On Dec. 3, corresponding to the Hebrew date of Kislev 19, Chabad followers around the globe celebrate the release from prison of the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. A few days earlier, Kislev 10, is named by Hasidim the “festival of liberation” as the day his successor, Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch, was released from prison as well.
In fact, there are more such commemorations. It is told about a father whose son was becoming religious and was spending time in Chabad circles: upon hearing the causes for many Hasidic celebrations, the father commented, “Son, perhaps you should not be hanging out with such lawless folks.”
My great-grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Eliezer Tzeitlin, belonged to that seemingly shady club as well.
On Dec. 20, 1937 he was sentenced to eight years of “restorative work” in Russia’s Siberia (he ultimately died there, never to be properly buried). The counts he was convicted on explain why I am so proud of his criminal past — and why Chabad pays tribute to its rebbes’ felonious activities.
According to the investigation file, Rabbi Aaron Eliezer was accused of being “a member of the underground group and promoted among Jewish workers anti-
revolutionary propaganda against Soviet rule and its leaders.” He also “persuaded Jews to immigrate to Palestine.”
This referred to the Torah classes he gave, the mikvah he built and the kosher food he supervised for Belarus Jews. And later, the underground synagogue and Jewish day school he operated in his home in the Moscow suburb of Mozhaysk, until the Soviet secret police finally got hold of him.
Today it is hard to imagine living a Jewish life with the challenges our forefathers faced, or the existential dangers our grandparents confronted not too long ago.
The options for observing Torah and mitzvot are practically laid out in front of us. In-depth learning can be done with a swipe on the iPad, communities and charities welcome involvement with open arms, Trader Joe’s carries American Kosher Beef Salami and lighting a Shabbat candle does not have to be done in a windowless room.
Yet, the abundance of options and choices in a free society often leads to taking reality for granted.
The rabbinic sage Ben Zoma observed, “How many labors Adam carried out before he obtained bread to eat! He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground, and sifted, he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me.”
The key to securing our commitment to Jewish ideals and tradition is perhaps gratitude. If we must learn to be grateful to those who provide for many of our physical needs, then we must surely learn to appreciate those who provide for our spiritual ones, as Rabbi Lazar Gurkow points out in his new book, “Reaching For G-d.”
When we observe the Torah, we validate not only our mandate but also the millions who sacrificed much to attain and preserve it, Gurkow says. Conversely, when we abandon the Torah, we betray not only our mandate but also our ancestors’ many sacrifices.
What the farbrengens (Hasidic celebrations) remind us is that if our rabbis back in the 1800s could endure imprisonment in Czarist Russia for keeping the faith, how difficult can it be for us? King David implores in Psalm 34: “Taste it, and you will see that G-dliness is good.” Today, you can do so much more than taste.
Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin is development director of Chabad of Tucson and associate rabbi at Congregation Young Israel of Tucson.