Thursday, October 27, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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A number of years ago our family had the pleasure of hosting our neighbors, the Greenstein family1, for a Shabbos seudah2. I knew that Mrs. Greenstein was born and raised in Moscow, behind the iron curtain of communism, but I didn’t know much else about her life. Never one to shirk away from a good story, I asked her if she would be comfortable sharing some of her experiences. I was particularly curious as to how a Jew from Russia who was completely ignorant of her heritage, ended up Torah observant in Monsey, New York. She obliged to share a few tidbits of her incredible story and she gave me permission to include them here as well.

Communist Russia was built on propaganda and lies. To those who grew up behind the iron curtain, there seemed to be no world beyond the U.S.S.R. Although they knew that there was a world beyond, on television they would broadcast images of long gruesome claws clutching mounds of money to depict the evil American empire and the heinous society of capitalism. The peasant population was truly brain-washed and believed in the greatness of communism and its vast success. The media painted a picture of a utopian society where the sun of joy and prosperity always shone.

Money and food were scarce in Russia. An average monthly salary consisted of about one hundred dollars. Every single day, a member of the family would have to wait on long lines to purchase bread and basic provisions. The infamous NKVD, later known as the KGB (the Russian secret police), was in full force wreaking havoc and instilling terror throughout Russia. Mrs. Greenstein related that her father had a few run-ins with them and they did not have the best relationship. All of their difficulties not withstanding, that was life and they knew of no other way.

The Jews had a particularly difficult life. They were blatantly singled out for physical and verbal abuse in school, at their jobs, and on the street. Because of their individual persecution, Jews developed a deep enmity toward the Communists and they believed that everything the Russians preached was a lie. They believed there was something great and holy about Judaism, although they knew nothing about it. They also believed that America was a land of golden opportunity.

Through G-d’s Hand of Providence, Mrs. Greenstein’s family was able to emigrate from Russia to America (a story of its own), where they settled in Boston, Massachusetts. A local Jewish agency provided them with an advocate to act as their liaison, helping them acclimate to the new country and become familiar with the language and culture.

Mrs. Greenstein decided that, although she had never done so before, she wanted to find a job working with children. Her advocate wrote up a resume for her and gave her the addresses of 160 agencies, schools, and playgroups around Boston. Mrs. Greenstein complained that she didn’t want to waste 160 stamps applying to every single agency, but the advocate replied that this was the only way she would have a chance to find a job.

After Mrs. Greenstein sent out her resume, she waited for some responses. Out of the many places she had contacted, only ten agencies/schools responded and only one of them accepted her. The place that accepted her was the only Orthodox Jewish nursery in the area at that time. She was hired to be the assistant teacher. Her role was to help the children put on their coats before recess and to help them with their projects.

As she sat in the class and the teacher taught the children about the beauty of Shabbos and how to recite blessings properly, Mrs. Greenstein listened intently and internalized every word. When the teacher would lecture about the holidays, Mrs. Greenstein had a hard time doing her job because she so badly wanted to hear what was being taught with such clarity and passion. That was the beginning of her journey to a Torah life. 160 agencies…and she got the job in the only Jewish Orthodox agency.

Three hundred and forty years had passed since the great flood. Noach and his children were still alive, and Avrohom Avinu, who had already, ‘recognized his Creator’ was 48 years old. Civilization was centered around Babylonia, (modern-day Iraq), and the evil Nimrod was their leader.

The Torah states, (11:1) “The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose.” The Torah continues, “They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire… Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed across the whole earth. G-d descended to look at the city and the tower which the sons of man built. And G-d said, ‘….Come, let us descend there and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language’.” The Torah concludes, “And G-d dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Bavel, because it was there that Hashem confused the language of the whole earth, and from there Hashem scattered them over the face of the earth.”

The story of the construction of the tower is intriguing and the Torah seems vague in its description of what transpired. The Sages explain that there were sinister and idolatrous motives behind their actions, but their true motive is unclear from a cursory reading of the verse.

Many commentators3 relate that their sin was a result of their unity. Although unity is a noble trait and, in fact, their harmonious relationship was a source of merit for them4, it was at the root of their sin. What does that mean; how did their unity cause them to sin? What was the purpose of the tower and how did they have the logical audacity to blatantly challenge G-d so soon after the flood? Also, what does it mean that G-d descended to obfuscate their languages?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explains that they rationalized that if they could synergize their strengths and abilities, they would no longer need G-d. They felt that a Divine Power was only necessary to compensate for human weakness and deficiency. But if there was mass unification and a collaboration of all human talent and resources, there would no longer be a need for Divine Intervention on earth.

In other words, their idea was, “Working men of all countries, unite!” They were confident in the flawless abilities of the proletariat and they felt they would be unstoppable. The tower was to be the symbol of their unification; it was to be the representation of what could be accomplished by a combined human effort.

It seems that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848), was predated by the Dor Haflagah5 by thousands of years. Communism was a repeat of the effort to form what Rabbi Schwab termed, “hamin ha’enushi hamuchad- The united species of man.” The idea that the merging of the sickle and hammer could produce a utopian socialist society was already postulated by Nimrod and his followers in ancient Babylonia.

The flaw in their idea lay in the notion that a world could exist without G-d. In order to thwart their efforts, there had to first be a mass intellectual paradigm shift. If, somehow, they were to recognize that the very idea that a world could exist without a Divine Power was naïve and foolish, they would abandon all efforts to achieve that goal.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l notes that when G-d said He would descend into this world to see the tower, the verse uses an expression of “v’navlah shum sefasam”. The word ‘navlah’ means to dry up. Thus, in essence, G-d was saying, “We will descend and we will dry up their lips.”

Rabbi Schwab explains that when G-d said that He would descend, it does not merely mean that He would descend into this world. Rather, it meant that He would descend into the psyche of the people. He would help them realize the vanity and absurdity of their idea and, in doing so, He would dry their lips, i.e. they would cease to preach their foolish idea. When that would happen, “they would scatter over the face of the earth.” Not that G-d Himself scattered them, but, once they saw that combining their strengths to overcome G-d was futile, they would return to populating the earth and furthering the cause of society. The first step was for them to realize that the world is meant to be populated with each country living according to the individual blessings that G-d grants it.

The Medrash relates that when a person fell off the tower and plunged to his death, the rest of the builders did not bat an eyelash and they continued working. However, when a brick fell off, they cried and mourned the loss of part of the tower.

Rabbi Simcha Wasserman zt’l commented that although the Dor Haflagah began as an idea, it quickly developed into an obsession. Man is always directed and driven by his goals and aspirations. To that generation, their idea became their god and the source of their motives, and goals. At that point, the only thing that mattered was the furtherance of the idea.

According to the explanation of Rabbi Schwab, the Torah provides us with invaluable insight into the events of our time. Communism too began as an idea with high hopes. Lenin and Trotsky promised, “Peace, land, and bread” for every citizen. But, the dream quickly turned into an obsession. G-d and religion were an obstacle to the new society and all traces of religion needed to be eradicated. The unyielding power of the proletariat that would destroy the bourgeoisie was undermined by the ruthless desire of the regime dictators for power.

In the 1930’s the fickle Stalin murdered over ten million people during the Great Purge. Countless others were sent to the Gulag to suffer inhumane treatment in places like Siberia. Human life became worthless; the only thing that mattered was the success and the development of, ‘the idea’.

With the failed process of Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring), Communism collapsed. “Their lips had dried up”, i.e. they no longer were able to preach their idea. The Russian government’s new policy of glasnot (candor) about the past horrors and crimes of the previous Communist governments made it clear that Marx’s idea was a failure. “And they scattered over the face of the earth!” Almost overnight, dozens of new countries sprang up and declared independence from the former U.S.S.R. The mighty communist empire disintegrated into Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia.

Man can not live without G-d! The Dor Haflagah tried to prove that G-d is superfluous but G-d Himself descended into their psyche and proved them hopelessly wrong. The Communists tried to obliterate all remembrances of G-d from themselves. But the end result was that G-d was there all along, waiting for the right moment to ‘descend’ and uproot their ‘idea’.

“Come, let us make bricks”

“Come, let us descend there and dry up their lips!”

1 Name has been changed
2 It happened to have been the Shabbos of parshas Bereishis, and so the following story was on my mind when I was reviewing Parshas Noach.
3 See Ramban
4 it was the reason they weren’t wiped out like the previous generation
5 The ‘Dispersed Generation’ who constructed the tower



Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Noach /Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan

30 Tishrei 5772/October 28, 2011

Yom Tov is truly a special time. The special tefillos, the meals, the songs, the meals, the camaraderie, the meals, extra time with the family, the meals, and of course the delicious meals. Chol Hamoed also provides a wonderful opportunity for family bonding (pronounced ‘kvetching’) and enjoying spending time together.

One of the many pleasurable moments of this past Chol Hamoed for me personally was watching our three year old son Avi enjoying an arcade that we visited. For our two older children the arcade cost me some money. But for Avi the cost was minimal.

Avi plopped himself down on one of the virtual motorcycles attached to the game and turned the steering wheel with gusto as the car on the screen made the same turns. He gleefully made engine noises as he steered his car through windy roads at dangerously high speeds. He looked a bit confused when some large letters suddenly appeared on the screen and began blinking a few times. However, when the simulated game reappeared a minute later, he went right back to his tenacious driving.

And why should I be the one to tell him that he wasn’t really controlling what was happening? If he cannot yet read the words ‘Insert Coins’ why must I explain it to him? As long as he was content and felt that it was his doing, he was happy and I saved a few dollars.

When he finished one game he went on to another, and the same scene repeated itself.

It was cute and humorous that he thought he was controlling the game when really it was pre-programmed, and had nothing to do with his motions and efforts.

I don’t know if angels laugh, but I wonder if they view us in the same vein? We too feel that we are in control and are running every aspect of our own lives. But in truth it only appears that way, because life and its events are divinely simulated and ordained to occur exactly as G-d sees fit.

We do not see the words “Insert act of Kindness”, “Insert Charity”, or “Insert additional Prayer” flashing before our eyes. Still, we are aware that it is such acts which grant us the merit to remain behind our wheel and continue to drive (or at least appear that way).

The only problem was that in order to procure tickets which are redeemable for ‘serious prizes’, you have to actually play some games. So I did have to shell out some cash and we had to help Avi with a few rounds of skee-ball and basketball shooting.

When we were done he had racked up over 100 tickets! I was pretty sure he had enough tickets to get the 6 days-7 nights vacation getaway package to Miami. But I guess he fell a bit short because he was only able to get the little squishy thing which broke in the car on the way home. At least he still had the free brochure.

Drive safely!

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum


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