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There is something sad about the sequence of the festivals – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. After all, we are in the transition from summer to autumn and winter. Nature is no longer in bloom. It has fallen asleep in anticipation of the renewal of spring. And we are bidden to rejoice – Rejoice in your festivals and be happy!…And perhaps the command to rejoice comes like an order, so that despite the sadness we must be happy. Here the Torah teaches us that the life rhythm of the People of Israel does not belong to the natural process. Nature has gone to sleep whereas the People of Israel awake to a new life and to new plans: “Shana Tova! A good year, a year of renewal!” Thus do we greet our fellow men. I think that the aforementioned contrast can help to explain the saying of the Sages that, under certain circumstances, “the vices of the penitent are accounted as virtues.” Basically, the saying means that if you feel remorse and contrition after committing a bad act and the determination to never repeat the mistake – this means that the bad action has led you to reform and repentance, thereby, in retrospect turning the bad action into something good. This can also apply when bad things happen to us. In my lifetime I have experienced several major events which happened to me during the festivals. It seems to me that if I relate them you will see how the principle I spoke about works – to turn the bad event into something good. To begin with, I will tell you about my first Rosh Hashana. I was born after the Second World War in Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was conquered by the Russians. My childhood was not an easy one. In 1957, when I was ten, my father, Moshe Mendelevich was arrested by the police in the course of the Soviet regime’s persecution of the Jews. (this was already after Stalin, in the days of Khruschev) This was a tragedy for my family. My mother could not take it. She fell ill and subsequently passed away. When my father was released ill from prison, I decided to go and work in order to help my father financially. You can imagine what happens to a Jewish child who comes to work in a Russian factory – around him drunkenness, lawlessness, moral corruption. Nothing of the dirt of that life clung to me. In the evenings I went to evening classes to finish my high school studies and begin my university education. I suddenly discovered that that Working Youth School No. 25 was special – attended by a large number of Jewish boys. In my previous school I had got used to the fact that there were very few Jews, perhaps a single one in each class. And so I had always felt myself to be in the minority. But in this school, and especially in my class, the majority were Jews. I felt myself very much at ease. Among us were friends who were closer to Jewish tradition. Once, during the break, one of the boys, Lev Levinson strode to the front of the class and announced- “Today is the festival of the New Year, no lessons! “Which new year?” I asked. “The new year begins on the first of January and now it’s the middle of September!” ”It is the Jewish New Year” – Lev explained. What a strange custom! Unlike the rest of humanity. But we had no choice, all the Jewish classmates began to leave the class. “Where are you going?” “To the synagogue” “What!? What are we going to do in a synagogue, we belong to the new generation, people of science and technology, and a synagogue – that’s a place for senior citizens.” What to do? I didn’t want to be left alone, so I reluctantly went with all the rest. Actually we didn’t enter the synagogue. We remained in the courtyard and in the adjacent street where there were already many Jews, as well as young boys and girls of our age. It was pleasant. So much so that I asked Levinson – “Is there any other festival coming soon?” “Definitely – in nine days’ time.”


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In his soon to be released new book, "From the Ends of the Heavens," Rabbi Mendelevich movingly and inspiringly tells how he developed and maintained his Judaism despite the terribly harsh conditions in the KGB prison camps. (Rabbi Mendelevich's articles in The Jewish Press are translated by David Herman)