For many of us, the past six months have been an education in powerlessness.  From where I sit in America, I felt powerless hearing about the brutality and depravity of October 7.  I felt powerless sitting comfortably in my home while day after day people were held hostage in underground darkness, uncared for and unseen.  I felt powerless as the death toll of Palestinians civilians rose and Gaza’s population fell into immense suffering.  I could do my one minute a day to call my representatives to demand an immediate release of those held hostage.  I could check in with friends and family in Israel with messages of love.  I could donate to organizations getting aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza.  But, at the end of the day, what power do I have to stop a war, free the hostages, and end the suffering of so many people?  I feel powerless.  (continued below)

 

R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, who wrote from the Warsaw Ghetto (in 1939-1942), refused to acquiesce to feelings of powerlessness.  In his work, the Eish Kodesh (Holy Fire), he time and time again finds ways to reclaim power and self-determination in the face of Nazi oppression and occupation.  He teaches that we have power to draw down God into this world and manifest our own salvation through the performance of mitzvot and through acts of compassion.

In his derashah for the Last Day of Pesah in 1940, he teaches that sometimes we have to draw down God’s word from the world of Speech to the world of Action.  When God’s word is stuck in the world of Speech, salvation is delayed.  However, while we may not be able to foresee the future and know the final outcome, we still have power over our salvation:

 

אש קודש, אסרו חג של פסח, ת״ש

והנה עתה שאין לנו לא נביא ולא חוזה, עשיותנו המצוות שהוא ג״כ המשכת דבר ד׳ היינו דבר ד׳ במצוות, אל עולם העשי׳ לעשות המצוות, פועל להמשיך את דבר ד׳ של הישועה ג״כ אל עולם העשיה

 

Sacred Fire: Torah From the Years of Fury, trans. J. Hershy Worch, p. 80

Although we have neither prophet nor seer, our observance of the commandments is also a drawing down of the word of God, because God’s word is in the commandments.  To physically perform the commandments is to draw them down into the world of Action, and when this happens God’s words of salvation are also drawn down to the world of Action.

 

When we perform mitzvot, which are the word of God, we manifest God’s word into action.  In doing so, we draw God into this world of Action.  R. Shapira didn’t just write about this; he embodied it.  Even as conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto intensified, he continued to operate a beit midrash within his house which served as a place for refugees to sleep at night and a place of learning and prayer during the day.  The historian R. Szymon Huberband documented that, “when use of mikveh was a crime that might incur death penalty, Rabbi Shapira arranged to have a certain mikveh available for use, and made a secret, early-morning journey to the mikveh by foot.”1  At a time when the Nazis tried to exert control over every aspect of Jewish life through the control of Jewish bodies, voices, and actions, R. Shapira refused to hand over that control and instead insisted that it is through mitzvot, actions that we perform with our minds and bodies, that we can manifest our own salvation.  

 

Furthermore, R. Shapira taught that we not only have the power to manifest God in this world through mitzvot but also through acts of hesed and compassion.  In his derasahah on Parashat Hukkat in 1941, he taught that we can awaken and arouse God’s compassion for us when we act compassionately toward each other: 

 

אש קודש, פרשת חקת, תש״א

צריכין לעורר בקרבנו רחמנות על ישראל זולתו, לא לבד שצריכין ליתן כל מה שיכולים ליתן להם, רק הרחמנות בעצמה שמעוררין בקרבנו על ישראל פועלת במרום.

 

Sacred Fire: Torah From the Years of Fury, trans. J. Hershy Worch, p. 193

We must arouse within ourselves compassion for our fellow Jews.  Not only must we give them everything we can; we also need to arouse our compassion for them, because when we arouse mercy within ourselves, mercy is aroused in heaven.

 

While we may not have direct power over God’s mercy, we do have power over our own capacity for mercy and the ways in which we interact with one another.  In any situation, we have the ability to choose to act compassionately; in doing so, we arouse compassion not only in ourselves but in God.  God responds to human compassion.

 

Once again, R. Shapira not only taught about compassion, he lived it.  R. Nehemiah Polen writes, “[R. Shapira] organized, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, a public kitchen at his own home that serviced fifteen hundred people, largely refugees from Piaseczno.”2  R. Shapira did not see himself as powerless.  Through his compassion, he had the power to feed many in need in his community and in so doing, to arouse God’s compassion as well.  

 

But, perhaps, one of the greatest ways in which R. Shapira retained power is with continued writing and teaching.  Through his weekly derashot and teachings, he not only claimed his own voice but offered words of comfort, faith, and determination that strengthened his community as well.  In his derashah on Parashat VaYeishev, he creatively rereads Yosef’s telling of his dream about binding sheaves (alumim—root alef-lamed-mem) to be about the binding of mouths, or muteness (ilmut—root aleph-lamed-mem) that comes from brokenness.  It is not the brothers’ bound sheaves that are surrounding Yosef’s sheath, but rather an entire community gone mute, so broken that they are unable to speak or think or feel.  It is their muteness (ilmut) that surrounds the very same muteness of R. Shapira himself.  R. Shapira understands Yosef’s sheath standing up erect, encircled by the brothers’ sheaves, to be an act of crying out and finding voice.  He writes, “but when I saw that even the muteness was mute, I could not bear it.  I took the courage to cry out to God even louder, when alumoteichem, your ‘muteness’ surrounded mine and you took strength from me.”3

 

Through mitzvot, through acts of compassion, through the use of our own voices, R. Shapira insists that we not only have power over our lives but we have the power to influence God.

 

In over 100 ghettos, Jews organized to escape the ghetto or revolt against their capturers.  The Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 was the largest armed resistance in which some of those who still remained in the ghetto after rounds of deportations struck back against German troops.4  They successfully resisted for nearly one month until the Nazis finally put down the uprising in May, when they destroyed the ghetto and deported everyone remaining to labor or death camps.  Marek Edelman was one of the few who escaped death and deportation by escaping through the sewers.  Decades later, in a conversation with Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, Edelman said, “resistance was a choice with how to live in the moments before we died.  Death was a given.  How to live in the interim was not.”5

 

Like R. Shapira, those who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not see themselves as powerless.  While they may have been powerless over the inevitable fact of their deaths, they were not powerless over the last moments of their lives.

 

Occasionally, when I teach R. Shapira’s Torah about faith in the face of such horror, someone will cynically ask something like, “But, what good did it do?  Didn’t R. Shapira die in the Holocaust like so many others?  Wasn’t his faith in salvation for naught?”  On the one hand, R. Shapira believed that one’s actions, through mitzvot and hesed, could actually hasten salvation and bring God into the world of Action.  He believed in salvation and he believed in our human ability to effect salvation.  But as Edelman said, it’s not just about the final outcome—it’s about each and every moment before.  While R. Shapira’s faith in God didn’t change the fact of his death at the hands of the Nazis who shot him and all the remaining Jews in the Trawniki Labor Camp in 1943, his faith, however, did change his life every moment until his death—as well as the lives of the community around him.  His refusal to give into a sense of powerlessness was that which strengthened him and gave him the ability to strengthen others.


Depending on one’s theology, we may or may not have power to influence God—but we do have power over our own lives: through our actions, our words, our emotions, and our relationships.  It is not just about our ability to influence a final outcome, it is about retaining the power to be people of mitzvot, of hesed, and action.  I don’t know that I believe I have the power to change the situation in Gaza and Israel.  But, R. Shapira’s Torah has taught me that I am not powerless.  We decide through our actions what type of people we are in the world.  We decide whether we are people of faith and compassion.  By believing in our own power, we strengthen not only ourselves but others as well.


1. R. Nehemia Polen, The Holy Fire (1999), p. 13.

2. The Holy Fire, p. 14

3. Sacred Fire, p. 23.

4. An excellent primer can be found here: https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/warsaw-ghetto-uprising.

5. Michael Berenbaum, “Some Clarifications on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” in Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust, ed. Eric J. Sterling (2005), pp. 22–23.