Friday, July 03, 2009
Who Had the Last Laugh?
by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, from www.OhrTmimim.org – reprinted from L'Chaim Weekly
The Maharyatz [the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn]'s birthday and the anniversary of his release from imprisonment by the Communists are both on the 12th of Tamuz. The following stories took place during and immediately after the Maharyatz's imprisonment.
Immediately after being arrested the Maharyatz made a firm resolution in his mind that he would pay no attention to his captors, as though they posed no threat to him at all. Several days later, after he had been exposed to the murder and sadism of the prison, he was taken into a room and ordered to sign certain papers. As per his resolution he paid no attention to the demand and was beaten. But still he remained unmoved. Furious, one of the interrogators pulled out a pistol, put it to the Rebbe’s head and said, "This little toy has convinced everyone to do what we say."
This fellow, like all the other prison staff, was a murderer and there was absolutely no reason for him not to simply pull the trigger. He had obviously done so many times before.
The Rebbe replied matter-of-factly, "That 'toy' scares people like you who have only one world and many gods. But I have one G-d and two worlds [physical and spiritual] so it does not scare me."
The guard inexplicitly did nothing.
After a few days, the Rebbe’s fate was sealed. He was found guilty of subversion and was sentenced to death. Through world pressure, the sentence was commuted to three years in Siberian exile.
Then, even more inexplicitly, the Rebbe was given special permission to leave the jail three days early, visit his family for several hours and then travel, at his own expense, to Kostroma, his town of exile.
This was a true miracle. Every instant in the prison was a true danger to his life; he was easy prey for the anti-Semitic guards and prisoners. Hundreds of Jews "disappeared" or "died" daily and he could easily be one of them.
But to everyone's amazement, as soon as he realized that according to their itinerary he would have to travel on Shabbos, he refused to leave until after Shabbos ended. He actually stayed extra time in that hell so as to not desecrate the Sabbath.
Why did the Rebbe do this? According to Jewish law he was permitted to travel on Shabbos in order to leave that place, as every additional moment there was a threat to his life. But the Rebbe was determined to show even his evil captors that G-d, not Stalin, is the Boss of the world. And that they were powerless against the Torah.
The third story took place that Sunday as he boarded the train to leave the prison. We must remember that the Rebbe was imprisoned for teaching anti-Communist doctrines and everyone connected to him was immediately suspected of the same.
Nevertheless, a large crowd of people threw caution to the wind and came to see him off. They could not forego the opportunity of drawing inspiration from the Rebbe.
Just moments before the train left, the Rebbe made a stirringly emotional and revolutionary speech; here is a translation (from the Yiddish) of some of what he said:
"We must make one thing known to all the nations are on the face of the earth: That only our bodies are in exile and servitude to the gentiles, but our souls never entered exile and were never servants to the other nations.
"We must announce and advertise before the entire world that anything that relates to our Jewish religion, the Torah, the commandments and even the customs, can never be changed by opinions. We Jews have no outside forces or opinions that can change us. We must declare with the greatest Jewish stubbornness with thousands of years of Jewish self-sacrifice, 'Never touch My anointed and My prophets do not harm.'
"We must pray that G-d give us the proper strength to not be affected in any way by these physical tribulations but rather to treat them with joy! That every, punishment we receive, G-d forbid, for opening a children's school, teaching Torah or doing the commandments should give us more enthusiasm in our holy task of strengthening Judaism. Remember! The jails and camps are temporary. But Torah, the commandments and the Jewish people are eternal…"
In other words, to a crowd filled with informers and secret police he exhorted Russian Jewry to continue the very "subversive" work for which he was imprisoned.
Stalin vs. Schneerson - 82 Years Later, Who Won?
by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson
If there was ever a battle fought in vain, this was it. The year is 1924. Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Communist revolution, is dead; over 900,000 people pass through the Hall of Columns during the four days and nights that Lenin lay in state. Jozef Stalin succeeds him as the new leader of the Soviet Union. During the following thirty years, he would murder 20 million of his own people. Jews and Judaism would be one of his primary targets. He sets up a special government organization, the Yevsektzye, to ensure that Russian Jewry in its millions embrace the new ethos of Communism, introducing a paradise constructed of bullets and gulags. Stalin would rule with an iron fist till his death in March 1953, when four million people would gather in Red Square to bid farewell to the tyrant revered and beloved by much of his nation and by many millions the world over.
At his home in Leningrad (today Petersburg), a 44-year-old rabbi, heir to some of the great Jewish leaders of Russian Jewry, summons nine young disciples. He offers them an opportunity most would refuse: to take responsibility for the survival of Judaism in the Soviet Union; to ensure that Jewish life and faith would survive the hellish darkness of Stalin's regime. He wants them to fight "till the last drop of blood," in his words.
They agree. He gives his hand to each of them as a sign that they are accepting an oath, an oath that would transform their destiny forever. "I will be the tenth, he says; together we have a minyan..."
An Underground Revolution
The nine men were dispatched throughout the country. With assistance from similar-minded colleagues, they created an impressive underground network of Jewish activity, which included Jewish schools, synagogues, mikvaos (ritual baths used by Jewish women for spiritual feminine reinvigoration), adult Torah education, Yeshivot (academies for Torah learning for students), Jewish text books, providing rabbis for communities, teachers for schools, etc. Over the 1920s and 1930s, these individuals built six hundred (!) Jewish underground schools throughout the USSR.* Many of them last for only a few weeks or months. When the KGB (the secret Russian police) discovered a school, the children were expelled, the teacher arrested. A new one was opened elsewhere, usually in a cell or on a roof.
One of the nine young men was sent to Georgia. There were dozens of mikvaos there, all shut down by the Communists who buried them in sand and gravel. This young man decided to do something radical. He falsified a letter written supposedly by the KGB headquarters in Moscow, instructing the local offices in Georgia to open two mikvaot within 24 hours.
The local officials were deceived. Within a day, two mikvaos were open. Several months later, when they discovered the lie, they shut them down again. And so it went. A mohel (the person performing the mitzva of circumcision) was arrested, and another one was dispatched to serve the community; a yeshiva was closed, and another one opened elsewhere; a synagogue was destroyed and another one opened its portals in secrecy.
But it sure seemed like a lost battle. Here was an individual rabbi, with a small group of pupils, staging an underground rebellion against a mighty empire that numbered in the hundreds of millions, and aspired to dominate the world. It was like an infant wrestling a giant, an ant attempting to defeat a human. The situation was hopeless.
Finally, in 1927 – eighty-two years ago -- they lost their patience with him. The rabbi behind the counter-revolutionary work was arrested and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Foreign pressure and nothing less than a miracle convinced the KGB to alter the sentence to ten years in exile. It was then converted to three years, and then -- quite unbelievable in the Soviet Regime where clergy and laymen alike were murdered like flies -- he was completely exonerated. This Shabbos, July 4, the 12th of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, marks the 82nd anniversary of the day he was liberated from Stalin’s death sentence and imprisonment.
The individual behind the mutiny was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950), who became the leader of Chabad in 1920, after the passing of his father. He selected nine of his young pupils to do battle with him. The one sent to Georgia, falsifying the KGB document, was my grandfather, Simon Yakabashvili [Jacobson], my father's father (1900-1953). He, together with hundreds of his colleagues, Chassidim throughout the Soviet Union, was arrested in 1938, tortured mercilessly and given a 25-year sentence in the Gulag. Most of his eight colleagues who accepted the oath never made it out of Stalin's hell. They perished in the Soviet Union. (My grandfather made it out, but died several years later in Toronto).
Investing in Eternity
More than eight decades have passed. This passage of time gives us the opportunity to answer the question, who won? Stalin or Schneerson? Eighty years ago, Marx’s socialism and Lenin’s Communism heralded a new era for humanity. Its seemingly endless power and brutality seemed unreachable.
Yet one man stood up, a man who would not allow the awesome war machine of Mother Russia to blare his vision, to eclipse his clarity. In the depths of his soul he was aware that history had an undercurrent often invisible to most but discernable for students of the long and dramatic narrative of our people. He knew with full conviction that evil might thrive but it will die; yet G-dliness -- embodied in Torah and Mitzvos -- are eternal. And he chose to invest in eternity.
He did not know how exactly how it would work out in the end, but he knew that his mission in life was to sow seeds though the trees were being felled one by one.
Cynics scoffed at him; close friends told him he was making a tragic mistake. Even many of his religious colleagues were convinced that he was wasting his time and energy fighting an impossible war. They either fled the country or kept a very low profile.
But 80 years later, this giant and what he represented have emerged triumphant. Today, in 2009, in the republics of the former Soviet Union stand hundreds of synagogues, Jewish day schools, yeshivos, mikvaos, Jewish community centers. As summer is about to begin, dozens of Jewish day camps are about to open up throughout the former Union with tens of thousands of Jewish children who will enjoy a blissful summer coupled with the celebration of Jewish life.
Last Chanuka, a large menora stood tall in the Kremlin, casting the glow of Chanuka on the grounds where Stalin walked with Berya and Yezhov. On Lag B’Omer (a Jewish holiday), thousands of Jewish children with kippot on their heads marched the streets of Moscow with signs proclaiming, "Hear O Israel... G-d is One." Jewish life is bustling in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, etc.
Comrade Stalin is dead; Communism has faded away as hopelessly irrelevant and destructive. The sun of the nations is today a clod of darkness. The ideology of the Soviet Empire which declared "Lenin has not died and Stalin will not die. He is eternal," is now a mockery. Stalin and Lenin are as dead as one can be. But the Mikvaos built by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1927, they are still here.
If you will visit Russia this coming Shabbos, I am not sure you will find anybody celebrating the life and vision of Stalin or even Khrushchev and Brezhnev. But you will find tens of thousands of Jews celebrating the liberation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1927 and the narrative of one man’s triumph over one of the greatest mass-murderers in human history, sharing his vision, committing themselves to continue his labor of saturating the world with the light of Torah and Mitzvos. L’Chaim!
* This figure was given to me [RYY Jacobson] by Rabbi Shalom Ber Levin, chief librarian of the Central Lubavitch Library.