The month of Cheshvan is the only month on the Jewish calendar that has no unique endemic avodah. Even months that contain a fast day have special focus and significance.
For me, personally, when our sukkah and its decorations are put away and Cheshvan begins, I pull out my grandfather’s notes.
My mother’s father, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn, was the Rabbi of the renowned Slonimer Shul on the Lower East Side. Aside from being a noted talmid chacham, he was an excellent speaker. From his pleasant personality, charisma, and sense of humor, one would never know the extreme difficulties of his youth.
As his yahrzeit is 27 Cheshvan, I think a lot about him and the profound effect he continues to have on me during Cheshvan.
I have a few pages of my grandfather’s notes and some taped recordings of drashos that he gave in Yiddish, which are very precious to me. His writing is very hard to read, and every year I try to decipher a little more of his writings.
My grandfather’s father, the Rav of the town of Selz, Russia, was brutally murdered by the Nazis along with his mother and sister. He had no idea what happened to his ten-years-younger brother, Zusha.
My grandfather spent the war years on the run, including some time with partisans in the forest. Alone in the world, he used his excellent social skills and sharp mind to survive. Most of the stories of how he survived will never be known, as he hardly spoke about his war experiences.
My grandfather’s family name was really Wilamowsky. At one point during the war, his passport was confiscated. Somehow, he found a passport on the ground that bore the name Kohn. As the passports then had no pictures attached, from then on, he became Yaakov Kohn.
Sometime later, he met my grandmother in Tashkent, where they married. They eventually arrived in America and began life anew on the Lower East Side. Once he came to America, it was easier to leave his name as Kohn. He would say that he was Rabbi Kohn who wasn’t a kohen.
One day, someone was speaking to my grandfather and heard that his original name was Wilamowsky and that he had had a younger brother named Zusha. The man informed my grandfather that his younger brother Zusha was alive and well. Zusha had survived the war, also having spent the war years with partisans. After the war, Zusha became extremely close with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In fact, for the rest of his life, the Rebbe would refer to Zusha as “my partisan” and Zusha became a beloved and noted personality in Lubavitch circles.
As soon as he was able to, my grandfather rushed to Crown Heights, where he was reunited with his brother. Unbeknownst to them, during the war years they had not been far from each other.
That reunion must have been incredibly joyous and emotional. For the rest of their lives, the two brothers remained close. The fact that they lived in two different worlds made no difference whatsoever. My grandfather was a Lithuanian rabbi, while Reb Zusha was a heartfelt devotee of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As the only survivors of their family, they had no time nor energy to waste on the difference in the way they led their lives.
On a national level, the Jewish people’s collective heart is shattered over the recent tragedies, and we feel continued angst over the plight of our captives and soldiers.
Yet, at the same time, we are also awed by ourselves and the incredible unity we all feel now. The added focus on Hashem, the renewed recognized primacy of Torah study, the dedication to performance of mitzvos like tzitzis and Shabbos observance, the increased emphasis on prayer and T’hilim, and the selfless chesed being performed is heartwarming and encouraging.
In a sense, many Jews didn’t know they had a brother who was still alive. They felt that the Jews who were not like them were almost a different people, alienated and cut off, and lost in the past. But then, on Simchas Torah, Hamas took away our passports that bore our names and affiliations. The only thing Hamas saw was that we were Jews. We suddenly realized that we are all brothers and sisters, and that we need to be there for each other. We now see pictures of Jews of different backgrounds helping each other, hugging each other, and giving chizuk to each other.
Rav Chaim Marcus, one of the esteemed rebbeim in Heichal HaTorah, and Rav of Congregation Israel of Springfield, New Jersey, related to the Heichal students some of his experiences from when he joined a rabbinic mission to Eretz Yisrael last week.
During their trip, one of the people they met was Dana Cohen. On Simchas Torah, her religious yishuv, Shlomit, was not attacked. But the nearby yishuv of Pri-Gan was attacked and needed assistance. Dana’s husband, Aviad, and others from Shlomit’s security team rushed to help Pri-Gan. Arriving there even before the army, they saved Pri-Gan from eight terrorists who were trying to infiltrate. However, in doing so, two members of Shlomit security, including Aviad, were killed.
Dana, now the mother of four orphans, told the assemblage, “We have to work on maintaining and growing the incredible emunah and achdus we all feel now. If that happens, then my husband’s death will have been worth it.”
At the conclusion of the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln noted that they could not consecrate the land upon which the battles were fought. The soldiers who gave their lives fighting had already done so. The only thing left for them was to ensure that they did not die in vain.
That is now our task, as well. It’s up to us to ensure that they did not suffer or die in vain!