By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The fate of the Jews of Russia was first placed on the public consciousness decades ago. It has held our fascination ever since. Russia has a storied past. Its current president is in the news every day, drawing our attention to the part of the world where many of our ancestors lived prior to their arrival here. We were brought up hearing stories of Cossacks and their massacres, noblemen and their viciousness, czars and their edicts. We learned about terrible Jewish suffering and deprivation.
I had the opportunity to spend a few days there this past week. It would be clichéd to say that the trip was eye-opening and the Shabbos amazing, but, indeed, that would be the best way to describe it.
I traveled with a group of very special people, headed by Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky and his rebbetzin, to witness the work of Operation Open Curtain in bringing Torah to the Jews of Moscow. We toured their yeshiva and school and spent Shabbos at Camp Eitz Chaim, which they operate every year to introduce children to a Torah way of life.
It was a Shabbos of great joy, yet there were also tears. Let me explain.
At the Friday night meal, a young Russian baal teshuvahwas introduced to make a siyum. He has been learning for a few years and this was the second mesechta he completed.
In his Russian accent, this resilient, happy, proud and handsome young man read the final lines of Maseches Makkos. It was a moment of sheer poetry, a microcosm of the Jewish experience in golus.
A neshomah that has endured all sorts of makkos – the scorn of a society that mocks religion, the uphill climb faced by someone intent on mastering Lashon Kodesh and Torah as an adult, and the bitterness and privation of daily life in Russia – completed a mesechta.
The mesechta ends with the story of the chachomim who witnessed foxes exiting from the Kodesh Hakodoshim. They wept as they contemplated the defilement of the holiest place on earth. Rabi Akiva, upon seeing the desolation, laughed. “Hischilu heim bochim,” the Gemarasays, “veRabi Akiva metzacheik.”
The distressed chachomim were astounded. How could Rabi Akiva laugh at a time like this? He explained to them why he reacted so joyously to the very scene that caused them to cry.
Uriah Hakohein lived during the period of the first Bais Hamikdosh. Zechariah Hanovi lived at the time of the second Bais Hamikdosh. Uriah foretold the very desecration they were witnessing, saying, “Tzion sodehseichoreish – Tzion will be plowed as a field“ (Michah3:12).
Zechariah spoke of a time when “od yeishvu zekeinim uzekeinos birechovos Yerushalayim – the streets of the Holy City will be bursting with young and old people”(Zechariah 8:4).
Rabi Akiva concluded, “Now that I see that the prophecy foretold by Uriah came true, I can eagerly anticipate Zechariah’s happy ending.”
“Akiva,” they replied, “nichamtonu. You have consoled us.”
The young Russian man making the siyum couldn’t have appreciated the poignancy of his words as he painstakingly read them. The words he recited expressed the power and potency of what we were witnessing.
As he said the words, “Hischil Rabi Akiva metzacheik,” in my heart, I laughed. We sat there, in the epicenter of destruction, where generations of despotic regimes worked with single-minded dedication to eradicateYahadus and enable the Tochachah to be realized, and now we were witnessing Jewish people, young and old, happily living lives of Torah in this cursed place.
Indeed, despite all the problems that have plagued our community, people and land, we can look forward to a hopeful future.
You see, Camp Etz Chaim occupies a Stalin-era indoctrination facility. Back in the Soviet heyday, under Comrade Stalin, every Russian young man was forced to attend a summer camp, where they were fed propaganda about the power and might of the state, the ‘truth’ of its values, and the dominance of its army. It was a place where Judaism was mocked and where daily activities included in-depth sessions railing against freedom and religion.
If there were any Jews in the camp who were aware or proud of their heritage, you can be sure that they were abused of the notion by the time they left. A bitter state campaign was waged against Judaism. For seventy years, it was forbidden to practice Yiddishkeit. The entire enterprise was invested in making Judaism a vestige of the past.
Many of those campers went on to engage in careers of serving Mother Russia, participating in the state campaign against religion and committing murder and torture to help achieve their goal. Some of them no doubt paid for the dream with their lives along with at least fifty million other Russians who died under Stalin.
For many years, it appeared that the communists had won and that Jewish worship would die out altogether across the great expanses of that county. There were rivers filled with tears of broken mothers and fathers, and fresh widows and orphans, all products of the regime.
Hischilu heim bochim. They cried and cried and there was no one to be menacheim them.
Yet, there we sat, in the country formerly shut by an Iron Curtain, in that very same building where children were brainwashed and condemned to a life of darkness, witnessing a vision of hope, marveling at the depth of Rabi Akiva’s perception.
There we were, sitting in that same camp with people who had connected with their roots on their own free will. One of them was reciting that famous Gemara as he finished acquainting himself – in the land of makkos – withMaseches Makkos, relating the joy of Rabi Akiva at the fulfillment of a prophecy of doom. That visualization reinforced his own belief in the prophecy of redemption, as being there did for us.
We, who visited Russia this past Shabbos, saw what Rabi Akiva had foreseen. Is that not a reassuring thought as Avis ushered in? We who live in a world of churban were able to perceive the beginning of the dawn of the age the prophets foretold.
I am sure that there was a rumble of laughter somewhere of the precious neshamos who were stamped out, as a grandson of those unfortunates so proudly read, “Hadranalach. I will never leave you.” He was saying that he sacrificed so much to make it to this point and was invoking the merit of Tannaim and Amoraim as he asked that his own progeny never leave the path of Torah.
I was reminded of what Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l once said many years ago. Quoting Yirmiyohu Hanovi (31:5), who foretold of the day when watchmen on Har Ephraim will call out, “Arise and let us ascend to Tzion, to Hashem Elokeinu, Rav Pam remarked that the strength of this prophecy lies beneath its surface, in the words “Har Ephraim.” He explained that hundreds of years prior to this nevuah, Yerovam ben Nevat, king of the tenshevotim, was determined to prevent the Bnei Yisroelfrom ascending to the Bais Hamikdosh to be oleh regel. The wicked king perceived that the celebration of the union between Knesses Yisroel and the Ribbono Shel Olam took place on the Yomim Tovim in Yerushalayim. In his bid to upset that relationship, he posted watchmen to block Jews from being oleh regel.
The guards were positioned on Har Ephraim, from where they had a view of the expanse below and were able to monitor the roads leading to Yerushalayim. They stood there prepared to execute anyone trying to make the journey.
Rav Pam concluded that Yirmiyohu prophesized on those very mountaintops upon which wicked watchmen were stationed that, at the time when Hashem would display His mercy and eternal love, people will stand there and proclaim, “Come all and march up to Yerushalayim.”
As the Soviet Union was beginning to shake off seven decades of oppression and hate, Rav Pam said he was looking forward to the day when “in the very schools where today Jewish children are being taught heresy, there will come a time that rabbeim faithful to Hashem will teach Torah as it was transmitted at Sinai. In these same buildings will be produced not anti-religious students, but students who love Torah…of whom Hashem will be proud.”
Rosh yeshiva, at the time you spoke those words, they sounded fanciful, but last Shabbos, we saw the students in whom you were so confident. We saw your vision being realized in that camp.
It was Shabbos Parshas Masei, which is replete with references to the stations and points along the perpetual Jewish journey. It was Shabbos chazak, a weekend of strength, realizing a masa coming full circle.
“So,” someone asked me upon my return, “what did you go for? Was it a Shabbos of chizuk?” Yes, chizuk too, but it was also a paean for the future. It was a Shabbos of hope, of strength, of endurance and of witnessing the fulfillment of prophecy.
Every person there was a part of the nevuah. Every person who stood up to tell their story was speaking words of the novi, whether they knew it or not. Dovid in his way, Michal in hers, Anya in hers. They all spoke movingly about where they come from, where they are now, and how they got there. Their neshamos shone through and punctured the language barrier that separated us. Just looking at their faces and noting their smiles and happiness helped us understand what they were saying.
While there, we bentched Rosh Chodesh Av, the saddest month in the Jewish calendar. Av Harachamim is usually not recited prior to Mussaf on Shabbosos when webentch Rosh Chodesh. The siddur instructs that some communities have the custom of reciting the sad prayer on the Shabbos when we bentch Rosh Chodesh Av, while others don’t.
When it came time to say Av Harachamim, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky was asked if it should be recited, as we were in a place without a known custom. He said not to say it. I didn’t ask him why, but am convinced that it was partly because he was having a Rabi Akiva moment.
Can there be a more reassuring backdrop to the words of “Rosh Chodesh Av yihiyeh beyom sheini,” a more appropriate setting in which to usher in the month ofchurban, than to be davening publicly in a country ofchurban and makkos and singing the words ofYechadsheihu?
A rabbi in Moscow told me that years ago, local Jews would ask each other, “How will we know when Moshiachhas arrived?” And they would answer, “When we will be able to recite Krias Shema aloud in Red Square and not get killed, we will know Moshiach is here.”
On Erev Shabbos, I stood in Red Square and proclaimed, “Shema Yisroel!”
Are we not living in Moshiach’s times?
A seed is planted and then rots. But suddenly, it sprouts forth and blossoms. Its destruction is the very catalyst for its growth.
We have had so much destruction. It is time we witnessed growth. We have experienced so much sadness ad so much bechiyah. It is time we were able to be metzacheik.
The Ribbono Shel Olam is matzmiach yeshuos. He sends salvation like a seed that is planted deep underground, unseen, where it must decompose before it can flourish.
There was a time when davening in the Choral Synagogue meant being surrounded by KGB agents. Every word was overheard and reported upon. They would take attendance, and Jews who were seen in shul risked losing their jobs and careers. Only the very hardy ones publicly displayed their Judaism. Yet, we were there on a non-descript Thursday, davening Minchah along with free Jews of all ages, risking little to publicly appear at the storied shul.
There was a time when those who steadfastly insisted on maintaining their Yiddishkeit were branded Refuseniks, enemies of state. Now there is an array of shiurim, minyanim and all the signs of a vibrant kehillah.
You meet the men and women who are associated with the kehillah supported by Open Curtain and find them and the Ohalei Yaakov Kollel yungeleit and their families to be admirable in so many ways. Your heart sings as you ponder the potential for a positive future for thekinderlach of Moscow.
The Choral Synagogue was once filled with KGB agents. Now you can walk in there on a Thursday afternoon in the summer and the only bugs in the shul are of the type that can be swatted away with little effort. That is a reason to be metzacheik.
To see Jewish institutions flourishing in a city in which no one dreamed that it would ever be possible to wear tefillinpublicly is a reason to be metzacheik. To see so many people davening and learning Torah is another.
To see grand shuls and schools and dedicated people who run them with mesirus nefesh is a reason to bemetzacheik.
The recently opened, massive, beautiful Jewish museum, which is easily on par with the best museums in the world, is visited by thousands, Jews and non-Jews, who are introduced to concepts that Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and their comrades thought they had buried and eternally eradicated. That is a reason to be metzacheik.
This week, we will lain Parshas Devorim. The posukstates, “Ho’il Moshe be’er es haTorah hazos.” Moshe Rabbeinu translated the Torah into seventy languages.Meforshim wonder why the Torah was related to Am Yisroel in seventy different languages, the majority of which they did not comprehend.
The answer is that in order for the Torah, the blueprint and outline of creation itself, to be able to impact and influence all people at all times, its relevance must cross into each of the shivim lashonos and be applicable in all seventy languages. The Torah was not just given for theBnei Yisroel in the midbar. It is relevant for every one of us, in all places, in all times.
The climax of the Shabbos was a message of hope for the week ahead. As the light of the Havdollah candle flickered overhead, we heard the timeless nevuah of “Hinei Keil yeshuosi evtach velo efchod – Hashem is with me and I shall not fear.”
As the neshomah yeseirah departed and the fire was extinguished in the plate of wine, wishes of “shovua tov” were exchanged. A totally different sound began filling the large dining room. It was an awful and haunting sound, one that was totally incongruous with anything we had heard since we arrived Thursday morning.
Sounds of wailing and sobbing punctured the night.
Apprehensive of bad news, Rachmana litzlon, I inquired as to why all the campers had begun to cry. What had happened? Was there a tragedy? Did someone die? Was there bad news from the Israeli war front?
The answer was no. That’s not what it was. The campers were wailing because the last Shabbos in camp had ended. They had three days remaining in a bubble of growth and joy. Then it would be back to their mundane lives, devoid of meaning. Their neshamos were begging for more.
The campers were crying bitterly and loudly because on Tuesday they would be returning home. 80% of them would be going back to homes of tarfus and chillul Shabbos. They had just experienced weeks of kedushahfor the first time in their lives and they didn’t want to let go.
Their neshamos and their gufos were begging for more.
A fire was lit in their souls and they feared that it would be extinguished. They couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. They were begging for more. They were gasping for air and attempting to grasp something to hold onto so that they won’t sink in the raging ocean they were about to fall into. They were on a plane, flying high, and they knew they were about to crash land.
The fire that had been kindled over the previous weeks wouldn’t simply go out like the flame of Havdollah. The wailing was heart-wrenching, awful to hear and see.
Hischilu heim bochim.
But then I thought of Rabi Akiva and began to smile. Look at those tears. Hear that wailing. Listen to how neshamos kedoshos are begging for more, vehischil hu metzacheik. I was witnessing the realization of so many prophecies.
How could I not be joyous, recognizing that I was witnessing a historic miracle? Perhaps even greater thanfrum Jews being able to recite Shema in Red Square is the sight of young people who knew nothing about Yiddishkeitweeks ago begging to say Krias Shema in their homes and to bring and keep Hashem in their lives?
VeRabi Akiva metzacheik.
Once again, Rabi Akiva’s rejoinder rang through the longgolus. Listen to the sound of holy neshamos pleading for more, desperate to remain connected and smile. It was a realization of so many nevuos. It is a harbinger of hope, a reminder that we are on the cusp of “veheishiv lev avos al bonim,” at the threshold of “uvau ha’ovdim mei’eretz ashur,“ witness to the “lo ra’av lalachem…ki im lishmoa es divrei Hashem.” We are in the dawn of a new era when every Jew will feel close, when no Jew will feel distant or forlorn.
I looked at these souls, children embodying the struggle we all face, neshamos yearning to grow, and I silently wished them a gut voch, hoping for the light of Shabbosto shine into the darkness of the yemei hama’aseh and the light of Moshiach‘s times to illuminate the gloom of golus.
May it be revealed this year, and may laughter fill the air as we celebrate Tisha B’Av as a moed, uleshoneinu rinah, amidst sounds of happiness and thanks.