This Shabbat, the Eleventh of Elul, marks 47 years to the day of one of the most transformative moments in my life, in the most unlikely of places and circumstances. It was on this date in September 1970 that I was in the synagogue of Riga, Latvia, in the former Soviet Union, carrying out a mission personally requested of me by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, to establish four underground yeshivas.
These yeshivas were to be established under the radar of a regime that had made every aspect of Jewish life forbidden. Owning a Hebrew primer was punishable by exile to Siberia. Thank God, I had succeeded in Moscow and Leningrad, but when I left my hotel in Riga that Shabbat morning I noticed that I was being followed by four very tall and burly individuals who barely gave me breathing space.
These KGB agents literally surrounded me in the sanctuary where I was seated in splendid isolation in the extreme corner of the right side. The other twenty-eight congregants, each clearly over the age of sixty-five, were sitting together on the extreme left side of a large sanctuary built for six-hundred.
The cantor and choir chanted the service as if they were performing before thousands. The gabbai, a short man with white, wispy hair, whispered to me in Yiddish, “We are thirsty for Torah. We have a Kiddush after the service downstairs. We expect you to teach us. Please come down after the davening – but without your friends.”
The interminable service ended at exactly Noon. The four goons miraculously disappeared, and I went down into a pitch black room where fifteen people were seated around a table. The table was set with many bottles of clear white liquid and slices of honey cake. A chair of honor was set for me with a large Kiddush cup.
The gabbai repeated, “We are thirsty for Torah,” as he poured me a full glass of liquid, which he told me was vodka. I chanted the Kiddush, gave a D’var Torah, they sang a niggun, they did a dance, and then poured me another vodka. Another D’var Torah, a niggun, a dance, and again more vodka – nine times!
At that point, I asked the Torah reader from the synagogue, Yisrael Friedman, a Chabadnik, to give a D’var Torah, and his words literally changed my life.
He related that Elisha ben Avuya was a great rabbi of the Mishna who became a heretic upon witnessing the tragedy of a boy who had climbed a tree to bring down a pigeon for his father after sending away the mother bird. In doing so, the child had performed two commandments that promise the reward of long life, yet he had fallen from the tree and died. “There is no judge and no judgment!” was Rabbi Elisha’s defiant reaction [Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 39b].
Elisha’s grandson, Rabbi Yaakov, noted that had his grandfather understood a major axiom of Jewish thought he would never have left the Jewish fold: “There is no reward for the commandments in this world” [ibid.].
Yisrael looked out at the basement assemblage with blazing eyes and then looked Heavenward. “But God, that’s not fair! How can You expect Your Jewish servants to pay the day laborer on that very day when you withhold our reward for the commandments till after our lifetime, in the world to come?!”
He answered his own question: The Talmud [Bava Metzia] differentiates between a day laborer and a contractor. Yes, a day laborer must be paid at the end of the day, but a contractor is to be paid only at the end of the project. We, vis-à-vis God, are not day laborers; we are contractors. Each of us, given his/her unique gift and the time and place in which he/she lives, must do his share in helping to complete the world with the Kingship of God.
Whether we have fulfilled most of our mission or just a little of it can only be determined at the end of our lifetimes. For us contractors, there is no reward for commandments in this world.
I was moved to tears. After witnessing first-hand the persecution of Soviet Jewry, I was overwhelmed by thinking of God’s great gift of a newborn State of Israel, and felt deeply in my heart that I could not possibly have been born in a free country in these most momentous times in order to fulfill my mission in New York.
And so in the basement of Riga I made an oath: I will bring my family to the State of Israel and hopefully there realize my true calling. And when I get to Israel I will make Kiddush on vodka every Shabbat day in memory of this experience. I am thankful to God to report that I indeed arrived with my family in Israel, and to this day, 47 years later, I still make the Shabbat day Kiddush using vodka, forever reminding me of that moment, and the lesson I learned from a refusenik in Riga.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.