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Friday, 26 June, 2015 - 12:03 pm

A man is brought into Prison Cell 102 and sees another resident who looks at least 100 years old. The new man looks at the old-timer inquiringly.

The old-timer says, "Look at me. I'm old and worn out. You'd never believe that I used to live the life of Bill Gates. I wintered on the Riviera, had a boat, owed four fine cars, and I ate in all the best restaurants of France."

The new man asked, "And... what happened?" 

"One day Bill Gates reported his credit cards missing!"

The year was 1927.

Josef Stalin, the new leader of the Soviet Union, (following Vladimir Lenin’s death in January of 1924,) embarked on a ruthless campaign to root out religion from the USSR. He mercilessly cut down all opposition to his Communist regime with a brutality unparalleled by his predecessors. During his thirty year reign-of-horror, he murdered more than 40-50 million of his own people. Jews and Judaism were some of his primary targets. Stalin set up a special government organization, the Yevsektzye, to ensure the millions of Russian Jews embraced the new ethos of Communism, introducing a “paradise” constructed of bullets and gulags.

One man, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1880-1950), spearheaded the underground Jewish resistance to Stalin's ideological Final Solution. With the assistance of his loyal army of Chassidim, the Rebbe created an extraordinary underground network of bustling Jewish activity. This included the creation of Jewish schools, synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths used by Jewish women for spiritual feminine reinvigoration), adult Torah education, Yeshivot (academies for Torah students), Jewish textbooks, providing rabbis and spiritual leaders for communities, teachers for schools, and more. During the 1920's-1930's, the Lubavitcher Rebbe built six hundred Jewish underground schools throughout the USSR! Many of them lasted for only a few weeks or months. When the KGB (the secret Russian police) discovered a school, the children were expelled, and the teacher arrested. A new one was opened elsewhere, usually in a cellar or on a roof.

Finally, in 1927, the Rebbe paid the price for his work. One June night, he was brutally taken from his home, incarcerated in a horrendous prison, and sentenced to death. The death sentence was soon changed to a ten-year exile sentence. (Millions died in these exiles, for they lived in unbearable conditions.) It was then converted to three years of exile. Finally it was changed to a 10-day exile sentence in the city of Kostrama. On the 12th day of the Hebrew month Tammuz, 1927, which falls out on this coming Monday, June 22, 2015, the Rebbe was set free.

This was literally a miracle. Far less significant activists in the Soviet Union were murdered for far smaller “crimes.” The fact that the Lubavitcher Rebbe stood up as a lone figure to this mighty, brutal and ruthless mighty power, and survived, sowing the seeds of Jewish life in the Soviet Union for the following seven decades, was nothing short of a miracle.

Today, President Putin runs a tight ship, yet people dare to protest against the government. But back then? No one could even dream of resistance. Yet, one lone Chassidic Rebbe stood up to the most evil and cruel super-power in human history… and won!

The miracle of the Rebbe’s liberation guaranteed the future of Judaism in Russia, as well as the continued existence of Chabad-Lubavitch. If not for 12 Tammuz, 1927, our community would not be here today. This is a day of celebration.

On the 12th of Tammuz in 1942, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe related a vignette about his stay in prison:

When he was arrested, he was asked during the first interrogation if he realized where he was. The incarcerators felt that the Rebbe was not surrendering his pride as was fitting for a Soviet prisoner on death row. Thus, the interrogator wanted to know if he realized where he was.

The Rebbe answered: “Certainly I know where I am. I am in a place which is exempt from having a mezuzah.” By this, the Rebbe was referring to the Jewish law of having a mezuzah affixed to each door in one’s home and office. Doors to an animal stable, a bathroom, a prison, and a small closet are exempt from this Mitzvah. Similarly, if one rents a home for less than 30 days, he does not have to put up a mezuzah. Even if one is imprisoned for a long time, he does not have to affix a mezuzah on his cell entrance, for it is not a respectable home.

Yet, the Rebbe’s reply seems strange. It seems like a farfetched, highly abstract way of describing where he was. If you told someone you were spending your summer vacation in a place requiring a mezuzah, it would be an unusual answer. So why did the Rebbe choose to characterize his prison thus, as a place exempt from having a mezuzah?

The answer is, with his response the Rebbe was sharing a world perspective, one that captured the millennial-long Jewish story and would give him the fortitude to retain his focus and dignity in the midst of Soviet hell.

This idea is reflected in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Chukat: “Zot Chukat HaTorah”: The point of the entire Torah is a law, the complete submission and commitment to G-d's will.

As Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson waited for the train that would take him into the Kostrama exile, he quoted his father, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe:

"We did not depart from the Land of Israel of our own free will, nor will we return there by virtue of our own capabilities. G-d, our Father and King, has sent us into exile, and it is He who will redeem us and gather in the dispersed of Israel from the four corners of the earth, and cause us to be led back firmly and proudly by the Moshiach (Messiah), our righteous redeemer-may this occur speedily, in our days.

"This, however, all the nations of the world must know: Only our bodies were sent into exile and subjugated to alien rule; our souls, however, were not given over into captivity and foreign rule. We must therefore proclaim openly and before all, that any matter affecting the Jewish religion, Torah, and its mitzvot and customs is not subject to the coercion of others. No one can impose his belief upon us, nor coerce us to conduct ourselves contrary to our beliefs...."

This is why the Rebbe spoke of Mezuzah in the prison cell. 
When the interrogator asked the Rebbe if he knew where he was, he meant to instill fear in the Rebbe’s heart. He was saying, “You are in a place where we can and will do whatever we wish with you. Every night dozens or hundreds are shot dead in this prison; many others are tortured and abused. Rabbi Schneerson, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? This is not your synagogue! Do you know this?”

The Rebbe calmly replied, “Sure, I know where I am. I am in G-d’s world; I may be in a prison, deprived of all my rights and comforts, at risk of abuse and death, but this is not your world; it is G-d’s world. G-d is present here too. He has what to say about this place, too: it is exempt from mezuzah. I am in a place which is still governed by Jewish law.

“The Divine presence fills the entire world, and no space is devoid of Him. Here, too, my life is guided not by Stalin, but by the Torah. I do not surrender my soul to anyone even in this place. I still have only one Authority in my life.”

A father was very “enlightened” and did not want his son to believe in G-d. So one night, as the boy was sound asleep, the father placed a note under the boy's pillow which read, "G-d is nowhere." 

The boy arose in the morning, and ran to his father with excitement. "Dad, this morning I discovered a message under my pillow saying, "G-d is now here."


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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