This week’s Torah Portion discusses the first Pesach (Passover). As we are all aware, one of the central observances of Pesach is refraining from eating leavened products (chametz) and removing them from our homes.
The Torah actually records a dire consequence for someone who disregards this commandment, thus denying the events of the Exodus.
The verse reads, “For whoever eats anything leavened….that person will be cut off from Israel”. Rashi comments on this verse, “ I might think this means that the person who eats leavening will be cut off only from the Jewish people, but he could go and join a different nation. However, elsewhere in the Torah when mentioning the idea of being “cut off” it says, “the person will be cut off from before Me (G-d). He will be cut off from every place which belongs to Me,” Which, of course, is the entire universe.
This consequence of being “cut off” is called in Hebrew kareis. It describes the soul of a person being completely removed from G-d. Only when a person intentionally violates one of the most serious of infractions against the Torah would he receive this penalty, whereas other seemingly more “minor” infractions carry the death penalty. (Which would only be actually carried out if there were witnesses who met certain criteria, and who warned the potential sinner before his deed, and a host of other somewhat “far-fetched” requirements, so that practically speaking, capital punishment was very rarely carried out in ancient Israel.)
Most people would logically assume that losing one’s life would be the greatest punishment imaginable. But in Judaism, there is something even more terrible. The possibility of losing one’s connection to G-d. Just as instinctively it goes against human nature to give up our lives or to put ourselves in mortal danger, so to for a Jew, it is against his or her very nature to severe his relationship with G-d. I’d like to share a very moving story.
During the times of the Holocaust, there was a Jew names Schneeweis, whom the Nazis used as a manager over the other Jewish inmates in the Janowska concentration camp.
He was a very cruel man, and hated the religion of his forbears. Even before the War, he was completely unobservant and anti-religious.
Rabbi Yisrael Spira was a Chassidic Rebbe who was also incarcerated in the same camp. The day before Yom Kippur, the Rebbe and other Jews were adamant about not having to profane the holiday by having to perform forbidden labor. Taking a huge risk, the Rebbe went over to Schneeweis. “You are a Jew.” The Rebbe began. “Tomorrow is Yom Kippur. We beg you, please assign us with an easy work load so that we won’t be forced to desecrate the Holy Day. You must help us.” Schneeweis was moved by the Rabbi’s sincerity, and promised him that they would be assigned a private room to polish windows with dry rags, enabling them to observe Yom Kippur.
The Nazis knew full well when the Jewish Holidays were, and used these times to torment their victims. They chose Yom Kippur, the great Fast day, as the time to give the malnourished inmates a delicious meal, taking sadistic pleasure in how they would forget their religion and throw themselves onto the food. A group of SS officers entered the room where the Rebbe and the others were working. “Time to eat, Jews!” yelled the officer as he wheeled in a cart of meat and other delicacies the starving Jews hadn’t seen since before the war. To eat on Yom Kippur!? Unthinkable! They refused to budge. The Nazi turned to Schneewieis and said to him, “Show them that they will eat or they will be shot,” and pointed his gun at Schneeweis. The cruel, anti-religious Jew looked the Nazi straight in the eyes, and said calmly, and proudly, “ Today is Yom Kippur. We Jews do not eat today.” At this the officer shot him, killing him instantly. The Rebbe and other Jews were shocked. This man who in the past had publically transgressed Judaism, had given his life sanctifying G-d’s name. Truly, a Jew neither wants, nor is able to separate himself from G-d.
Purim is just around the corner, and we are already planning some wonderful events for our community.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom