KEDOSHIM (19:1-20:27) — “Exodus from Belarus”

“Be Kadosh – Holy; because I, your G-d, am Holy.”  (Exodus, 19:1)

The Torah tells us to be Kadosh – Holy.  How does one become Kadosh?  There are many ways.

A person who lives his life scrupulously avoiding sin is called a Kadosh, a holy person.  The Torah gives us many examples as to how to be Kadosh:

Revere your parents…observe the Sabbath…don’t worship idols…When you harvest your field, leave some over for the poor. … Don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t swear falsely….  Pay your workers on time. … Don’t curse the deaf or mislead the blind….  Don’t pervert justice. … Give someone the benefit of the doubt…don’t gossip…love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.  (Leviticus 16:3-18)

One can live as a Kadosh, and one can die as a Kadosh.  One of the translations of the word Kadosh is “martyr.”  When a person gives up his life for his faith, he is called a Kadosh, a holy martyr.  The victims of the Spanish Inquisition who chose to be burnt at the stake rather than abandon Judaism are called Kedoshim.  A Jew who is murdered simply because he is a Jew is called a Kadosh.  Hence, we refer to the victims of the Holocaust as the Six Million Kedoshim.

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Many people memorialized the Six Million Kedoshim last week on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  I say “many people” because there is a school of thought that prefers to commemorate the Holocaust on Tisha B’AvAlong with many Torah Sages, reportedly the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin was of that opinion.  Additionally, it has been pointed out that right after Passover seems to be a strange time to commemorate the Holocaust, especially since we do not recite Memorial Prayers during the entire month of Nissan, due to its festive nature.

There is, in any event, a link between the Holocaust and Passover.

I’d like to share a story.

In 1904, an 18-year old boy from Postavy, a Russian/Polish/Lithuanian town in what is now Belarus, got on a boat and went to America.  He married, settled in Connecticut, and went into the cattle and chicken farming business.  By the time the Second World War began, his family was well-settled in its pursuit of the American Dream.  His family never experienced the Holocaust.

That farmer raised a family of nine children.  One of his sons had four children.   I am one of those children.

That farmer’s name was Rachmiel Tzeplyevitch (Zeplowitz at Ellis Island; Seplowitz in Connecticut).  I, Yerachmiel Seplowitz, am his grandson.

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As a rabbi, I have always found it difficult to discuss the Holocaust with survivors.  Where do I, a “Yankee” who has never seen REAL anti-Semitism, have the Chutzpah to talk about the type of suffering that these people have endured?

A related question can be asked about the Passover Seder.  At the Seder we read a quote from the Talmud that in every generation, every person must view himself as if he personally left the slavery of Egypt. Elsewhere during the Seder we read that if G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children would still be there today.

An interesting thought, but difficult to relate to in Monsey, New York in 2005.   How do we, living with such freedom, bring ourselves to appreciate the Exodus on a personal level?

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I found the answer to these questions in an email from another grandson of Jews from Postavy.  This fellow engaged a Russian Jewish researcher to find out some of the history of our families’ “home town.”  Below, complete with broken English, is a portion of his report:

Postawy (on belarussian – Pastavy), now – the center of Pastawy  district in

>>Vitebskregion (250 km fromVitebsk). 15.4 thousnad inhabitants (1974).

>>According to 1847 revision Pastawy jewish community had 551 members.

>>The results of famous Russian sensus of 1897 are:

>>2397 inhabitants in Pastawy – 1310 – jews.

>>During 1921-39 Pastawy were a part of Polish state, since 1939 – Soviet. In

>> June 1941 the Nazi Germany occupied Pastawy. The

>>town was liberated only in 5th of July 1944.

>>

>>In Postawy the fascists organized a ghetto. 4.000 jews were a

>population of this place. In november 1942 a ghetto was

>>destroyed. The Nazies raped women on the eyes of their husbands,

>parents and children. After this they killed all jews.The jews who left in the

>houses wer burned alive. A woman, her name was Wayner, run away.

>>The faschists seized her with 5-month baby and on her eyes breaked him.

>>It was the tragic end of the jewish place in the western part of Belarus.

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There you have it.  In summary: 1847 — 551 Jews. 1897 — 1310 Jews, (55% of the town’s population.) 1942 — 4000 Jews.  1944 — Judenrein.

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There was a street in Postavy that was entirely populated by Seplowitzes.  One of the Jews murdered by the Nazis was named Rachmiel Tzeplyevitch; no doubt a close relative of my grandfather.

I now understand the obligation of viewing oneself as having personally left Egypt.

What possessed 18-year-old Rachmiel Seplowitz to kiss his parents good-bye and float away to an unknown country?  I don’t know.  But I will tell you one thing.  Had he stayed in Postavy, I don’t think you would be reading these words today.

“In every generation, every person must view himself as if he himself left Egypt.”  Yes, I left Egypt thirty-five hundred years ago.  That’s why I’m here today.  Yes, I left Postavy 101 years ago.  That’s why I am here today.

In a real sense, each and every one of us is a Holocaust survivor.

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There are two questions that can be asked by Holocaust survivors:

1)  How could G-d have allowed such a terrible thing to take place?

2)  Why did G-d perform such a great miracle that He allowed me to survive?  What special mission does He have for me?  What am I supposed to do with this gift of life?  G-d, in His infinite kindness saved me from being a Kadosh, a martyr who dies as a holy person.  I must “repay” that kindness by being a Kadosh, a person who LIVES as a holy person.  What should I do to live my life as a Kadosh?

The first is a question that no one is able to answer.  The second is a question that each and every one of us MUST answer.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

Some years the two Torah Portions of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim are read together, and some years they are read on two separate Sabbaths.  For your convenience, here are links to both Portions:

Links to Acharei Mos:

“Our Man in the Holy-of-Holies” (2011)

The High Priest had a daunting task.

Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the High Priest was required to enter the Holy-of-Holies…. According to Tradition, if his thoughts were not totally pure during his visit to the Holy of Holies, he would be struck down on the spot, and would have to be removed via a rope that was attached to his leg…It must have been a very lonely time for the High Priest…

One day, each one of us will have to take our leave from this world…

We will be ushered into the Holy-of-Holies.  We will, after a lifetime of hopefully doing the right thing, be called upon to meet our Maker.  On that final Day of Judgment, we will enter G-d’s Presence, and we will be very much alone…There will be no Kohain to bring incense and sin offerings on our behalf.  It will just be us, G-d, and our deeds…

When we go before G-d to stand in judgment, each one of us goes, all alone, as his own High Priest.  AND THERE IS NO ROPE!…

Read more.

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“From the Summit to the Gutter” (2003)

… Does the Torah really have to address such behavior on Yom Kippur? We are fasting. We are depriving ourselves of creature comforts and spending the day immersed in thoughts of holiness and devotion. We have confessed our transgressions of the past year and promised to avoid the pitfalls of sin in the coming year. We have witnessed the purity of the High Priest coming out of the Holy of Holies. We are on a spiritual high. Is this the time to talk about resisting X-rated temptations??!!…

Read more.

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“Cardiac Judaism” (2002)

… The Torah describes in great detail the very busy schedule of the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur… By the end of the day, the High Priest succeeded in achieving forgiveness for the sins of his People.

What a system!  You can sin with impunity!  Do whatever your heart desires!  The Torah is telling us that once the Kohain performs the requisite ceremonies on Yom Kippur, all is forgiven!  … Is this what Judaism is all about?!  Do whatever you want, just make sure the High Priest gets you forgiven for it on Yom Kippur?! …

Read more.

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Links to Kedoshim:

“How to be Holy” (2011)

1) Be  Normal…   2) …But  Not  TOO Normal …

Read more.

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“Honor Thy Father’s General” (2010)

… Michael embraced the religious values of his mother.  However, the court had granted ample visitation with his Dad, who was antagonistic toward his ex-wife’s Judaism.  Leslie argued that Mark’s hostility toward religion was detrimental to Michael’s well being, but the court would not get involved.

Mark insisted that Michael come with him in the car on Saturday.  …Leslie was in a quandary.  Should she tell Michael to fight his father?  If Michael refuses to ride on Saturday, his father will drag him, kicking and screaming, into the car.  Should she tell him to ride in the car with his father?  If she would tell Michael to ride on Saturday in his father’s car, she would undermine the very Judaism that she was trying to teach him!  What should she do?

What she did was turn to Rabbi Shimon Schwab, of Blessed Memory… Rabbi Schwab came up with an insightful solution to this problem…

Read more.

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“A Torah Crash Course” (2006)

A Torah lifestyle is very complex.  We are required to fulfill 613 Biblical Commandments.  Then there are rabbinic injunctions, and countless customs that have developed over the centuries.  It is impossible for one person to fathom it all.

The Talmud (Shabbos, 31a) tells us about one person who tried.

“Shammai,” called out the Gentile to the famous rabbi, “I will convert to Judaism if you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”

Shammai, great scholar and righteous man that he was, was not a man who was known for tolerating mockery.  He threw the guy out.  The questioner decided to try to bring his challenge to Hillel instead…

Read more.

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“Exodus from Belarus” (2005)

In 1904, an 18-year old boy from Postavy, a Russian/Polish/Lithuanian town in what is now Belarus, got on a boat and went to America.  He married, settled in Connecticut, and went into the cattle and chicken farming business.  By the time the Second World War began, his family was well-settled in its pursuit of the American Dream.  His family never experienced the Holocaust.

That farmer raised a family of nine children.  One of his sons had four children.   I am one of those children.

That farmer’s name was Rachmiel Tzeplyevitch (Zeplowitz at Ellis Island; Seplowitz in Connecticut).  I, Yerachmiel Seplowitz, am his grandson…

Read more.

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“Hanging Out on the Corner” (2003)

As the story goes, a secular Jew got on a subway in New York City.  This fellow, who had come to America from Poland, shuddered when he found himself face to face with two VERY Jewish looking fellows with long beards and big black hats…

He was repulsed.  He could barely hold back the venom in his voice.  “What’s the matter with you Chassidim?” he demanded in his still-Yiddish-accented English.  “Why must you call attention to yourselves in front of the Goyim?  This is America, not Poland!  I’m embarrassed to be seen with you!”

The two “Chassidim” looked at each other and then at him with confusion.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said one of them.  “What’s a ‘Goyim?’  We’re not from Poland.  We’re from Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  We’re Amish.”…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on May 6, 2005 at 9:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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