

Not only were the camp inmates touched, but also the Nazis. Once, mustering courage at a selektion in the infirmary (selektions there were frequent), she approached a Nazi and successfully convinced him to reduce his quota of girls and women. When later asked how she summoned the nerve, she explained that something in his face reflected a bit of mentschlichkeit (humanity). Since unlike the others, he didn’t shout, threaten, beat anyone or evoke fear, she simply appealed to his conscience by saying: “You know what will happen to the girls you are taking. You probably consider them unproductive and therefore worthless, but you are making a mistake. They are not as sick as they look. There’s hope for all of them.” With that she won her case, and he discontinued the selektion…

A few days before the liberation by the Soviets, a report spread that the Nazis had fled. They were no more to be seen in the watchtowers, barracks, mess hall or other places where they would make their daily appearance. Stunned by the news, the frantic inmates scurried to the commissaries and food and clothing lockers to still their hunger for food and other necessities.

What did the Rebbitzen do at that moment? Since it occurred to her that when the mothers went to avail themselves of “the spoils of Auschwitz” they must have left their offspring unattended, she enlisted a few helpers and rushed to the children’s barrack. There they found the young ones alone and frightened, eyes transfixed with shock and grief, dirty and disheveled, an offensive stench from their clothes, wailing for their mothers. Rebbitzen Tzila and her crew rolled up their sleeves and plunged into washing, de-licing, disentangling and grooming every last child until the wee hours of the morning.  (www.innernet.org)

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Shoftim 5770

Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos

Prepared by Rabbi Binyomin Adler

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