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Leader Of Hope

The great Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaCohen, known throughout the world as the Chofetz Chaim, was renowned not only for his scholarship and understanding of human nature, but as an energetic, wise leader of the Jewish people. He embodied and justified the traditional trust of the Jewish people in their rabbinic leaders in secular, as well as Torah matters, for the welfare of the nation and the entire world. Towards the end of his life, he led the Jewish community of Poland and his beloved little town of Radin through the dark days of the first third of this century, with remarkable foresight and wisdom derived from his mastery of Torah and great faith.

During the second year of the First World War, conditions in the town of Radin went steadily from bad to worse. Food and supplies were almost impossible to come by; taxes were very high, and most of the able-bodied men had been drafted into the army, many never to return.

When Purim time came, the Jews of Radin were in no mood to celebrate. One of them came to the Chofetz Chaim and asked, “Rebbe, just look at the misery of our people this year. Our sons have gone into that terrible and endless war. How can we celebrate when we know that we may never see them again? Our families are hungry and poorly-clothed. How can we be joyous in the face of this world-wide tragedy?”

The Chofetz Chaim put his hand on this troubled man’s shoulder. He knew that his questions were an expression of the man’s fears for his own son, whom he had not heard from for several months and his family, which had just barely endured the harsh winter.

The Black Purim Of Wilno

“Take courage, my friend. Times are bad, it is true, but that is exactly why we must not give up hope in Hashem’s salvation and cease to rejoice in his miracles on behalf of our people.

“I remember a similar Purim when I was a young man in Wilno. The czar had decreed that the Jews must provide double the usual number of young men for military service. The boys picked for service were often little more than children, and the long, rigorous years of military service often robbed them of all sense of Jewish identity. The boys being inducted into service would most likely never be seen again by their families or the Jewish people. The days of this draft, which coincided that particular year with Purim, were days of mourning for the Jewish ghetto of Wilno.

“Nevertheless, the heartbroken Jews of Wilno still maintained the Mitzvos of Purim, exchanging gifts – Mishloach Manos – via messengers through the alleyways of the ghetto and consoling themselves with the story of Hashem’s intercession on behalf of His people in Megillas Esther.

“Soon, things got even worse. Word came that the czar had decreed yet another draft on the Jewish community. All of the great rabbis and prominent Jews of the time petitioned the czar to rescind this evil decree, which would have virtually decimated the entire Jewish community of its young men, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. The draftees were picked and ordered to report during the month of Av, the traditional time of Jewish calamity throughout the ages. All that remained to seal their fate was for the czar to sign the final induction order.

“With a few strokes of the pen, the tyrant signed the fateful order, but as he reached for a blotter to dry the signature, his hand hit the bottle of ink, spilling its contents all over the document, obliterating his name. The czar, startled and fearful decided that perhaps this was an omen from above, and refused to have another order drawn.

“When word of this miraculous reprieve reached Wilno, the month of Av had already begun, and the draftees were already packed to leave. The relief and jubilation filled every home, and that particular Av turned from a month of mourning to one of great celebration for the Jews of Wilno.

“Who knows, my friend, but that the celebration of that dark Purim in Wilno wasn’t in some way responsible for the joy of the following Av. Perhaps we, by celebrating this sad Purim, may merit a similar unexpected reward. Don’t despair.”

And so the Jews of Radin celebrated Purim that year.

The Fight For Torah Independence

Towards the end of his life, the Chofetz Chaim led the fight against a series of laws that had been proposed by the Polish government, which would have seriously threatened the communal structure and educational system of the Polish Jewish community.

When the president of Poland passed through the Chofetz Chaim’s town of Radin, the great Torah leader explained to him the seriousness of the danger these laws posed to the continued survival of Judaism in Poland. Impressed by the logic of the Chofetz Chaim’s arguments and the tremendous sincerity and piety of the tzaddik, the president promised his help in the fight to beat down the legislation.

A year passed, but the legislation still remained alive, and it became obvious that a special delegation would have to be sent to Warsaw by the Jewish community to keep the legislation from final passage. After an urgent meeting of the Jewish leaders in Radin to agree on strategy, the delegation was dispatched.

But the reports from the capital were still discouraging. “The President can’t help us. The most important politicians refuse to see us. The anti-Semites seem to be in power. We don’t have enough votes to stop the legislation.”

“In that case,” the Chofetz Chaim declared, “I’ll go to Warsaw myself. If it takes my last ounce of strength, I’ll stop those laws! The future of the Jewish community of Poland depends on it.”

His family and students were horrified. The Chofetz Chaim was a frail man, over 90 years old. He had devoted his life to strenuous pursuit of Torah, and had already carried the burden of leadership for many years. His doctors had warned him that he might not survive the arduous trip.

Rebbe, how can we let you take such an awful risk? If we were to lose your guidance at such a crucial time, how would we go on? Surely we could send someone else in your stead.”

But the Chofetz Chaim was adamant. “The risk to my life is necessary. Our Torah is endangered, and if I must give up my life to protect it, then I do so willingly. No one else can do it for me. Only if the government officials see that a man like myself is willing to risk his life to stop this legislation, will they realize its true importance.

The Youngest Old Man In Warsaw

And so, despite the pleas of his family and friends and heedless of the personal risk, the Chofetz Chaim journeyed to Warsaw. There he launched into a whirlwind schedule, which would have exhausted a man one-third his age.

First he convened a major conference of all Polish Torah leaders. Working around the clock, the Chofetz Chaim met with hundreds of people, and mapped an all-out political campaign to stop the legislation.

He then launched into an 18-hour-a-day itinerary. Seeing virtually every government official in Warsaw, the Chofetz Chaim led a delegation of prominent Torah leaders from his wheelchair, presenting petitions and impassioned pleas to stop the legislation. “This legislation threatens the very life of the Jewish community. If passed, I will urge the Jews of Poland not do pay their taxes. If you tell me that I am a rebel, then so be it! With this legislation you are killing the sacred Torah heritage that I have devoted my life to. I would sooner die than see that happen.”

Accompanied by the Gerer Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, the Alexander Rebbe and two Jewish government officials, the Chofetz Chaim brought this message to the highest levels of the Polish government. Finally he received an audience with the Polish prime minister.

The Language Of The Heart

Despite his exhausting schedule and the weight of his 90 years, the Chofetz Chaim delivered an emotionally charged, impassioned appeal to the government leader. As the interpreter began to translate the Chofetz Chaim’s Yiddish speech into Polish, the prime minister stopped him. “No translation is necessary. This holy man speaks a language that transcend words and pierces the heart. No one can listen to him and remain unmoved. Tell his that his request will be granted, and the legislation killed.”

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