Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber zt’l was a legendary leader of Russian Jewry for over three decades. He remained resolutely firm in his faith and practiced Torah and mitzvos throughout his arduous years behind the Iron Curtain, even in the brutality of a Russian Labor Camp. His autobiography, To Remain a Jew is his incredible account of how he remained faithful to G-d even under the most trying circumstances. The following is just one anecdote recorded in the book:
“I managed to relay a message to my wife to buy the smallest pair of tefillin that she could buy in Kazan. In October my wife came to visit me in the camp with the children. Sarah, who was then four years old, was permitted to sit in my lap. The three guards did not take their eyes off us. I knew that one of Sarah’s felt boots contained the tefillin for the arm, while the other contained the tefillin for the head. I sat her down on my knees, putting her legs directly above mine (I wore large felt boots). I held my girl and removed one of her boots. The tefillin fell from her boot into mine. I then maneuvered it under the sole of my foot. I repeated everything with the second shoe. Done!
“The visit cam e to an end and I was searched. They found nothing. The next task was to arrange a hiding place for my precious tefillin. I scouted the entire camp… finally I came across a barracks that housed a huge pile of torn-up felt boots. There was a place – about 30-40 centimeters wide – that was closed off by a curtain. I said to myself, ‘Hashem prepared this barracks especially for the storage of my tefillin.’ I approached the head of this barracks and said, ‘Mikhail Ivanovich, I want to live in your barracks… It’s your responsibility to wash the floors and bring six buckets of hot water in the morning and six of them in the evening. I’ll take care of the buckets and I’ll help you wash the floors.’
“We closed the deal… Every morning I would put on my tefillin there, hiding them afterwards in my coat pockets. Later I would put my coat in a guarded storage area, where the prisoners kept their valuables… So at 5:30 a.m. I would take my coat, put on my tefillin and daven, and then return my coat. What they thought of my comings and goings did not concern me.
“As a result of this use for my coat, during the two years I was in the camp, I always worked outside wearing only my jacket, even during the harsh winters of Tataria, when the temperatures would fall to -5F to -30F. My ears and hands suffered terribly, but I never caught a cold. (However, after I left the camp I dressed very warmly – and caught pneumonia.)”
Every morning we pray that G-d grant us, “The light of Your Countenance” and we add, “For with the light of Your countenance You gave us – Hashem, our G-d – the Torah of life and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, life, compassion, and peace.”
In a similar vein, every evening we state, “For it (the Torah) is our life and the length of our days, and in them we will engage day and night.”
Why do we refer to the Torah as “our life and the length of our days?” It sounds like a lofty sermonic concept. But what is the depth of that terminology?
The Niagara River is a connecting channel between two Great Lakes, Erie and Ontario. The river eventually flows to the majestic Niagara Falls, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. The rapids above the Falls reach a maximum speed of 25 mph, with the fastest speeds occurring at the Falls – at times up to 68 mph. The deepest section in the Niagara River is just below the Falls where the depth equals the height of the Falls above 170 ft.
It’s difficult to imagine any force strong enough to stop this gigantic rush of water – yet it did stop in 1848.
In March of that year, local inhabitants, accustomed to the sound of the river, were greeted by a strange, eerie silence. Niagara had stopped! For thirty long, silent hours, the river was blocked by ice that became lodged at the source of river. It blocked the channel completely causing the Falls to completely cease to flow. Those who were brave enough walked or rode horses over the rock floor of the channel. Then, with a roar that shook the earth, a solid wall of water, cresting to a tremendous height, curled down the channel and crashed over the brink of the precipice, as Niagara Falls roared back to life.
About the Author: Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, as well as Guidance Counselor and fifth grade Rebbe in ASHAR, and Principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor. He can be reached at email@example.com. Visit him on the web at www.stamtorah.info.
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