Looking back at my own experiences, the events that led to my deep appreciation for our religious tradition, law, narrative and faith that make up Judaism, I would say that despite my many trips to Israel and the incredible times I had travelling, studying, living there and marvelling at the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, nevertheless, the trips I made to the former Soviet Union were the most significant Jewish experiences in my life.
I went numerous times between 1984 and 1992, some visits more successful than others: visiting refuseniks, teaching Judaism, Hebrew and Jewish history to young and old, dissidents and students, and smuggling dissertations, books and photos, which have become part of the legacy of our people’s freedom movement for Soviet Jewry.
Between 1988 and 1992, almost 1½ million Jews found their way to freedom in Israel and outside it. As I said in the introduction to my book, From Exodus to Freedom, the liberation of Soviet Jewry will rank as one of the greatest miracles of our people’s history, second only to the founding of the modern state of Israel. Israel absorbed almost a million Jews, the equivalent of the United States absorbing the entire population of France into its borders, and within just four years!
My many visits to the USSR enabled me to understand what it is like to live in a nation of oppression, of suppression of basic human rights. They could not study, speak the language of their choice or learn about their religious faith without fear of arrest and imprisonment. The bravery of the Jews I met, from Sharansky to Begun to Edelstein to Astrakhan, is forever emblazoned in my heart and soul. They taught me what the struggle for freedom is all about, the strength that comes from a deeply rooted faith in right versus wrong, and the sacrifice necessary to protect the freedom of Jewish life today.
It is an amazing narrative we are about to tell once again to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren, how 3,300 years ago, a small slave people, powerless, without territory or army, left the mightiest empire in the world, Egypt, strengthened by hope and faith in an unseen God and unseen virtues, taught in our Torah.
We learn from the story of the Exodus from Egypt that the strength of our people which has enabled us to outlive every mighty empire since the beginning of time is based not on chariots, arms or armies, not on statues or monuments, power or wealth, but founded upon the humility of belief in the power of God, a God of redemption, history and vision who has taught the world that the sanctity of human life is non-negotiable, and that human beings are destined to be free, not slaves. This is the story of a God who has maintained this special relationship with the people of Israel, to be His eyes and ears to the rest of humanity until our world is redeemed for all.
And we tell the story of Passover around our dinner tables, focusing on the future, on our children. We parents and grandparents teach them that our memories will not be held in monuments but carried through the generations in words, values and hope. This is a faith greater than anything on earth, that binds the past and future, forever a witness to the human spirit and its connection to a God Who is the greatest Power on earth, the unseen force of life as we know it. Our task is to build a world of human freedom, based upon responsibility and the dignity of all.
When we open the Ark in readiness for the Torah reading, we sing, “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kumahAdonai, v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha.” (Whenever the Ark set out, Moses said: Arise, O Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee before You.”)
I never understood what that verse from the book of Numbers (10:35) meant until I went to the Soviet Union. How can the Torah scroll “scatter our enemies, cause those who hate us to flee from us?” On all my trips to the USSR, I brought siddurim, tallitot, Bibles, sacred Jewish texts. And on almost every entry into the country I was grilled, at times for hours, asking me what I was bringing and told how “dangerous” these books and items were to the mighty Soviet Empire. I wondered how that was possible. How could an empire with nuclear weaponry be afraid of any book, especially a prayer book or chumash?
But then I understood the fear. Authoritarian regimes are paranoid about “ideas”, about values that challenge the supremacy of might and power. And then I knew the power of my Judaism, the power of the word, the spirit, of God, without armies and nuclear bombs. The fear was palpable, the fear that Jewish ideas might destroy the basis of oppression.
What has changed in 3,300 years? Virtually nothing. Our religious tradition stands as strong as ever today, our mission the same: to bring about a world based upon God’s might and not the ephemeral power of weapons and war. Some day, Elijah will come and the Jewish people will be free, and then all humanity will be free, under God. Next year in Jerusalem!
My wishes to all of you and your loved ones for a blessed, joyous and meaningful Passover 5778.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler