Last week, I recounted Part One of our harrowing yet memorable story of the trip my wife and I made to the FSU to visit refuseniks. Next week, I plan IYH to present Part Two. This week I reproduce a sermon I delivered on Parshat Bo in 1983 in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, which led to my wife and I being sponsored for the USSR trip by the 35s (Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry) the following year.
For those who, like us, lived through the era, it will reignite memories. For those who did not it will present an interesting comparison between the Egyptian and Soviet bondages as well as a further eye-opener on some Jewish heroes of a generation or so ago whose valor approximates to that of tsaddikim of a much earlier age. Thank G-D, many lived to taste the sweetness of freedom and now live as proud, observant Jews in Israel and elsewhere. For in every generation they stand against us to destroy us, but G-D constantly – and miraculously – rescues us from their hands!
They, the mighty ones, ignominiously perish – but we, the downtrodden ones, mightily live on!
G-D said to Moses: Bo el Paro. Go to Pharaoh for I have hardened (ki ani hichbadti) his heart… (Exodus 10:1)
It’s a rather strange verse that opens this week’s Sidra. Why should Moses go to Pharaoh now, because Pharaoh’s heart is hardened? Isn’t that a reason not to go to Pharaoh?
My late revered teacher Rav Munk ztl would have resolved the question by translating differently. The word hichbadti, from the same Hebrew root as kavod, normally rendered ‘honor’, bears, at source, the connotation of weightiness or heaviness. If Pharaoh’s heart is heavy, weighted down, that means he’s worried! Maybe this is the time to go to him!
Or, if we wish to retain the other meaning of hichbadti we can suggest another homiletical explanation. The preceding conjunction ki, as well as meaning “for” or “because” can also mean “although”. This too makes sense. Go to Pharaoh although I have hardened his heart. Although you won’t find Pharaoh an easy cookie to deal with, nevertheless go to him. G-D is giving Moses a lesson in bitachon, heavenly trust.
Both these interpretations speak to us with profound relevance and meaning when we draw a grand sweep across the vast panorama of Jewish history from the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt three and a half millennia ago to the Jews in Soviet Russia at the present time.
We are witnessing a steady disintegration of spirit in the Soviet Union. But let me clarify. This withering of spirit is not to be found among the Jews there, certainly not among the Refuseniks, the spiritual rebirth of whom is one of the true miracles of our age and about which I shall say more later.
No – it is among the Soviets themselves that, there is an increasing heaviness of heart besetting both the leaders and the “proletariat” for whom so much was promised in the Communist “utopia” and yet so little has been fulfilled.
Increasingly amongst the Soviet leadership there is a gnawing uncertainty about future policy. It is as if many in the Politburo no longer believe in what they are doing, no longer believe in the utopian vision.
If this is the case, it is indeed time for us to “go to Pharaoh”, to take positive steps on behalf of our incarcerated brethren and not to sit on the fence and hesitate when we see that many discontented, disillusioned Soviets are weighed down.
As for those who still adhere loyally and unswervingly to the Soviet creed of oppression, of those we may apply the second interpretation Go to Pharaoh even though I have hardened his heart. Have enough faith in your Creator not to say there is no chance of anything being achieved and so we may as well sit back and do nothing! The Torah teaches us differently. It teaches us to have bitachon, as King David expresses so beautifully in the psalm that reputedly keeps Anatoly Shcharansky’s spirit alive in Chistopol prison: Kavei el haShem, chazak veya’amets libeicha ve-kavei el haShem. Put your hope in G-D, be strong [in adversity], then indeed your heart will take courage and you will really be able to place your hope in G-D! (27:14).
Yes, there is a distinct corollary between hope and courage. Where the one exists, so should the other!
Many points of contact present themselves when we compare the unfolding of the Egyptian bondage and the present internment of Jews in the USSR. In Egypt under Joseph’s rule, all was rosy. Jacob’s burgeoning family contributed extensively to the Egyptian economy. Later this very prosperity which they had brought to Egypt was turned against them. The nation of Israel are too mighty and prosperous for our liking. (Exodus 1:9). [Note that Pharaoh was the first person to call Israel a nation. Our enemies recognize our strength even before we do!] We cannot afford to let them loose they cry.
In the Soviet Union today too, there is an all-pervading, irrational fear that the Jews, if allowed freedom, would rise up against the regime and destroy it! The Soviets conveniently forget that Jews ironically were in the vanguard of Communism and the building up of the regime. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin made history by enacting a law which made antisemitism in the USSR a state crime subject to severe punitive sentencing – a meaningless measure and a cruel irony when we view the Soviet scene today.
The Soviets are also taking a lesson from Pharaoh with regard to splitting up families. At one stage, Pharaoh was amenable to sending out the men of Egypt without their wives and children (Exodus 10:11). Similarly, we see that in the rare instances where exit visas are granted by the Soviets, they are awarded to isolated individuals within family units – the Shcharanskys are the most well-known but by no means the only instance of this. [Note: At the time I delivered this address, Avital Shcharansky had been granted an exit visa to the exclusion of her husband.]
Yet the most striking similarity between the two oppressions – and this can only serve to warm our hearts in this otherwise dark and tragic scenario – can be seen when we assess the extraordinary Jewish spiritual levels to which Jews in this atheistic Soviet regime have risen. Many compare in stature to the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt about whom it is said vaya’amein ha-am, the people believed (4:31). A people brought up in fear of their lives, a people brought up in a perverse regime where, as Rashi states, women were forced to do men’s work and vice-versa, such a people were, against all odds, ma’aminim believers amid the darkness of oppressive Egypt. And today in the USSR, it is one of the supreme miracles of our age that the ba’al teshuva movement, the religious revival that has gripped many Jews in Western countries has penetrated behind the Iron Curtain to a regime where to even own a Hebrew book can invite arrest. An administration where Jews grow up not knowing what a mezuza is.
Avital Shcharansky testifies to this. When she first arrived at the Virenna transit camp en route to Israel, she saw the Bucharian Jews kissing something on the door and she ran to see what it was. She was a proud, identifying Jewess and yet she had never seen a mezuza before. And in her own words: When the Jewish Agency people organized a dinner for us, it happened to be a Friday evening. The table was covered with a white tablecloth and there were also candles. They were singing and were very happy. I thought they were so happy just because we were all going to Israel and that this dinner was a party to celebrate that. I didn’t realize that this is how one celebrates Shabbat evening!
In a country where Jews do not know what a mezuza is and what Shabbat is, is it not a true miracle testifying to the eternity of the Jewish People and its Torah that there can be a cheshek, a profound longing to learn Hebrew and to know more about the faith of Judaism?
Sadly, those few Jews in the Soviet Union who are capable of teaching Hebrew, like Yosef Begun, are arrested for doing so. To be a Hebrew teacher in the USSR today is to be engaged in a perilous profession. One can literally be arrested at any moment without warning. This will be Begun’s third trial for which the punishment is seven years’ incarceration – just for sharing a bit of Hebrew knowledge quietly with a couple of Jews in his own home!
There is scarcely anyone left in Russia who is capable of teaching. And yet, letters are reaching the offices of RIAF (Russian Immigrant Aid Fund) and the National Council for Soviet Jewry every day with questions concerning minutiae of kashrut observance. Truly incredible! We in the West many of whom take kashrut for granted or disdain it altogether, ought to be well and truly humbled.
One is reminded of the Midrash in Shir haShirim (1.15:3) which enumerates the merits for which the Bnei Yisrael were delivered from Egypt among which was that they retained their Hebrew names, strove to retain their Hebrew language and customs and that they did not inform against one another. In the Soviet Union today, we have the phenomenon of refuseniks like Ilya Essas [now a rabbi in Jerusalem] who Hebraized his name from Ilya to Eliyahu despite the dire consequences this could bring. Others who bear the Russian name Leonid have Hebraized it to Aryeh. They were not even given these Hebrew names by their parents. Yet they wish to be identified by these Jewish names. In this respect, the Soviet Jews are perhaps even greater than their ancestors in Egypt whose merit was that they didn’t change their existing Hebrew names bestowed to them at birth.
The thirst of these Jews for Jewish books in Hebrew – even though they may not understand the Hebrew – is staggering. As is their remarkable selflessness, particularly among the prisoners.
I particularly recall the heart-warming story that Iosef Mendelevich, [also now a rabbi in Jerusalem] now thankfully a free man, attempted to smuggle to Anatoly Shcharansky in prison the words of the Kaddish prayer in order that he could say it for his father. Needless to say, he wasn’t even allowed out of prison to attend the funeral. Months later, Mendelevich sent Shcharansky a pocket tehilim (Psalms) which proved to be a lifeline for him enabling him to pray and study Hebrew at the same time. Both these selfless acts were at possible cost to Mendelevich’s own life. How much more would these heroes refuse to inform against any fellow Jew even under torture!
When we consider the case of Anatoly Shcharansky [now Natan Sharansky, ex-Israeli politician, human rights activist, author and ex-chair of the Jewish Agency Executive], a young man of 35 who has just completed the 115th day of his fast – it’s demeaning to call it a hunger-strike, it’s a fast, full of religious as well as personal significance – when we consider his case, it is indeed enough to make us weep with sorrow and yet kvell with pride and admiration. Here is a man who, far from falling apart as a result of the many years of incarceration, beaten, tortured, torn away from his wife barely a month after their wedding day, has actually grown in stature to almost unbelievable heights, has become more and more religious while in such a predicament. From where does he get his special strength? It can only be from HaShem Yitbarach!
It is a credit to the stalwart and valiant ladies of “The 35’s” that they have sought this week to draw attention to Shcharansky’s plight as well as those of the other Soviet Jewish prisoners and refuseniks by staging a 24-hour fast and vigil amid bitter wintry conditions last Thursday. By their extraordinary activism, they are showing us the way here in Newcastle, as in so many other Jewish communities in this country. We should all be following their lead. The plight of Soviet Jewry should bind us all together b’aguda achat, in one band, whatever our Jewish outlook and whatever our degree of religious commitment. Because while we may think we are powerless against the Soviet bear, we aren’t!
In the light of all these testimonies to the astounding spirit of our brothers and sisters trapped behind the Iron Curtain, our eyes should be opened in order that we can accept at face value the simple meaning of the pasuk with which we began, the verse which opens this week’s Sidra. Bo el Paro ki ani hichbadti et libo. Go to Pharaoh because I have hardened his heart, davke because I have hardened his heart. Be a davkenik! Are not the Russian Jewish refuseniks and prisoners davkeniks, all of them, all the time? Even though and perhaps because the odds are stacked against them, they are finding their voices, their Jewish voices, they are davening, they are studying, they are wanting to know more and to keep more. In the face of such mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) we, too, in our small way, can be davkeniks. Because the Soviet bureaucratic machine appears so powerful and we feel so powerless, because of this we should rise above what we thought possible. Because we are Jews! Because we are members of an eternal and eternally spirited people!
At very least, to write and send a letter to an adopted refusenik or Soviet Jewish prisoner is not too difficult for any of us. To do so even once a week is no great hardship. The encouragement it will give them, to know they are not alone, to know their brothers and sisters feel for them in their plight, is inestimable.
Let’s keep reminding our MPs too, and through them the government of this country, of their plight. And for those who are able to take the injunction bo el Paro literally, let’s contemplate venturing into the “lion’s den” for our own enrichment as well as to give succor to the refuseniks as many of our valiant womenfolk have already done. We may not be able to give them freedom but we can give them words of hope, while taking from them much inspiration!
Even if we cannot do any of these things, let us never lose sight of the value of a simple kepitel tehilim, a brief psalm, a few words of heartfelt prayer.
In the merit of our emulating the spirit of our davkenik brethren, in the merit of our stubbornly hoping against hope even when there seems no hope, we may be sure that HaShem Yitbarach will send hatsala ve-hatslacha, rescue and salvation to the heroes of Soviet Jewry as well as to our persecuted brethren wherever in the world they may be – uva le-Tsion go’el, venomar Amein!