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. His extreme modesty mitigated the spread of his reputation.
Late in his life, he experienced the frustration of being called upon to succeed an individual who was unusually charismatic and world-famous, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the head of the great Talmudical Academy in pre-World War II Lublin, Poland. Besides being the founder of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, an innovative school for prodigious young Torah scholars, he was an author, an orator of note, and a composer of chasidic 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 around the world.
He died of a sudden illness while 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.
Destiny did not give Fromer much time to prove himself worthy of his new position. Within several years, World War II broke out, and he was brutally murdered by the Nazis.
Those few of his disciples to survive the Holocaust published some of his teachings on the weekly Torah portion. Having become enamored with them, I am particularly taken by the fact that he returns again and again to the theme of forgetting.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech, 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.
Fromer relates this assurance to an interesting phenomenon. 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.
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.”
Fromer responded by encouraging him to go through with the 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. Sanctity is eternal.
This lesson carries over to the wondrous day which typically follows the reading of Vayeilech: Yom Kippur.
Even Jews who have forgotten the rest of their heritage remember Yom Kippur. Stories abound about individuals who were on the threshold of apostasy, but who returned to our faith because of their experience of Yom Kippur.
“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 God forgives but does not forget.
He does not allow his two most cherished objects, his Torah and his people, to be forgotten.
Fromer could easily have been forgotten, given the horrible circumstances in which he perished. But the Almighty did not allow that, nor did He allow the Torah he taught to be forgotten.
The Yizkor service, one of the prominent features of the Yom Kippur liturgy, 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 its words are not forgotten.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.