What is true martyrdom? Whose sacrifice is .greater, Chanania, Mishael and Azaria in Babylon of old, or our brother and sister Jews in Russia today? We can help the Jews behind the Iron Curtain, but they give us more than we give them!

On Shabbos Zachor, 5745, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shlita, spoke on the topic of supporting the organization which extends help to the Jews who have arrived from countries behind the Iron Curtain and to Jews who are still behind the Iron Curtain. In giving this help we must recognize what we can learn from them. This essay is excerpted and based on that sichah.

An important matter connected to Shabbos Zachor this year is the Melaveh Malkah which will be held tonight for the benefit of the organization which assists Jews, who have come here from behind the “Iron Curtain” and, more importantly, which extends help and assistance to the Jews who are still behind the Iron Curtain.

Jews who reside in the lands of democracy, and especially in this country, often think that they lack nothing. Spiritually they are unfettered and may observe their Torah and mitzvos comfortably, and pleasurably. Materially, they are free and at liberty to do as they wish; they may even leave the boundaries of the country of their domicile and no longer be governed by its laws.

Lacking nothing, they do not feel the importance and the need for Mashiach to come. Therefore, from time to time, it must be explained to them that “we are still servants of Achashverosh.” To prove this point: see how they turn darkness into light and claim that the galus is fine and they lack nothing. There is no greater or worse diaspora than that kind!

However, Jews who live behind the Iron Curtain need not be told that they are still “servants of Achashverosh.” To explain this point to them would be “mocking the oppressed.” Furthermore, being in such a state, their prayer is the “prayer of the oppressed,” whose supplication is of the loftiest level, for it is always presented with a “broken and crushed heart” (Tehillim 51:19).

It is of utmost importance for Jews in America to assist the Jews behind the Iron Curtain in all possible ways. We must consider them not only as “our brothers” but as our own flesh and blood. This concept is expounded in Tanya and in the Yerushalmi where it states that two Jews are like two hands of the same body.

When we speak of tzedakah and acts of kindness for Russian Jews, it is proper to bear in mind the saying of the Midrash: “More than the householder does for the poor man, does the poor man do for the householder” (Ruth Rabbah 5:9). This same thought applies particularly, when we speak of our efforts on behalf of our brethren behind the Iron Curtain.

When we speak in terms of observing Torah and mitzvos with self-sacrifice, what we give to our Jewish brethren behind the Iron Curtain does not compare at all with what we receive and learn from their example.

Here in America, by the grace of G‑d, we do not know what martyrdom for Torah observance is. We are given all the opportunities and possibilities for Torah study and observance of mitzvos. One who wishes to study and become a scholar may do so with the greatest pleasure. Similarly, one who wants to observe mitzvos can enjoy the pleasurable benefits of a mitzvah life. No one stops you. No sacrifice is needed.

Your observance of Torah may even be assisted by the non-Jew. For here, in the democratic lands, we actually see the literal meaning of, “All the nations of the world will realize that G‑d’s Name is associated with you and they will be in awe of you” (Devarim 28:10). Is there a trick in putting on tefillin when the nations are “in awe of you?” Do you need mesirus nefesh to live as a Jew when the gentile is afraid of you, or at least respects you?

But for them, behind the Iron Curtain, every Jewish act, in Torah or mitzvos, is done with utter sacrifice. The Midrash Rabbah in Vayikra depicts for us the situation at the time of religious persecution and tells us:

What is the reason you go forth to be stoned? Because I circumcised my son. What is the reason you go forth to be burned? Because I have kept the Shabbos ... Because I have put on tefillin ... tzitzis ... because I did the will of the Father who is in Heaven

This same set of conditions exists today behind the Iron Curtain. And despite these terrible dangers and very real threats to their lives, the Jews behind the Iron Curtain actually study Torah and fulfill mitzvos with constant self-sacrifice.

This can also be related to the story of Purim. The Alter Rebbe explained in Torah Or, that throughout the time that the decree of Haman remained in effect.

.. for about one full year, everyone was in a state of self-sacrifice [teshuvah], every day, hour and moment ... no one even entertained any other thoughts.

It is clear to see, that we actually have to learn from our brethren who live behind the Iron Curtain, in the lands of oppressive regimes, how we should strive to fulfill mitzvos.

Furthermore, when we begin to investigate the details of their martyrdom we will be absolutely dumbfounded; we will be filled with amazement and genuine admiration, and we will understand and realize the lofty quality of those Jews.

Religious persecution, difficulties dangers and threats for observant Jews in Russia, have been kept up for over fifty years, now.

Regarding Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, who were ready to sacrifice their lives by being thrown into a fiery furnace — rather than to bow down to an idol, the Gemara says: “If they had lashed Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, they would have worshipped the idol.” It was easier to jump into a furnace, a one time sacrifice, than to undergo continuous suffering and torture.

In that forsaken country, the torture has kept up for over fifty years, nevertheless they withstand the test and continue to bravely observe Torah and mitzvos with superhuman sacrifice. In each individual case the torture and oppression is kept up continuously throughout the person’s life. For the “sin” of observing Shabbos, he can be exiled to Siberia. In the best instance he is only fired from his job, which leaves him without a source of income. He returns home and he has no food to bring to his wife and children. He has no one to turn to for help. This condition continues day after day. Nevertheless, he sacrifices his life in order to observe Torah and mitzvos.

There is another more important factor. In evaluating the act of sacrifice there is an important contrast between the sacrifice of Chanania, Mishael and Azaria and Russian Jews today. In the case of Chanania, Mishael and Azaria their involvement in Torah and Yiddishkeit, mitzvos, study and knowledge, was on the highest and best level. They were Jews who were raised and bred on Torah. They kept all aspects of Torah — the easy and the hard — for as we know, they subsisted on vegetables rather than partake of the king’s food, which was given to them. They were on a very high level, having had the proper upbringing and education, and being the friends of Daniel. Nevertheless the Gemara questions if they could have withstood constant torture.

On the other hand, the sacrifice which the Russian Jews make today is all the more amazing, since neither they, nor their fathers have received a Jewish education. They never saw a yeshivah where Jews sit and study Torah, and despite this they are heroes.

To go a step further. There are many Russian Jews who don’t even know what a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is. When you speak about a Sefer Torah they ask: “What is this, Sefer Torah?” They know that “sefer” is a holy book and they heard about the concept of Torah but they cannot comprehend what a Sefer Torah, is! They never saw such a thing!

They only know that their grandmothers told them, they are Jews and they must circumcise their sons!

And for this they sacrifice their lives: to circumcise their sons, or themselves, if their parents did not do it. They know that the operation is irreversible and that it will become known, and they may lose their jobs and be left without a livelihood. They are not deterred; they want to be circumcised as Jews.

Where does this fortitude come from? Not because they expect physical reward in this world, not even for the reward in the world to come. They do not do this because they recognize the loftiness of martyrdom — they do not even know what the term means! The only thing which motivates them is the knowledge that they are Jews.

For this reason alone, they circumcise themselves, despite the tremendous danger involved; this reason alone motivates them also in all aspects of their observance of Torah.

Now, when these acts of martyrdom are described to Jews in democratic lands, on this side of the Iron Curtain, where they have all the opportunities to live free as Jews, they will be impressed, and as a result they will increase their observance of all aspects of Torah and mitzvos.

In truth, this is the best way to encourage a Jew to increase his observance. When you tell a Jew about the sacrifice of Jews behind the Iron Curtain, for all aspects of Yiddishkeit, he becomes ashamed to think or say that it is too hard to forego a little extra profit of working on Shabbos.

Can he say that it is too hard to set aside an hour for study? How difficult can it be, when you compare it to the dangers and difficulties of those Jews who live as Jews with real self-sacrifice behind the Iron Curtain?

Thus, when we speak of extending help to the Jews behind the Iron Curtain, we must recognize that we are getting the true help from them. Their life and suffering teaches us how to live as Jews.

We do not want that this “grant” which we receive from them will be “Bread of Shame,” so we must help them in return. But we must remember that they are giving us more than we give them. What is 10, 18, 100 thousand dollars, compared to the good influence we receive from them in serving G‑d with dedication, altruism and self-sacrifice?

And what is all the money in the world worth, compared with saving the life of a Jew?!