Do we have a choice?

Friday, 4 July, 2014 - 5:55 am

Dear Friends,


Around the beginning of the 1970’s, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l asked to meet with some Chabad Chassidim who had just left Soviet Russia. In the meeting between R. Moshe and R. Yankel Notik z”l, who was one of those unsung heroes who risked everything in order to maintain their observance of Torah and mitzvot day by day and hour by hour, R. Moshe asked him: “How did you do it? Where did you find the strength to be so particular on every small detail of observance, in the face of the evil regime?”

R. Yankel Notik, in his characteristic humility and simplicity, merely answered: “Did we have any other choice?”

R. Moshe Feinstein well knew that there was a choice; for, halachically speaking, there are leniencies meant for cases where there is danger to life, and in Stalin’s Russia, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, observing Torah and mitzvot was indeed life-endangering. But R. Yankel Notik did not look for leniencies or the easy way out. He knew one rule from this week’s Parasha, Parashat Balak, a rule stated by a non-Jewish prophet: “For it is a nation dwells in solitude, and is not reckoned among the nations.”

What Notik and his friends did in Russia is a realization of what the Rebbe said to the late Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin. Rabin was Israel’s ambassador in Washington in 1972, and in honor of the Rebbe’s 70th birthday, he came to congratulate him in the name of the State of Israel. And here is the story he told (click here for video):

“I was privileged to have a private audience with the Rebbe. It lasted forty-five minutes, and various matters came up. But, more than anything else, I remember the Rebbe’s eyes: blue, piercing eyes, expressing wisdom and awareness.

“The Rebbe opened the interview with a question: Do I not, as the representative of the State of Israel feel alone among the 120 nations and states represented in Washington?

“Later on in the conversation, the Rebbe developed the idea behind the verse, “For it is a nation that dwells in solitude.” The Jewish People, the Rebbe said, will always be alone among all the other nations.

“The Rebbe pointed to this verse as the secret to the Jewish People’s miraculous survival. For generation upon generation, even when we had no state of our own, we survived, and continued to exist, in spite of the Inquisition, the expulsions and the pogroms. The secret of this survival was the “dwelling in solitude” – the devotion to the tradition and to the Torah, as well as the threats to annihilate us, that do not allow us to assimilate among the other nations.

“I left this meeting inspired. I felt that I had met a distinguished Jewish leader.”


Last Monday, when the news report about Gil-Ad, Naftali and Eyal Hy”d reached me, I noticed another interesting aspect of this verse. It is precisely because we are a nation that dwell alone that we know to be together, to hurt and to cry, to encourage and to be happy. And, above all, after every blow, as hard and painful as it may be, we lift our heads up and go forward, continuing to do and to develop. We will always remember what Bilam said more than 3000 years ago: “For it is a nation that dwells in solitude, and is not reckoned among the nations.” Between you and me – do we have a choice?


Shabbat Shalom,


Zalmen Wishedski


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