When Frieda Sossonko came to America and immersed in a luxurious mikvah in Brooklyn, she recalled another mikvah that she had used long ago in Tashkent. During World War II, she and her family had fled to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and home to many Jewish refugees. In 1962 the Communists suddenly sealed up the only mikvah in the community. A few weeks later, Frieda learned of a secret mikvah that was located in theThe Communists suddenly sealed up the only mikvah in the community synagogue’s backyard, not far from the mikvahthat had been sealed up. When she needed to immerse, she and a friend met up with a woman who lived nearby, who showed them where there was a well hidden under an old covering.

In Tashkent it doesn’t rain often, so the original builders of the community mikvah decided to dig a well to ensure there would be enough water, as required by Jewish law. Now that the mikvah was sealed off, the women had no choice but to use this well itself as a mikvah. The well was very deep, so they placed a table at the bottom, bound two long ladders end to end, and lowered this longer ladder down to the table.

Frieda later described how the woman they met attempted to pour a pail of boiling water into the well to warm it, but it was useless. As she began her descent down the ladders, the ice-cold air hit her. It was dark and freezing before she even reached the water. When her toes finally touched the water, Frieda immediately withdrew them; the water felt like sharp, piercing needles. She then tried washing her face and arms with the water. Closing her eyes, she then tried alternating her feet, attempting to dip them, trying a number of ways to get her body adjusted to the water, but it was just impossible. The water was frigid! Frieda was about to give up and wait for another opportunity, when she heard familiar voices.

She recognized the voice of her friend and another woman entering the courtyard, both coming to immerse in the mikvah well. Suddenly, she realized that if she were to come out of the well without immersing, these other women would certainly not even try to immerse. She couldn’t bear the thought of being a deterrent to such an important and consequential mitzvah.

Frieda thought about the way she and her fellow Jews lived under Communist rule: the rabbis, the ritual slaughterers, the teachers who were sent to Siberia (many who didn’t return), the sacrifices made by so many. Despite all of these hardships, many Jews continued to observe Torah and mitzvahs. Frieda concluded that if G‑d put them in such a country, He surely gave them the strength to persevere. Here they were: three women coming to perform the mitzvah of immersing in a mikvah. Could she allow the cold to deter them? Frieda decided that no matter what, she absolutely had to immerse.

And so she tried again, and then again, but she just couldn’t. Then she realized that she would need to concentrate on something so intensely that she would be distracted from feeling anything. She had beenCould she allow the cold to deter them? through trauma, and so she knew that allowing herself to think about those experiences would take her to a different place entirely. She began to think about the early years of her marriage, when the KGB arrested her husband, and for eight months she didn’t know where he was or whether he was still alive.

During his absence, her two small children died on the same day. As she allowed her thoughts to dwell on those memories, she took the plunge and, indeed, didn’t even feel the cold. Frieda knew how to swim, but under the water she felt completely sapped of strength and without air in her lungs. Suddenly she panicked, and couldn’t get herself up to the surface!

She prayed fervently to G‑d—who had saved her husband and returned him to her, and had blessed them with another child—to spare her life for the sake of her family.

Frieda described the rest of her immersion as a miraculous experience. When she finished and got out of the well, she felt her blood moving through her body again, warming her up.

Standing close to the well, Frieda heard her friend scream out as she too descended into the bitter cold water. But her friend immersed, followed by the other woman, who had heard her friend’s screams yet quickly and quietly immersed as well.

Frieda’s heart was filled with joy, and she thanked G‑d for giving them the strength to do this important mitzvah. After that night, her friend undertook to build a secret mikvah in her backyard, while Frieda built one in her own kitchen! Even after leaving Russia, she made sure that the mikvah would stay open and available. The Communists shut down the only mikvah in Tashkent; Frieda and her friend replaced it with two!1

When I read Frieda’s story in Total Immersion, I was moved by her tenacity and resolution to do what seemed impossible, to go beyond herself to ensure that other women performed the mitzvah of mikvah. It struck me as such an inspirational story depicting the importance of our responsibility for each other, and how that realization in turn affects us so deeply. However, while the message resonated strongly with me, I considered it a story of the past.

That is, until I came across a chassidic discourse of the Rebbe’s,2 in which the Rebbe profoundly underscores just how interconnected we are as a people, and how truly influential our actions are, individually and collectively.

G‑d’s Merciful Dispersion

In the book of Judges,3 Deborah the prophetess sings a victory song after the deliverance of the children of Israel from the neighboring Canaanites. The verse “They will tell the righteous acts of the L‑rd, the righteous acts of restoring open cities in Israel” expresses the Jews’ gratitude for now being able to live safely in open cities, no longer needing to cluster together within fortified cities.

The Talmudic sage R. Oshaia explained “the righteous acts of the L‑rd” to mean that G‑d showed mercy by scattering the Jewish people throughout the nations.4 G‑d protects the Jewish people during times of exile and persecution by causing them to be spread throughout many countries. While enemies may arise to destroy the Jews in one place, Jews elsewhere remain safe, and are able to provide assistance or a place of refuge for other Jews.Even when living in a country that celebrates religious freedom, we may be held hostage to our internal struggles

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe remarked that when some Jews are living under oppressive regimes, where it is extremely difficult to observe the Torah and mitzvahs, other Jewish communities that have religious freedoms empower and strengthen their oppressed brethren through their observance, enabling their fellow Jews to overcome their challenges until the time when they can practice freely.

The Rebbe pointed out that this interdependence applies to Jews in “spiritual captivity” as well. Even when Jews live in a country that celebrates religious freedom, they may be held hostage to their own internal struggles, conflicts and confusions. And a hostage is dependent on someone else to be freed.

To Rescue, Empower and Complete

Herein lies the power of a Jew: When a Jew observes Torah and mitzvahs fully and completely in one area, he enables the person who is struggling in that particular area to be set free of his negative inclination. This applies even in a scenario where the “liberating Jew” is spiritually confined and challenged in another area of observance. What presents as an impossible sticking point for one person is not necessarily someone else’s challenge. And so, every Jew can help “redeem” and empower another in certain areas.

Additionally, each generation has unique challenges and a particular mission to accomplish. In previous eras the Jewish people were lured by idol worship and pagan practices—an allure that is completely foreign to other generations. And just as one Jew’s observance of a mitzvah helps another Jew who is challenged by that mitzvah, the dedication of previous generations empowers the current generation to overcome our areas of weaknesses.

In fact, our unity as a people enables us to not only help and empower each other, but to complete each other’s mitzvah performance in a way that would otherwise be truly impossible. Through our connection to the generations of Jews that lived during the times of the Tabernacle and Holy Temple, we become a part of those observances that apply only when those holy structures stood. Similarly, even in current times there are laws and observances that are relevant only in the Land of Israel (like the Sabbatical laws). When Jews in Israel fulfill these laws, Jews around the globe are connected to their observances and thereby fulfill them. A Jew properly observing any mitzvah enables another Jew, in any part of the world, during any time period, who cannot observe that same mitzvah, to be included in that observance.

Thus, Our unity is beyond time and spaceour unity is beyond time and space, like an ageless body that is reliant on the healthy function of every cell, organ, limb and system. At different times the body requires specific immunity boosts and added support to strengthen areas of weakness so that the whole body can return to its full strength. It is the healthier components that are tapped to reinvigorate the fragile or feeble parts.

Return to Jerusalem, the City Without Walls

This is the true righteousness and mercy of G‑d in spreading the Jewish people across countries and throughout the generations: enabling us to assist and rescue each other, physically and spiritually. And the goal is to achieve something much greater than what existed before G‑d scattered us throughout this long exile—the return of the Jews from exile to Jerusalem with the coming of Moshiach. As the prophet Zechariah predicted, “Jerusalem will be inhabited as a city without walls.”5 Unable to accommodate such a vast population, the city will break forth beyond its walls.

Within this verse we find the method for achieving this ultimate goal of redemption. Every person is a microcosm of the world, so every person contains a Jerusalem as well. Whereas the physical place of Jerusalem is still part of our exile experience, our inner Jerusalem remains intact.

The Talmud6 quotes the Midrash, which states that Jerusalem was named by two famous righteous people: King Malki-Tzedek, who named it Shaleim (“Complete”); and our patriarch Abraham, who called it Yirah (“Awe”). The combination of these two names is Yirah Shaleim (Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem), meaning “Complete Awe.” This complete awe of G‑d is our inner Jerusalem. Even when that awe is not revealed, it is spiritually intact and everlasting. It is tied to our very essence.

Throughout history, when we have been subjected to all typesEvery Jew has an essential connection with G‑d of persecution, we have dug deep inside and revealed our essential bond with G‑d. Every Jew, whether learned or uninformed, observant or rebellious, has an essential connection to G‑d that can never be severed. At any point when that spiritual nerve center is touched, we expose our complete awe, which expresses itself in unlimited devotion and acts of self-sacrifice—acts that were previously unfathomable. It is precisely the circumstances of challenge, oppression and struggle on different levels, internally and externally, that force Jews to uncover this essential relationship with G‑d. It is then expressed in our consciousness and affects the totality of our being, down to our thought, speech and action.

This is the meaning of the verse from Zechariah about Moshiach: “Jerusalem will be inhabited as a city without walls.” When we uncover and expose our internal Jerusalem, our complete awe of G‑d, it is expressed “without walls,” without constraints or limitations. When we get in touch with our essence, when our relationship with G‑d becomes front and center in our consciousness, nothing can stand in the way of our determination to serve G‑d. Through our acts of self-sacrifice, the deeds that we do with total devotion and commitment, and every form of truly dedicated service, we are realizing the fulfillment of this verse.

And doing this will bring the final redemption, when G‑d will gather the Jews back to the physical city of Jerusalem with the arrival of Moshiach. Then Jerusalem will expand beyond its walls, and spread throughout Israel and the entire world.7 The whole world will become a place where the complete awe of G‑d is truly experienced.

Gift Matching of Empowerment

G‑d’s righteousness and mercy in dispersing the Jewish people throughout the world over the course of many generations enabled us to discover, reveal and establish our deepest and most cherished relationship with Him. And our interconnectedness as a people empowers us and motivates us to express our individual Jerusalems. When we put that power into motion by fulfilling the Torah and its commandments, continuously completing and adding to the achievements of all Jews throughout time, we will reach that final mitzvah and merit the ultimate redemption.

Frieda was motivated and inspired by the self-sacrifice and perseverance of those who had risked their lives—and those who gave up their lives—defying the Communists for the sake of G‑d. And her own deeds of self-sacrifice were motivated by the effects her actions would have on other Jews observing Judaism.

We are so much more empowered and energized when we realize that what we do will have broader ramifications beyond our single personal deed. These days, the most successful fundraising campaigns involve generating wide networks of people who are challenged to contribute for a charitable cause, with the understanding that their contribution will be significantly matched by other generous donors and will produce two, three or four times its value.

What G‑d has set up for us is the greatest charitable campaign, with the widest network of all: What we do has broader ramifications beyond our single deeda united people dispersed across time and space, with a full spectrum of capabilities and achievements. He linked us all together with our mini-Jerusalems, and gave us the task of making the whole world one revealed Jerusalem—a place where G‑d’s presence is sensed. Though we may not perceive it, each of our deeds is being matched to an infinite level, reaching into the past, affecting the present and future. Individually and collectively, we are all involved in empowering and completing each other so that we meet the final goal.

Frieda’s story is not about an inspiring incident of the past. She is an integral part of the present. Each and every one of us is in this together, and we make an incalculable difference with every mitzvah that we do.

This essay is dedicated to my dear mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary, of blessed memory, on the occasion of her 10th yahrtzeit, on the 12th of Iyar. Her grandmother Yenta Leah, of blessed memory, was known to be proficient in Jewish law, and exhibited great self-sacrifice in her meticulous observance of Judaism, notably with the mitzvah of mikvah, as well as with her exceptional adherence to the mitzvah of covering her hair. There’s no doubt in my mind that the deeds of my great-grandmother had a profound impact on her progeny, who followed in her footsteps in an exemplary manner decades later. Though they never met—and my great-grandmother could never have fathomed the imprint of her deeds—she empowers us all.