Arzei HaLevanon

The following was my presentation for Kinnah 21, Arzei HaLevanon. 

Tisha B’Av 5768 – August 10, 2008

 Arzei HaLevanon is the tragic poetic description of the 10 martyrs, the great Tannaitic rabbis executed by the Romans in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple.  In this anonymous qinah, we have the task of relating to brutal murder.  The great cedars of Lebanon, the strong in spirit, were cut down by the grand Roman Empire.  In general, the qinot we have recited year after year are not meant to be obscure, obtuse words we struggle to pronounce.  They are meant to elicit our emotions, to bring tears to our eyes and yet to leave us with a glimmer, not of hope, but of dignity.  Dignity is the ability, in the depths of despair, to find meaning and walk with our heads held high.  Most famously from the stories of the 10 martyrs is Rabbi Aqiba.  As he was standing, facing execution by iron combs, which would rip his flesh bottom to top, he kept a shred of his dignity, teaching his students: “All my life I was concerned with being able to fulfill the statement from qeriat shema, ‘And you should love your G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.’  Specifically, how would I fulfill with all of my soul.  With all my soul I love G-d and feel unexplainable joy being able to truly show this love.”  Can we imagine what it means to laugh in the face of humiliating murder, whose goal was to destroy the soul as well as the body? 

            We have a history of martyrdom, of sacrificing our lives to avoid more devastating options.  This is Masada, this is the crusades, and this is the Holocaust.  We are challenged!  We are challenged to recognize that our leaders recognize that they are the exemplars.  The enemy could kill our bodies, but they couldn’t kill our souls.  As this is the day we remember all our myriads of tragedies, I want to illustrate and frame my words with two examples from 1800 years later, during the Holocaust.

            In July 1941, R. Elchanan Wasserman and other rabbis and students were taken from Kovno to the 9th fort, led to their execution.  It is told that R. Elchanan said that they must have proper intent.  “Let us walk with our heads held high.  Let no one think a thought that would disqualify his offering.  We are about to fulfill the greatest mitzvah, the mitzvah of sanctifying G-d’s name.”  R. Elchanan was stating that as sacrifices to G-d, wrong intent would negate the sacrifice.  In the face of certain death, he implored himself and others that our deaths should be mentally dignified if not phsycially.  R. Elchanan is following in the footsteps of Rabbi Aqiba.[1]  To best summarize the dignity of our martyrs, let me quote the words of the Piacezner Rebbe, R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, most well known for the derashot found of his in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Aish Qodesh.  In late 1941, in his derasha for Hanukah, he gave another of his many derashot about sanctifying ourselves for G-d.

            “This can perhaps be explained in a way that teaches us something of our own plight.  The terrible tortures Rabbi Aqiba endured cause such great suffering in his disciples that they were provoked to ask the same question that was asked by Moshe when he was shown the same event (menachot 29b): ‘Is this Torah and this its reward?’ The disciples were afraid that, G-d forbid, they might have doubts, however fleeting, as a result of their emotional and visceral response, and that their faith might be damaged.  They wanted their teacher, who was so powerful in his faith, to speak of his belief, so that his faith might inundate them.  When they asked, ‘Our Rabbi, how far,’ they were saying, ‘can you be our teacher thus far, even into the circumstances of this terrible death?’  Perhaps they did not articulate their question fully, or make it more specific, but merely hinted at it in order to avoid invoking the response that the Talmud (ibid.) says had already been given to Moses: ‘Be silent.’

            Rabbi Aqiba understood that the students were not questioning G-d but rather begging him to bestow upon them some of his faith, and so he told them something about himself and his own aspirations to faith: ‘All my life I was in pain over this verse…  Right now I have the opportunity to love G-d with all my soul.  Should I not grasp it?”

            The Piacezner continued later with words for those struggling to understand the world around them, giving a sense of dignity.

            “If only people would bear in mind that it is not because we robbed or we did anything wrong to anyone that we are being persecuted, but because we are Jews – children of Israel, bound to G-d and to his Holy Torah.  Firstly, it would explain why our enemies are not satisfied with just killing us or extinguishing the divine spark inside us but feel that have to annihilate simultaneously both body and soul of the Jew.  Then, if we could only bear it in mind, our faith and our cleaving to G-d and to the Torah would, on the contrary, burgeon and strengthen.  But because we tend to feel only our physical pain and not the spiritual pain, and because we fail to remind ourselves that what we are enduring is actually a war upon G-d and the Torah, therefore there are certain individuals who experience a weakening of their faith.”

            This qinah has the goal of invoking the cold blooded deaths of our people.  However, we must remember that while our bodies can be destroyed, we can’t.   

[1] Hidden in Thunder p. 451