It was during those dark years for the millions of Jews living behind the Iron Curtain, cut off from Jewish life and tradition, that a small group of courageous Jews went “underground” to organize Jewish schools, build mikvahs and bake matzot for Passover.
This was done despite the constant threat of being arrested for the “crime” of living Jewishly, often carrying the penalty of death or, if fortunate, a lengthy sentence in the Siberian gulags from which few returned. Yet, desperate to keep aflame the tiny ember of Jewish life that was systematically being stamped out by the communists, these heroic Jews gave their lives so when that curtain would finally be lifted there would still be a fire burning in those Jewish souls.
One of these unique individuals was a Hassidic Jew by the name of Mendel Futerfas. He risked his life day after day teaching Torah and providing for the Jewish needs of his brethren. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned, miraculously surviving 14 brutal years in Siberia. He managed to get out and make his way to Israel, where he dedicated the rest of his life to the very reason for which he was persecuted: teaching Torah. He became an inspiration and spiritual mentor to thousands.
One of his hallmarks was his unique method of storytelling and his ability to enthrall listeners with accounts of his years in the gulags. He shared various lessons he learned from every experience there that allowed him to endure physically and spiritually.
He once related the story of his most memorable Yom Kippur in prison. Without a machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook), he could not recite many of the prayers. Yet he tried to pray as much as he could from memory. One prayer that stayed with him was the poem “V’chol Ma’aminim” (and all believe), a refrain repeated many times that describes the depth of our belief in our creator and his compassion and kindness with all his creations.
At one point he stopped, unable to continue. Who am I kidding, he thought. Do all people really believe? Do all Jews believe? How about the people in the jail cell with me or those who imprisoned me?
While sitting there pondering the paradox of this prayer of faith, isolated from the world in the self-proclaimed godless state, he noticed one of the guards staring at him intently. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he tried to blend in with the other prisoners. Suddenly he felt the presence of the guard. He looked up to see a menacing giant with a vicious scar across his face, who cornered him away from everyone and growled at him.
“I see you praying today. I know you are fasting today. I want you to know I am fasting as well. I know it’s Yom Kippur today, yet I don’t know a single thing about Judaism except a prayer my grandmother taught me when I was a child called ‘Modeh Ani.’ I have been repeating this prayer all day, and I want you to know you are not the only one celebrating Yom Kippur.” And then he slipped away.
This, Reb Mendel concluded, was the answer from heaven to his question. All believe … It remained perhaps the most meaningful Yom Kippur of his life.
The portion of Acharei has the distinction of being the only Torah portion read almost in its entirety twice a year, on Yom Kippur as well as this Shabbat. That sacred day, when we demonstrate our eternal faith that no matter how far from Jewish life we may stray, no matter what the upheavals in our lives that conspire to convince us that faith in God is futile and fidelity to his mitzvot are inconsequential, comes that one day a year where we adamantly declare, we still believe!
This also explains why this portion is read in proximity to Passover. Our sages teach us that “in the merit of faith our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt” (Yalkut Shimoni: Beshalach). On Passover, we celebrate the faith that has sustained us through the generations. We conclude our seder with “Next year in Jerusalem,” asking God to finally redeem us once and for all, because we’ve never lost hope. Whether in the deserts of Egypt or the gulags of Siberia, V’chol Ma’aminim — we still believe.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.