May 20, 2024
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At a Viennese Table With Ukrainian Jews

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Vienna as part of Yeshiva University’s emergency humanitarian mission to aid the Ukrainian refugees there. The trip was moving and thought provoking, and, I think, worth talking about. In that vein, I think it’s worth sharing an idea that I heard from my grandfather, Rabbi Simcha Krauss, z”l, who passed away just over two months ago. It is an idea that I thought about a lot in Vienna, and one that I think is profound. It’s also a great pshat that explains an otherwise confusing pasuk.

To provide some context, my grandfather shared this idea at a conference on agunot in December of 2016. He began by quoting the opening line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which says, “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” My grandfather said, “If we would change it a little bit, we would say women are born free but are everywhere in chains.” He then asked whether it would really be fair to say that. After all, not all women are in chains, just those who are agunot.

In response to this question, my grandfather cited Vayikra Perek Chaf-Hey, Pasuk Yud (25:10), which is the pasuk I want to focus on. Perek Chaf-Hey discusses shmittah and yovel, and notes that during the yovel year all slaves are freed. But the Torah’s formulation of this mitzvah is strange. It says,

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכׇל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃

and you shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.

Notably, the pasuk says that in the yovel year freedom should be granted to “all [the land’s] inhabitants.” This is strange because, as we just noted, only slaves are freed during yovel, and not all the land’s inhabitants are slaves. The Torah should have said “ukratem dror l’chol avadeha,” not “l’chol yoshveha.” So why does the Torah say to give freedom “to all its inhabitants”?

The answer, my grandfather explained, is that we cannot have a nation that is half free and half enslaved. If some people are not free then nobody is. My grandfather extended this idea to agunot as well: if there are agunot in the world, then it is not only them who are suffering, but we as well. He added—and I’ll quote this directly—“if we don’t suffer, and we don’t care, then there is a problem with us.”

If we witness suffering and injustice and fail to be moved—if we fail to act—there is something wrong with our avodat Hashem and something problematic with who we are as ovdei Hashem.

This idea is simple, and deeply profound, and I thought about it all week in Vienna because it defined our trip. If the Ukrainian people are not free, then nobody is free. If the refugees across Europe don’t have their basic needs met, then our basic needs are not met. If others can’t experience joy, then our own joy is incomplete. If their Purim isn’t infused with simchah and kedusha and meaning, then our Purim is lacking too.

“Ukratem dror… l’chol yoshveha” is a call for us to feel pained when others suffer, but it might also be a metaphysical truth. Rambam makes this point in Hilchot Yom Tov, Perek Vav, Halacha Yud Chet when he says, in reference to seudat Yom Tov,

“וכשהוא אוכל ושותה חייב להאכיל +דברים ט”ז+ לגר ליתום ולאלמנה עם שאר העניים האמללים, אבל מי שנועל דלתות חצרו ואוכל ושותה הוא ובניו ואשתו ואינו מאכיל ומשקה לעניים ולמרי נפש אין זו שמחת מצוה אלא שמחת כריסו.”

Rambam says that if someone eats and drinks on Yom Tov without ensuring that others have food for the chag, they have not fulfilled simchat Yom Tov, but “simchat kreiso”—they have merely satisfied their stomachs. When we fail to feel and relieve the pain of others, our own simchat Yom Tov is incomplete not just experientially, but halachically and metaphysically.

Sometimes we think of it as being difficult and overwhelming to alleviate people’s suffering, but what strikes me about our time in Vienna is how easy it was to make a difference. All it took was sitting down with a kid and passing him markers or building Legos with him. It just meant sitting next to a refugee at dinner and smiling, even though I didn’t know her or speak her language, or being thoughtful enough to take an old phone out of a dusty drawer and give it to someone who could use it to call their loved ones. Most of the time it was enough to just show up.

We spent one week in Vienna, taking out garbage and cleaning hotel rooms and dancing with people on Purim, and they told us we performed “psychological CPR.”

In our minds, influencing people’s lives requires monumental measures, but in reality, all that determines whether or not we make a difference is how we answer the call to action. Do we, out of fear or discomfort or laziness, delay long enough for the moment to pass and the task to be completed, or do we step forward into the breach and figure out the details later? One week in Vienna taught me that I spend too much time doing the former, and that my capacity to help obligates me to show up.

In that same speech my grandfather noted that during yovel, slaves are freed on Yom Kippur. He thought this was because Yom Kippur is a day where each individual is focused on himself. We think about our own mistakes and shortcomings, ask for forgiveness and plead for life. Yom Kippur is exactly the day when we think we are most justified in saying that we don’t have the time—and perhaps can’t afford—to think of anyone else, and the Torah tells us: No. The message of “ukratem dror… l’chol yoshveha” is that learning, davening and good middot are critical, but not enough: Our relationship with God requires action, and our service is incomplete unless we think about, care for and actively help others.

My other grandfather, Zusha Harcsztark, z”l, was a Holocaust survivor from Lodz, Poland. He returned to Poland numerous times after the war, sometimes with a delegation invited by the government, other times to aid refugees, and still other times to refurbish the matzeivot of the Netziv, Reb Chaim and the Gerer Rebbe. On one of these trips, in the 1980s, he met a non-Jewish man who told him that he had taken a “ta’anis dibbur” for decades after the Holocaust. Having witnessed the horrors of the Shoah, the man decided that if this was what humanity was capable of, he wanted no part in it, and so he refrained from exercising humanity’s defining trait.

To me this story was always incredibly powerful. A man stopped speaking for decades because of the atrocities he saw in the world. That’s an enormous statement for a person to make. But I think it’s worth comparing this model to the one outlined in Vayikra. “Ukratem dror…” tells us that we are linked to the suffering of others and that we are obligated to help when tragedy strikes. My experience in Vienna taught me how important it is to live that message. When the world is subsumed by war and darkness, we are not meant to remove ourselves from it, but to step forward and repair.


Romi Harcsztark is a junior in Yeshiva College majoring in Political Science and Jewish Studies.

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