The Chofetz Chaim, the great Rav Yisroel Meir HaCohen, was known throughout the world for his scholarship and understanding of human nature, and as an energetic, wise leader of the Jewish people. Towards the end of his life, he led the Jewish community of Poland and his beloved little town of Radin through the dark days of the first third of the 20th century, with remarkable foresight and wisdom derived from his mastery of Torah and great faith.
The Black Purim Of Wilno
During the second year of the First World War, conditions in the town of Radin went steadily from bad to worse. Food and supplies were almost impossible to come by; taxes were very high, and most of the able-bodied men had been drafted into the army, many never to return.
When Purim time came, the Jews of Radin were in no mood to celebrate. One of them came to the Chofetz Chaim and asked, “Rebbe, just look at the misery of our people this year. Our sons have gone into that terrible and endless war. How can we celebrate when we know that we may never see them again? Our families are hungry and poorly-clothed. How can we be joyous in the face of this world-wide tragedy?”
The Chofetz Chaim put his hand on this troubled man’s shoulder. He knew that his questions were an expression of the man’s fears for his own son, whom he had not heard from for several months and his family, which had just barely endured the harsh winter.
“Take courage, my friend. Times are bad, it is true, but that is exactly why we must not give up hope in Hashem’s salvation and cease to rejoice in his miracles on behalf of our people.
“I remember a similar Purim when I was a young man in Wilno. The czar had decreed that the Jews must provide double the usual number of young men for military service. The boys picked for service were often little more than children, and the long, rigorous years of military service often robbed them of all sense of Jewish identity. The boys being inducted into service would most likely never be seen again by their families or the Jewish people. The days of this draft, which coincided that particular year with Purim, were days of mourning for us.
“Nevertheless, the heartbroken Jews still maintained the mitzvos of Purim, exchanging mishloach manos via messengers through the alleyways of the ghetto and consoling themselves with the story of Hashem’s intercession on behalf of His people in the Megillah of Esther.
“Soon, things got even worse. Word came that the czar had decreed yet another draft on the Jewish community. All attempts to rescind this evil decree, which would have virtually decimated the entire Jewish community of its young men, fell on deaf ears. The draftees were picked and ordered to report during the month of Av, the traditional time of Jewish calamity throughout the ages. All that remained to seal their fate was for the czar to sign the final induction order.
“With a few strokes of the pen, the tyrant signed the fateful order, but as he reached for a blotter to dry the signature, his hand hit the bottle of ink, spilling its contents all over the document, obliterating his name. The czar, startled and fearful, decided that perhaps this was an omen from above, and refused to have another order drawn.
“When word of this miraculous reprieve reached Wilno, the month of Av had already begun, and the draftees were already packed to leave. Relief and jubilation filled every home, and that particular Av turned from a month of mourning to one of great celebration for the Jews of Wilno.
“Who knows, my friend, but that the celebration of that dark Purim in Wilno wasn’t in some way responsible for the joy of the following Av. Perhaps we, by celebrating this sad Purim, may merit a similar unexpected reward. Don’t despair.”
And so the Jews of Radin celebrated Purim that year.