In Memory of Lori Gilbert-Kaye
Le-‘Ilui Nishmat Leah bat Tsiporah u-Reuven, hy”d
In the summer of 2010, I visited my dear cousins Jordan and Debbie Alpert in their home in Poway, a suburb of San Diego, California. There, I encountered a most unusual woman. She had come to the house to drop off a hallah for Shabbat. What stood out about her was her spiritual dimension. It was as if a flame had taken hold of a human frame. One sensed immediately that this was a person committed to growing in Judaism, in Torah, and in Godliness. At the conclusion of our short but intense conversation, she asked to be remembered to one of her teachers back on the East Coast, Rebbetzin Esther Baila Schwartz, she-tihyeh. The hallah fairy was Lori Kaye.
Fast forward to Shabbat, the Eighth Day of Passover, 2019. At the midday meal, se’udah sheniyah, there was a house full of guests. I spoke about Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, the Rebbe of Piaseczno, who later became known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, hy”d. I told how in the synagogue library that morning I had come across two Hasidic texts: one, Ma’or va-Shemesh (Luminary and Sun) by his ancestor and namesake, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein.
The passage in Ma’or va-Shemesh devoted to Pesah, discussed the importance of the Hebrews in Egypt not forgetting their language and how this was essential to their redemption from exile. The Hasidic master drew on the kabbalistic doctrine of “sparks of holiness” being scattered throughout existence. In every language there are sparks to be uplifted; every language can be turned into a sort of “lashon ha-kodesh.” On the other hand, the sacred tongue itself, Hebrew, can, God forbid, be degraded on the wrong tongue.
And then a line popped out at me. “The wicked after death forget their name.” (The reason it struck me so was that the night before I dreamt that I could not remember my name.) Explains Ma’or va-Shemesh, the reason for this is because while yet they lived, the wicked were estranged from their true identity; they were out of touch with their mission in life.
Scanning the shelves of the Torah library, I then came across a volume by his descendant Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Hovat ha-Talmidim (The Obligation of the Disciples), the only one of the Rabbi’s works to be published during his lifetime. It first appeared in Warsaw in 1932. The edition that I held in my hand was a modern vocalized version published by Feldheim in Israel. Appended were three ma’amarim or discourses of the Rebbe. One contained his thoughts for the Seventh Day of Passover, when we read Shirat ha-Yam, the song the Israelites uttered after crossing the Reed Sea. The Rebbe connected song to prophecy. The ability to compose an original song of praise to the Lord draws on the gift of prophecy.
I then shared with our esteemed guests the parallels between the Rebbe of Piaseczno and my own teacher, Rav Kook. The common denominator between the two men is their fervent belief that prophecy is the very essence of the Jewish People. In various ways, these two spiritual giants, one in Poland, the other in Erets Yisrael, strove to restore nevu’ah, no less, an ability that we, as a nation, were missing for millennia.
Though to the best of my knowledge, there was no direct communication between the contemporaries, the Piaseczner Rebbe and Rav Kook, there was a strong connection in the person of the Piaseczner Rebbe’s brother, Rabbi Yeshayahu Shapira, who made ‘aliyah and became an ardent follower of Rav Kook. Known after his passing as “He-Admor he-Haluts” (“the Pioneer Rebbe”), Rabbi Yeshayahu Shapira published in Jerusalem in 1930 a beautiful collection of Rav Kook’s teachings on Erets Yisrael, which he entitled Erets Hefets (Land of Desire). Erets Hefets was re-issued by Rabbi Harel Cohen in a vocalized version in Beit-El in 2005. (The present Piaseczner Rebbe in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Kalman Menahem Shapira, is a grandson of Rabbi Yeshayahu Shapira.)
The two spiritual giants, Rav Kook in Erets Yisrael and Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira in Huts la-Arets, were pushing their disciples—much as a mother in labor pushes her baby to emerge in the world—to the attainment of prophecy.
The Piaseczner renewed the concept of “bnei ha-nevi’im,” “the disciples of the prophets” or “the prophets in training.” He taught his closest confidants meditative techniques along those lines.
Rav Kook’s disciple, Rabbi David Cohen, “the Nazirite,” took the first students of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav on a “vision quest” in the Judean wilderness. (I was told of this spiritual journey by my dear friend Shabtai Don-Yehiya z”l, one of three disciples who accompanied the Nazirite on this quest for the living word of God.)
And then I posed a question to the guests seated around the table, men and women of science: “Were Rav Kook and the Piaseczner, with their focus on prophecy, an aberration, or do they represent mainstream Judaism?
I let the question hang in the air. There was a significant silence in the room.
Some hours passed. We concluded the Sabbath and the Festival with the traditional Havdalah service.
And then the news came crashing down on our heads like a monster wave. There had been a fatal shooting in the Chabad synagogue of Poway.
I immediately phoned my dear cousin Jordan Alpert, Shimshon Hakohen, may he live and be well.
“You remember Lori Kaye?”
“Yes, of course. How could I forget her?”
There was a pause, and then, “‘Alehah ha-Shalom.” “May she rest in peace.”
And now I ask you a question, dear reader. How could the Piaseczner Rebbe and his disciples aspire to such spiritual heights, knowing full well that they were sitting on the rim of a volcano about to erupt? When the Piaseczner published his Hovat ha-Talmidim in Warsaw in 1932, one did not have to be a prophet to read the handwriting on the wall. Poland was fast becoming an inferno for Jews. Even before the Luftwaffe’s bombardment of Warsaw (in which the Piaseczner lost members of his immediate family), antisemitism was rampant in Poland, taking the form of economic discrimination and physical assaults upon Jews. Jews had once played on the word Polin: “Po lin.” (“Here rest” or “Rest here.”) The Jewish sojourn in Polin was coming to an abrupt end.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” only after more basic needs, such as safety, have been satisfied, can an individual move on to the top of the pyramid, to the need for self-actualization and transcendence. How dare the holy Piaseczner Rebbe jump to the pinnacle of the pyramid?
This very question was posed by my teacher Rabbi Jacob I. Ruderman in the brief foreward to his work ‘Avodat Levi (Keidan, 1930). Rabbi Ruderman, future Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel in Baltimore, was not writing about Nevu’ah, Prophecy. He was writing about equally esoteric subjects, Kodashim and Toharot, laws of sacrifices and purity that had not been practical for thousands of years.
How at a time of peril, when the clouds are darkening in the sky, can the nation of Israel engage in esoterica of Torah?
I take it back. Rabbi Ruderman did not present this as a problem. For him it was self-understood:
Myriads of Israel engage in the Torah. This is the existence of our people, whose mouths have not ceased from learning even in the most frightening of times. Almost all of our spiritual treasure was conceived in times of oppression. The creations of the spirit were never put on hold. We never ceased to create for even a moment. This is our fortune, our glory…The living fountain never ceased to flow. Every writer revealed the fruit of his spirit. Every generation of writers contributed to the superstructure. This thing is self-understood and requires no explanation…The students of Torah are bound to bring close (lekarev) those far from her.
In this way, trod the creators of our vast literature in every generation, and with the help of God, succeeded to fortify the spirit of Israel. We should learn from them and do as they did…
On the final day of Passover, “Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to the Lord” (Exodus 15:1).
Leah. “From the day the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world, there was no human who thanked the Lord until Leah came along and thanked Him, for it is said, ‘This time I shall thank the Lord’” (Genesis 29:35; b. Berakhot 7b).
Bat Tsiporah. Daughter of Tsiporah. Tsiporah is Hebrew for bird.
This heavenly songbird has flown to heights beyond our earthbound sight.
May Leah bat Tsiporah with her wings of love and awe stir heavenly mercy upon her beloved family and friends, upon her beloved people and land of Israel.