Rashi: “G-d of the spirits” Moshe said: “Ribbono shel Olam, the thoughts of each and every person are revealed and known before You, and [it is also known to You] that no two people think alike. Appoint a leader for them who will be able to deal with each individual. [Take Yehoshua,] a man in whom there is spirit—who is able to deal with each individual [according to that person’s way of thinking and needs].
A Man of Spirit
The previous Bluzhever Rebbe, Rebbe Yisroel Spira, is well known for his heroism during the Holocaust. This, however, is only one aspect of his incredible life story. He was a distinguished rav in Poland during the First World War and a leader of Galician Jewry before the Second World War. After enduring unspeakable suffering during the Holocaust, the Rebbe came to America and became one of its most influential and beloved Torah leaders.
Wherever he went, people sought the Bluzhever Rebbe’s blessing, encouragement, and advice. He was warm, sensitive and perceptive. His advice was always on the mark; he knew what to say and how to say it.
Those who sought to develop a relationship with the Rebbe learned that it was very easy to feel close to him. A man who was especially close to him once remarked: “There are probably very many people who consider themselves among those closest to the Rebbe – and for good reason. The Rebbe exuded warmth, concern, and pashtus (simplicity), and he made you feel that you really were close to him.”
Many stories tell of the strength with which the Rebbe infused others. In Bergen-Belsen, where he spent the latter part of the War, the Rebbe was spiritual leader of his fellow prisoners. In preparation for Chanukah, shoe dye that could serve as fuel was smuggled out of the camp factory by women inmates. Threads were pulled from sweaters by the women and spun into wicks. On the first night of Chanukah, a secret Ma’ariv minyan was held, led by the Rebbe. Scores of Jews, risking discovery, then joined together for the kindling of the Chanukah lights. The Rebbe recited the three blessings and lit the menorah.
A non-believing former Polish-Bundist leader approached the Rebbe and asked, “Rabbi Spira, I do not understand. I do not understand how you can bring yourself to recite the She’hechyanu blessing, Blessed are You, Hashem… Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season. How can you offer thanks for having been kept alive to experience this horrible time of death, torture, and hunger? Haven’t you made a mockery of our suffering?”
The Rebbe replied, “You ask a very good question. In fact, I myself was wondering how I could joyfully recite these words. But then I looked around and saw this huge assemblage of Jews that had gathered to participate in this mitzvah. Despite the terrible suffering, they insist on remaining Jews, even at the risk of their lives. Have you ever in your life witnessed such a demonstration of courage and faith? For that alone it is sufficient to thank the Creator for giving us the privilege to be alive and witness the greatness of our people. No! We Jews do not give up. We are proud that we have lived to see thousands of Jews who have not given up, who will never give up, and who are living proof that we will one day rebuild a new.”
Years later on a visit to Poland, an acquaintance of the Rebbe met this Bundist leader, who told him, “Tell Rabbi Spira that he saved my life. He will understand.”