It was the 1980s and all pundits predicted that Communist Russia was here to stay. But Torah Jewry was undaunted. The excitement was palpable as cloak-and-dagger operations were orchestrated behind the Iron Curtain. Smuggling out a tape from Ilya (Eliyahu) Essas, the leader of the clandestine baal teshuvah movement in Communist Russia, containing a message to Torah Jews in the free world was only a small part of the activity. Sneaking a tape of Rav Shach, zt”l, back into the Soviet Union with a message of chizuk was even more dangerous and exciting.
Despite the dangers, the Agudah and what later evolved into the Vaad Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, led by Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, sent hundreds of shluchim into cities like Moscow, Leningrad, Vilna and Kishinev to teach Torah, despite the fact that this was against Soviet law. Rabbanim and baalei batim were ready to put themselves in danger to teach and support individuals about whom Rav Shach had said, “I am envious of their great zechus to learn Torah in those very difficult circumstances.”
Then a miracle happened. In late December of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Rabbi Schwab actually said he believed this miracle happened because of the Torah that was being learned. The sheker of Communism could not stand before the emes of Torah.
All of a sudden, it was permitted to teach Torah. The Vaad was now able to bring groups of people legally and openly into different cities in the former Soviet Union. They created officially-sanctioned yeshivos and Torah programs. There was the excitement of building Torah institutions in places where, long ago, Torah communities had thrived, but which, under 70 years of Communist domination, had become entirely bereft of Torah. Excitement brings commitment, and financial support is not far behind.
A meeting I recently attended in the home of Harav Mattisyahu Salomon, Hashem yishmereihu, reminded me of something I heard many years ago from Rabbi Shmaryahu Karelitz, zt”l, a nephew of the Chazon Ish. Rav Karelitz gave a fascinating explanation of why Moshe Rabbeinu’s hitting the rock instead of speaking to it was considered preventing a kiddush Hashem.
“Isn’t hitting a rock and having water spring forth also a miracle which should bring kiddush Hashem?” Rav Karelitz asked. He very beautifully explained that once before, in Parashas Beshalach, Moshe had already shown Bnei Yisrael that when Hashem commands one to hit a rock to bring out water, the water would flow. Been there, done that. It was nothing new and therefore wouldn’t impress. Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted to show that even just talking to a rock can have it give out its water. Wow!
We easily get accustomed to things and lose interest. The Vaad, in the “exciting” years, had created Torah communities led by local Rabbanim which included schools — kindergarten through kollel and women’s seminaries — mikvaos and kiruv centers. In many of the cities, those who became closer to Yiddishkeit emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, leaving the local communities devoid of committed Jews.
Two of those communities, though — Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia and Baku, in Azerbaijan — had many Jews who wanted to remain in their communities and build Torah in their native land. The Vaad supports their efforts and the hundreds of participants in their schools and programs. By now, however, they have become “just another yeshivah or mosad” and they are having difficulty continuing the support.
Despite his frailty, Rav Mattisyahu called together a group of baalei batim to counteract this feeling of “hergel” which hampers action. It was convened the week of Parashas Pinchas and the chairman, Ephraim Hasenfeld, had quoted a vort on the Rashi about Shemini Atzeres, “kasheh alai pridaschem.” The Mashgiach provided a different nuance. “Pridaschem — your leaving” a vital project because you are tired or it isn’t exciting anymore “kasheh alai — is difficult for me.”
Although our nature is always to look for something new and fresh, Chazal admonish us she’tihiyeh b’einecha k’chadashim — the old and valuable things should be in your eyes like something new and exciting. If there are Jews in Azerbaijan or Georgia who, despite 70 years of Communist dictatorship, are interested in learning Torah — then it is our responsibility to find the way to support them. “We’re tired” or “we have newer and more exciting projects to support” are not excuses.
The lesson is important in this context — to support the Vaad and its activities — but is also important in so many other aspects of our avodas Hashem: in our davening and in our mitzvah observance. Whenever we feel that we are doing things mitzvas anashim melumadah — by rote, it’s time to realize the value of the opportunity we have and address it with a fresh look.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org