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At Great Risk: The Maccabees, Soviet Refuseniks & the Courage to Fight

When we go beyond our natural limitations to do what’s right, God goes beyond the natural limitations and performs miracles.


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In 1989, I was part of a group traveling to the former USSR to bring supplies and encouragement to Jews keeping Kosher, Shabbat, and other mitzvot , despite strict Communist laws prohibiting such activities. Our duffel bags, full of siddurim, Hebrew language books, tefilin, and Kosher foods like peanut butter and salami, managed to avoid Soviet customs confiscation. It was nerve-racking but exciting!

It was incredibly inspiring to see Jews subsisting on very little in order to keep kosher, Jews clandestinely forming minyanim and Hebrew language classes, and pairs walking separately to Jewish gatherings to deter suspicion.

They did this despite knowing that the Gulag, the infamous Soviet prison, or even death, was a very real consequence if caught. Spies and planted bugs were rampant! In my hotel room, a bug hung from the ceiling, and when I mentioned in my room that a garbage can was missing, a staff member delivered a garbage can within minutes! Such was the level of scrutiny!

What compelled these Jews to make such huge efforts to keep mitzvot? Life would be much simpler if they disregarded their Judaism and followed Soviet regulation. Did they truly think they could evade capture?

Flashback 2000 years to the story of Chanukah when a small band of ill-equipped Maccabees took on the powerful Greek army. Did they really think they had a viable chance of winning? Some passionate scraggly Hebrews with swords and stones against a full- blown super-power armed to the gills? What compelled them to undertake this seemingly impossible challenge?

It was their total dedication to doing the right thing, no matter what. Although it was illogical for the Maccabees to battle the Greeks or for Soviet citizens to hide activity from the KGB, their inner moral compass and the strength of their convictions compelled them to risk their lives to do what’s right. The Maccabees said, “Someone must sanctify God’s name and the Torah way; if no one else is doing it, we must! “ The Russians said, “Communism cannot completely obliterate Judaism from our communities! If no one else is teaching or practicing, then we must!”

When God saw their willingness to be moser nefesh, to risk their life to stand up and fight to protect Judaism, He said: Because you went beyond the natural limitations to do what’s right, I will also go beyond the natural limitations and grant you a miracle! The Maccabees incredulously triumphed over the Greeks, and Communism collapsed, practically overnight.

Chanukah reminds us that when we stand strong and say “we’re doing what’s right no matter how difficult, even when the odds are totally against us,” God looks down upon us and says, “My children, you have taken it this far; I will carry you the rest of the way.”

Each one of us has inherited from our ancestors this inner strength, this ability to stand up in the face of adversity and do what is right.

Take advantage of your strength, follow that inner feeling, and have a wonderful miraculous Chanukah!

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