Rejoicing Despite Opression
World War I was into its second year and the Jews of Poland were suffering tremendous deprivation. It was almost Purim and the town of Radin was plunged into darkness and despair. The rabbi of the little town was Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hacohen, the saintly Chofetz Chaim, a great leader of world Jewry in the early years of the century.
During this black year, conditions in Radin steadily worsened. Food was scarce, taxes were high, and worst of all, most of the young men had been drafted into the military, never to be seen again.
At the approach of Purim, one Jew came to the Chofetz Chaim and asked, "Rebbe, our lives are so miserable this year. Our sons are off at the front. How can we be expected to celebrate Purim in this joyless, suffering world?"
The Chofetz Chaim knew that the man was speaking from his own pain and his fear for the life of his own young son who was one of the draftees.
"Don't worry, my friend," the Chofetz Chaim said. "Even in these terrible and troubled times, we must not lose our faith in G-d's salvation. Even now, we must rejoice in the thought of the great miracles which He did for our people on Purim.
"Once many years ago when I was a young man in Vilna, it was Purim time and the Tzar had issued a bitter decree. He ordered that the Jews must provide double the usual number of young men for the military draft. As you know these draftees, the Cantonists, were little more than children, and were pressed into military service for twenty years. After that long period of time, they often remembered nothing of their Jewishness and were totally lost to their families forever. That year, the draft fell out on Purim and the Jews of Vilna were in virtual mourning.
"However, in spite of their sorrow, the Jews of Vilna performed the mitzvot of Purim - they distributed Shalach Manos - gifts of food to their friends, and tzedaka - charity to the poor. Their only consolation was in reading the Megilas Esther, recounting the miracle of Purim, when G-d brought a sudden and wondrous salvation to His people.
"It wasn't long, though, until things became even worse. The Tzar issued yet another decree against the Jews, ordering them to provide still more young men for the Russian army. All the greatest rabbis and Jewish leaders of the time petitioned the Tzar to rescind this terrible decree, but all their pleas were to no avail. The young men were chosen and ordered to report for military service the following Av, the month in the Jewish year when both Temples were destroyed, the month especially marked for tragedy.
"The orders were drawn up and ready for the Tzar's signature which would finalize the fate of the young men. It took only a second for the Tzar to affix his name to the document, but as he reached out to blot the wet ink, his hand accidentally knocked over the ink bottle, and it spilled over the paper, obliterating his name.
"The Tzar was shocked at his mistake. In his mind it seemed an omen from Above, and so he stubbornly refused to have the document redrawn. And so, these young men were freed from the terrible fate which had awaited them.
"The month of Av [which coincides roughly with August] had already begun when word of the sudden miraculous reprieve reached the Jews of Vilna. The young men, who had already prepared to leave Vilna quickly unpacked. Their families breathed a joyful sigh of relief, realizing how close they had come to losing their precious sons and brothers. That year the month of Av turned from mourning to rejoicing for the Jews of Vilna.
"How can we tell whether it was the rejoicing of the Jews in Vilna on that dark Purim when the evil decree was issued that had in it the spark of their redemption the following Av? Perhaps our joyous celebration of Purim now will be the seed of a great redemption which will follow in the same unexpected way, as G-d redeems His people once again."