Pursuing truth, avoiding lies

"First, one should acquire the quality of truth, and only after that should one work to distance falsehood.”

Haredim 311 (photo credit: buyitinisrael.com)
Haredim 311
(photo credit: buyitinisrael.com)
Rabbi Pinhas Twersky of Ustyluh (1880-1943) was a scion of the famed Chernobyl hassidic dynasty. He grew up in the home of his grandfather in Rachmistrivka, and from 1902 he lived with his wife Hanna Rohel in the home of his father-in-law, the hassidic master of Belz, Rabbi Yisakhar Dov Rokeah (the first, 1854-1926).
The entire Rokeah family, including Rabbi Pinhas, was forced to flee Belz when the Russians invaded the then-Austro-Hungarian town during World War I.
In 1927, after his father-in-law died, Rabbi Pinhas moved to Ustyluh – then in Poland and today in northwestern Ukraine – where he was appointed rabbi of the town and began to serve as a hassidic master.
Henceforth, he was known as the hassidic master of Ustyluh, even though in 1932 he moved to Przemysl.
When the Germans conquered Przemysl in 1939, they immediately set about rounding up the communal leaders. Having learned from the experience of the First World War, Rabbi Pinhas fled to Sambor – at the time in Soviet-occupied Poland. The Nazis occupied Sambor in July 1941. Rabbi Pinhas, his wife and their six children – together with most of the Jews of Sambor – were murdered in 1943. Like so many Jews who died in the Holocaust, there is no tombstone for Rabbi Pinhas, and we do not even know where he was killed; perhaps in the Sambor ghetto, or in the Sambor cemetery, or in the Belzec extermination camp. One of his daughters and her husband – Trana and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky (1899-1968) – survived the war in Bucharest and immigrated to America after the war. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was the leader of the Skver Hassidim, and in 1956 he founded the first shtetl in America: New Square in rural Rockland County, New York. In 1995, the Skver Hassidim published a compilation of Rabbi Pinhas’s insights, letters and biographic information under the title She’erit Lepinhas (remnant of Pinhas). As the work’s title indicates, this volume (together with other scattered titbits) serves as a remnant of the hassidic master of Ustyluh.
Thus Rabbi Pinhas recounted and explained a discussion between two of the early hassidic masters: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1812) once paid a visit to Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz (1726-1791).
The latter shared the path he had traveled to spiritual refinement with his visiting younger colleague: “For seven years I worked to recognize falsity. Then for seven years I toiled to distance myself from those lies. Only after that did I embark on a seven-year journey to acquire for myself the lofty attribute of truth.”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman responded, “That is indeed an arduous journey that can only be the lot of angel-like people and select individuals. I think that the right path is exactly the opposite: First, one should acquire the quality of truth, and only after that should one work to distance falsehood.”
Rabbi Pinhas of Ustyluh commented on this discussion of the appropriate spiritual path: “Both routes have a biblical source in the passage dealing with tzitzit – the fringes tied on four-cornered garments (Numbers 15:37-41). The verse states, ‘... and you will see it’ – referring to the tzitzit – ‘and you will remember all the commandments of God,’ and further in the verse it adds, ‘that you will not stray.’ This reflects the path advocated by Rabbi Shneur Zalman – first choose the path of truth by remembering the commandments, and subsequently ensure that you do not stray from this path of truth. “The following verse in the passage continues, ‘So that you will remember and do all My commandments’ – indicating the path of Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz: First ensure that you do not stray, and then you will be able to walk the path of truth.”
Rabbi Pinhas of Ustyluh continued his explanation, even finding a source for Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s response: “The verse concludes, ‘and you will be holy to your Lord,’ and the Targum Yerushalmi [the Aramaic translation-explanation of the Torah] adds, ‘You will be holy like angels’ – as Rabbi Shneur Zalman commented, the path of Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz is reserved for angel-like individuals.
Others should first focus on pursuing truth.”

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.