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WEEKLY STORY: Weekly Story
The Living Orphan
Adar I 11, 5774 · February 11, 2014
A child’s memories of life in Soviet Russia
A detail from a painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.

Reminiscing about the years of my youth in the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century brings back fractured memories and complicated images. Amongst them, however, there are some complete pictures and figures that are engraved deep, deep in my psyche.

I remember that long, cold, dark night when I awoke to the sound of sobbing. Mother was standing, crying hysterically as she waved her hands in the air. Father was standing half-dressed, scared to death.

Three young people dressed in uniforms were milling around the room, searching the closets and the beds and looking at the walls. I watched as they approached the bookcase and examined each book, page by page.

I wondered: Who are they looking for? What are they looking for? What do they need? Will they sit and study the books like Mother and Father?

And then I saw that they found what they were looking for. They found a few handwritten pieces of paper, and a picture of the Rebbe [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe—Ed.].

One pointed to the other, “Do you see? This is Schneersohn!”

They then commanded Father to dress and come with them.

Three young people dressed in uniforms were milling around the room, searching the closets and the beds and looking at the walls

Father came to my small bed, bent down, and gave me a kiss, long and painful. Tears—big ones, hot ones, blazing ones—rolled off his cheek and onto my forehead.

He then looked at Mother with fire and love in his eyes. He kissed the mezuzah on the doorway, and disappeared into the dark of night.

Only when the door closed did my childish mind grasp how great our tragedy was.

Mother began to sob, “Oy vey!”

She fainted.

The neighbors came and revived her. They tried to console her.

When the morning came, she threw on a scarf and ran out. She returned later, tired, despondent and broken. She fed me and fell into an exhausted sleep.

I once heard Mother tell the neighbors that on that night, “they” also took another fifty married men and several students, all of them Lubavitcher chassidim, friends and students of Father’s.

This was a communal tragedy; but that did not lessen Mother’s pain.

Now, day after day, she would run around the streets. She would go wherever possible, to beg, to protest and to cry, while I was left at home alone, like an orphan.

Out of pity, the neighbors would come to turn on the oven to heat our home and bring me something to eat.

I would sit at the window waiting for hours. Maybe Mother is coming? Maybe Father is coming?

My young soul was anxious. I held back my tears.

I felt as if a thief stole, without mercy, the beauty of life.

“If I was able to, I would inject the entire Torah into his brain; who knows what tomorrow will bring?”

He stole my smile, my happiness, my childhood.

It was only a short while ago that Father would spend days with me, playing and singing. He would run to me, give me a hug and kiss me without end.

He would tell me stories. Extraordinary stories from the Torah and Talmud.

I was already studying the Torah with Rashi’s commentary. But Father would insist on teaching me lofty concepts that I did not completely understand. He spoke about G‑d, about Jews and the Torah.

Mother would say to Father, “Gevald, what are you doing? To a child as young as our Sholom’ke, may he be well, you speak of such subjects? His mind is still tender; he cannot grasp and understand it.”

“If I was able to,” Father would say, “I would inject the entire Torah into his brain; who knows what tomorrow will bring?”

Father the Shoemaker, Father the Teacher

Painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.

I was told that originally Father had been a rabbi in a neighboring city, until he was forced by the Soviet authorities to resign and flee. He then learned to be a cobbler.

I remember one day a woman came running in, “Oy, where is the rabbi? I have an important question!”

Mother angrily responded that there is no rabbi here. “I told you thousands of times: there are no rabbis in this house. Have mercy on us, and stop coming here!”

What I did not understand at the time was how being a rabbi could be more demeaning than being a cobbler.

I remember that Father would go out into the dark winter nights and disappear for a few hours. He would return very tired, but always in joyous spirits.

One time he took me with him.

They all had the same look on their face. Their eyes held constant fear. Scared of the unknown

We traveled on a trolley, and then by foot. We walked through side streets until we came to an apartment complex.

We passed through a long-neglected courtyard and through three doorways, and then trekked up the staircase to the fifth floor. We entered a large room with horrible lighting and a large uncovered table in the middle.

In the room were three dozen lads, in their early teens. They all had the same look on their face. Their eyes held constant fear. They were scared of the unknown.

Between themselves, they were friendly, as if they were all part of a large family.

When they saw me, they said excitedly, “Sholom’ke is here!”

“Your father says that you have a good head,” one called out.

Another said, “Don’t worry, Sholom’ke, don’t let your spirit fall. By the time you grow up, the world will be normal again.”

They all took out their books. They studied Chabad philosophy, while I sat there wondering what wasn’t normal about the current world.

The hours went by. The students got into heated discussions as they discussed the intricacies of the teachings. Then, one by one, they filed out, in intervals of a few minutes.

Everything about that evening fascinated me.

The secretiveness and the hiding spot where the boys gathered. The poverty in the home. The friendliness they had for each other. Their confidence, despite the fear.

Watching them study had a great effect on me. Their studying was filled with enthusiasm, Father’s love for them and theirs for Father.

After that I never met with them again, because a short while later they took Father away.

The Childless Uncle Moshe

A few months after Father was taken away, his sister’s husband, Uncle Moshe, came to town.

After talking with Mother for a while, they decided that I was to go live with Uncle Moshe

He was a tall and thin man, and although elderly, was very strong. In his steps you heard confidence and assurance.

After talking with Mother for a while, they decided that I was to go live with Uncle Moshe in his city.

The parting was heart-wrenching.

All three of us cried. After Uncle dried his eyes, I burst into tears: “Mother, I don’t want to go. I want to live with you.”

“My child, what kind of life awaits you here? Who will study with you here? Soon, with G‑d’s help, Father will return home, and you will be able to return to a normal life.”

We hugged and kissed again.

Mother accompanied us to the train. There we piled into a small cabin. I watched as Mother stood outside, watching the departing train.

Her hands were open. The look on her face expressed her unspoken feelings:What have I done? My most precious . . . my only consolation . . . I have sent to the unknown.

Life with my aunt and uncle was not bad. Uncle was a carpenter and earned a good livelihood. They had no children.

I was sent to study under the supervision of Asher the melamed, the teacher.

Uncle Moshe would tell the teacher, “Remember that he is not just another pupil; he is the son of Shmuel, your childhood friend, may he return soon. And when he will see that his son is educated in the ways of Torah, his happiness will know no end.”

Leaving Uncle

One day, Uncle said to me, “I think that it is a good idea for you to go study in ayeshivah, a place of advanced Torah learning.

As students in an underground Jewish school, we were forced to relocate every few days

Here you have no friends. There you will have friends.”

Shortly thereafter, he took me to the school. There were thirty young students and some older ones. The teacher was a great scholar.

As students in an underground Jewish school under Soviet rule, we were forced to move every few days from one home to another. Our teacher never managed to deliver an entire lecture series in one location.

We studied and traveled, traveled and studied. Nevertheless, under these difficult circumstances we all gained great Talmudic knowledge.

We also learned Chabad philosophy, which revealed a new dimension to life. We recognized a new world, G‑dly and splendid. We viewed reality differently.

Our thirst for learning was great. There was no need to force us to study; we just wanted more and more.

A Living Orphan

Avraham Elya Plotkin, center standing, who recorded this story. Sitting in the center are his parents, Chaya Rasyah (left) and Shmuel.

How I want to see my father one more time. To have one more talk with him. How I want to commemorate the anniversary of his passing, but I do not know when it is. Even the satisfaction of saying the mourner’s kaddish, to pay tribute to Father, I do not have.

Since my father was taken, they have called me the “living orphan.” As a child, I never understood—are other orphans not living?

Today I understand: I am indeed a unique orphan. Even to say thekaddish prayer once, to pour out my soul, I cannot.

But I know that there is something deeper that connects me to my father. There is something much greater than what any letter or telephone call could do.

There is a soul connection.

It is the Jewish practice I strive to maintain that connects us.

Based on an account related to Avraham Elya Plotkin, who recorded it in Di Yiddishe Heim (Kehot Publication Society) following his escape from the Soviet Union in 1946.

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as told to Avraham Elya Plotkin    More articles…  |   RSS Listing of Newest Articles by this Author

Adapted from the Hebrew by Dovid Zaklikowski.

ESSAY: Who Engraved the Second Tablets?
Who Engraved the Second Tablets?
Adar I 12, 5774 · February 12, 2014
© Ahuva Klein


After G‑d forgave the people of Israel for the sin of the golden calf, we read in the first verse of Exodus 34, “The L‑rd said to Moses: ‘Hew for yourself two stone tablets . . . and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.’”

Later, we read in verse 28, “He was there with the L‑rd for forty days and forty nights . . . and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

How can I reconcile these two verses? Who wrote them, G‑d or Moses?


Very good question.

The commentators to verse 28 explain that the verse needs to be broken into two parts. In the first half of the verse, “he” refers to Moses. However, in the second half, where we read about the inscription, “He” (note the capital “H”) is a reference to G‑d.1

However, the question remains. Why is this verse written is such a way that it even appears as if Moses was the one who wrote the tablets, when in fact it was G‑d?

Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk (1843–1926) has a beautiful way of reconciling these verses.

The writing on the first tablets had been engraved through and through. As such, the words, written in Hebrew, were clearly legible on one side and equally visible on the other side as well. Therefore, the centers of the Hebrew letters mem ם andsamech ס, which are closed from all sides, were miraculously suspended in midair.2

Rabbi Meir Simchah explains that the actual engraving of the second tablets was done by Moses. And after he had finished doing all that he could humanly do, G‑d completed the job and miraculously transformed the engraving into the special writing that had graced the first set of tablets.

Had Israel never sinned and the first tablets never been broken, all our learning would come easy, and there would be neither internal nor external challenges. However, our Torah study today, which entails hard work, constant review, and struggling to understand, is embodied by the second tablets.

When one toils in Torah study, he must first invest his all in an attempt to carve the words of the Torah into his very self, transforming himself into a spiritually sensitive person able to receive the secrets of the Torah. Then, and only then, does G‑d assist him and guide him to properly understand the Torah and shield him from distractions and confusion. This is symbolized by the fact that Moses first engraved the tablets to the best of his ability, and then G‑d added the miraculous element.3

1. Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, Rashbam, Rabbeinu Bechayei, et al.
2. Talmud, Shabbat 104a.
3. Meshech Chochmah ad loc.
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By Menachem Posner    More articles…  |   RSS Listing of Newest Articles by this Author

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for He lives with his family in Montreal, QC.

THE FREEMAN FILES: Death by Secrets
Death by Secrets
Adar I 11, 5774 · February 11, 2014
Part 5 of “Is Midrash For Real?”
© Leon Zernitzky

We’ve explained why midrash and aggadah are so vital to our Torah diet. We’ve explained that these stories speak to us from a higher plane of reality. And we’ve also demonstrated that even if you don’t get it, you still do get it—meaning that you’ve still got truth even if you’re clueless to the meaning inside.

We’ve also provided some guidelines to determine whether a story is an anecdote or a parable. Now, let’s take a test case. Let’s look at a story of the Talmud and see what’s meant literally, what’s meant to point to something deeper, and how it could be true for everyone on their level.

Practically Speaking

One of the giveaway signs of down-to-earth literalness is practical application.

Aside from context, one of the giveaway signs of down-to-earth literalness is practical application. If you see a story cited in the determination of ahalachah—what to do and what not to do—you know that at least the relevant details must stay tied down to the ground.

Here’s an example. First, the Talmud presents us an opinion on a very practical matter:1

Rabbah taught, “A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”

Fine so far. But then the Talmud proceeds with a relevant anecdote:

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira held their Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for divine mercy, and brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. A year passed, and Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let us hold the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles don’t happen every day.”2

In this case, I guarantee this is not meant to be taken at face value. Rabbah was one of the star sages and respected teachers of the Talmud, well-known for his righteousness. That is implicit in the story itself: if you or I would “plead for divine mercy,” do you think we would be successful at bringing our victim back to life?

Besides, if this were a compulsive behavior issue, would Rabbi Zeira have no concern other than the unlikelihood of a repeat resurrection? How about “I’d feel safer celebrating with someone a tad less bloodthirsty”? And what about Rabbah? He seems to have felt no remorse whatsoever for his recklessness—on the contrary, he’s quite gung-ho about doing the whole thing again.

So, we’re out to find some clues to the deeper meaning of this story. Maybe they weren’t really drunk? Maybe Rabbah didn’t really murder Rabbi Zeira? Maybe these are just allegories with some spiritual meaning?

But not so fast: Think of what this story is out to tell us. Quite obviously, that there are still limits to drinking, even on Purim. Some people just shouldn’t get drunk (or drink at all). After all, the entire story comes framed within the context of the halachah preceding it. In fact, several classic halachic authorities take the anecdote as the Talmud’s rejection of Rabbah’s teaching—better not to get drunk, lest you murder your colleagues and find yourself incapable of resurrecting them.3

That’s the rule of thumb we’re talking about, mentioned by Ramban and others: As soon as you see a practical, halachic application within a story, you know there’s some relevant details here with which you cannot tamper.4

Internally, as well, the story resists a non-literal interpretation: If Rabbah didn’t really kill Rabbi Zeira, then how could he resurrect him? And if he didn’t really resurrect him, then what is Rabbi Zeira’s concern about non-repetitive miracles?

Death by secrets

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms.

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms. Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were drunk, but not from the wine; and Rabbah slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, but not with a slaughtering knife. Everything was good, very good—to the point that Rabbah was ready to go it again. Just not something that us amateurs should attempt without clinical supervision.

”When wine enters,” the Talmud tells us, “secrets come out.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, describes how great sages and holy men would consume much wine and celebrate—and the channels of their mind would open so that the deepest secrets of the Torah would flow out of their mouths.5 He cites stories of the Talmud to this effect.6 Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, in his commentary to the Torah, Ohr ha-Chaim, describes how it was these secrets that emerged through the drinking of wine that carried Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, to death as their souls departed from their bodies in ecstatic divine love.

Now, Rabbah was able to imbibe these secrets and remain alive, as his name implies: rab means “great.” But Rabbi Zeira could not contain such intense light:ze’ir means “small.” So Rabbah’s sharing of mystical secrets created such a great thirst for divine union in Rabbi Zeira’s soul that it departed, and his body was left dead. 7 The next day is no longer Purim—no longer a day for escaping all bounds and limitations, but a day for fulfilling your purpose down here on earth inside a physical body—so Rabbah dutifully resurrects his colleague.

The next year, Rabbah had no regrets, and was ready to perform the same clinical procedure on Rabbi Zeira once again—take him for a ride up to heaven and back again the next morning. Or perhaps he figured Rabbi Zeira had enough time to also attain a higher level, and would be able to hang in there.

But Rabbi Zeira, being a humble man, was not so sure. Certainly, he desired with all his soul to attain such divine ecstasy once again, to escape his body and return, to have both heaven and earth in a single 24 hours. But perhaps this time his soul would not be willing to return—or perhaps this time Rabbah would not be capable of a repeat of last year’s miracle. Ultimately, after all, we fulfill our purpose of being while alive on this earth.

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance.

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance. Keep your feet on the ground. If you know you’re the type to be easily carried away when drinking, avoid it altogether.

Only that now the message reaches to many more echelons of society, to each person on his own level—the spiritual mystic with his Zohar, and the teenager with his friends at a party. The teenage drinkers would likely not be too impressed by Rabbi Zeira’s ecstatic expiration of the soul. And even if they were, it’s not really something you want to start talking about with them—who knows, they’ll probably want to try it for themselves.

So, the beautiful woman of secrets peeks out from a small window, concealing what needs to be concealed from the the passerby on the street while revealing what needs to be revealed to the wise-hearted seeker. Each takes what he needs to take, and leaves behind what does not belong to him as of yet.

1. On the following, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 31, pp. 177ff (Purim 2).
2. Talmud, Megillah 7b.
3. Ran and Sefer ha-Ma’or in the name of Rabbi Efraim; cited in Beit YosefBayit ChadashTurei Zahav and Yad Efraim, Orach Chaim 695. The Shulchan Aruchibid., however, preserves the statement of Rabbah as halachically binding.
4. Torat ha-Adam, Sha’ar ha-Gemul (in Kitvei Ramban [ed. Chavel], II:285).
5. Shaloh, Shaar ha-Otiyot.
6. Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a, top; Shabbat 67b, concerning Rabbi Akiva. See other instances cited in Shaloh ibid.
7. The term “slaughtered” is also significant. Before slaughtering, an animal is not kosher. Slaughtering raises it to that state. So too, Rabbi Zeira’s “slaughtering” was an elevation to a higher state.
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By Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin    More articles…  |   RSS Listing of Newest Articles by this Author

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman’s writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for’s Ask the Rabbi service.
Acknowledgment: The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of the staff of the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) in preparing this essay. The JLI course Curious Tales of the Talmud is an excellent introduction to interpretation of aggadah.
Chaim Leib (Leon) Zernitsky has created fine art and illustrations for international magazines, book publishers and major corporations for over 25 years. He has published over 30 books for children and young adults and won numerous awards. Chaim Leib feels that creating Jewish art is an important part of being a Jewish artist, and his paintings can be found in private collections worldwide.

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