There he sat in a solitary prison cell, all alone far away from home. In the year 1928, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, the Slutzker Rov, applied to the Russian government for visas to leave the communist motherland. The powers that were did not look upon this favorably, and two years later he was convicted as being a rebel and sent to Siberia for hard labor.
For a while, he was locked in a small dark room crowded with strangers. The living conditions were horrible, and because of the constant stench, it was not permitted to even think about divrei Torah. For someone as great as Rav Yechezkel, whose entire life was spent deeply immersed in Torah, the grave anguish he must have felt at that time is beyond our perception.
One day, upon waking up and washing his hands in the morning, he started to say Modeh Ani. Of course, he did not do this without paying attention to the words. So he started thinking: “What am I really thankful for? I’ve been exiled from my home, thrown out of my city, convicted of a crime for which I am innocent. I’m presently enduring unlivable conditions. It’s damp, cold, and crowded. The stench does not allow me to daven or even think in learning. So what am I thankful for?”
He continued reflecting as he said the words, “You have returned my soul within me with compassion.”
But still no solution to the question that was bothering him.
Then he came to the words “rabbah emunasecha – abundant is Your faithfulness.” Immediately, a spark was ignited in his eyes. “Why, of course, Hashem gives me the ability to have faith in Him. For that is the essence of what life is all about. For every little bit of emunah, we have to thank Hashem, surely when this emunah is given to us in abundance.
“I have been equipped with great amounts of emunah. I thank Hashem for this great gift to be a Yid who believes in Him.”
And with this, he did a little dance in that dank and dingy prison cell.
Rav Yechezkel, through the tefillos of the Chofetz Chaim and Klal Yisroel, was finally released. One of the first questions he asked after gaining his freedom was if the sefer Chiddushei Rav Chaim Halevi Al HaRambam was published yet. He went on to serve as a distinguished rov in London, where he was mekarev many. His masterwork, Chazon Yechezkel on Tosefta, is found in yeshivos worldwide. In Eretz Yisroel, his shiurim gained great acclaim, and he was one of the leaders of his generation, his influence on Klal Yisroel still felt today.
And what about his oppressors, the communist regime? It took a while, but the Iron Curtain was finally torn apart and the Russian people recognized the treachery of their government. Those who hold on to their belief in Hashem endure, and their legacy lives on, while those who scoff at Hashem are merely a mirage that passes with time. For the only true essence in the world is holding on to Hashem and His Torah. Everything else is unreal, no matter how powerful and immovable it seems at the time.
After the tragedy of the chet ha’Eigel, the Torah tells us, “Moshe stood at the gateway of the camp and said, ‘Mi l’Hashem eilai – Whoever is for Hashem, join me!’ and all of the Levi’im gathered around him” (Shemos 32:26). What was special about shevet Levi that the entire tribe was not involved in the sin at all? What protected them from making the same mistake as the rest of the nation?
Rav Mordechai Druk explains: What was the catalyst that brought the Bnei Yisroel to this aveirah? The tactics of the Soton. When Moshe Rabbeinu went up to heaven to be mekabel the Torah, he told the Bnei Yisroel, “I will return after 40 days at the beginning of the sixth hour.” After 40 days, the Soton came and brought confusion to the world. He said to the people, “Where is Moshe your rebbi?”
“He ascended to heaven,” they answered.
“The sixth hour has already come and he isn’t here,” he said.
They did not listen to him.
“He has died,” claimed the Soton, “and he will not return.”
Again, they did not listen.
So he made it appear as if Moshe was lying on his deathbed and he told the Yidden, “Look up and see that I am telling you the truth.”
They looked up to heaven and saw a cloud. In it was a black bed with what appeared to be the form of Moshe in it. Then the Eirev Rav converged upon Aharon and Chur and complained, “Moshe ascended to the heavens forever and you want to kill this entire congregation.” Then the Bnei Yisroel said to Aharon, “We don’t know what happened to Moshe. Maybe Hashem kept him up there to consult with him. Or maybe he was attacked by malachim of destruction.” That is when Aharon was forced to make the Eigel (Shabbos 89a, Medrash).
The Bnei Yisroel were affected by their senses and they were literally able to see that Moshe Rabbeinu had died. How could anybody deny what their eyes had perceived? But shevet Levi was different. They were never enslaved by Mitzrayim. For all of the 210 years of golus, they sat and learned Torah. To them, reality was not what the human senses perceive, but what the Torah says, and what the hashkafah of the Torah says is the only reality. If Moshe Rabbeinu said that he will return, then it is the Torah saying so and that is the ultimate truth. If they see otherwise, then someone is playing a trick on them or it is a figment of their imagination.
We find this yesod in numerous places. The Gemara says: “Rav Yitzchok said in the name of Rav Yochanon, ‘Yaakov Avinu did not die.’ Rav Nachman asked, ‘How can that be? Is it for naught that he was eulogized, embalmed, and buried?’ Rav Yitzchok answered that we derive this from a posuk” (Taanis 5b).
How does this change the reality that everyone heard the hespeidim and saw Yaakov’s embalmment and kevurah?
Rav Leib Chasman explains that if the Torah tells us that Yaakov Avinu is still alive, then that is the ultimate truth and all the other things that they saw were merely human perception. The only true reality is what the Torah tells us. In fact, Tosafos, as a proof to this, quotes a Gemara (Sotah 13a) that at Yaakov’s internment in the Me’oras Hamachpeilah, Eisav disturbed the proceedings by claiming that they were taking away his place in the cave. Chushim ben Don hit him on the head and his eyes were knocked out. When they rolled to the feet of Yaakov, he opened his eyes and smiled.
The Gemara tells us about the tragic siege of Yerushalayim by the Roman general Vespasian. The extremist Biryonim held a siege of their own from inside the walls to prevent anyone from leaving, so that the Jews would be pressured to fight back against the Romans. Rav Yochanon ben Zakai managed to leave the city to try and appease the Roman general. When he reached the general’s headquarters, he said, “Peace unto you, O’ king. Peace unto you, O’ king.”
Vespasian said, “You are deserving of death for calling me the king when I’m not the king.”
Rav Yochanon answered, “Yes, you are the king, for if you weren’t, then Yerushalayim would not have fallen into your hands, as it says, ‘And the Levanon will fall into the hands of a mighty one’ (Yeshayah 10:34).” We have proofs from the pesukim that Levanon is Yerushalayim and a mighty one is a king.
At that moment, a messenger arrived from Rome notifying Vespasian that the emperor had died and the ministers had appointed him as his replacement (Gittin 56b).
Undoubtedly, when Vespasian heard himself being addressed as the king, he thought that the old Jewish rabbi was either delusional or kidding with him. He was deeply involved in a war, and sitting on the throne was the furthest thing from his mind. But Rav Yochanon ben Zakkai had a much keener perception, one that was impeccable. If the Torah says that Vespasian is the king, then that is the reality and all other facts fall by the wayside.
This should serve as chizuk to us as to how incredibly blessed we are to have the Torah. How grateful we must be that we have this precious legacy. As the Mishnah says: “Beloved is Yisroel, for a cherished utensil was given to them: It is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to them that they were given a cherished vessel, as it says, ‘For I have given you a good teaching: Do not forsake My Torah’” (Avos 3:18).
It is also a lesson to us that if we have the Torah and its hashkafos, which are the true reality, why would we want to invest our thoughts and interests in matters that are conceived by man and are only temporary? See how the Torah and our nation have survived for thousands of years, while the powerful nations – the Greek culture, Roman society and others – are just a faint memory. They were temporary mirages, while the Torah is eternal.
When one is invested in the news and all of the advertisements of the day, he is wasting precious brain cells on matters that are not real or everlasting. He is also placing his hopes in the ideologies of human beings, which are subjective to their own personal interests. While we are blessed to be living in America, a democracy where we enjoy the freedom to flourish as Yidden, we see how even this great idea is coming apart because of those who have taken the privilege of liberty to extreme levels that are causing society to disintegrate.
Contrast that with the families who are living a Toradike life. How beautiful they are. What wonderful fruits they are producing. See how our communities are flourishing. Look at our yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and day schools, the kollelim and all sorts of chesed organizations. Is everything peaches and cream? Certainly not. Things will not be perfect as long as we are still in golus. But we can certainly be proud of our cherished vessel and the benefits we are reaping as we live by its tenets. The more we cling to it, the clearer our perception will be. And it makes it much easier for us to navigate the choppy waters of golus as we await the arrival of Moshiach.