Photo Credit: Jewish Press

This Shabbos, Lubavitcher chassidim will be celebrating the “festival of liberation” of the Rebbe Rayatz (1880-1950), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

In 1927, he was imprisoned for heading an underground network of Torah schools and activities in the Soviet Union and condemned to death. Due to international pressure, his sentence was commuted to 10 years hard labor in the Arctic and then to three years exile in the Urals. Finally, on the 12th of Tammuz, he was told he would be released.

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Interestingly, that day was the Rebbe Rayatz’s 47th birthday. Celebrating birthdays was never a widespread Jewish custom, but the Lubavitcher Rebbes always celebrated their birthdays and those of their predecessors. A birthday marks the day one’s soul descended to earth to fulfill its unique Divine mission. It therefore is an opportunity to take stock of how well one is accomplishing one’s mission. Since a great tzaddik surely fulfilled his mission, his birthday merits celebrating.

The Rebbe Rayatz’s father, the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920), would regularly say a maamar (a discourse of Chabad philosophy) on his birthday followed by a private mini-farbrengen with his son. On the Rebbe Rashab’s last birthday (his 59th) in 1919, he said a maamar and then told his son, “On one’s birthday, one should speak Chassidus. May Hashem grant you the gift to speak Chassidus on your birthday. But may this be with kindness and mercy.”

Years later, the Rebbe Rayatz commented that it “took seven years” for his father’s blessing to materialize. In other words, the Rebbe Rashab foresaw that his son’s birthday would become a significant date in his life and also foresaw that his son would need special Divine mercy to get to that day.

During the many decades of communist persecution, annual clandestine celebrations of the 12th of Tammuz became beacons of light for Soviet Jews, reassuring them that the darkness could be pierced. Throughout those years, the superhuman efforts to preserve Yiddishkeit by the Rebbe Rayatz and his followers ensured that the Jewish flame there was never extinguished.

As a result of their brave underground activities – plus the efforts of hundreds of Chabad shluchim over the last 30 years – the lands of the former Soviet Union and its one-time satellites are now once again thriving centers of Torah and mitzvos.

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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the central Lubavitch Youth Organization and a weekly columnist for The Jewish Press.