Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Kislev 5763 - December 4, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Escape On Chanukah

by Rabbi M. D. Weinstock

Rabbi Gamliel was greatly beloved in his place of birth, the town of Sz. in Hungary. He had brought up hundreds of pupils with great selflessness. He prepared the children for the yeshiva; he was the melamed of the twelve- to thirteen- year-old boys.

He watched strictly over their observance of the commandments, never deviating by an iota from the law. He himself steered clear of the ways of the Chassidim but he did not protect his pupils with the same fierceness from the ways of the Baal Shem. Whenever he heard that one or other dressed in a chassidic way, he smiled with satisfaction and tried to minimize the "sin" of the wayward child even to the parents.

As far as he was concerned, he remained to the end a loyal preserver of the traditions of the Chasam Sofer even during the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews, during the Rakosi era. After the grim days of servitude, came the revolution. Rabbi Gamliel heard, more and more frequently, news about the fortunate people who had succeeded in crossing the frontier, and he too began to weave plans of escape

The party of escaping people he joined was not too pleased with the presence among them of this old, white- bearded Jew. They murmured to each other, shrugging their shoulders, that such an ancient was a burden upon his companions until, at last, one of them took the old man under his wing:

"How could we leave this pious old man to fend for himself? We might need the merit of a good deed. Perhaps it will save us at the hour of decision."

The escapees planned the crossing of the frontier for the hours of the night. The guide assured them that there would be no difficulty. The frontier guards would look in the other direction, he repeated.

They left on the outskirts of the town. From there they had to walk only 10-12 kilometers to the border, where they hid in a deserted army camp. The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence but the guide knew exactly where to get across and they all came through unscathed. However, the frontier guards were still vigilant and drove them back with fixed bayonets. The group became desperate and nervous. Only Rabbi Gamliel remained calm. He even made jokes. His wit sparkled and soon he had them all laughing.

"You know," the old man said, "the Yom Kippur avoide comes to an end only after three `ve'anachnu kor'im.' " This reference to their two attempts to advance on all fours, made the members of the company laugh but Rabbi Gamliel said very seriously:

"You laugh and you don't care how distressed and tormented I am."

"What torments you, Uncle Gamliel?"

"Today is the first evening of Chanukah. Where shall I light the Chanukah candles?"

It was getting on towards midnight. The smugglers succeeded in bribing one of the frontier guards to lead them out of the camp and they set out in the frosty night towards the frontier.

At last, they reached no-man's land. They found a wooden shed and decided to spend the remaining part of the night within it. Nobody was happier than Rabbi Gamliel. He quickly took from his rucksack the silver menorah and the Chanukah candles, and made his preparations to light the first flame with the shehecheyonu blessing.

"What are doing, Rabbi Gamliel?" his companions asked him in amazement. "You will attract the attention of the Russian patrol and then all will be lost."

But Rabbi Gamliel bade them keep calm.

"Nothing can happen to him who observes the commandment," he said quietly and began the ceremony.

Nobody protested any longer because they had all fallen under his spell. Perhaps also because they had become aware of the old man's exaltation. The whole group gathered around the rabbi.

No sooner had the first benediction been recited to the end, when the door of the hut was flung open from outside. A Russian officer stood in the door with his gun pointed at them. But in the next second, the officer's arm dropped and his feet seemed nailed to the ground. He couldn't take a single step forward. He stared at the rabbi standing before the menorah in solemn ecstasy with wide eyes, as if he were experiencing a vision.

"Ik ok Yid," he stammered in broken Yiddish, "Tatte majne chabadnik Lubavitch."

Then he motioned to Rabbi Gamliel to go on with the prayer. The old man recited the prayer at first in a hesitating voice which, however, grew stronger and more ringing. He recited the shehecheyonu that seemed that day more significant than ever before in his life. Then he sang and his companions accompanied the melody, humming softly.

Suddenly the door opened again. Another group of refugees was seeking shelter in the hut. They had lost their way and were wandering about aimlessly in the freezing cold November night until they were led to the hut by the light showing through the cracks. They noticed the Russian soldier only after they had entered. They recoiled, scared, but the Russian smiled at them reassuringly. "One of us" he said.

The song that arose into the air was a veritable hymn of thankful hearts. "Nisim bayomim hoheim, bizman hazeh." Finally, in honor of the guest, Rabbi Gamliel intoned the melody known as "Tanya" to the Chabad Chassidim.

This song shook the Russian to the very core of his being. Looking at the rabbi standing before him with his patriarchal appearance, his face was transfigured as he remembered his parents' home, his childhood, the Chanukah evenings as celebrated in his youth. His eyes filled with tears. "The Jewish spark had burst into flame," Rabbi Gamliel thought.

Dawn was breaking. In the meantime, the newcomers had brought out thermos flasks and the refugees refreshed themselves with hot tea. The Russian officer took a hip- flask filled with vodka from his pocket and offered it around. It was a fiery, warming drink that instilled new life into the tired limbs.

The Russian officer opened the door and peered out.

"The next patrol will be along soon. Get ready and leave because they won't go easy on you if they catch you."

"Who knows, perhaps one day we shall meet in Jerusalem. That is where the road to freedom leads."

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