Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky was a famous teacher in the state of Israel, but as a 20-year-old he was a slave laborer in the Soviet gulag. One night he woke up and saw a fellow prisoner get up from his bunk and look around to be sure no one was watching. He took out a package and quickly changed into a general’s uniform, and then quickly changed back into his prison garb and hid the uniform back under his bed. Later that day, the curious Galinsky asked his barracks mate what he was doing.
The man, a non-Jew, said defiantly, “I was a general in the Lithuanian Army. The Soviets arrested me and sent me here. They treat me as a slave – but I am not a slave. I am a general. Someday Lithuania will be free and I will be a general again. The Soviets want to humiliate me, but I will always remember what I really am.”
In the Passover haggadah, we say that if G-d had not liberated us from Egypt, we would be slaves to Pharaoh. Really? Surely there would have been an Abraham Lincoln somewhere along the line! Or some stiff-necked Jew would have rebelled and led us to freedom.
The haggadah does mean there would forever have been slave masters with whips and cudgels. The point is our ancestors would have become assimilated and lost their Jewish identity; they would have become Egyptians like all the other Egyptians. Who knows – perhaps they would even have risen in the pagan society and become the oppressors of a new generation of slaves.
The message of the haggadah is we must preserve our Jewish identity and values, wherever we are. In 1945, this seemed to be an impossible dream. When Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman laid the cornerstone for his great yeshiva in Bnei Brak, with Germany’s vaunted Afrika Korps poised to invade Palestine, people thought he was crazy. History has vindicated the dreamers who understood the message of the haggadah. Jews don’t give in; we persist no matter what.
In our time, here in the land of the free, among the leading “liberators” of the Jewish spirit are Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein. Remember the famous “The New Yorker” cover that shows New York as occupying 75 percent of the map and the insignificant rest of the world barely able to keep from falling off? How shocked “The New Yorker’s” editors and fellow citizens would have been if someone had suggested Columbus would become the capital of Jewish Torah literature and awareness, thanks to the Schottenstein family? No, we’re not slaves. We’re generals, and we have an army of loyal Jews who put Torah at the center of their lives, thanks to a family from Columbus.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman is a founding editor of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications.
This column is presented by Schottenstein Stores Corp.