Georgia On My Mind
By Rabbi Dovid Landesman
There are singular events throughout our lives that provide unusual and unexpected inspiration. At times they are a source of insight, providing resolutions to questions that have long been troubling. While it can often be difficult to trace the connection between the event/circumstance and the answer that suddenly presents itself, surely we must, at minimum, express our gratitude to those who provided us with these opportunities for enlightment. Hence, I would like to acknowledge my great debt to a number of people who are responsible for one of the most memorable experiences of my life: to Rabbi Ariel Levine shlita, chief rabbi of Georgia [in the Former Soviet Union], to Dr. Rosenshein and Baruch Hertz of the Va’ad L’Hatzalat Nidchei Yisroel of Agudath Israel of America, and to my wife Nechama for her part in establishing the new seminary for girls in Tbilisi, Georgia. B’ezrat Hashem, this new school will soon become part of the Ma’alot/Nevey Yerushalayim network. It was through the combined efforts of these people that I was fortunate to spend five days in Tbilisi this past week.
Let me first apprise you of the question that found resolution through this experience. In this past week’s parashah, Vayigash, we come across one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Tanach; Yosef’s revelation to his brothers.
Ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai? I am Yosef, is my father still alive?
Some commentaries explain that with this statement Yosef was giving Yehudah, and by extension all of the brothers, mussar; suddenly you are worried about our father’s physical and mental health! When you sold me you had no such concerns!
S’forno takes a different approach and explains that Yosef could not believe that his father had been able to survive their long separation. Truthfully, that comment leaves me perplexed because it has traces of arrogance that I find hard to accept. Additionally, the statement was made in response to Yehuda’s repeated declaration that incarcerating Binyamin would lead to Yaakov’s death. Why would that trigger Yosef’s decision to reveal his identity when he had chosen not to do so beforehand?
In the previous parashah, Ramban speculates why Yosef never contacted his father during their twenty-two year separation. Yosef had become the second most influential man in the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. There was no reason why he could have not dispatched a messenger to his father, even if diplomatic protocol might not have allowed him to go back to Chevron himself. Yet he maintained strict silence. Ramban suggests that Yosef chose not to inform his father because he knew that the dreams he had told the family about were a form of nevuah [prophecy] and he was bound to allow that vision to be fulfilled by having the entire family come to Egypt. This too has never satisfied me.
Where do we find a prophet manipulating circumstances to insure that his prophecy come true? Does it not seem to be a demonstration of lack of faith on the prophet’s part; God grants him a vision and yet he lacks confidence and therefore does what he can to make sure that the vision is translated into fruition?!? Moreover, if this was Yosef’s motive in remaining stoically silent when his brothers came to him, in what way did Yehuda’s statement that seizing Binyamin would bring their father to his grave now convince Yosef to reveal himself?
I arrived in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, very early on Wednesday morning. My group came from Tel Aviv, we were scheduled to meet an additional group who had first visited Baku, Azerbaijan. The original plans were to meet them at the airport and proceed together to Gori, birthplace of Stalin and the site of a museum dedicated to his memory as well as of the only statue of him still standing in the FSU. The mission’s planning department, however, did not foresee that the times of Azerbaijan Airlines scheduling are to be taken as suggestions and we therefore ended up travelling to Gori without them. We arrived well after sun down and had to skip the museum. We were taken directly to the local Jewish Center to meet with members of the community who attend bi-weekly programs sponsored by the Va’ad’s kollel and educational shlichim in Tbilisi.
There are only a few hundred Jews left in Gori, but some fifty of them had gathered there that night to greet us and to receive chizuk from our very presence. To my utter surprise, most of them were young – late teens or early twenties – and included quite a few couples who were in various stages of becoming full fledged ba’alei teshuvah; some of them having accepted taharat hamishpachah and Shabbat observance. Having grown up in an environment where mitzvah observance demands no special effort, I was literally blown away by young men and women who were so totally and obviously dedicated to Torah. In places like Gori, there are no external pressures to lead anyone to identify himself as Jewish. Why would a group of young men and women do so in such an isolated corner of the world? In Flatbush I can understand the social pressures that would bring young woman to dress b’tzniut, but in Gori?
The meeting with the Gori Jews lasted perhaps an hour and a half and the Ma’ariv that we davened together was more than just memorable. It created an image of what mesirat nefesh really means. I recalled the words of Rav Shlomo Volbe zt”l who declared that the yetzer ha-ra of our generation is mitzvat anashim m’lumadah – performing the commandments by rote and devoid of any passion. That might well characterize our communities, but not Gori!
Thursday morning we davened Shacharit at the Ashkenazi Tiferet Rachel Synagogue – a magnificent structure refurbished just three months ago. We joined the rest of the mission participants who had finally arrived from Baku and watched a performance by the Va’ad sponsored Tiferet Tzvi yeshiva. We then proceeded to the new girls’ seminary where we met with the ten young women studying there. The Va’ad is finalizing arrangements with Ma’alot/Nevey Yerushalayim to have the school become part of that network of institutions so that successful completion of the course of study – which includes math, computer graphics, English as well as limudei kodesh – will enable students to earn a fully recognized B.A. The mission participants affixed mezuzot to the new facility. Recognizing the critical role that the school plays in the community by giving girls the opportunity to remain in Tbilisi for post high school studies, the Va’ad leadership began negotiations for the purchase of the apartment next door so that a dormitory facility can be added to the school, expanding its reach to girls throughout the FSU.
On Friday we were to witness to what I can only describe as the most unequivocal demonstration of mesirat nefesh that I have ever seen. On paper, it seems almost anti-climatic – three britot – to be done by Rabbi Fisher who had flown in especially for the occasion. By his own calculation, Rav Fisher has performed over 1,000 of these in the FSU and it would not be surprising were he no longer emotional. But for a neophyte like me, these britot would prove to be an eye-opener as to the resiliency of the neshama ha-yehudit and its unextinguishable desire to find expression in the tangible world and its unbreakable link to the chain of our people.
Brit number one was performed on a five year old boy, David, who clung to his mother desperately, his cries of fear so understandable as his clothing was removed and he was placed on the table with no ability to relate to the significance of what was about to transpire. The young mother, divorced from her non-Jewish husband, fought back her own tears as she determinedly gave her son to the mohel. His feet were bound together to prevent him from kicking and endangering himself and I could not help but conjure up an image of Yitzchak at the akeidah. The mother stroked the child’s face lovingly. I understood not a word that she was saying but her tone and intent transcended any language barrier. Why, I asked myself, was she doing this? What benefit could she see in entering her child into brito shel Avraham avinu? She was not observant of mitzvot – in truth, she did not really know anything about mitzvot, about Torah and about being part of an am ha-nivchar. Nor did her father or grandfather who were there as well. Could it be that the communists in seventy years of rule had not succeeded in their attempts to destroy any spark of Jewish life? I had always assumed that they had only been unsuccessful among a stubborn few who went to jail because they had furtively layed tefillin or kindled Shabbat candles. But this woman was the picture of assimilation – she had even married a non-Jew! Why would she submit her son to the procedure? Why did she not grab him back and run away forever?
The question was only exacerbated by brit number two; Daniel, eight years old, there with his mother. He had heard the terrified screams of David and had not flinched. He had watched the procedure curiously and now it was his turn. Where does an eight year old get this kind of courage? He removed his shoes, his socks and his pants and asked the mohel whether he could have a pillow to make himself somewhat more comfortable. The Tibilissi rosh kolel gave him his laptop to distract him and block his view of what the mohel was about to do. He emitted a short grunt when the local anesthetic was administered and the only other sound he made was his own amen to the berachot of the mohel and of Rav Moshe Scheinerman shlita who served as sandak and ba’al ha-milah representing klal yisrael. With tears of joy streaming down her cheeks, Daniel’s mother accepted our mazal tovs and again I asked myself, why was this woman doing this? She too had left a gentile man, Daniel’s biological father, and was taking her first tentative steps toward Judaism, enrolling Daniel in the Va’ad sponsored yeshiva.
Before David and Daniel left us, the mothers confirmed that both were first born children. We therefore merited participating in two pidyonei ha-ben utilizing the services of a mission participant who is a kohen. A local couple who are devoted attendees of the shiurim offered by the kolel brought their three year old with them and we were all able to participate in his chalaken.
And then came brit number three, a fifty year old man. I had the privilege of serving as his sandak and of giving him his name – Moshe. He was accompanied only by his son who had undergone milah a decade previously. Now the son had convinced the father to join him, and he did so with extraordinary pride and joy. I looked at his face and at his smile as he listened to the mohel’s translated instructions and the answer to my questions about Yosef suddenly occurred to me.
Natural order dictates that prolonged separation erode most feelings; our memories of what once was fade over time. While one might not be surprised to discover nostalgia among those who actually experienced an event or circumstance, one should expect that those who at best had only heard whispers of what once was would be ambivalent about the past. Should this not have been characteristic of Georgian Jewry after a forced separation from the main body of klal yisrael for seventy long years of silent exile? Why would we expect that a spark remain, an ember waiting to be nourished that could again burst into flame?
Having travelled to Tbilisi and spending Shabbat with some of the most remarkable people on the face of the earth, I bear witness to the nitzchiut of the neshamah ha-yehudit – the eternity of a Jew’s relationship to his source. There is a fire in the Jewish heart that waits to be fanned into a great flame that will yet bring the remnant of our people back to the body of klal Yisroel.
I am Yosef and I declare to all who might hear this message: my brothers are still alive!
Yosef in Egypt suspected that after twenty-two years of separation, Yaakov might have forgotten the special bond that he had once shared with his beloved son, Yosef. Devastated by Yosef’s disappearance, perhaps Yaakov had reacted in the most plausible manner, pushing the memory of Yosef into a back corner so that he could go on with his life. Perhaps Yosef had avoided contact with his father during their long separation because he feared that his father was no longer the same man he once knew, circumstances and bereavement having forced him to become detached from the memories of the past, not fully believing that he would be reunited with the son he so loved. And then Yehudah came forward and told Yosef that this was not true. Were Binyamin not returned as he had pledged, there was no structure that would provide Yaakov with protection. The feelings of a father about a child never dim, he never forgets! The void in Yaakov’s heart was as deep now as it had been when he first saw the blood on the coat he had sewn for Yosef.
I am Yosef, is it possible that my father is still alive – the same father I once knew? I am Yosef – are my brothers still alive – brothers who maintain their connection to klal Yisrael in times of persecution and in times of freedom.
The parallels are clear and I can see them now that I have Georgia on my mind.
[Rabbi Landesman is a veteran mechanech in Israel, and a frequent contributor to Cross-Currents.]