a story of a Brivaleh

Friday, 8 July, 2022 - 1:28 am

This is one of the stories of heroism that I was raised on. Mother and son were imprisoned in the same Soviet prison, on different floors, their cells one on top of the other. I heard, as well, that they corresponded with each other, as prisoners do, using a thin piece of thread that went up and down between the windows. What I was curious about was, what did they write to each other? What does a mother, who has been sentenced to death, write to her son who has been sentenced to “only” ten years of exile to Siberia? 

I knew that we were talking about Momme Sarah )Great-grandmother of Sarah Grוzman from Basel(, a tremendously brave woman, possessing courage that was beyond reason, which came from a sincere willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of preserving the spark of Judaism. Her picture, in all her various disguises, was hanging in every police station throughout the Soviet Union. She personally saved hundreds of men, women and children; she had more names and passports than she could remember. And here she’s in jail, with her young son imprisoned on the floor below her. The inmates mail messages to each other; one can only write a few words. What did she write to him?

I found a description of all this in the writings of her son, R. Moshe Katzenelbogen z”l, known to all of us as Moshe Sareh’s: “The inmates invented a system of throwing notes up and down by tying them to a thin thread. After they would throw the thread, on the end of which was a “Brivaleh”, they would bang on the wall to notify the others, so that the piece of paper would reach its destination. I remember that one time my mother asked me if she can daven the Shmoneh Esreh of Mincha (afternoon prayer) of Shabbat in the morning as well, because she remembers it by heart, and doesn’t remember the Shmoneh Esreh of Shacharit (the morning prayer). I remembered that strictly speaking it is possible to do so, and that’s what I answered.”

Brivaleh – a little note, passes somewhere in a Soviet prison in Tbilisi from floor to floor, from a mother sentenced to death, to a son who has been sentenced to ten years. And what’s in that little Brivaleh? A simple question put by a great woman – can she say the text of Mincha as Shacharit.

How could that be? How could it be that in such a Brivaleh that will be the question that troubles her?

The answer lies in the Chassidic approach to the first Pasuk of Parashat Chukat: “Zot Chukat HaTorah” – This is the decree of the Torah. There are several grades and levels of connection between the Torah and a person. I will quote two of them mentioned in “Likutei Torah” (a basic book on Chassidut, written by the Ba’al HaTanya), on Parashat Chukat: 

a. The written letters – like material letters written upon parchment. The letters are ink, which is something different and separate from the parchment, and which had no connection to the parchment beforehand, but afterwards, when he writes the book with ink on the parchment, they combine and become one. 

b. But engraved letters – they are part and parcel [of the stone] and they are really one with the stone they have been engraved in. 

It seems, then, that for Momme Sarah the Torah and Mitzvot were engraved on her soul, on her heart, and when Torah and Mitzvot are connected to a person by way of engraving, they cannot be separated. The Torah and the person are “part and parcel and they are really one”. So, when the letters of the Torah are engraved upon a person’s heart like letters engraved on a stone, then even when he or she is sentenced to death and has a Brivaleh tied to a thread going between the prison cells, the question will be whether it is permitted to daven Shacharit by using the text of Mincha. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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