In 1927, after incitement by the Yevsektzia, the virulently anti-religious Jewish Section of the Soviet Communist Party, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, the saintly Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn נ"ע,1 was incarcerated under capital arrest in Leningrad, interrogated, tortured and exiled, until ultimately — and miraculously — he was liberated. The five discourses in this volume all date from this period,2 surely one of the most agonizing and turbulent epochs in all of our turbulent and agonizing history.

A superficial historian might thus be tempted to conclude that this noble epoch of literal self-sacrifice for the rescue of Jewry’s threatened soul gave rise to these discourses. They appear so obviously to have sprouted out of the spiritual soil of those times. The opposite, though, is even truer: these discourses gave rise to this noble epoch, this time of literal self-sacrifice for the rescue of Jewry’s threatened soul.

What is the potent message in these (and many other) maamarim that empowered them to deflect the natural course of Jewish history?

Above all, they embodied an explicit and fearless call to defy the Soviet regime, even at the cost of life itself. A dramatic example of this is the very first maamar in this volume.3 When the author’s successor, the seventh Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson,4 republished it in 1951, he chose to append a contemporary document — a letter in which a certain rabbi records a factual and artless description of those days by one of the many stalwart communal functionaries who continued to serve their flock against all odds.5

This communal leader, who was not a chassid, relates how one Sunday in 1927 the GPU (formerly called the NKVD) interrogated him so insistently about the current movements of the Rebbe Rayatz that he immediately begged one of the elder chassidim to urge the Rebbe Rayatz to leave the city that very night. Little wonder, therefore, that on the following Wednesday evening, which was Purim Katan, as he was walking down Moscow’s Archipova Street, he was stunned to discover that the Lubavitcher shul was brightly lit up. Hundreds of chassidim crowded its porch and staircase — even though every man there clearly knew that the presence there of the Rebbe Rayatz and his own attendance there endangered the lives of them all. Curious, the passerby entered and heard the “counter-revolutionary” message of the Rebbe Rayatz, loud and clear: Purim’s battle of the spirit, in which the brute force of an anti-Semitic despot was vanquished by the pure breath of little children who were taught Torah by self-sacrificing teachers, is repeated in every generation.... The admiring listener’s amazement was soon cut short. Observing a number of overly-attentive individuals who appeared to be spies of the GPU, he quickly left. And indeed, exactly four months later, the Rebbe Rayatz himself, together with many of those present, was arrested.

Not that imprisonment was a novel experience for him. He had already tasted the first of his seven prison terms when he was nine years old, but none was as excruciating as the incarceration of 1927. Though he found it more difficult to demand self-sacrifice of others than of himself, at a farbrengen a few years earlier he had once asked for a core team of faithful helpers who would undertake — at all costs — to organize shiurim for adults, establish underground chadarim for children, maintain a valid mikveh wherever they found themselves, and so on. In response, nine of these key volunteer activists met secretly soon after in Moscow, and entered into a covenant with him that they would pursue their tasks “until the last drop of blood.”

* * *

In 1920, with the passing of his father, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn,6 the 39-year-old Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had found himself thrown into the leadership of the Chabad chassidic community. In the wake of World War I, the Revolution of 1917, and the anarchy and pillage of the battles between Denikin’s Cossacks and the new Red Army, the Russia that confronted him was impoverished and seething with religious persecution.

Painful as it is to record, the fact is that his most relentless enemy was the above-mentioned Yevsektzia, the Jewish Section of the Soviet Communist Party. In a frenzy of loyalty to the Party, its members exploited their linguistic and personal connections to serve as spies and informers. (In one town, for example, a young man flaunted his zeal by reporting his venerable father’s activity in maintaining the local mikveh. His superiors duly rewarded him by charging him with the task of personally wresting its key from his hands.) The members of the Yevsektzia monitored the mail and the movements of their townsmen, and staged public trials of underground teachers which led to exile and torture in Siberian labor camps. Institutions were also put on trial: the first cheder to be tried and closed was that of Vitebsk, and the first yeshivah to be tried and closed was that of Rostov. And, true to the Bolshevik tradition, the verdicts were commonly written before the trials began.

Lacking the advantage of historical hindsight, the self-hating Jews of the Yevsektzia can hardly be blamed for their shortsightedness: they could hardly be expected to know that every single one of them was eventually going to be charged with treachery to the cause of the Revolution, and unceremoniously liquidated in Stalin’s purges.

* * *

The fearless stand of the Rebbe Rayatz bore fruit in thousands of times and places. Probably every reader of these lines has listened in amazement to incredible first-person accounts of courage in the face of this brutal religious suppression. For years on end, one well-known mashpia declined opportunities to be released from imprisonment until he had managed to fabricate documents (a capital offense!) that would spirit every possible fellow Jew out of the USSR. The learned author of the gulag memoirs entitled Subbota, which means “the Sabbath-observer,” lived a life of self-sacrifice that cost him 20 years in Siberia. At the other end of the country, in Russian Georgia, a young chassidic woman lay down on the street in front of a bulldozer that was storming its way towards the local shul — and lived to tell the tale.7 Many other chassidim, too — some whose date and place of burial are known to no man, some who have passed on from this world, and some who are eagerly awaiting the coming of Mashiach — risked their lives in order to observe a single mitzvah, or in order to save the life of a single stranger. One of the last survivors of that unique generation of self-effacing and self-sacrificing giants of the spirit was the diminutive Reb Abba Pliskin, of sainted memory. After dodging the NKVD for decades and finally leaving the USSR, this noiseless lamplighter introduced many of the Australian and American readers of the present work to the riches of Chassidus.

* * *

In recent years, this extraordinary epoch has been increasingly documented by a flood of memoirs, interviews, and systematic historical accounts, both popular and scholarly.8 Above all, the Rebbe Rayatz’s own account of his arrest and liberation is told in Reshimas HaMaasar, which is due to appear in Vol. IV of the English translation of his classic Likkutei Dibburim. Reading this document gives one an inkling of how the chassidic teachings — and the daily example — of the Rebbe Rayatz actually gave rise to a unique epoch in Jewish history.

* * *

The Rebbe Rayatz once referred to the anniversary of his liberation as moed hamoadim — “the festival of festivals.”9 The Rebbe explained this as follows:10 “A festival marks the day on which a miracle was performed. Yud-Beis Tammuz marks a time and a miracle of general concern — a miracle involving the head of the Jewish people, a festival from which derive all particular festivals and miracles.”

On other occasions11 the Rebbe showed us how to perceive this date from a cosmic perspective. We have been promised by the prophet Zechariah12 that in the Time to Come, the fast of the fourth month — i.e., the Seventeenth of Tammuz, commemorating the beginning of the Destruction — will be transformed into a day of gladness and joy. Ultimately, then, the innermost essence of this mournful fast will be revealed as a time of gladness and joy. Hence, the fact that Divine Providence positioned Yud-Beis Tammuz in the same month makes this festive date the beginning of the revelation of the Time to Come. May we soon be privileged to witness this with our own eyes!

Uri Kaploun

20 Menachem Av, 5756 [1996]
52nd Yahrzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson ז"ל

Acknowledgments

The maamarim were translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger. The volume was edited by Uri Kaploun and guided through its editorial and publishing stages by Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, Director of Sichos In English. Yosef Yitzchok Turner invested his patience and professionalism in the layout and typography, and the cover was designed by Avrohom Weg. The cover photo was taken in Riga, Latvia, where the Rebbe Rayatz settled after leaving Russia in 1927.

Note

The source references which appeared in the body of the original Hebrew texts were left in place in the translation, and likewise, the original Hebrew footnotes appear at the foot of the English pages. Footnotes that were added in the English edition are enclosed by square brackets, as also are explanatory or connecting passages interpolated in the body of the translated text.