It was Shabbos Parashas Ki Savo, 5700/1940. The Jews in Nazi-occupied Warsaw were experiencing indescribable torment and unspeakable suffering. Among them was Harav Klonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Hy”d, who, despite his own terrible losses and anguish, forged on to lead and inspire his followers.
The following is a partial adaptation of the divrei Torah he said that Shabbos, which appear in his sefer, aptly named Eish Kodesh (Holy Fire).
Rabi ben Menasya said, “Woe that a great servant is lost to the world! For had the serpent not been cursed, each and every one of Yisrael would have been presented with two good serpents. One he would send to the north and one he would send to the south, to bring him sandalbon gems, precious stones and pearls” (Sanhedrin 59b).
Why is it the evil serpent, which brought death upon the world by convincing Chava to eat from the Eitz Hadaas, that is singled out as the symbol of potential benefit? Why not another creature as the special messenger to bring precious stones? If it is due to the fact that because of the curse on the serpent all the other animals were cursed as well, then why don’t Chazal state, “for had the serpent not been cursed, the animals would bring each one of Yisrael precious stones”?
One possible answer is found in Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah 1:5), which relates that the snake was once asked, “What do you gain from biting your victim? A lion tears its victim to bits and then devours it. A wolf tears its victims to bits and then devours it. But what benefit do you gain from biting?”
“If I were not instructed by Heaven to bite, I would not bite,” the snake replied.
The snake derives no personal benefit from what it does. Thus it had the potential to do great, unselfish good, above and beyond the world of teva (“nature”). It is only because of the curse in the time of Adam that the snake became instead an instrument of punishment.
If a wild animal, accustomed to eating meat, attacks a human, this is a punishment that is disguised in the world of teva. But if a snake, which has no gain from biting, attacks a human being, then the attribute of din (strict judgment) is clear to all, without any disguise.
The Piaseczner Rebbe says that the pain and torture the Jews of his time were experiencing at the hands of the Nazis was analogous to a snakebite, since their tormentors gained nothing from what they were doing to the Jews.
“This is a period of strict judgment without the disguise of teva, and it means that when we return to Hashem and are mispallel to Him, our salvation will also come without any disguise, above the world of teva,” says the Rebbe.
He adds that not only are the suffering and the salvation above the rules of teva; the ability of Yidden to strengthen themselves during the most difficult times is equally not b’derech hateva.
It seems impossible to comprehend how Yidden manage to stay strong in their emunah during the most trying times. This incredible forbearance helps turn the open revelation of pure judgment to an open revelation of pure mercy — mercy that is also above and beyond the realm of teva.
This is referred to in the words recited during Viduy Maaser: “I have not eaten of it in my intense mourning, I have not consumed it in a state of impurity, and I have not given it to a dead person” (Devarim 26:14).
Even though there was, R”l, tragedy and mourning, “I have listened to the voice of Hashem, my G-d — I have acted according to everything You have commanded me.”
Rashi explains that this means, “I have rejoiced and brought joy to others with it.”
When others see that a Yid remains strong and even manages to rejoice at a time of suffering, they draw inspiration from it and conclude that they — who are also suffering but somewhat less so — can certainly strengthen themselves. Thus, “I have rejoiced and brought joy to others with it.”
The recitation continues with a plea to Hashem: “Gaze down from Your holy abode from the heavens and bless Your people …” Chazal tell us that in other places, “gaze” is a word used for negative reasons, yet here it is used for good. It is the merit of the power of Yisrael to strengthen ourselves that transforms the “gaze” to a “gaze” of blessings.
In the merit of the emunah exhibited by Klal Yisrael, may the Ribbono shel Olam gaze down and bless His people.