Divre Harav – January/2020

From the writings of Abba Kovner.*

The Nazi ghetto did not make me a religious person, and I did not become a romantic in the forests with the Partizans. On the day I first arrived in Jerusalem, before even washing my face or changing my clothes, I went to the Kotel. It was 1945, and the place was narrow, crowded, dirty and depressing.  British soldiers were stationed there, armed with guns and rubber truncheons.  I had no friends or relatives who longed for those large stones. I did not go there to pray, my head was uncovered, and I had no plan to push a note into a crack between the stones.

Behind me I could hear the donkeys braying and the Arab merchants whose language I did not understand, and I was flushed with the odd sensation of fear and foreignness and the feeling that I belong somewhere else. And then someone pulled at my sleeve and asked in a whisper, “maybe you can join the minyan?”

Had the fellow called out like the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s young men who grab you by the sleeve at the bus station in Tel Aviv or on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in a commanding tone: “Are you Jewish? Come put on tefillin!” I would have responded the way I do to the ChaBaD commandoes: “Sorry, I’m Jewish but I don’t put on tefillin.” 

But the anonymous fellow by the Kotel in 1945 said only: “we need a tenth for a minyan,” and his voice was like the voice of Avraham Leib, the shamash.

Avraham Leib was the shamash of the local shul in the city where I grew up (Vilna). In those days it was called “Jerusalem of Lita.” For morning and evening services there were enough davenners, but for Mincha, even in Jerusalem of Lita there were not many. The elderly shamash would stand in the doorway of the synagogue and, in his hoarse voice, invite Jews to make the minyan.

I’m sure you know that minyan is an important value-concept in Judaism, perhaps the most Jewish thing in Judaism, to be part of the minyan. To know that nine Jews need a tenth, and that the individual Jew needs nine more to be a people, a divine congregation. At that moment it was as if the thousands of miles that my feet had trodden from Vilna to Jerusalem disappeared.  I put on a hat and joined the minyan. I felt I’d arrived.

*Note on Abba Kovner from Wikipedia:

Abba Kovner (March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was a Jewish Hebrew and Yiddish poet, writer and partisan leader. In the Vilna Ghetto, his manifesto was the first time that a target of the Holocaust identified the German plan to murder all Jews. His attempt to organize a ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization to take revenge for the Holocaust; he made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970.

P.S. Ahavas Israel needs YOU for a minyan, Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. and Thursdays, 7:15 a.m.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shamash – “service” or “helper” light; later, describing a person who is a helper or assistant.
  • shemesh – sun
  • minyan – from the verb “mana,” to count. A quorum of 10 adult Jews.