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"Therefore, say to the Children of Israel - 'I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am Hashem your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt" (Shemos 6:6-7).
When we read these weeks' parshios, we should take note of the fact that we, thank G-d, are not slaves and are free to serve Hashem according to our hearts' desires. Not only in Egypt, but throughout the long, bitter Exile, and, most recently, in Nazi ruled Europe and the Soviet Communist Bloc, Jews were not allowed to practice their religion. But, in spite of the great danger, many were loyal to Hashem and learned Torah and observed mitzvahs scrupulously. Surely, we, who are free to do so, should be totally dedicated to authentic Judaism and should follow in its ways even when it is a bit inconvenient to do so.
In 1991, I had the great privilege of assisting in the establishment of Yeshiva High Schools in the Former Soviet Union. In 1992, Parashas Lech Lecha, I attended the Bar Mitzvah of the son of Rabbi Chaim Bar On, Founder and Principal of the Migdal Ohr Yeshiva High School in Moscow. It was probably the first public Bar Mitzvah in Russia since the rise of Communism, seventy years prior. It was a very emotional Shabbos as the elders of the community remembered what Jewish ceremonies were like when they were young, while the youngsters stared, like the Simple Son in the Haggadah Shel Pesach, asking, "What is this all about?"
While there, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, pointed out a young masmid (a very diligent, studious, Torah student), Moshe, who was learning in his yeshiva. Although only about 16 years old, this youngster's eyes were glued to the sefer (religious book) he was studying with obvious joy. He did this, I was told, most of the hours of each day and night; only stopping to eat and sleep the bare minimum.
Rabbi Goldschmidt then told me his amazing story. Moshe's father was a high official in the notorious KGB, the Soviet Union's secret security police. The youngster grew up believing that he and his parents were not Jewish. One day, though, his mother mentioned to him that, as a matter of fact, they were actually Jews. The boy was shocked to hear this and he immediately began to search for some Jew who could explain to him what being Jewish really meant.
In Communist Russia, it wasn't easy to find someone who was ready to admit to someone else that he was Jewish. However, with the help of Providence, Moshe met up with an observant Jew who learned Torah and observed mitzvahs in the Underground. This Jew was more than happy to introduce Moshe to his authentic Jewish roots and learned Torah with him secretly.
But things were not as secret as they had thought. The KGB seemed to have x-ray vision, and they knew what went on behind closed doors and in basements and attics. Moshe's father was getting reports about a Jewish man learning Torah with a young boy; and he was shocked to discover that that young boy was none other than his own son.
At home, Moshe's father asked him why in the world he was studying Torah when he wasn't Jewish. Moshe replied that his mother had revealed to him that he really was Jewish and he was interested in exploring his roots. Moshe's father was surprised that his wife had slipped out information which should have still remained a secret and he told his son that his mother was mistaken. They were all genuine Gentiles, he insisted. However, Moshe was obstinate. Although his father explained to him that he was placing himself and the entire family, and his teacher and his family, in great danger, since the KGB was on their trail, Moshe insisted that his mother had obviously slipped out the truth to him. Now that he knew his real identity, he said, he would learn what it meant to be a Jew and would live that way In spite of the risk. He added that since he had begun learning with his new friend, he felt a joy and inner peace which he had never before experienced.
Moshe's father realized that he would not be able to convince his obstinate son to stop learning Torah. Therefore, in order to save him and the whole family from exile to Siberia, or, G-d forbid, even worse punitive measures, he decided to have his son institutionalized in a mental establishment as a boy who was off balance. This, he hoped, would explain to the authorities why a Gentile boy had been learning Torah together with a Jew.
Moshe remained in the hospital for about two years; but he never forgot that he was a Jew. As soon as the Iron Curtain fell, and his parents took him home again, he ran to embrace the Jews who were coming out of hiding. As soon as Rabbi Goldschmidt established his yeshiva, Moshe came to learn there as a full time student. He learned with extra diligence to make up for all the time he had lost.
He should be a source of inspiration for all of us.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network