Responding to Loss with Leadership: The Nesivos Shalom on the Holocaust
by Tzipora Weinberg
(Note: All translations are newly rendered from the writings of the Nesivos Shalom zatzal in Lashon Hakodesh, with hope that they are faithful to the original.)
Who hasn’t heard of the Nesivos Shalom? The writings and philosophy of the Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky Zatzal, have garnered an unprecedented following across the Jewish spectrum. The Nesivos Shalom, unlike any other contemporary Sefer Machshava of chassidic provenance, is one of the most highly quoted and requested resources, with countless shiurim dedicated to its study in Yeshivishe, Sephardic, and Modern Orthodox circles. Slonimer chassidus in toto reflects the teachings of the Nesivos Shalom; Chasidim would say that the vibrant center of Torah and Avodah that is Slonim owes its entire being to the devotion and self-sacrifice of Rav Shalom Noach, who embodied the virtues and values immortalized in these holy books. The unique perspectives of the Nesivos Shalom on the Holocaust, however, are lesser known, yet the potent messages he internalized and encapsulated in his writings resonate ever stronger with the passing years. How does the architect of Olam Habinyan, the realm of creative and positive development, relate to the unprecedented act of destruction that was Churban Europe, the Shoah?
The topic of the Holocaust is so vast, the calamity so massive, that the greatest thinkers of that generation differed in their responses to it. In grappling with this chapter of history, the Slonimer Rebbe did not hesitate to confront both the depth of the tragedy and its implications for the future, the personal and collective obligations warranted by the destruction of European Yiddishkeit. How does a believing Jew face the destruction, extract treasure from tragedy, draw on the wellsprings of the past to forge ahead in the present and create a vibrant future? The Rebbe sketched these challenges and guided his disciples through the possibilities; the pathways of peace that could, and did, emerge from the hardship.
The Slonimer Rebbe, while not a survivor of the inferno, suffered great losses in the Holocaust. His entire family, except for two brothers who also left Baranovich to live and learn Israel, was among the murdered, and he was completely distraught that the fount of his avodas Hashem, Chassidus Slonim in Baranovich, was consumed by flames. The Slonimer Rebbe was of the first to perceive and codify, ahead of the media or newspapers of the time, just how penetrating the breach of the Holocaust was to klal yisrael. In one of his essays on the Holocaust, the Rebbe described the event in the following manner: “ The chapter of the Holocaust is a “parasha stumah”- a concealed interval. The history of the Jewish people is rife with episodes of extreme hardship, trials that we will never completely understand nor fully appreciate. But this chapter is a mystery within mysteries; utterly ineffable. This is the phrase that best portrays the awful destruction: In any attempt to approach it, our minds, our hearts will fail to grasp it- in effect they fall short in want of capacity to decipher what has befallen us.” Those closest to the Rebbe relate that for the rest of his life, he lived this chapter of history such that the members of his own family felt as if they were among the survivors. In contrast to other responses that served exclusively to eulogize, mourn and commemorate, the Slonimer Rebbe wrestled with the deep pain and unfathomable ruin wrought by the Holocaust, yet refused to succumb to passive despair. Publicly and privately, he sought to translate the tragedy in terms of obligation: to self, to those that were lost, to the Ribono Shel Olam.
At the directive of his Rebbe, the Beis Avrohom, the young Rav Shalom Noach left his home in Baranovich and migrated to Israel in 1935. Shortly thereafter, he married Chava, the daughter of Rav Avraham Weinberg, future Rebbe of Slonim and author of Bircas Avraham. With the outbreak of World War II, the Rebbe was in his prime, disseminating Torah as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chabad in Tel Aviv. The heads of the Yeshiva and its students were deeply impressed with the knowledge, depth and devotion of their new leader, and wrote a letter of appreciation, enumerating the many attributes of Rav Beresovsky, to Rav Verner of Teveria. Rav Yoel Kahan and Rav Shlomke Berman z”l were among Rav Beresovsky’s talmidim there; Chabad was one of the few Yeshivos in Israel at that time. Yet the turn of events that brought an end to Yiddishkeit in Europe would also change the timbre of the Rebbe’s life’s work, direction and focus.
Despite outsized success at his position, Rav Beresovksy would find no peace as news of the annihilation began to arrive. Israel was itself in a state of emergency due to the British involvement in the war; Tel Aviv, the residence of Rav Beresovsky at the time, fell victim to a bombing by the Italian air force; over 130 people were killed at once. The Rav was consumed with fear about the lot of his parents, his brother, his friends and fellow students in the Yeshiva. He was overwhelmed with concern about the community of Slonim/Baranovich and their leader, Rav Shlomo Dovid Yehoshua. He captured the shattered spirit of the time in the following sicha, which candidly relays his broken heart and despair: “All those who understood the gravity of the news began to perceive yet then the magnitude of the tragedy- that the Haman of our generation, oppressor of all Jews, planned with exactitude to decimate, murder, and eradicate the Jews from wherever they dwelled, young and old, women and children; that he saw in the Jewish nation a primary enemy. His evil gaze surveys and encompasses Israel as well. All the world follows anxiously as the wicked ones succeed on the battlefields of Europe. It appears that they have vanquished country after country. And each point of their triumph results in immediate attack against the Jews that reside there, thus he proceeds to eradicate exile after exile. Amidst the vortices of blood, and the information about the enemy that reaches us, we hear of Baranovich, home of all that is holy and dear to us, how she was taken, destroyed, decimated. Our yeshiva, Toras Chesed, no longer exists. .Our holy Rebbe, may Hashem avenge his blood, hides from the wrath of the Germans that lie in wait for him, doubtful of how much longer he might prevail. All of our dear ones, our community and our beloved family, so close to our hearts- all are being tortured at the hands of the bitter enemy.
The entire prophecy of Tochacha had fallen upon us. In the morning we asked, when will it be night? And at night we asked, when will the morning come? …We endured days of trepidation and nights of sleeplessness when life seemed absent of purpose, without even the smallest spark of hope, of light. All was bleaker than bleak, collapsing under oppressive sorrow and anguish, overwhelmed by the feeling that you are alive in a world that is sinking to the depths, everything falling apart. In these days I could find no peace. Slonim is being destroyed, all those close to me, my parents and teachers, brothers and friends led to the slaughter, day in and day out. The entire world is enveloped in pain, and I? Where am I to go? I felt then that I was enduring my own demise, unable to continue. We fled from place to place as if losing our sanity. Rivers of tears would fall from my eyes each night over the destruction of my nation, and my strength completely abandoned me.” 
Through the fog of pain and the daze induced by destruction, Rav Beresovsky began to recognize that he had a mission to fulfill. It was in these very days of confusion, when the public consensus about the present and the future of Yiddishkeit was unequivocal only in its uncertainty, that the Rebbe made an uncharacteristically impetuous decision. He relinquished his coveted position at Chabad in 1941 and began immediately to build the Slonimer Yeshiva, reflecting that “ if we cannot save the lives; we must save the spirit; we will continue to do what they can do no longer, so that the teachings of our holy Rebbes of Slonim will not disappear from this earth”.
The words that follow describe this decision in his own words, written by the Rebbe as introduction to his sefer Toras Avos:
“And this is what has stood by for our fathers and for us, that at the time of the Churban and catastrophe, while the fiery flames are yet rising from the burnt exile, and revelations, like those of Iyov, reach us from all directions, that the world has darkened its door upon us, and with it the majority of our holy group, chasidim and bnei yeshiva and their leaders, may Hashem avenge their blood. While we stood in shock and horror, not knowing why how or the promise for the future would be kept, suddenly Hashem enlightened our spirit from on high, and with divine sacrifice we established our Yeshiva “Beis Avrohom” in the holy city of Yerushalayim, that it may serve as a continuous link, in accordance with the wisdom and will of our Rebbes. This was an effort born of unadulterated Emunah, since there was no possible chance that we could succeed under the circumstances that prevailed at the time.”
Yet succeed he did. Through personal sacrifice that took a severe toll on the health of the Rav, causing physical suffering for the rest of his life, Yeshivas Beis Avrohom was indeed established; Slonim would live on.
Rav Beresovsky’s ability to stand resolute in this endeavor is a testament to tremendous strength of character and an indomitable will. However, the present Rebbe of Slonim, Rav Shmuel Beresovsky shlita, describes this act as out of character for his father. He states that the Nesivos Shalom was scrupulously reluctant to rely on his own opinion in deciding matters of import, that he would consistently seek the counsel of wise men before taking decisive steps in his public and private life. But when Rav Beresovsky decided to found Yeshivas Slonim, not one person was consulted; indeed, many observers opined that his decision to create a Yeshiva was far from prudent. Despite the ubiquitous voices of dissent, and the likelihood of privation to his own family, Rav Beresovsky held his own. What spurred him to act in direct opposition to his own nature and to the tremendous obstacles in his path, when all signs pointed to the intractability of the plan? The Rebbe, in sparse and modest language, references that particular point in time:” An internal pull did not allow me, under any circumstances, to succumb, to stand by as my nation and birthplace was lost to me. The feeling of, ‘if I remain silent at this time’, left me without peace, and I felt as if the hand of Hashem was leading me. To abandon the field of battle and fall behind was out of the question, to desist in implementing this plan was unthinkable. Were we to hesitate, perhaps the last vibrant ember would disappear, and we would have no source from which to draw the strength to rebuild; the moment might pass and the opportunity would be lost, heaven forbid. When the time came, erev Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, Hashem infused us with divine spirit to decide in spite of it all to open our Yeshiva.” The Rebbe clearly felt that he was heeding a heavenly call, that a divine design directed him to transport the seeds of Slonim to the holy land.
And so it was. On the first day of Cheshvan, the yeshiva opened in the Beis Yisrael section of Jerusalem. The radio broadcast of the day publicized the German breach of the outer forts of Moscow. The imminent downfall of Moscow, along with the total collapse of the Russian forces, pointed to a victorious outcome for the German forces. That same day, with overwhelming emotion, Rav Beresovsky established Yeshivas Slonim, effecting redemption and renewal for Slonimer Chassidus. The time was not conducive for celebration. 1942 was one of the most catastrophic years in Jewish history, marred by the murderous and barbaric decimation of Polish Jewry. Even in hindsight, the involvement in a creative venture in the midst of Jewish devastation appears precarious at best. Rav Beresovsky himself understood this well, as his remarks to those assembled reflect: “At this time, oceans of blood, of all those dearest to us, are spilled like water. Nothing is left save a small stem; our eyes are lifted heavenward in hope that this stem will root itself upon a reef that will be the foundation of our fellowship once again. And if one asks whether now, with the world engulfed in pain and destruction, is the appropriate time for renewal, we have found in the words of our sages that while the flames that consumed the Bais Hamikdash yet ascended, we received the news of the birth of Mashiach. At the apex of our deepest loss, there dawns the moment of our rejuvenation. We are but emissaries for those who came before us, dedicating ourselves to carry out what they began. Their light will shine the way for us as we follow in their footsteps.”
The option to build the Yeshiva was a risk born of profound grief, mingled with belief in the essentiality of Slonimer teachings. In years to follow, the Rebbe wrote that he felt the presence of his own Rebbes at his side, supporting and aiding him in this task.
By struggling against countless obstacles to recover what was lost in the midst of the conflagration as the fires were yet ablaze, Rav Beresovsky rescued the spirit of Slonim, grasping the holy letters as they hovered in the atmosphere, providing a haven for them, that they may be cherished for future generations. Was this, the element of true self-sacrifice, the essential elixir that propelled the Rebbe’s writings to universal acceptance? The Slonimer Rebbe and his spoken imperatives were one and the same; the overwhelming sorrow he experienced became a conduit for the edification of his lost Chassidus. His poetic elegies of devastation and tears fill pages of his works, but between the lines of heartbreak beats a call to arms for those who did survive. That message outlasted the pain and sorrow, and impels its readers, its followers, to greatness yet today.
Tzipora Weinberg is an educator, author and presenter, serving as teacher leader and educational coach in numerous settings nationwide and abroad. Her particular focus is on Holocaust studies, and she is a consultant to schools and lay leaders, enabling the meaningful encounter with this crucial chapter in Jewish history.
 Haharuga Alecha, Zechor es Asher Asa Lecha Amalek.
 V’haya Reishischa Mitzar, printed first in Haharuga Alecha and subsequently in Nesivei Binyan V’yetzira
 Rav Dovid Povarsky immediately succeeded Rav Beresovsky as Rosh Yeshiva; he would later serve as Rosh Yeshivas Ponevezh.
 Nesivei Binyan Veyitzira; maamar Vehaya Reishischa Mitzar
 from Sicha of present Slonimer rebbe