In his newest book Defending Identity, Natan Sharansky once again mines his experience of nine years in Soviet prisons for universal lessons. At the beginning of his interrogation, the KGB offered him the possibility of being reunited with his wife Avital in Israel if he would just condemn the Jewish emigration movement. If not, he would be executed as a traitor and a spy.
The KGB’s trump card, Sharansky realized, was his fear of the firing squad. The only way to resist was to overcome the fear of being killed with a countervailing fear even more powerful. Though he then knew little of his Judaism, Sharansky called that fear the Fear of G-d.
“[T]he fear of not being worthy of the divine image, not the fear death, was what I was most afraid of in my interrogations with the KGB,” he writes. At that moment the KGB lost its power over him.
Sharansky describes a modern day version of Yosef HaTzaddik in the house of Potiphar. At the moment of the greatest temptation, Yosef saw before him the image of his father Yaakov Avinu – the same image that appears on the Divine chariot representing the ideal human form. That image enabled him to steel himself against the temptation, just as Sharansky’s fear of sullying the Divine Image, allowed him to overcome his fear of execution.
Every time we recite the words “b’chol nafshecha” in Shema, we are supposed to contemplate our willingness to give up our lives for Hashem. But how many of us can be confident we would pass the test. Our self-doubt explains the awe we feel upon meeting someone who has been through combat, and who continued functioning at a high level with death staring him in the face. Whether it was the fear of humiliating himself in front of his buddies, love of country, or the determination to defend one’s home and family, at that moment something was more important to him than his very existence.
Sharansky draws many lessons from his experience for societies as well as individuals. But for Elul it is sufficient that we focus on creating our own private diyukono shel Yaakov before which we tremble.
* * *
The image I will carry into Rosh Hashanah is that of my neighbor R’ Yair Weiss, ?”?, who passed away recently at 51. I only recall speaking to him for more than five minutes once. But one can learn a great deal about a person just by observing him from two rows behind in shul over a number of years.
Nothing about Reb Yair attracted immediate attention. His impact was cumulative, based on watching him do the exact same thing day after day. He was always one of the first ten for the 6:10 a.m. minyan. Even when he had to be brought to shul in a wheel chair, he insisted on davening with a minyan. I did not know — but was hardly surprised to find out — that the early minyan was his second seder of the day. For 24 years, he learned every morning before davening with the same chavrusah.
Together they finished Shas three times, and were still learning up until the end, when Reb Yair was forced to learn lying down. His carpool to work in Tel Aviv began every morning with Mishnayos Yomis and Mishnah Brerurah Yomis; the members of the carpool finished both cycles many times. As soon as they completed their daily quotas, Reb Yair would put on a Torah tape. Not a minute was wasted.
Every word of Pirkei Avos was for Reb Yair a command to be implemented. There was no cutting of corners in his world. When his sons asked him how many times he had learned Shas or Mishnayos, he replied, “Not enough” or “You can always learn better.”