Setting the Tone and Raising the Bar – Inspiration from Kelm for Rosh Hashanah and for life

Hayom haras olam, Today is the day of Creation… Simply understood, the world was created on this day. Yet, the familiar phrase fervently recited on Rosh Hashanah by Jews across the globe, accompanied by the clarion call of the shofar, implies that today is the day that inspires one’s interests and actions throughout the entire year. The Jew inaugurates his year on Rosh Hashanah at the highest level of spirituality, and this powers his continued behavior and moral integrity. It allows the righteous among men to confront the realities of this world while maintaining an awareness of the sanctity of their neshamos.

While always an aspiration, nowhere in the world was this more evident than in the city of Kelm, Lithuania, where this concept was paradigmatic.

Kelm, the cradle of the Mussar movement, was home to the renowned Talmud Torah that was established there, inspired and led by my great-great-grandfather and namesake, Harav Simcha Zissel Ziv, zt”l — the venerable Alter of Kelm.

From that bastion of Torah emanated a rarified sense of kedushah, and an unwavering commitment to the highest standards of perfection of character and Torah scholarship — the likes of which were unparalleled. In that small corner of the world, scholars and laymen alike focused their days and their lives toward raising the bar of character refinement.

It once happened that two merchants, a non-Jewish supplier and a Jewish buyer, met at an annual trade fair held in Kelm. The merchants agreed in concept to a proposed sale of lumber, but disagreed on the terms of the sale. The Jewish buyer expected the merchandise prior to rendering payment and the non-Jewish supplier insisted upon compensation prior to releasing the goods.

The latter shared his dilemma with a non-Jewish friend, who commented that the Jewish people were in the midst of the month of Elul, at which time they are extraordinarily cautious to maintain a sense of integrity, and therefore the buyer could be trusted. My father, Harav Nochum Zev Dessler, zt”l, often repeated this dialogue — which was overheard by a son of Harav Elya Lopian, zt”l — and remarked that in Kelm, even the non-Jews knew the significance of Elul and that it meant Rosh Hashanah was on the horizon.

The way the Jews of Kelm lived prepared them for the manner in which they would leave this world. Like too many other European communities during the Holocaust, most of the Jews residing there were murdered in mass executions; in Kelm these took place in 1941. Among those who perished were my great-great-grandmother, my grandmother’s sisters, their husbands, and their five children. An eyewitness reported that the aged daughter of the Alter of Kelm, Rebbetzin Nechama Liba, Hy”d, was carried on a chair — as a queen — when the community was forced to march toward their destiny.

The eyewitness further attested that the faculty and talmidim of the Talmud Torah marched with their heads held high as they sang “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu — “We are fortunate; how good is our portion” — a true testament that they both lived and forfeited their lives al kiddush Hashem. That was their focus, both in their celebration of life and in their preparation for death.

Two years ago, I traveled to Kelm for the first time. Our family traced the steps of our ancestors and visited their burial sites — including that of the Alter of Kelm. We recited Kel Malei Rachamim and Kaddish. We kindled neiros at a kever achim, consisting of the remains of the Kedoshei Kelm, the pure souls who perished al kiddush Hashem. Presumably, our relatives were among them. During such an emotional experience, my thoughts returned again and again to the moral purity of the victims, the brutality they endured and the magnitude of the loss. Our group solemnly exited the cemetery and joined together for perhaps the most powerful Minchah of my life. During Kedushah, the familiar words that we recite every day suddenly had enhanced relevance and meaning: “Nekadesh es Shimcha ba’olam — We will sanctify Your name in This World just as they do in the Eternal World… Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh; Holy, holy, holy is Hashem.” And finally, “Yimloch Hashem l’olam — Hashem will reign forever.”

Seventy-five years later, one family returned to Kelm with a silent message that, ironically, resounded loud and clear: Am Yisrael chai and netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker; Klal Yisrael is both vibrant and eternal! That sense of eternity fosters within us a deeper connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, a stronger sense of belonging, and a richer appreciation of our mesorah.

While Kelm represented a lofty ideal never to be replicated, the ideas behind everything it stood for should be capsulized in the “haras olam” of every Jew whose physical endeavors are rooted in and guided by spirituality. As we approach the festival of Rosh Hashanah, we are granted the opportunity anew to rededicate our lives by searching for relevance, finding meaning, and elevating our spiritual lives accordingly.

May we be inspired to lead more meaningful lives, and may we merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah, a sweet New Year blessed with peace, prosperity and happiness… for us and for all of Klal Yisrael.


Rabbi Dessler is Menahel of Beis Chinuch Harav Dessler Hebrew Academy of Cleveland.