By Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg
These last few months we have faced headlines with the words “kiddush Hashem” in bold letters. The places varied, the names were different, and the situations unique. The common denominator between all of them, however, was that a Yid lost his or her life via kiddush Hashem.
Whether it was Lori Gilbert-Kaye, z’l, killed while attending services in her beloved shul, or Rabbi Reuven Bauman, z’l, who died while saving his beloved talmid, or Rina Shnerb, z’l, who was killed by a bomb while hiking with her beloved father and brother in the hills of the Shomron, all gave their lives in the noblest fashion, which is dying to save a Jew — or just for being one.
Being moser nefesh “al kiddush Hashem” has always been the highest ideal for every Jew who lives his or her life solely to serve the Creator.
I will always cherish the memories of being able to listen to the gadol ha’dor Rav Shach, zt’l, both in private conversations and in public forums, describe the great z’chus of being moser nefesh al kiddush Hashem.
Rav Shach once commented on the Gemara in Menachos (29) that states that Moshe Rabbeinu was shown all the generations to come, as well as the vision of R’ Akiva teaching Torah to his talmidim. He asked HKB’H to show him the reward for R’ Akiva for becoming so great a Torah scholar. Hashem showed him how after R’ Akiva’s death, they were weighing his flesh to sell in the market.
Moshe Rabbeinu cried out, “Zu Torah v’zu sechorah?” Is this the reward for Torah?
Rav Shach asked, “Why didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu scream at the torturous death R’ Akiva endured, as Chazal depict his flesh being combed with iron combs?” Rav Shach explained, “This is not even a question. For the biggest reward is to die al kiddush Hashem and increase kavod Shamayim in this world.”
He often commented that his greatest wish in life is to die al kiddush Hashem and he was envious of the holy kedoshim in Auschwitz who danced in honor of Simchas Torah as they entered the gas chambers. He would say, “I would give anything to reach the heights that they did in those moments.”
Every year on the second day of Shavuos, I use the opportunity to speak in shul about the famed ger tzedek of Vilna, Count Valentine Potocki, known forever to Klal Yisrael as Avraham ben Avraham. For defying the Church, he was burned at the stake in the public square in Vilna on the seventh day of Sivan 5509 (May 23, 1749).
Tradition has it that as he was being led to his execution on the second of Shavuos, he passed by the house of the Vilna Gaon, who was secluded in the upper floor of his home. The Ger Tzedek had previously sent a halachic question to the Vilna Gaon asking if he should proceed quickly to his death to fulfill the requirement of “zerizin makdimim l’mitzvos,” or if he should walk slowly in order to preserve every moment of his life in this world and fulfill the mitzvah of “V’chai ba’hem.” It is said that as he passed the Vilna Gaon’s house, the Gaon called out from the house, “Reb Avraham ben Avraham, geit mit zerizus.”
As the fire that would soon consume his physical body began to rise, he broke out in a song with the words we recite every morning, “Aval anachnu bnei brisecha.” It was in the midst of singing those words that the holy neshamah of Reb Avraham ben Avraham ascended to Shamayim. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt’l, related to his talmidim that this very niggun was sung in Volozhin Yeshiva every year at the end of Yom Kippur. (It can even be found through a Google search for the “song of the Ger Tzedek.”)
And so while dying al kiddush Hashem has always been the highest ideal for a Yid to live by, I would like to share with you a different form of kiddush Hashem that is no less significant. And that is living a life of kiddush Hashem.
The Beis Yosef was so highly regarded in Shamayim that he merited to have a malach (known as the Maggid) visit him nightly to learn with him. The malach told him that he would die al kiddush Hashem. We know, however, that Rav Yosef Karo lived a full and accomplished life, died in his bed, and is buried in the ancient cemetery in Tzfat next to his contemporary, the Ari, zt’l.
So was the malach mistaken? After several years had passed, the Beis Yosef himself asked the malach what happened to the decree. The malach responded that there was a great tumult in Shamayim about him, and the decree was that since he was living a life of great kiddush Hashem, that outweighed dying al kiddush Hashem.
Living al kiddush Hashem is often significantly more difficult and challenging than dying al kiddush Hashem. Kiddush Hashem is the goal of every Yid; some will be expected to die al kiddush Hashem and the rest of us will be expected to live al kiddush Hashem.
When Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandel, zt’l, arrived in the U.S. after suffering so much in the Holocaust, including losing all of his sons, he restarted his yeshiva and then his family, and he had several children. At the bris of his fifth son, he said the incredibly powerful words, “I lost five sons al kiddush Hashem, and my hope is that these five sons born here live a life al kiddush Hashem.”
After the tragic events in the news of late, I collected various articles on the lives of these kedoshim; they have been taking up space on my cluttered desk, waiting for a free moment to be read. One of the side benefits of having done a lot of traveling this summer is the quiet time on the planes and at the airports to catch up a bit. I know this may be unsettling to some of my readers, but I was, in some sense, more inspired with the kiddush Hashem of their lives than of their deaths.
I read about the incredible generosity and kindness of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, Hy’d, who had an inner sense when people around her needed a boost, and she would drop off gifts for no particular occasion, just telling the recipients that she was thinking of them. Her closest friends shared that while she was known as a big giver, always giving and giving, most of her giving was done anonymously and privately. Is that not living a life al kiddush Hashem?
Rabbi Reuven Bauman, z’l, was a young, vibrant rebbe who loved what he was doing. He was described by his peers as a rebbe way beyond his years, and even older colleagues would learn from him by observing his methods and style. Yet, unbeknownst to most people, he would spend his own resources and time to search out any tool or idea that he could use to help improve his teaching ability to become even more effective. Is that not living a life al kiddush Hashem?
Rina Shnerb, Hy’d, loved Eretz Yisrael with her heart and soul. She could never get enough of walking and touring the Promised Land to just inhale the pure and holy air of Eretz Yisrael. She gave her life doing just that, and her father testified that by her taking the brunt of the force of the explosion, he and her brother were saved. Her whole life, like her death, was a kiddush Hashem.
In truth, if we just take some time to look closely at some of the people in our own orbit, we would see clear examples of what it means to live a life of kiddush Hashem. In my own family, we had a prime example. This past Pesach, on the first day of yom tov, my beloved mother-in-law, Esther Leiner, z’l, left this world at the age of 86, following a brief illness. Her death wouldn’t be described in the framework of dying al kiddush Hashem, as she died in her bed at Columbia Hospital of heart failure. However, she was an embodiment of living a life of kiddush Hashem.
She did not have an easy life. She faced many difficult challenges that would have broken most of us, yet she was one of the most cheerful and truly happy people that I ever met. She lived with HKB’H every moment of the day. Her davening and her Tehillim not only kept her going, it kept her whole family going as well.
Whenever a child or grandchild was flying someplace, she had to be told before takeoff, as she would start saying Tehillim at the beginning and wouldn’t stop until that person called that he or she had landed safely. There was no difference if her grandson was going to yeshiva in Miami or going on a 12-hour trip to Eretz Yisrael. In January, my wife and I traveled to South Africa to begin an Ohel Sarala chapter. It was a 16-hour flight and we felt safe and secure because Savta’s Tehillim would escort us the entire journey. One time one of my children returned from a trip to Florida and forgot to call Savta that he had landed; several hours later she was still saying her Tehillim.
When any granddaughter felt contractions and was heading to the hospital to give birth, her first call was to Savta (at any hour) to let her know. The Tehillim would begin—and continue until she got the mazal tov call.
She once read in the Yated about the significance of giving berachos on one’s birthday and so she would call every child and grandchild on their birthdays asking for a berachah, and, of course, she spent her entire birthday calling every person she knew to give a berachah as well.
She was always b’simcha, and despite any difficulty she was enduring, she never complained or let anyone see anything but her cheerful spirit and words of berachah pouring from her mouth and her heart. Her very last words spoken in this temporal world was after she was brought to the hospital for the last time, when she was having difficulty breathing. The doctor asked her, “Mrs. Leiner, how are you feeling?” She responded, “I feel fine, b’H, just having a little difficulty breathing.” Every word that came from her was an expression of “Hodu Lashem Ki Tov.” To her family, she was the quintessential example of what it is to live a life of kiddush Hashem.
Between trips this summer for Ohel Sarala, we stayed at our summer home upstate. My regular place to daven is the shul in Woodbourne, run by the Nikolsburg Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Jungreis. The shul is used by thousands over the summer months, with minyanim almost 24 hours a day, and while everyone is inspired by the unity of so many types of Yidden davening and learning together in achdus, and the constant offering of all types of food for everyone to enjoy (especially the dozens of cholent pots polished off every Thursday evening), I see something else.
I watch the Rebbe, day in and day out, dressed in his full rebbishe garb, take a small broom and dustpan in hand and clean up the floor from the mess made by many of the attendees. There is one person in particular, possibly a vagrant, who filled his arms with food and drink each day and sat down at a table to eat. I would watch him make a huge mess and then just get up and leave all his leftovers on the table and on the floor around him. And then I would watch the Rebbe go to that spot and sweep up the floor, wash off the table, and throw the garbage into the garbage can. One day, I had seen enough and said to him, “Rebbe, why don’t you just have someone ask him to clean up after himself so you don’t have to do it each and every day?”
The Rebbe smiled with his characteristic warmth and said, “Rav Ginzberg, do you see how much pleasure that person has by eating all that food? That’s how much pleasure I get in cleaning up after him; it’s my kavod to do so.”
After comparing his conduct with that of the kohen gadol, who had to put on his bigdei kehunah before performing the avodah of the terumas ha’deshen, the process of cleaning up the ashes from the mizbeiach, I thought to myself, isn’t this the ultimate example of living a life of kiddush Hashem?
I think the following powerful yet painful story really underscores this message for us. A young former yeshiva bachur from Kelm somehow survived the terrible slaughter by the Nazis in Kelm and made it safely to the Kovno ghetto. He approached the Kovno Rav, Rav Avraham Dov Ber Kahana Shapiro, and asked him a painful she’eilah. He had survived the massacre at Kelm and witnessed the famed mashgiach Rav Daniel Movshovitz, Hy’d, ask the Nazi officer in charge if he could first address his beloved talmidim. Rav Movshovitz spoke for a few moments to his talmidim about remaining calm and not blemishing the korbanos that they were about to become. Then he turned to the Nazi officer and said, “I have finished; now you may begin.”
This yeshiva bachur then continued that afterwards, he was placed on a cattle-car train that was packed with Yidden. A young woman who was visibly pregnant couldn’t move quickly enough for the Nazis’ liking and so one Nazi began to beat her mercilessly. A young Jew on the train saw this and couldn’t just stand by; he jumped on the Nazi, grabbed his bayonet, and killed him on the spot. Immediately, the other soldiers turned their guns towards him and riddled his body with bullets.
Then he asked, “Rebbe, there are two different ways to act with the Nazis. Which is the correct way to conduct myself?” The Kovno Rav was at first silent and would not answer, but the young man pleaded with him to answer this very difficult question.
After a long while deep in thought, the Kovno Rav finally responded. He said the following. “Kiddush Shem Shamayim means that a Yid does the maximum that he can do in whatever situation he finds himself. That is all that Hashem requires of us. Rav Daniel Movshovitz did the maximum that he was able to do, and that Yid on the train did the best that he could do. We all just have to try to do our best.”
This insight of the Kovno Rav doesn’t only apply to the Yidden during the Holocaust; it is for every Jew, in every time period and in every situation. We need to ask ourselves, “Is what I am doing the best that I can do to be mekadesh shem Shamayim?” If yes, then we have done the right thing.
As we recite Selichos and open our Machzorim and ask HKB’H to “act for the sake” of those who were mekadesh shem Shamayim, let’s first think of all those who died al kiddush Hashem, and then let’s think of those Yidden we know who are still amongst the living, b’H, but who live their lives al kiddush Hashem.
This article was written as a z’chus for an aliyas neshamah for Sarah Chaya bas Rav Aryeh Zev.