One of the Only Countries in the World that Hashem Has Spared
by Corona Celebrates Siyum Hashas
“I looked at the orchestra and had to rub my eyes. Was I dreaming? We were in the middle of a festive Siyum HaShas and the orchestra playing lively Yiddishe niggunim was the orchestra of the Police Academy of Minsk, Belarus! Yes, just a few decades ago, those same policemen were persecuting Jews for learning Torah and possibly sending them to Siberia for their horribly counter-revolutionary activity of teaching Jews Torah and today? They were the musicians playing ‘Toras Hashem Temimah’ and ‘Siman Tov U’mazel Tov’ at our Siyum HaShas!”
Those were the thoughts of Rabbi Moshe Fhima, the local Menahel of Mosdos Yad Yisroel, cheder, yeshiva and kollel, in Belarus after participating in the Dirshu World Siyum this past Thursday 23 Adar/March 19. The siyum, the largest Torah gathering ever held in Minsk Region since the Holocaust, kicked off an entire Shabbos of chizuk for lomdei Torah under the auspices of Dirshu and Mosdos Yad Yisroel.
Readers may be asking, “What is going on? We are in the middle of an epidemic? How were they able to make a siyum?!” The answer is that, amazingly officially there is no coronavirus in Belarus. All schools and shuls are open, there are no laws implementing social distancing and at this juncture it is one of the only places in the world that has been spared. Nevertheless, even at the festive occasion of a Siyum HaShas, many sanitary precautions were put in place to ensure maximum safety for all participants.
The Siyum HaShas in the Minsk region was the last siyum culminating the winter of World Siyumim held around the world. Perhaps it is especially appropriate that this should be the last venue for a siyum in keeping with the worlds of Chazal, ‘acharon acharon choviv’. After all, Belarus, was once a region home to some of the greatest Torah centers in pre-war Europe such as Radin, Mir, Kletzk, Novardok and Baranovich, to name a few. It was also the cradle of the nascent Chassidic movement and until the war was the epicenter of Karlin-Stolin Chassidus. Then Communism came and the centers of Torah and Chassidus were shuttered as the poor Jews were subject to many decades of a gezeiras hashmad.
Now, before our eyes, the entire region is undergoing a rejuvenation of Yiddishkeit. Rav Fhima has established a cheder, yeshiva and a kollel for the throngs of Yidden returning to their heritage and, in these mosdos, the Daf HaYomi is once again being learned in an unprecedented manner. In fact, Reb Moshe told this writer that participation in the Daf HaYomi has tripled since the beginning of the new machzor!
The Importance of Torah Expressed With a Prestigious Siyum
Rav Fhima attributes the exponential growth in Torah in part to the fact that Dirshu has taken the pains to organize a large, beautiful siyum. “I cannot tell you what an impact this has had on Belarus Yidden. The fact that the siyum was prepared with such detail, the venue, the menu, the entertainment… brought home a profound lesson to them. A siyum is the greatest, most important simcha in Jewish life. It is greater than a bar mitzvah and greater than a chasunah because there is nothing dearer to Hashem than Torah learning.
“The ‘tumult’ of a beautiful siyum with an orchestra playing Jewish music has made kavod haTorah and kavod talmidei chachomim paramount. At the siyum, we also showed highlights from the other siyumim held worldwide and the members of our community, either baalei teshuva or people who are on the path of the teshuva process, felt connected to the worldwide Torah community in an unprecedented way.”
The siyum and the Shabbos of Chizuk held on Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel Pikudei at the Chaika Resort near Minsk was a Torah event that Belarus Jewry had never experienced. “The achdus, the inspiration for continued dedication to Torah is something I never before saw in this country,” said Reb Moshe.
Reb Moshe Fhima was honored with delivering the Hadran and making the Siyum HaShas. Originally the siyum was to feature two world renowned guests from Eretz Yisrael, HaGaon HaRav Nisson Kaplan, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Daas Aharon, and HaGaon HaRav Chizkyahu Yosef Mishkovsky, shlita, Menahel Ruchani of Yeshiva Orchos Torah. The Nasi of Dirshu, Rav Dovid Hofstedter, was also slated to come. Due to the worldwide shutdown, they were unable to participate.
That did not, however, diminish the simcha.
From Bris to Siyum… Five Years of Growth in Torah
One of the most poignant highlights of the program was the siyum on Masechta Sukka by fifteen-year old Yisroel Meir Burak. Who is Yisroel Meir Burak and what is so special about him?
Five years ago, in the month of Elul, 2015, this writer wrote about a remarkable bris that took place at the Radin Yeshiva on the yahrzeit of the Chofetz Chaim. On that day, Dirshu held a special yom limud and tefillah at the kever of the Chofetz Chaim on his yahrzeit. On that morning, during Shacharis, a unique bris mila took place. The then eleven-year old boy who underwent a bris was a boy named Igor Burak. Igor had been born and raised in Pinsk by Jewish parents who knew absolutely nothing about Yiddishkeit. Somehow, he made the acquaintance of Rav Moshe Fhima and, through Yad Yisroel, became closer to Yiddishkeit and joined the Karlin-Stoliner Yeshiva in Pinsk. Reb Moshe brought him to Radin where several Gedolei Yisrael, led by HaGaonim HaRav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein, HaRav Shimon Galei and HaRav Chizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky, shlita, had gathered. Rav Dovid Hofstedter was honored as sandek.
Five years ago, we wrote: The painful procedure was sustained with simcha and mesiras nefesh by the young boy. As the procedure was being performed, he shouted the words, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” A shudder seemed to collectively shake the assemblage as they heard the words, “V’yekaraei shmo b’Yisrael, ‘Yisrael Meir’!” Another holy neshamah bearing the name of the holy Chofetz Chaim.
After the bris, before delivering that day’s Daf HaYomi B’Halacha shiur, Dirshu’s Nasi, Rav Dovid Hofstedter, shlita, thanked the Rabbanim for taking the time to come despite the hectic timeframe. He talked with great wonder about the open miracle that even after the great churban of the Holocaust it was possible to have so many talmidei chachamim davening and celebrating a bris in the Radin Yeshiva! “It is a miraculous occurrence that we would never have dreamed could transpire!”
Now this same Yisroel Meir was making a siyum on Masechta Sukka that he had learned by heart!! The power of ‘Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker’ could be felt in the room!
The Fire of Torah is Burning As the World Deals with a Virulent Virus
One of the main speakers at the event was Rav Mordechai Reichenstein, Chief Rabbi of Belarus. Rav Reichenstein’s story is tremendously compelling. Born in Belarus, he embarked on the path of teshuva that eventually brought him to Yeshiva Aish HaTorah.
Rav Reichenstein cited the famed Gemara wherein it states that after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash, the Romans continued increasing their oppression of the Jewish People. Recognizing the Torah as the source of the Jews’ indomitable spirit, the Romans issued an edict outlawing any study of Torah, the violation of which was punishable by death.
But Rabi Akiva disregarded the ban. Not only did he continue studying Torah, he continued teaching Torah publicly, flouting the edict as if the Romans had no authority over him or his fellow Jews.
Pappus ben Yehudah, a childhood friend of Rabi Akiva, had responded to the Roman occupation somewhat differently. Seeking protection by currying favor with his Roman overlords, Pappus adopted Roman customs seeking to convince his new masters that he was their loyal subject.
Upon discovering Rabi Akiva’s seeming disregard for the danger presented by Rome, Pappus could not contain his horror. “Akiva!” he cried. “Do you think the Romans won’t notice you transgressing their laws right before their eyes? Do you think they will show you more mercy than they have shown the others?”
Rather than answer his friend’s argument directly, Rabbi Akiva replied with a mashal:
A fox was once walking along the bank of a river, when he noticed a school of fish darting to and fro in the water. “Why do you race back and forth?” the fox asked the fish.
“We are fleeing the nets of the fisherman,” the fish answered the fox.
“Well, if it is the fisherman you fear,” replied the fox, “come up here on dry land, and we can live together in peace as our ancestors did.”
“Are you a fox, whom they call the wisest of all animals?” the fish cried. “If we are in danger here in the water, which is our natural environment, what hope would we have of finding safety by abandoning the conditions that enable us to survive?”
“And so it is with us,” Rabi Akiva told his friend. “Torah is our natural environment. It is the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. If it is dangerous for us to live with the Torah, it can only become more dangerous for us to forsake the Torah.”
Rav Reichenstein pointed out, that “Now, at a time when most of the world has been prevented from publicly learning Torah due to the virus, it is even more incumbent on us, here to keep the flame of Torah burning!”
Witnessing a renewed kabbolas haTorah!
Another highlight was the drasha delivered remotely but live by Rav Dovid Hofstedter, who participated from his home in Toronto.
Rav Hofstedter cited a Medrash Tanchuma that: Hashem said to Moshe, “They shall make a Mishkan for Me, and I shall dwell among them” (ibid. 25:8), so that all the nations shall know that they have been forgiven for the sin of the golden calf. This is why it is called ‘the Mishkan of Testimony,’ for it bears witness for all the people of the world to the fact that Hashem dwells in their Sanctuary.
Rav Hofstedter asked, “Haven’t we already been told that Hashem pardoned Yisrael for the sin of the calf? Didn’t we learn that Hashem told Moshe, ‘I have forgiven [them] according to your word’ (Bamidbar 14:20)? If so, why was it necessary for the construction of the Mishkan to bear witness to the fact that they had been forgiven? Are Hashem’s words, ‘I have forgiven according to your word,’ not sufficient?
“In the wake of every sin,” Rav Hofstedter continued, “follow two consequences: The appropriate punishment and a fall from favor. Although words of repentance may effectively protect a baal teshuva from punishment, they do not necessarily restore the sinner to his former level of favor, from which he had fallen; they cannot cleanse his soul of the spiritual filth with which his sin besmirched it. That [cleansing] can only be accomplished through concrete deeds, deeds that testify to a change in attitude, deeds that bear witness to the recreation of the former sinner as a new person.”
He explained, “While it is possible for a person to say, ‘I am mochel you,’ it does not mean that the previous love they had for each other is restored. The Mishkan, was a testament that Hashem had embraced them anew.
Rav Hofstedter said with great emotion, “For so many decades, Pinsk, Minsk and the entire Belarus has been a desolate midbar of ruchniyus. Now Hashem has shown His tremendous love for His children in this previously forsaken land, returning His Shechina to Pinsk, Minsk and the entire region. Today, we have witnessed a renewed kabbolas haTorah in this region with Torah restored to its previous dwelling place.”
The Largest Kriyas Shema Leining in the World
It was a profound, moving event that ended off the Thursday night siyum. A Yid named Rav Nachman Blau, a shaliach from Eretz Yisroel who is a rebbi in the Stoliner Yeshiva in Pinsk, had moved together with his Rebbetzin and family to Pinsk with great mesiras nefesh. One week prior to the siyum the Blaus were blessed with a baby boy.
A mohel could not be flown in from Eretz Yisroel because no mohel wanted to be subject to 14 days quarantine upon return. Finally, Rabbi Yisroel Schleider, a mohel from England agreed to come. That too was not simple. He could not fly directly from England to Belarus because there were no flights. He therefore flew from England to France and from France he was able to make it to Belarus. He arrived Thursday evening and the bris was held Friday morning.
The special night of the Siyum HaShas, that signaled a tripling in Daf Yomi enrollment and the siyum of young Yisroel Meir Burak ended with what was probably the biggest ‘vacht nacht, Kriyas Shema lenining’ on the night before a bris, ever experienced in that region. The entire crowd rose and said Shema with the pesukim of shemirah around that baby’s bed having in mind tefillos beseeching Hashem for shemirah for their brothers and sisters around the world who are in such need of rachmei Shomayim.
Yes, it was a closing of the circle. In the country where, not so long ago, bris milah was prohibited, the largest vact nacht was held. In the country where, not so long ago, Torah was prohibited, the largest siyum was held and Torah is today thriving. Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker.
By Chaim Gold