By Rabbi Tuvia Bolton
This week’s section opens with “A constant fire must burn on the altar, it shouldn’t be extinguished.” At first glance the last part of the sentence is unnecessary; If it says the fire must burn constantly, it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be extinguished. Why the repetition?
Also, this Shabbat is called “The Big Shabbat” (Shabbat HaGodol) because of a big miracle that happened when G-d commanded the Jews to take sheep into their houses to be sacrificed before He smote the firstborn. And when the firstborn of the Egyptians heard about it, instead of getting angry at the Jews, they made war against Pharaoh, thus fulfilling; “To smite Egypt with their firstborn.” (Ps. 136:10)
But at first glance this is not understood. What’s so miraculous about one Egyptian killing another? Not only that but, G-d destroyed the Egyptians and took the Jews out a few days later anyway! So, as far as the Jews were concerned, this miracle war was really unnecessary.
Also, is there a connection between this and the commandment to keep the fire burning? And finally, what does this mean to us today?
To understand this here is a Passover story (Ma Sh’siper Li HaRebbi pg 146)
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a great leader, Torah scholar and Kabbalist. He was the Rabbi over a huge area of Russia in one of the most difficult periods in Jewish history: the era of Stalin, who killed up to fifty MILLION of his own people.
Everyone in the USSR knew that one wrong move, word or even thought meant imprisonment or death. All beliefs other than communism were suppressed, especially Judaism. And even more especially around the holidays when preparations were visible to the public.
For instance, before Pesach there is much energy, time and care put into making Matzah. Religious Jews eat only Shmura Matzah that was observed (Shmura) from the time the wheat was harvested till after it was baked.
According to the Torah, if it comes in contact with water in that period it can become forbidden for any use on Pesach so it must be closely watched and guarded.
Jews have been doing this for over 3,300 years. But the Communists, in their plan to make a new world, decided it would stop. They took over all the mills and declared that from now on there would no longer be a need for special flour for Matzah making.
And who would dare to oppose them!? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Shneerson.
The huge area of his jurisdiction included thousands of square miles of wheat fields which produced all the Matzot eaten by Jews in his area of Russia. Due to the painstaking care he took to ensure it was ‘observed’ and kosher beyond any doubt, Jews would not eat anything else.
The government knew that the Jews bought only special flour for baking Matzos but they were sure they could get around it like they got around everything else; with force.
Their idea was that the government would make the matzos with their own flour in their factories, at a fraction of the price, and the Rabbis would put their kosher stamp on it, thus making a nice profit for the ‘state’.
But as soon as Rabbi Schneerson heard about their plans, he immediately went to the local Communist Party Headquarters and informed them that he would not put his stamp on the packages of Matzos, unless he was allowed to be in full charge of every step in the production of the flour. And if he saw anything that didn’t meet his standards, he would not give his approval!
The officials looked at him like a madman. No one ever disagreed! There was no such thing as disagreeing!! It was suicidal!
But Rabbi Levi did not care what anyone thought. He quietly but firmly announced that if they wanted to kill him they could do so but he would not go against the will of G-d.
When they told him that they had hundreds of Rabbis that would be glad to put stamps on the matzos he replied that they could do what they wanted but he was certain that very few Jews would buy flour or Matzos without his stamp.
“If so” they screamed, “we will simply make a copy of your stamp and put it on the Matzos, and we will put you into Siberia! So you profit nothing from your stubbornness.”
To which he answered. “If you do that then I will advertise in all the papers, or have flyers printed. In any case you can be sure that if you arrest me, all Russian Jewry will know tomorrow that the seal is a forgery”.
The officials began to really worry. Elsewhere the government made a very nice profit from the sale of Matzos and if there was a lack of sales in their area and it was linked in any way to them…. it might cost them their lives.
They threatened, “You are willing to damage the economy of Mother Russia?! You will be arrested and shot! We will make sure you will be killed for counter-revolutionary activity!”
Rabbi Levi replied, “Your threats do not frighten me. Only if you give me a free hand to oversee the cutting and grinding of the wheat will I give my approval and Jews here will buy Matzos.
“I am prepared to travel to Moscow and meet with the Prime Minister of Russia if necessary and explain to him that it is impossible to give my stamp on a thing that is not Kosher. This would be against the Jewish law and I will never do that. If the Prime Minister wants to punish me that is his business. But I will never move from my beliefs; I will never do anything against the will of G-d!”
They became scared. They had never confronted anyone as fearless and certain. They wanted to order his arrest, but something told them not to do it. Maybe he was right, maybe no one would buy matzos without his seal and then they would really be in trouble.
So they sent an urgent telegram to the highest levels of the government, some say it was to Stalin himself, explaining what an incorrigible troublemaker this Rabbi was, how he was impeding progress, clinging to ancient superstitions, opposing the government etc.
The reply came swiftly, it began: “Give the Rabbi what he wants!”
Then it not only continued to list in explicit detail all the exclusive rights of Rabbi Shneerson but even decreed that ALL the bakeries in the U.S.S.R. had to bake according to his qualifications and use only flour with his seal of approval.
That year, every Jew in the U.S.S.R. ate the most Kosher Matzos possible.
Several years later, in 1939, Rabbi Schneerson was arrested (on the ninth of Nissan 5699) taken to prison where he was interrogated and tortured for a year, then sent to exile in Siberia where he suffered terribly for four more years and passed away just weeks after his release in 1944.
Regarding the months he spent in jail an eye witness wrote: “Who could bear such tortures and interrogations! Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Shneerson did not confess! He refused to sign on the accusations! Like a superhuman warrior he accepted the torment and did not surrender. He received with love the decree of heaven and did not divulge any secrets to his torturers. In the frightening ocean of blood and murder that had trapped millions, Rabbi Shneerson was literally the only one that the fire of hell did not rule over. This fact was passed from one prisoner to another as a wondrous legend. In all the prisons he was known as a miraculous hero.”
This answers our questions about the ‘extra’ words ‘Don’t Extinguish’ and their connection to Shabbat HaGadol and to us.
The positive commandment to make the fire burn constantly is not the same as not extinguishing it.
We might think that making a permanent fire i.e., being resolved and ‘fired up’ to serve G-d according to His Torah is only when there is no risk or undue difficulties involved.
But perhaps when there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles, like Communists in our story or the Egyptians or even internal roadblocks like depression, doubt, anger, lust etc. we might think that we are exempt.
Therefore, the Torah tells us “It shouldn’t be extinguished.” Just as Rabbi Shneerson showed us; nothing in creation should dampen our enthusiasm for serving the Creator.
And the first time that all the Jews did so was when they took the sheep into their homes four days before leaving Egypt.
The same Jews that had been slaves for hundreds of years and had been afraid of everything, suddenly ignored their inborn slave mentality and became connected to G-d, afraid of nothing; not even the angry, armed Egyptians around them.
And the result was a Big miracle; For the first time in history the enemies of the Jews actually assisted them in serving the Creator! There was a transformation of evil to good.
It was a foretaste of the total redemption that will come by Moshiach when “All the world together will serve G-d as one. ” (Tzfanya 3:9)
It all depends on us, to keep the fire of enthusiasm burning against all odds and do all we can to dispel the darkness of this terrible exile we are now in.
By doing just one more deed, saying one more good word or even having one more positive thought we can bring… Moshiach now!
Wishing all our readers a kosher and happy Pesach in the Third Temple with ALL the Jews together in Jerusalem!
Rabbi Tuvia Bolton
Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim
Kfar Chabad, Israel