He was one of the greatest Talmud scholars of the last century, but outside of a small circle of disciples, he was never well-known. He was a tragic figure in many ways, and although few have heard of him today, he has not been totally forgotten.
Interestingly, forgetting was one of the central themes of his many teachings.
His name was Rabbi Arye Tzvi Fromer, and he hailed from an obscure town in Poland named Koziglov. He served in the rabbinate of several towns with equally obscure names. His extreme modesty mitigated the spread of his reputation.
Late in his life, he experienced the unique frustration of being called upon to succeed an individual who was unusually charismatic and world-famous. He was asked to fill the shoes of a great man, and his accomplishments were constantly compared, usually unfavorably, to the achievements of his glorious predecessor.
The man he was called upon to succeed as the head of the great Talmudical Academy in pre-World War II Lublin, Poland, was Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Besides being the founder of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, an innovative school for prodigious young Torah scholars, Rabbi Shapiro was an author, an orator of note, and a composer of Chassidic melodies. He was a member of the Polish Parliament and is remembered best as the person who introduced the concept of Daf Yomi, the daily study of the same page of Talmud each day by Jews all over the world.
Rabbi Shapiro died of a sudden illness while a relatively young man in his early 40s. The search for a successor was not an easy one, and the reaction of most people to the choice of Rabbi Fromer was one of astonishment. “Who is he,” people asked, “and how could he possibly follow in the footsteps of the multitalented Rabbi Shapiro?”
Destiny did not give Rabbi Fromer much time to prove himself worthy of his new position. Within several years, World War II broke out. He suffered the deprivations of the ghetto and was brutally murdered by the Nazis.
We do have some of the writings he published in his lifetime, and those few of his disciples to survive the Holocaust published some of his teachings on the weekly Torah portion. I have become enamored with these writings and am particularly taken by the fact that he returns again and again to the theme of forgetting.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30), we come across the following phrase: “This song (the Torah) will proclaim himself as a witness, for it will never be forgotten from the mouths of his descendants…” Here, the Almighty assures us that despite the vicissitudes of Jewish history, the Torah will never be forgotten.
Rabbi Fromer relates this assurance to an interesting phenomenon. The reader of this column may not be aware that many passages of the Talmud were censored by the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries and are today absent from most editions of this fundamental text. Jews have struggled in various ways to preserve these censored passages, and some modern editions do incorporate them, but by and large they have been forgotten.
Rabbi Fromer was once asked by a student who had just completed studying a tractate of the Talmud whether he could make a siyum, a festive meal celebrating that completion. “After all,” the student argued, “I didn’t really complete the entire tractate. I did not study the censored passages because I had no access to them.”
Rabbi Fromer responded, consoled the student, and encouraged him to go through with the festive celebration. “You must understand,” he argued, “that we have a guarantee in the Bible that Torah will not be forgotten. If some words were indeed forgotten, that is ipso facto proof that they were not authentic Torah to begin with.”
Many will take issue with this concept and find it too radical. But the message is one which we can all affirm. That which is not Torah can be forgotten. What is trivial is ephemeral. Torah is not forgotten. Sanctity is eternal.
This lesson carries over to the wondrous day which typically follows the reading of the Torah portion of Vayelech. I refer, of course, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Even Jews who have forgotten the rest of their Jewish heritage remember Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur does not allow us to forget who we are.
Stories abound about individuals who were on the threshold of apostasy, but who returned to our faith because of their experience of Yom Kippur. That fascinating Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, is just one example of this phenomenon and writes in his memoirs of his readiness to accompany his close cousin to the baptismal font, only to reconsider after spending a Yom Kippur in a small synagogue somewhere in Germany, nearly one hundred years ago.
“Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One Blessed Be He, are one.” This statement of the mystical holy Zohar says it all. All three are bound together forever.
“Forgive and forget.” That is a cliché with which we are all familiar. One of the messages of hope which pervades this season of the Jewish year is that the Holy One Blessed Be He forgives but does not forget.
He does not allow his two most cherished objects, His Torah and His people, to be forgotten.
Zvi Arye Fromer could easily have been forgotten, given the horrible circumstances in which he perished. But the Almighty did not allow him to be forgotten. Nor did He allow the Torah he taught to be forgotten.
The Yizkor service, one of the prominent features of the liturgy of Yom Kippur, is a method by which we do our part to see to it that those souls whom we knew personally are not forgotten.
And our regular Torah study is the method by which we each see to it that the words of the Torah are not forgotten.
For four years now, these weekly columns on the parsha have helped so many of you, in an admittedly small way, to prevent the forgetting of Torah. I take this opportunity, at the beginning of this New Year, 5773, to thank each of you for reading my words, for taking them seriously, and for responding every week in so many wonderful ways to what I have to say.
May the Almighty bless you with a new year filled with peace and health, sweetness and joy, and much success. Ketiva Vachatima Tova to you and yours.