Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro was a soul on fire. The intensity of his spiritual vigor permeated the core of his being. Also known as the Piaseczna Rebbe, this towering Chassidic master was as close as we get in Judaism to proclaiming a mere mortal flesh and blood a saintly martyr. His was a life of spiritual heroism and altruistic martyrdom.
The Piaseczna Rebbe was an exceptionally gifted pedagogue and educator. Half a century before Harvard Professor Howard Gardner conceptualized his groundbreaking pedagogical theory of multiple intelligences, the Piaseczna Rebbe already preached and implemented a strikingly similar progressive and nuanced educational approach. The Rebbe’s pioneering pedagogical work, “The Students’ Obligations,” placed primary importance upon spiritual and emotive attunement to the unique and diverse gifts and talents that each student inherently possesses.
Tragically, the last four years of the Rebbe’s life were steeped in agony and genocidal tragedy. Shortly after the Nazis commenced their notorious Blitzkrieg (war of rapid and utter devastation) against Poland, the Rebbe lost his mother, son, daughter in law and sister in law, at the very onslaught of World War Two.
Like other prominent Chassidic Rebbes during this calamitous time, the Piaseczna Rebbe also had ample opportunities to escape the genocidal fate of his co-religionists but insisted on remaining with his disciples in the Warsaw ghetto to the bitter and tragic end. Rabbi Shapira continued to personify holiness and emanate sanctity in the most abominable and atrocious subhuman conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Rebbe remained steadfast in his observance and piety, and risked his life daily, in order to ensure that Jewish religious practice was still tenable for the inhabitants of the ghetto, in the most adverse and catastrophic of circumstances.
During the Holocaust, the Rebbe endeavored to fortify the souls of his followers, and articulated heart-wrenching and impassioned sermons at a time in which starvation, plagues and utter dehumanization were all-pervasive.
Before he was sent to death, the Rebbe arranged for his collection of sermons to be hidden with the rest of ghetto’s archives. Years after the war, this sermonic collection was miraculously found in an empty milk jar, by a polish construction worker. It was onlyin 1957, twelve years after the genocide, and fourteen years after the Rebbe’s death, that these cryptic writings were finally identified as the Rebbe’s Holocaust sermons. This homiletical work, articulated during the heart of darkness, came to be known as the Esh Kodesh (The Fiery Sanctity).
In Parshat Emor, we find the following divine instruction to the members of Israel’s spiritual elite: “oomin hamikdash lo yetze (and from the Temple, he shall not exit).”
Contextually, on the historical level, this instruction pertains to duty of the High Priest/Cohen Gadol, to remain within the sacred boundaries of the Mishkan and Temple at all times. From a Chassidic perspective however, this constitutes a spiritual decree to every Jew, in every place and in every historical epoch, to cultivate constant attunement and attachment to the divine.
This cosmic state of being utterly steeped in godly consciousness, also known as the Chassidic spiritual ideal of Dvekut, constitutes the very raison d’etre and telos of Jewish religious life, according to the mystical tradition. The Piaseczna Rebbe abandoned not the inner domain of the temple of divine consciousness and spiritual sacrificial altruism, during the most adverse and monstrous of circumstances.
We are demanded to achieve no less, in our privileged and relatively serene existences, when compared with the fate of our co-religionist in Europe some seven and a half decades ago.
In the Soul of Life, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin intimates that every Jew can potentially ascend to the level of becoming a walking, breathing, living temple, emanating holiness and redemption to the world entire.
Maimonides made a similar point in his Guide for the Perplexed, stating that a Jew, given proper dedication and guidance, can elevate oneself to the level of prophetic consciousness.
In his legendary Tanya classes, the late and righteous Rabbi Joshua Gordon, rightly pointed out that we become what we invest the bulk of our time and efforts striving to achieve.
Watch many movies, observed rabbi Gordon, and you could potentially become a movie critic. Eat in many restaurants, and you would be poised to become a restaurant critic. Set out select intervals every day to ponder the sublimity and infinity of God-Almighty, and you will become a godly soul.