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Longing for the Shofar
by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gorelick

I spent Rosh Hashanah of 1953 imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp. Over a hundred prisoners were crammed into a barracks that was meant to hold twenty. The overcrowding and stuffiness were unbearable. I went outside for fresh air, and the freezing wind whipped my face. Outside, it was 60 degrees below zero, with nothing but vast expanses of snow for miles around.

On that Rosh Hashanah, only one thought consumed my mind: Where was my wife? My children? The KGB, in their fine-tuned methods of mental torture, had sadistically informed me that my wife was dead. They told me that officers had come to the house to arrest her and take away the children to be raised as good soviet citizens. She went into a panic and died on the spot of a heart attack. The children, they told me, had been taken to a soviet orphanage, to be indoctrinated in communist teachings.

I wanted to break down in wracking sobs, but I had no tears left. All the pain stayed locked inside my heart. I felt that my heart would soon burst from anguish. Suddenly, I had a thought. Even the most barbaric country allows a condemned prisoner one last wish. Surely G-d Himself will grant one last wish to a condemned soul. I had no doubt that that Rosh Hashanah would be my last in this cold, cruel world. I begged G-d to allow me to have a few words with Him, before I set off on my journey to the next world.

“Master of the universe! Today is Rosh Hashanah, and we do not confess our sins today. But in my situation I cannot wait until Yom Kippur. Therefore, I ask your forgiveness for all the sins I have committed over my lifetime. Please, in Your great mercy, forgive me for saying confession on Rosh Hashanah.”

I began to recite a lengthy confession of my sins: “For my sin of organizing a hidden yeshiva. For my sin of organizing jobs for Jews so they would not have to desecrate Shabbat or holidays. For my sin of arranging legal documents for my students, so they would not be caught and face the same predicament that I am in now.

“Yes, I have committed many sins, violated many laws. I sinned against my communist overlords. But I did all these sins in order to keep Your holy Torah and mitzvot. Allow me now one last request: Reveal to me where my wife and children are. Are they still alive? And one more request. Today is Rosh Hashanah, and it may be the last day of my life. Merciful Father, allow me to hear the shofar one last time.”

I finished my prayer, and then, as in a divine echo, I heard a voice. “Do not fear and don’t believe those wicked men. Your wife and children are alive and well.” Suddenly, there in the communist prison camp, I beheld a vision. I saw a large synagogue with a platform in the center. I saw the Rebbe ascend the platform and blow the shofar. My heart burst forth, with joy and agony together. I broke down in tears and prayed from the depths of my soul: “Father! Father! Have mercy upon us. Save your children who are in such dire need….”

At that moment the camp ceased to exist. There was no barbed wire, no vicious dogs, no armed guards, no freezing snow. I saw only the synagogue, with the Rebbe ascending the platform to blow the shofar.

The years passed. With G-d’s mercy, I survived and was released from the camp. I was reunited with my wife and children, who were alive and well. The KGB had invented stories about their fate merely to torment me. My wife and children, despite their suffering, had remained loyal to the ways of the Torah. The vision I had seen on Rosh Hashanah 1953 began to take shape before my eyes.

Another decade went by, and we were finally able to leave the Soviet hell for Israel. As soon as we were free, my first longing was to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn, to thank him for his prayers on my behalf, during all the years of our exile.

Rosh Hashanah arrived, and I found myself in the Rebbe’s shul in 770 Eastern Parkway. The sense of deja vu was overwhelming. Although I had never been inside the Rebbe’s shul before, I suddenly realized why the place looked so familiar. I had seen it all before, back in the Soviet prison camp.

As the Rebbe recited the blessings over the shofar, I once again broke down in sobs. The sound of the Shofar penetrated deep into my soul. The vision of Rosh Hashanah 1953 returned to me. Once again I saw the snow, the guard towers, the vicious dogs. But this time, I cried with joy. G-d had saved me, preserved me and allowed me to reach this day – to hear the Shofar from the Rebbe, as a free man.


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