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 Channa and her Seven Sons The Menorah in Union Square

Chanukah in the Fields

Mordechai Gur Arye grew up in the Russian city of Yekatrinaslav. He was not an observant Jew, but after befriending the son of the city's Rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, and frequently visiting them in their home, he became strictly observant.

Mordechai was one of the top students in the city's government high school. His friends and teachers who noticed the change in him began to harass him. In every conversation, his teachers made sure to mention the baselessness of religion. But Mordechai remained firm, unafraid to display his observance openly.

Mordechai was not alone in his difficulties, for with him was his mentor, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak who supported and encouraged him.

Although Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was the official rabbi of the community, he was not permitted to hold any discussion of Torah with his congregants. And he was also absolutely forbidden to influence the younger generation to follow in their ancestors' ways.

But this did not deter Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. He used every opportunity he had to speak to the public about strengthening and preserving Judaism, even though he knew there were informers present who would repeat everything he said to government officials.

When Mordechai completed high school he decided to attend university, but was met with surprise; he was not accepted. He could not understand why the administration would not accept him even though he had excellent grades. He tried to speak with the head of the university, and was told: "Go ask Schneerson to help you, we can't help you in this matter."

Finally, Mordechai was accepted, but he was sent to a farm where the students worked and studied. Mordechai kept in touch with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, in order to find out how to properly conduct himself in accordance with Jewish law in the various situations that arose.

The students at the farm were occasionally sent to the city to purchase supplies for the farm. All the students used the opportunity in the city to sell the produce of the farm and make money for themselves. But Mordechai had better use for his visits. He would inquire about the Jews of the city, and check to see what religious articles they were lacking. Every time he went into the city he took along his briefcase filled with mezuzot, tzitzit and prayer books. He distributed these to the Jewish residents in accordance with the instructions of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. Of course, Mordechai did all of this secretly.

Each day Mordechai would don his tefilin and pray. While everyone else was asleep, Mordechai snuck out to the fields. There, between the tall corn stalks, he'd pray quickly, covering his tefilin with his hat.

Mordechai kept the secret of his observance so well that the authorities decided to transfer him to another agricultural settlement where they felt the intelligent youth would enlighten the ignorant villagers.

As Chanuka neared, Reb Mordechai pondered over the question of how to kindle the Chanuka lights without attracting the attention of the local authorities. He thought up a plan. He went out alone to an empty field late at night when everyone else was asleep, and standing on the snow covered ground in the freezing cold, he joyously performed the mitzva of lighting the Chanuka menora. Unfortunately, a government inspector came through the village one night of Chanuka, and he spotted some strange lights in a field. Looking closer, he realized what it was, and traced the menora back to Reb Mordechai. Reb Mordechai was sent even further away to continue his medical training elsewhere.

Mordechai continued studying Torah and observing mitzvot. According to the law he was supposed to re-enter the university to continue his studies under surveillance, which he did.

During those days, Mordechai would sneak to the home of Reb Levi Yitzchak to pray or hear some words of Torah. One summer day, Mordechai went to a swim in the sea, and never returned...

The heads of the university wanted to make the funeral on the government's account. They sent a messenger to Mordechai's sister, a sworn communist who held and important position in a government factory. She excused herself by saying that her parents were traditional and she could not intervene.

She then hurried to Reb Levi Yitzchak and told him: "Mordechai's will is your will, whatever you say we will do."

The funeral was arranged in accordance with Jewish law. News of the tragedy spread, and people flocked from all corners of the city to accompany Mordechai to his resting place. The university also sent students and several teachers to the funeral, but they stood by the side.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began his speech at the funeral: "Mordechai, in his short life, showed us the path we should take. He did not care what his friends said or what the government thought. He paid no attention to those who sought to harm him. Throughout everything, Mordechai stood firm in his faith and observance."

The crowd was greatly agitated by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's words. They were surprised to hear of Mordechai's self sacrifice in distributing religious articles, and how he prayed secretly between the corn stalks. The rabbi roused the people, urging them to follow in Mordechai's path and not to forget their Father in Heaven.

When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak stopped speaking, no one budged. The people were shocked that the Rabbi dared to speak the way he did, heedless of the authorities and their threats. "After such a speech, he'll no doubt be exiled for many years," they said to one another.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was not imprisoned at that time. Only three years later, in 1939, was he arrested, tortured, and then exiled. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak passed away on the 20th day of the Hebrew month of Av. But they never managed to break the spirit of the great man who was the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

From Journeys with the Rebbes, published by Ufaratzta Publishing
and L'chaim - Copyright © 1996 Lubavitch Youth Organization - L.Y.O.

 Channa and her Seven Sons The Menorah in Union Square

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