Last week, this newspaper featured Part 1 of a wonderful overview of “The Russian Revolution” upon its 100th anniversary. We look forward to the rest of this important history, but let us take a moment to look beneath the surface at the Torah roots and sources of this global phenomenon that changed the world and the history of the Jews with it.
First of all, like the Nazis ym”sh, who planned for their Reich to last for a thousand years, the Bolsheviks thought that their revolution would last forever. Instead, the communist empire fell ignominiously with a barely a whimper after only 70 years.
It is well-known that a number of gedolei Yisroel predicted its downfall from the very beginning. Rabbi Abba Wax (Sefer Bracha Sheleimah, page 15) quotes his uncle, who heard directly from the Divrei Chaim (in the name of the rebbe of Ropshitz) that before the coming of Moshiach, the Russian Empire would be dismantled into many parts and eventually lose its power completely. Furthermore, the Chofetz Chaim foretold that the evil communist regime would not even last 70 years (Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 3:18).
Although many credited the collapse of the bloody Bolshevik nightmare to sources as wide-ranging as Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan and various economic woes, the truth lies in the deep recesses of Hashem’s conduct of Jewish history.
In order to begin to understand, we must look closely at the parallels between the 70 years of Golus Bavel and the 70 years of the communist empire.
Rav Dovid Cohen (ibid., page 19) raises a fascinating question about the severity of the Babylonian exile. The novi Yirmiyahu (16:14-15) predicts that “days are coming when it will no longer be said, ‘Hashem…Who took out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but rather…Who took the children of Israel from the land of the North.” This reference to Babylonia (the land of the North) implies that leaving Bavel was a greater event than Yetzias Mitzrayim. In fact, that is exactly what the Gemara (Brachos 12b) says when it compares being rescued from Bavel to the escape from a lion, while the salvation from Mitzrayim is likened to a wolf. This is quite puzzling, since the redemption from Bavel was not distinguished by any of the open miracles we associate with the great exodus.
Rav Cohen suggests that the deliverance from Bavel was considered so miraculous because of our incredibly low spiritual state. Despite our having sunk to the 49th level of defilement in Egypt, there was almost no intermarriage and we adhered to our Jewish names, mode of dress and language. On the other hand, in Bavel, there was widespread intermarriage, our language had become corrupted and mixed with existing dialects, and people had forgotten how to pray in the holy tongue. Even the lesser assimilation that existed in Egypt is mentioned in the Haggadah (lavo lakachas lo goy mikerev goy) and the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 22:3) as making the emancipation “difficult.” Thus, Bavel represents the spiritual impediments inherent in rescuing a nation that is inexorably intertwined with its masters.
Even more profoundly, this immersion of Klal Yisroel in the culture of its surroundings occurred in Bavel for a reason. Bavel was the place where the tower was built by people who almost unanimously wished to storm the heavens. Nevuchadnetzar himself declared that he wished to conquer the One above (Yeshaya 14:14). This spirit of rebellion against the Creator remained in the air when the Jews were exiled to Bavel, permeating their bones and their essence. The general tone of the land was one of darkness (Sanhedrin 24a and Pesachim 64b), causing the Bnei Yisroel to forget their roots and divine mission.
Communism, too, under the guidance of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, all of whom carried at least some Jewish blood, became intoxicated with atheism and hatred of religion, as Yaakov Astor pointed out last week. The Russian cosmonaut, mouthing the sentiments of his Marxist masters, declared to the world, as had Nevuchadnetzar before him, that he “had seen the heavens and there was no G-d.” For nearly seventy years, the Jewish people had their religion, customs and beliefs wrenched out of their tired and hungry bodies. The result, similar to what Ezra and Nechemiah had to deal with, was almost total assimilation and ignorance of their ancestral faith. Yet, at the end of Golus Bavel, Hashem arranged for the Jewish people to return to Eretz Yisroel, as occurred, at least in part, with the Russian aliyah to Eretz Yisroel upon the fall of the communist empire. The analogy to the Generation of the Tower, too, is nearly perfect, since they had achieved a nearly total unity of will and purpose, just as it appeared to be under communism. Of course, eventually, that single-minded purpose disappeared, just as communism imploded, resulting in the nearly complete demise of its spurious and deceptive philosophy.
All of this and more may be found in Rav Dovid Cohen’s Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim (pages 17-220).
We might add that another aspect of the analogy between Bavel and the Soviet Union relates to Talmud Bavli itself. The Rambam (Teshuvos, Yerushalayim, No. 349, quoted in Margalios Hayam, volume 1, page 112:17) writes that the Torah was not as clear to the sages of Bavel as it was to those in Eretz Yisroel. The Netziv (Ha’amek Dovor, Ki Sisa 34:1) explains that the holiness of Eretz Yisroel aided them to arrive at the truth concerning the final rulings of halacha. Yet, as the Medrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) concludes, Hashem conducted His bris, the covenant of the Torah, with Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Law, because it is difficult and comes with pain and suffering.
It would seem that this quid pro quo – those who suffer for Torah will achieve the most – is the source of our preference for Talmud Bavli. Everyone learns the Torah that emanated from Bavel, but only a select few also study Yerushalmi. Perhaps one can apply the famous statement by our sages concerning the costs of learning Torah. Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 2:9) states that “Af – still – my wisdom stayed with me.” Chazal interpret this to mean that “chochmah shelamadeti b’af hi omdah li – the Torah that I learned under difficult circumstances stayed with me.” In fact, the Taz (Orach Chaim 47:1) cites this concept as a practical halacha: “The Torah will not endure except with someone who ‘kills himself for it,’ meaning that he struggles mightily with the debates and nuances of the Torah. However, one who simply studies only while it is pleasurable and comfortable will not merit the constancy and perpetual effect of the Torah.”
We have often quoted in these pages the recollections of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l and other Torah giants that they would not have succeeded in their early Torah studies had they not suffered terribly at the time. This seems to be the common denominator between Bavel and the Torah learned under the horribly oppressive conditions of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Eretz Yisroel has the advantage of holiness and the presence of the Shechinah, but when Jews overcome their dire conditions and apply their minds to Hashem’s Torah, magical things happen. Talmud Bavli becomes the major source of halacha and the mesirus nefesh of those who resisted the cruel machinations of communism caused them to become great Torah heroes for eternity.
With tears in my eyes, I read the autobiography of Rav Yitzchok Zilber, To Remain a Jew, and then I cried some more when I met his son, Rav Bentzion. Although I cannot possibly imagine the travails they suffered for the Torah, I can certainly appreciate why they succeeded in deriving Yiddishe nachas from their family and becoming great talmidei chachomim. For these tzaddikim and the many like them did not just study Talmud Bavli. They lived through its darkest moments and merited the light that burst forth incandescently. No, it was not Gorbachev or Reagan. Hashem is bringing down all of our ancient enemies and rewarding those who resisted them so that we can finally enjoy our Torah in the tranquility of Acharis Hayomim.