Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! [Deuteronomy. 32:1]
Toward the end of his last day, Moses recites a poem to the Children of Israel. He turns to the heavens and earth and asks them to serve as witnesses for the covenant that has been accepted by the Jews.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, finds this odd. First, why does Moses need to turn to the upper and lower spheres? Are they capable of bearing witness? Second, why the requirement to hear Moses? Isn’t it enough that they see him? Third, why is Moses recruiting heaven and earth for a time when Israel will sin? They haven’t sinned now, so can’t we simply hope for the best?
Rashi understands Moses’s reasoning as follows: “Today, I am still here, and tomorrow I’ll be gone. Eventually, all of you will go the way of flesh. So, who will be around to say that we even made a covenant? If future generations deny this, there will be nobody left to dispute the lie.”
Man was made the most intelligent of animals. But that intelligence has usually resulted in pain and damage. The intellect allows him to lie, obfuscate, distort, deny and revise. Even Cain couldn’t help himself, playing dumb when G-d asked him where was his brother Abel? “Am I my brother’s keeper,” the world’s maiden killer replied.
If man can do it, so can nations. For more than a century, Turkey has denied the genocide of Armenians. The United States has never addressed the theft of the country from the Indians. The British never recognized their slaughter of tens of thousands of Afrikaners in the Boer War. The State of Israel has never told us what happened to up to 5,000 missing Yemenite children nearly 75 years ago.
Little wonder that at least twice a day a Jew starts his prayer for repentance with an uncomfortable truth. He addresses G-d, saying “We are not so brazen and stiff-necked to say … ‘We are righteous and did not sin.’ Rather, we and our fathers did sin.”
And yet sometimes, our fathers do the incredible. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded neighboring Poland with thousands of aircraft, tanks, artillery, carving out a huge front that swept east toward Warsaw. Within a week, the Wehrmacht had pushed nearly 600 kilometers and reached the Polish capital. But Warsaw refused to fall.
The Jews, who comprised more than 10 percent of Warsaw, joined their gentile neighbors in erecting barricades and digging trenches. But they did not forget the High Holy Days. As the Luftwaffe pounded the Jewish quarter many emerged from the cellars and prayed in the buildings that still stood. The sound of the shofar could be heard even amid the German attack.
The Germans had made the Jews a priority and were determined to stop them from holding services on Rosh Hashanah. On Sept. 13, the Luftwaffe sent some 230 aircraft to destroy the Jewish community, particularly the synagogues. The German Army joined with heavy artillery.
On Yom Kippur, the front was filled with the sounds of explosions and prayer. The elderly and youngsters — many of them wearing traditional caftans and round hats — were alternating between the liturgy and digging trenches. The school children were part of the “Children’s Brigade,” 30 percent of whom were Jewish.
As they dug the bombs fell around them. The Jews continued to work and uttered the Vidui, or confessional prayer. When they fell, the Jews cried Shma Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d. The Lord is one.”
Still, Warsaw refused to surrender. On Sept. 25, came Black Monday, the largest attack by the Luftwaffe. The air force conducted 1,150 sorties and dropped more than 600 tons of bombs. The army was moving toward the northern Jewish quarter for the kill.
G-d made a miracle. Hampered by low clouds, soot and fire, the German pilots dropped their payloads on the infantry below. Many were killed and wounded by the so-called friendly fire and the ground offensive was stalled. Air and ground commanders screamed at each other and threatened to tell Hitler.
On Sept. 27, the Polish commander, one of the few senior officers not to have deserted, surrendered the capital. It was the eve of Tabernacles. As soon as the bombs stopped falling, Jews popped out of their shelters and began gathering broken doors and windowpanes. They were assembling Sukkot in commemoration of the booths constructed in the Sinai desert more than 3,000 years earlier.
But there was one thing missing — the Etrog, or citron. The annual shipment of Etrogim was halted by the German invasion. There were only four citrons in Warsaw. One of them was owned by Rabbi Yitzhak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, the head of the famed Brisk Yeshiva.
The Jews were not deterred. The Etrogim were brought, and thousands of Jews lined up to hold the fruit and say a blessing. They ignored the German orders of a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, known as Reb Velvele, was amazed. “How could anyone think in those moments of the commandments,” he asked. “How can I compare myself at all to these ordinary Jews, such great men of faith, to those Jews in Warsaw.”
And that is the flip side of the covenant with Moses. The heavens and earth will attest to the sins of Israel. But they will also testify to their acts of faith and sacrifice. Rosh Hashanah 1939 might not have saved the Jews of Warsaw. But it certainly saved the Jews of Jerusalem and the rest of the Land of Israel eight years later.
G-d remembered. It is up to us to do the same.
Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of [other] generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you. [Deuteronomy. 32:7]