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The Leadership of a True Giant

April 29, 2020 – with thanks to Rav Pini Dunner

The following is a translation by Rav Pini Dunner of a fundraising letter written, composed, and sent on Erev Yom Kippur 1831, by the great rabbinic leader Rabbi Akiva Eiger, amid the devastating cholera pandemic that was then wreaking its deathly havoc in Prussia.

Click here for Rav Dunner’s full, original post, including background and commentary.

May God’s glory rest on you, your leaders and your elders; may you see much happiness in your family circles; may divine blessings of every bounty be poured down onto your places of residence from on high — you, the celebrated and exalted officers and communal heads who administer the congregation of Jeshurun, the holy community of … led by Rabbi …

You have heard from the heralds (newspapers) that on account of our many sins, cholera has flown towards us and she has taken up residence in our city, giving off her foul stench in our district. Indeed, she kills her victims with merciless fury. She pours from her brimming cup of potent wine in her hand; she sets the table, slaughters her dinner, and invites her guests. The clouds swell with [her] poisonous vapors, and on falling to the earth they do not return until they have consumed their fill. Wherever she turns, she unleashes death and destruction in her wake. She claims one and all — the elderly and the young are given no quarter; her consolations are pitiless.

Behold, cholera frolics amid famine and famishment, for she descends into the recesses of the gut if it is empty and has no contents. This disease does not say “enough”; if she takes but one soul as booty she is not placated, refusing to rest until she makes a portion out of those living in the house, of the deceased, unstoppably grinding them all underfoot. There is no armor against her poison, and no shield against her weapons of destruction and her clubs. She is insatiable. Her footprints are bloody; grief and lament trail her. She overpowers young and old alike and burns a devouring flame to consume babes and sucklings. She spares them not from death, delivering them unto the pestilence.

But still, God has not forgotten how to pity, nor has He stifled His mercy in anger! For even as He pushes us away with His left hand, he mercifully draws us close with His right. He performs feats of deliverance among our Jewish brethren here. As the rod of disease begins to land blows among us, God forbid, only through the kindness and mercy of His love and compassion does its force weaken as it approaches.

But although the mercy shown us by God has not run out, the dear leaders of my congregation have made sure that this disease does not ravage the poor of my community here. On the day of their misfortune they did not remain aloof, but came to their aid, because experience with cholera has taught us that malnourishment harms the body at a time like this. If people have nothing to eat, she will hit them exceptionally hard and she cannot be gotten under control. Therefore, community members have taken the initiative and have not stopped bringing donations to each [poor] person’s house, according to the good hand of the Lord upon them.

God, remember them for good, for [ensuring that] our poor and needy are fed. And with God’s help, the fracture of our people has been healed. My heart is glad, and my soul rejoices at their salvation, for the singular individuals of the community acted marvelously in their benefaction of my community’s poor in those days.

I call a trustworthy witness to testify about this: the enclosed letter of gratitude (dated 5th September 1831) sent here by our king (may his majesty be elevated), under whose good graces we live, in which he announces to the world, through the newspapers, his heartfelt happiness concerning all the work done in our congregation with the poverty-stricken, to save them from starvation and protect them by not letting the destroyer enter their abode.

But this period has grown long, and the strength of my congregation’s officers is too drained to impose upon them as long as this disease makes its rounds in our district, for they alone shoulder this burden. Blessing has been withheld from them, too, for some time before the plague began here. For the approximately nine months since the people of Poland, having taken up arms, have had their plans dashed on the battlefield, commerce between us and them has foundered, as borders have been closed to all traffic. This has broken the staff of bread, for they are our food supply. Both great and small moan for food and sustenance, because our city has shut down. Day by day indigence depletes the strength of the weak, and the devastating disease is returning back. I have therefore said: Let me go to the great men, the God-fearing who contemplate His name, to appeal to their hearts and inform them of all this.

Congregation of Jeshurun! From forever you have dealt kindly with all those who walk in rectitude; your warmhearted kindness and justice are your legacy. Sow kindness and justice in the furrows of your hearts, and let the sprouts be blessed. Hearken, please! When the Lord created man, He said: “Let love and brotherhood unite them; let no hand be free of another. If someone should call his friend for help, even if the city be far from him, he should heed his call.” Now the time has come; the deadly weapon has entered the city — reinforce us, because we are weary and undermanned, with no relief in sight.

Please, brothers! Elevate from the blessing of your hands for the poor of our city, bring them the fruit of your kindheartedness. From afar, bring them the bread of elevation. Be their refuge and shelter. Take under your generous wing the poor who have nowhere left to turn. Your kindhearted donation will be found pleasing, like a fruit tree among the evergreens, like an oasis in the desert. Let this not be trifling in your eyes, for I have never before spoken to you about a meal offering.

Incline your ears to my plea, and the One enthroned on high will heed your pleas, and grant you shining success. You shall live out pleasant lives in the company of your extended families, and nothing good shall be withheld from your near and distant relations. You shall have only fair weather for the rest of your days.


Your friend, the insignificant Akiva Güns of Eisenstadt

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