On a recent community trip to Israel, I was fortunate to hear and be inspired by Yuli Edelstein, a member of the Knesset and formerly its speaker. Edelstein’s story is remarkable. He was a prisoner of Zion (the term used for Soviet Jews denied exit visas due to their desire to immigrate to Israel).
Edelstein was born in the Ukrainian city of Chernovitz. He recalled how, as a child, he went with his grandfather through secret doors and tunnels to buy matzot for Passover. His family encountered many challenges while trying to live a Jewish lifestyle, but he stayed committed with Jewish pride, even teaching himself Hebrew.
In 1979 he moved to Moscow, got involved in aliyah activities and started working as a Hebrew teacher. In Soviet Russia, Simchas Torah was the holiday on which thousands of Jews visited the synagogue. On Simchas Torah of 1982, Edelstein organized a choir singing Hebrew songs before a mighty crowd of Jews — and the KGB did not like it. In 1983, KGB agents burst in on Edelstein’s Hebrew classes and took him and his friends to the local police station. They confiscated the study books and sentenced Edelstein to three years in a labor camp in Siberia.
His job there was to chop down trees in a thick forest in the Siberian cold. He was finally freed in 1987 — but not before having suffered serious injuries as a result of the forced labor.
While he was imprisoned, he had no connection whatsoever with the world outside the walls of his cell. He had no idea that he had become a worldwide icon, with his image displayed around the globe and thousands demanding his release.
One day, when he was coming back from a day of labor in the woods, freezing from the cold, the warden overseeing his detail called out, “Edelstein! Come here!” The warden said to him, “My safe is filled with letters that they’re sending you from all over the world.” But the warden added with a sadistic smile, “Since the law says that prisoners are not allowed to get letters from outside the country, you’re not going to get even one.” The warden obviously was trying to torture him psychologically.
Edelstein related that in those moments, there was no one happier than him. He suddenly learned that everyone was thinking about him and worrying for him. He never saw the letters, but when he finally made aliyah to Israel, a reporter asked him how he had survived isolation in the Siberian labor camp. Edelstein replied that he did not feel alone for one moment: “Hashem was with me and I felt the love and support of the whole world.”
We are now in the period of counting the Omer, during which we put extra focus on unity and love of others. Our Sages tell us that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva were stricken by a plague because they were not respectful toward one another. But on the 33rd day of counting the Omer — Lag b’Omer — the plague stopped.
On Lag B’Omer of the year 5744 (1984), the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about Soviet Jewry, who in those days endured terrible difficulties trying to live Jewish lives. The Rebbe asked where those precious Jews got the strength to withstand all the challenges they faced in the Soviet Union. And the answer to that, the Rebbe said, came from Rabbi Simon Bar-Yochai, whose day of passing fell on Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Shimon had said, “Come and see how precious the Jewish Nation is, for wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) went with them: When they were exiled to Egypt, the Shechinah was with them … when they were exiled to Bavel, the Shechinah was with them.” (Talmud, Megilah 29a)
And the Rebbe continued: “The state of exile for the Jews is not such that they are in exile while G-d is in His Heavenly abode, from which He looks down to see how they are doing … rather, the Shechinah is with them; even G-d is in exile together with the Jews.” And so, “when the Jewish Nation finds itself in exile, they have all of G-d’s help and support in everything they need.”
There are quite a few Sages of the Talmudic era whose dates of passing we don’t know — so why is it that of all the Sages, it is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai whose yahrzeit is celebrated by the entire Jewish nation, 2,000 years later? Perhaps it is because Rabbi Shimon is the one who revealed to us just how much G-d loves the Jewish nation — that “wherever the Jewish Nation is exiled, the Shechinah is with them.”
The best way to earn G-d’s love is when we show each other love. And that’s why we mark Lag B’Omer not with prayers or Torah study but with communal gatherings of friends where we bond with one another as one. And when we engage in unity, it
stimulates G-d’s love for us. PJC
Rabbi Mendy Schapiro is the director of Chabad of Monroeville. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.