Latest update: July 12th, 2013
In the 19th century, the heart of European Jewry – its centers of Torah learning, its crown of glory – was centered in the vast expanse of the Russian Empire. There, under the hand of the czars, lived millions of Jews – poor in material wealth but blessed with a love of Torah and a dedication to their faith that was unshakeable.
Czar Nicholas I, the evil tyrant who ruled over Russia and who instituted the infamous forced draft of Jewish children of eight and nine years old, was determined to Russify the stubborn Jews and to convert them to Russian Orthodoxy.
Seeing that his drafting of the children was failing to accomplish his purpose, the evil monarch now attempted a subtler plan. He would combine force with bribery; he would use both the carrot and the stick. To begin with, he decreed that all Jews who refused to convert must immediately leave such centers as Petersburg and Moscow, no matter what the economic loss involved would be. Those, on the other hand, who did convert, would be free from all restrictions.
Some Jews where not able to withstand the temptation and did, indeed, leave the faith of their fathers. The vast majority, however, scorned the offer and defied the threats. It was then that the czar brought into play another weapon.
The New Schools
The czar and his advisors realized that it was the total dedication Jews had to Torah that kept them firm in their faith. Children in Jewish schools were totally immersed in Jewish learning and free from any alien influence. Perhaps, if some method could be devised, whereby a new type of school – one that would teach Russian culture – could be introduced, the exposure of these children to the general culture would inevitably lead to their Russification and conversion. It was worth a try.
To that end, the czar chose a young German Jewish intellectual, Dr. M. Lilienthal, whose job it would be to travel throughout the towns and cities of the Pale of Settlement where the masses of Jews lived, to explain and persuade the Jews to send their children to the new schools.
As his first stop, Lilienthal chose Vilna, known as the “Jerusalem” of Lithuania. Here, he called together the leaders of the community – men of wealth and prestige, and began to explain to them how Jews would benefit from the new schools.
“It is of great importance that the Jewish children attend these schools so they can become literate in the language of the land. In this way, they will become successful businessmen and will be able to meet the outside world in a more prepared manner. We should be thankful to the czar for this wonderful opportunity to teach our children.”
The leaders of Vilna sat in polite silence, not wishing to publicly disagree with the man they knew was the czar’s agent. One of the elderly leaders, however, Reb Chaim Nachman Parnas, could not restrain himself and rose to his feet:
“Worthy doctor, we are indeed impressed with the desire of the czar to raise the educational standards of his subjects. I am puzzled, however, at his reasons for choosing the Jews. There is hardly a Jew who does not, at least, know how to read and write Hebrew. The Russian peasants, however, are almost totally illiterate, not even knowing the alphabet. Surely they are in greater need of culture than we are.”
Lilienthal, seeing Vilna would not be a very successful stopover, nevertheless persisted. He dwelt on the theme that every Jew had an obligation to learn a foreign language and attempted to bolster his argument with proofs from the Bible. In particular, he cited the case of Mordechai.
“Do you remember,” he said, “how the Bible tells us Bigsan and Seresh plotted to kill King Achashveirosh? How was the plot foiled? The Bible tells us Mordechai informed the king, but the Talmud goes deeper. In Megillah (13b) it tells us Bigsan and Seresh were Tarseeim and were speaking in their native tongue. Mordechai, however, being a member of the Sanhedrin knew 70 languages and was able to understand what the plotters were saying.
“If Mordechai had not studied the languages of the nations the entire history of the Jewish people would have been different. The king would have been killed and Esther would not have been queen. Consequently, she would not have been in a position to save the Jewish people. It was only through a Jew speaking a foreign language that the Jewish people were saved.”
Dr. Lilienthal paused and smiled in triumph. From the onlookers, however, there suddenly rose Reb Avraham Efron, a scholar and leader of the community.
“Forgive me, dear doctor,” he said, “but I think you have erred. On the contrary, from this very story we can see the exact opposite. For had Bigsan and Seresh known Jews spoke foreign languages they would never have been so careless about allowing Mordechai to hear what they were saying.
“It is precisely because they knew Jews did not speak a foreign tongue, that they speak openly and because of this fact – that most Jews did not speak a foreign language – the redemption eventually came to the Jewish people.”
Dr. Lilienthal, in desperation, made one final attempt. He went to Volozhin to see Rabi Yitzchak, the son of the Gaon, Reb Chaim. Rabi Yitzchak was recognized as the outstanding scholar of his time and if Lilienthal could persuade him to back the schools then his mission would be a success.
Arriving several days before Yom Kippur, he was received graciously by Rabi Yitzchak and was told to remain as a guest. During the few days he was there he spoke earnestly and ceaselessly to Rabi Yitzchak about the schools. Finally, Erev Yom Kippur arrived and the entire town of Volozhin gathered in the synagogue to hear their beloved Rabi Yitzchak give the usual exhortation to repent and do good.
Rabi Yitzchak entered the shul, accompanied by a clean-shaven stranger, and he immediately rose to speak.
“In the Mishnah in Yoma we are told about the preparations of the Kohen Gadol for the atonement service. We are told that the elders took the Kohen Gadol and made him swear he would not follow the practices of the Saducees and deviate in the slightest from the service.
“He would swear and weep because he was suspected and they would weep because they suspected him.
“Consider, my people,” said Rabbi Yitzchak, “how strange this story is. We are told that one who suspects a righteous person is stricken physically and that to embarrass a person publicly is the greatest of sins. Yet, here – the elders of Israel cast doubts on the Kohen Gadol himself, in the Beis HaMikdash itself, on the holiest day of the year. How is this possible?
“The answer is: An individual Jew must always be considered innocent by us. A private individual dare not be suspected without concrete proof. However, one who comes and speaks for the people and who claims to do good for them – he is different.
“With such a person one must search and inspect and not take his word. His responsibility is grave and we must make sure he is worthy. We must never trust a public official merely because of his title.”
And Rabi Yitzchak sat down to the puzzlement of most of the congregation. Dr. Lilienthal, however, understood perfectly well to whom Rabi Yitzchak was referring. He knew that his plan would never succeed.Rabbi Sholom Klass
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