In 1930, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was 41 years old and a rabbi in Piaseczno, a small town outside Warsaw. Seven years before, in 1923, he had established his own yeshiva, Da’as Moshe, which became one of the largest yeshivot in interwar Warsaw. Things in Poland in 1930 were deteriorating for the Jews but their collective lives were not yet in danger. Conscription to the army for young men was a danger and pogroms had plagued the area in increasing frequency. No one, of course, could imagine what would transpire in the next decade, and while some Jews chose to immigrate to various places, most continued to dwell in Poland, where they had lived for centuries.
On the evening of the second day of Rosh Hashanah that year, R. Shapira delivered a drasha, or sermon, that was subsequently collected in his Derekh Ha-Melekh (186-191). Tucked away in that sermon was a long parable (mashal) and explanation (nimshal) in which R. Shapira offers a sweeping rendering of the nature and purpose of the Jewish exile. The context is the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but the parable digs deeper into R. Shapira’s view of Israel’s existence, its potential, and the state of the world and the Jews. There is a surprisingly universalistic tenor to R. Shapira’s understanding of the covenant and the Jews’ responsibility in fulfilling it. In addition, there is an interesting way in which R. Shapira understands the corrupted nature of divine wisdom as manifest in the Torah the Jews have kept, which remains a barrier to fulfilling God’s intention of giving the Torah to Israel at Sinai.
Below I reproduce the mashal and nimshal as written in Derekh Ha-Melekh (adding some references not in the text), and then afterward offer my reading of R. Shapira’s words. As far as I know, this is the first time this text has been translated into any language.
There was once a great and wise king and his greatest desire was to convey his wisdom to the subjects under his dominion. However, because his wisdom was so lofty and his subjects were so uncivilized, they could not understand his wisdom and refused to heed his words. Even more, to them the words of the king were folly because of their limited understanding and their ignorance.
The king had a son and the son was also wise but not as wise as the king. Nevertheless, he understood much of the king’s wisdom. The king sent the son out to the provinces, thinking that because the son’s wisdom was somewhat less than the king’s, he could envelop the king’s wisdom in parables and stories so that his subjects could understand it. This way they could come to understand something of the king and more willingly take upon themselves his rule.
But it was not an easy task for the son; the people constantly argued with him and chastised him and sometimes didn’t even allow him to speak, even in parables and stories that they could understand. But the son, knowing that what he was doing was what the king wanted him to do, was relentless and continued even given all the obstacles.
In time, the son had some success and slowly some of those who loved the king began to understand his wisdom [through the son’s tutelage]. But over time, since the son was alone and distant from the king, living amid his detractors who made his life miserable, the son’s own mind began to weaken and he eventually fell into a bitter depression. And since his mind became weak he was no longer able to teach his constituents the wisdom of the king, and [in time] he couldn’t even open his mouth and speak of the king’s wisdom at all. And with this, he became more and more despised in the eyes of the people. Even those who were sympathetic to him beforehand, given that he was sent by the king and he held the king’s wisdom in his mouth, now they, too, abandoned him and wanted nothing to do with him. Moreover, they too began to ridicule him and laugh at him as the detractors had done before, heaven forbid.
And when the king’s son saw all this, not only that he could no longer convey the greatness of the king, but even now his own wisdom was diminished, he knew if more time passed everything would be lost. He sat and cried and contemplated his options. To return to the king wasn’t an option because the king commanded him not to show his face without first teaching the people the king’s wisdom. In addition, when the people will see that he was abandoning them, they will try to kill him on the way. He thought perhaps if he was able to bring the king to the people, it might be better because then his father would see this bitter and dire situation. In that case, the king may send his son back home until his own mind was strengthened once again. Or, because much of his own diminished knowledge was because of his own bitter depression, when he sees his father and feels the joy [of that reunion], he will regain his strength and spirit and will once again attain the level of knowledge he had before. And thus he could once again teach the people of his father’s wisdom.
But how would he bring the king? His father told him that he will only come to him when the son reveals the wisdom of the king to the people, exhibiting the greatness of the king. But if he will deceive the king and call him anyway, the king will come thinking his wisdom has been revealed and he will see that this was all to embarrass him, to the contrary, this will cause the detractors to hate the king forever. In addition, his son who came to teach them, will be seen as a fool and even insane, heaven forbid. This will increase the acrimony more than before.
The son became very worried and his spirit sank and he became increasingly confused. And when the son lost all hope he said to himself, “I will call my father and when he sees me crying he will comfort his son. My father will see there is no other alternative. I have been hopelessly confused and I find myself in danger.”
And if the son truly knew how to entreat his father, not only would the king not be angry at him, but seeing him would give him renewed strength and lift his spirits. And then, said the son, I will be able to continue my work passing on his wisdom to the people. However, if even now the son cannot entreat the king and having already lost his understanding of what he has done, deceives the king, the king will become even angrier. It’s not only that the son will have failed in his mission to convey the wisdom of the king to the people but he will be guilty of deception.
God created the world in order that God be known [in the world]. But since divine wisdom transcends all worlds, human beings cannot comprehend it and thus commit acts of idolatry, heaven forbid. God thus took Israel, in whom God implanted divine wisdom and greatness enveloped in a corporeal manner in this world and in this worldly Torah. And this Torah teaches the wisdom of God. Moshe revealed this Torah which caused it to descend into this world in a corporeal form. Not only that, but it was to be sent from the palace of God to the four corners of the world, as the Talmud teaches, “God did not exile Israel except in order to gather converts.” (B.T. Pesahim 87b). If not for that, Israel would have received punishment for their sins in Eretz Israel [and not have been exiled]. Rather, [they were exiled] only in order to gather converts and teach them divine knowledge until the entire world would be filled with the knowledge of God.
Thus Israel went into exile with the light of God’s Torah, which was meant to enlighten the entire world such that they will all accept the yoke of heaven. But this was not an easy task. [The nations] contested Israel and made them suffer all kinds of travails, and this included [supernal] adversaries that were aroused from above. And that which the nations did below amounted to the same thing [as the supernal adversaries did above]. The sitra akhra and the darkness [of evil] prevented Israel from spreading the light of God to the world. And this caused Israel great distress, “Master of the Universe, for your sake we face death all day long.” (Psalms 42:23). By means of these travails the soul of Israel became depressed and joyless. As a result, even the knowledge of God in Israel became corrupted. It is not only that Israel no longer had the strength to teach the world the wisdom and greatness of God and to show them that God is accessible to them and that God’s dominion s everywhere. Rather, [divine wisdom] became concealed from us as well. In addition, some of Israel will, heaven forbid, leave the path because of their deficiency of divine knowledge. And even those who remain bound to this holiness with great effort (mesirat nefesh), they will no longer have the supernal wisdom necessary to be a true Jew (ish yisraeli) who would be able to beautify and sanctify [divine wisdom] in song and praise. What, then, will be?
Our entire raison d’être is to reveal the sanctity of the divine to ourselves and to the world and yet the sitra akhra prevents us from completing that task, making the world a dark place. And this is true of the Jew as well, the mind of the son of the king has been corrupted. Yet it is true when God says, “In the day of your joy and festivals … blow the trumpets on your offerings.” (Numbers 10:10). This is because the shofar is the call to divine eternity that will come, and [with it] we disclose God’s sanctity. In the future the great shofar will also be sounded in every moment of joy and celebration, and Rosh Hodesh, and in it will be the revelation of even more holiness in our sounding [the shofar].
This also explains the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But how can we sound the shofar knowing not only that we have not taught the wisdom of God to others, but we are also blemished? But do we really have a choice? We are already buried up to our necks in physical and spiritual travails since both knowledge and joy have been concealed. Literally our entire bodies and the holiness therein is in a state of danger, heaven forbid.
“Happy is the people who knows the teruah.”(Psalms 89:16). And the Tamud teaches, “Those who know how to convince their creator with the teruah.” And we should know that the sounding of the shofar is not sufficient since we are really not fit to sound it. We do so only because we have no other choice …” “From the narrows I call to Yah.” (Psalms 118:5). Not in the midst of joy and divine disclosure, but from the narrows. Answer us so that we may expand, at which time all of Israel will come close to God with the sounding of the shofar in its holiness and joyfulness. “A new heart and a new soul I will place within you” (Ezekiel 36:26) that you will be able to serve God with joy in an expansive manner. And you will reveal to us and to the entire world the sanctity of God, and we will merit redemption, may it come soon in our time.
On the surface, R. Shapira’s mashal and nimshal are pretty standard fare. A king sends his son to the provinces to send a message to the people who are recalcitrant and unrepentant. The son longs to return to the king but is exiled in the service of the king. Mashalim like this, describing Israel’s plight, exist in midrashic and post-midrashic literature, in many places and in many iterations.
But there are some curious turns in R. Shapira’s mashal and the way he chooses to explain it that are worth noting. First, the son’s exile, or mission, is not the result of the son’s disobedience but in fact the son was created, as it were, as the repository of divine will embodied in corporeal form, both in his essential nature (his soul) and the fact that he carries with him a lesser form of divine wisdom (Torah) that couches God’s will in a way that the world can understand it. It is interesting that the language of “chosenness” never appears; instead, R. Shapira says, “God takes [u’le-kakh] Israel.” Secondly, the “people” in the provinces are not Israel but the nations of the world who must hear this divine message before the world, and Israel, can reach its redeemed state. Finally, third, the plight of the son is not merely that he fails in his mission, but that he too becomes diminished and his message (Torah) becomes corrupted as a result of his inability to succeed in conveying it in a convincing way.
The son is then put into a quandary. What can he do? He cannot return home empty-handed, that is, without spreading the light of the king’s wisdom to the world. That would not only be a failure of the task at hand but would, in fact, undermine the entire creation. He cannot bring the king to the provinces, because that would result in an embarrassment to the king. The son remains stuck between his failure and his mission, and the result is not simply sitting as Jonah did at end of his story (although in that story Nineveh repents and is saved!), for in fact the son comes to realize his failure is in part because the travails he experienced at the hands of the nations have weakened the very message he was supposed to carry to the world.
R. Shapira turns to the shofar as a kind of last resort, an option not mentioned in the mashal. In a sense, it is the son’s call to the king that is nothing more than an expression of lost hope and anguish. The language of narrowness and expansion is suggestive and one wonders whether it refers to the narrow end of the shofar’s mouthpiece and the expanded end where the sound exits to the world.
The son here is not only asking to complete his mission of bringing Torah to the world; he is asking for his own salvation that consists of “[a] new heart and a new soul,” the requisite components of completing the mission by refining the message of Torah. Redemption for R. Shapira is a case of mutual dependence (hai b’hai talya), Israel finding its way out of the depression of exile while still engaged with its universal mission to the nations. If Israel remains in a state of depression, its Torah is corrupted. If it abandons the world, its mission, which is nothing less than the purpose of creation, remains unfulfilled.
This offers an interesting window into the nature of Torah itself—not as much the possession of Israel as the object Israel carries to teach the world. Ultimately, in this mashal and nimshal, the world must be transformed, and Israel carries God’s message to do it. But alas, Israel is not strong enough to shield itself from the protestations of the nations, and so the son becomes diminished, his Torah corrupted. In such a state, exile moves from being an opportunity to a tragedy. The son knows he cannot return to the king empty-handed, he knows he cannot simply escape to a place where the nations will not find him; he knows he is, in essence, a messenger, a liaison between God and the world.
And so he sounds the shofar, not from a place of joy but from the narrows of his diminished state. He sounds the shofar in the hope that this act will entreat God to descend, if only for a brief moment, to reinvigorate his soul enough that he can continue the mission. Hiding from God is no better or worse than hiding from the nations. It is only by conveying God’s wisdom to the world that the Torah serves its purpose. In this sense, “conversion” becomes an act of “repentance.” It is the apogee of the entire story.
I am not aware of the context around which this mashal was told, what local or regional events were happening in the environs of Warsaw in the fall of 1930. But one could imagine there was ample inclination among some to turn inward, away from the world, through pious devotion, and we know of the inclination to exit the world and create a new home in Palestine. But the son cannot return to the king without the world. In addition, there was still the inclination to abandon Torah entirely to become part of the world. But the son cannot bring the world to the king without the Torah. R. Shapira therefore rejects all of these options: leaving the world for Torah, leaving the world in order to seek safety in autonomy, or leaving Torah for the world. The bitter and dark state of Israel’s psyche is part of the story, and the world is an integral part of the story. The son must stay in the world and continue his attempt to enlighten it, even, or precisely, as the world’s darkness diminishes his ability to so. The son thus realizes his job is to stay in the world and try his best to redeem himself from his depression, in order to make the message as clear as it can be. And so he sounds the shofar in hope that perhaps the combination of the narrowness of the world, and the expanse of Torah embodied in the physical object of the shofar, will result in the expansiveness in his own soul. He does not know if it will work. But as R. Shapira tells us in 1930, the son, and perhaps R. Shapira himself, has no other choice. (In the next decade the world would become so dark, and the son and his Torah so weakened, that even the shofar would go silent. But in 1930 R. Shapira still believed in the world. And thus he still believed in Israel’s mission.)
Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.