The Defining Moment of the 20th Century
On this day, 80 summers ago, in 1927, a miraculous event occurred that was mostly obscure at the time, its implications invisible, but it set in motion major breakthroughs that would transform the world.
40 years ago, in June 1967, another miraculous event transpired, one that had much more exposure, but still has not been appreciated or lived up to its true potential.
40 years is a key milestone in human development; it marks a new level of understanding that is achieved. As the Bible tells us (Deuteronomy 29:1-3) that until the fortieth year from the Egyptian Exodus the people were unable to truly appreciate
“all that G-d did in Egypt before your very eyes, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land.” Though “your own eyes saw the great miracles, signs and wonders, but until this day [40 years later], G-d did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.”
The Talmud derives from this verse that “until forty years a student cannot fully understand the mind – the essential intention – of his master.”
Maybe now, 80 (40 x 2) years later, the time has come to appreciate the events of 1967 and 1927 which have so dramatically shaped the world in which we live today.
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Rarely can we recognize a major historical event at the moment it takes place. The simple reason is because while in midst of an experience we cannot see the forest from the trees.
But with time and perspective we can begin to detect, in retrospect, the forces that an event unleashes to shape the present and the future.
40 years ago today, following the Six-Day War in 1967, my mentor, the Rebbe, delivered a historical talk that was as sweeping as it was fascinating, identifying just such an event that generated an historical shift; one that would dramatically affect the future course of the world in which we live.
I was a mere 9 year old at the time, but reading his words today sends a resonating shudder up your spine, striking you with a sudden clarity – like a flashbulb going off in a dark room – which illuminates the events of the entire 20th century and beyond.
The defining event the Rebbe identified in 1967 was the liberation of his father-in-law, the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak from death and imprisonment by the Soviet authorities forty years earlier today, in 1927. The day is known as Yud Beis-Yud Gimmel (12-13) Tammuz, which ever since is celebrated as a “festival of liberation”.
At first glance this liberation may not seem like a major event. One man saved amongst millions who perished is hardly a great miracle. True, he was a leader, but when it comes to life and death every soul is equally precious. The Rebbe’s freedom seemingly pales in comparison to the events that would come – both the tragedy of six-million Jews killed in the Holocaust and the miracle of millions more who were saved, the return to Israel and the general renaissance of Jewish life. Indeed, the events after 1927 were so earth shattering that it would seem to overshadow the Rebbe’s liberation.
Yet, upon a deeper look into the reason for the Rebbe’s arrest – and especially taking into account events that would take place over the next 40 and 80 years – the significance of the event takes on a new light.
To appreciate its significance, which is only possible today with 80 years of perspective, let us briefly review the extreme nature of the single most paradoxical century in history.
The 20th century – like no other century – brought to the fore both the worst and best in the human condition. No century was bloodier and no century was more productive. Never had more people been killed. Hundreds of millions of lives annihilated. Hundreds of millions more shattered and uprooted, with unimaginable suffering and loss.
Yet in the same short century we also witnessed unprecedented growth, prosperity and freedom. Miracles of the highest order. Life expectancy rose by 30 years. Major advances in medicine and technology have revolutionized every aspect of life.
The 20th century captured the stark battle between good and evil. Some men stooped to depths inferior to beasts. Other rose to heights superior to angels.
Usually in history ups and downs of such magnitude spread over centuries. Here, in the span of several decades, all of history’s roller coasters came together, encapsulated in one century.
For the Jewish people in particular – whose history has always mirrored the history of the world – the 20th century’s extremes marked their lowest and highest point: From the brink of unparalleled destruction to the threshold of unprecedented prosperity – the Jews underwent the greatest transformation ever recorded, all in just a period of several years. From almost total decimation by Stalin and Hitler, they achieved miraculous rebirth and renaissance.
No where was the miracle more apparent than in Israel. Attacked by five surrounding Arab armies, the small country of Israel won the 1948 war. Till this day no one can understand how a small country of several million can survive and thrive surrounded by countries numbering hundreds of millions sworn to Israel’s destruction.
The epitome of Israel’s miracle came in the 1967 Six-Day War. Fledgling Israel was surrounded from all three sides and in a mere six days Israel triumphed and tripled in size. The unprecedented victory of a tiny country over the overwhelming Arab countries stunned the world. The miracle became the source of unparalleled Jewish euphoria and pride. Religious and secular alike, believers and cynics, could not contain their tears when touching the stones of the newly reclaimed Western Wall.
Thus, the Jewish story of the 20th century mirrors the global story: One hundred years of untold misery, as well as unprecedented growth and prosperity. [Historically, both evil and good have always first affected Jews, signaling what would come next to the world. Hatred and genocide first attacks the Jews, then the rest of the world].
How did one century yield such diametrically opposed extremes?
Volumes have been written tracing the roots of the collapse of the world order in the 20th century – the two World Wars and the ensuing massive upheavals that have reshaped literally every corner of the globe.
Less discussed, if at all, are the roots of the positive events of this century. In many ways these roots are far more mysterious, especially considering the contrast that amidst such enormous devastation should also emerge amazing achievements. How is it possible that the same world that produced such evil should also bring so much good?
The only way to understand the 20th century, and for that matter any historical period, is in perspective: to look at a longer series of events that have contributed to shape the present and the future. Events, especially global ones, are never what they seem. Every major event is part of a series of previous events that together, accumulate to create a bigger picture.
Forty years ago the Rebbe identified the defining positive moment of the 20th century as the 1927 liberation of his father-in-law. Though at the time it may not have been noticed, but today we can see that it was an event that would pave the way and chart the course of the subsequent enormous miracles and developments that would follow decades later.
The 1927 arrest and liberation of the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak was not a private or personal matter. It represented a colossal confrontation between good and evil, between spirit and matter.
Why did the Communists arrest the Rebbe? Why did they see him as a threat? They gave many excuses – he was a counter-revolutionary, religious commitment undermined devotion to the Party, religion is the opiate of the masses. But the true, underlying reason was their war against spiritual freedom. As the psalmist writes: “Why do nations gather in rage and scheme…[they] rise up… against G-d and His anointed” (Psalms 2:1-2).
The Rebbe was arrested for his spiritual activities to emancipate and build the spiritual lives of Jews throughout the Soviet Union. Broadly – this was a battle for spiritual freedom for people all over the world.
When the Bolsheviks and Communists came to power they abolished everything religious, with particular focus on persecuting the Jews and their infrastructures. They methodically closed down synagogues, schools and all aspects of institutional Judaism. But the Rebbe defied their actions, and did everything in his power to keep the flame alive – through a wide network of underground activities.
In 1927 things finally came to a head. The Rebbe was arrested by the Communists, namely agents of the GPU and the Yevsektzia (“Jewish Section” of the Communist Party) for his activities to preserve Judaism throughout the Soviet empire and sentenced to death. Miraculously, the Soviets, who did not hesitate to shoot millions without due process, commuted his sentence to exile and, subsequently, released him completely – 80 years ago today.
The Soviet opposition to the Rebbe and his activities represented the battle of all fascist forces against personal freedom and expression, which the Rebbe stood up for. And his liberation – by the same authorities that arrested him – manifests the dominance of spirituality, to the point that it transformed (for the moment) the enemy into an ally.
Thus the arrest and battle with the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak was not his personal affair; it was not an isolated event. It represented the formidable forces of one of the most powerful countries in the world rising up against the freedom of the human spirit. No small matter. The stakes were never higher. The consequences never greater. Who ever would win this battle, would determine the future course of history.
At the time the Rebbe’s efforts could have been seen as futile; one man standing up to the formidable Soviet Union, a nation of over 180 million people, led by the all-powerful, psychopath Stalin. But as he boldly told his captors: “we will see who will prevail, you or I…” When they pointed a gun to his head threatening him with his life, he calmly, unflinchingly said: “this toy can frighten someone who has one world and many gods; not one who has on G-d and many worlds”.
At the time, the Rebbe’s stubbornness seemed for naught. Yet, today in retrospect we see that his efforts have lived on, while Stalin, and the entire Soviet Union have collapsed.
He had the wisdom and determination, and above all, the vision – that rare power that few people are blessed with – a vision that overrode the immediate dark events of his time, and gave him the strength to stand up to the great Soviet Union.
The significance of the Rebbe’s stand can be appreciated 40 year later, during the Six-Day war, where the same thing took place: The same Soviet Union that waged war against the Jewish soul in 1927 and on, now armed Egypt to wage war against the Jews in Israel. And just as the entire situation was miraculously reversed in 1927, so too in 1967 the Soviet weapons that were directed at Israel and Jerusalem were conquered, and those same weapons were “turned around” and became part of Israel’s arsenal in its war against its enemies.
The uncanny similarity between these two events – 40 years apart – demonstrates the true and far reaching implications of the Rebbe’s stand against the Soviet Union: He was not just defying them in 1927; he was declaring for the ages, for generations to come, that the spirit of the Jewish people will not be broken. His staunch commitment broke open the door and brought on the reversal of fortunes, both in his time (in 1927) and 40 years later (in 1967).
Indeed, forty years allows us to appreciate the deeper meaning of events that transpired back in 1927.
We now understand that the Rebbe, back then, recognized that at the heart of his battle with the Soviet leaders lay the essence of all battles: The battle between matter and spirit, between higher purpose and brute power. His victory then opened up the door that would help overcome all the challenges of the 20th century:
All the battles between good and evil in the 20th century are essentially a war against spirit – the human soul and the Divine plan; an assault on the inalienable spiritual rights of every human being.
Being a battle against spirit, the Rebbe understood how high the stakes were. This was not just a short term battle, but whoever would be victorious would define forever the dominance of spirit over matter, of faith over self-interest.
He understood that every redemption is rooted in an event that breaks through boundaries. At the time it may not appear very remarkable. But in time, as new doors open and new opportunities emerge, we can then appreciate in retrospect the early events that led us, that pioneered, that introduced the revolution. Once the fruits bloom, we can then appreciate the seeds planted years earlier.
All great achievements begin as a planted seed. Without drama, the seed lays silently in the ground, slowly being nourished, until the sapling breaks through the ground, and one day grows into a mighty tree.
How amazing it is to trace the great trees in our lives to their early roots and seeds.
The Exodus from Egypt is a good example: Though many, far greater events followed the Exodus (the revelation at Sinai, building the Temple, the miracles in the wilderness), we always remember the Exodus. Even the Ten Commandments open up with “I am you G-d who took you out of Egypt”, because the Egyptian Exodus (Yetziyat Mitzrayim) broke open all the boundaries, paving the way for all the events that would follow.
In mystical terms: Life consists of two dimensions – times of revelation and blessing, when things are going well, and times of deprivation and darkness. History too – as so vividly experienced in the 20th century – has times of light and times of great darkness.
Even the darkness is another form of Divine truth, but it is concealed. What is the purpose of dark and difficult times? That we not succumb to the challenges of darkness, but we stand strong and recognize that this is simply a “test” to see if we can recognize the concealed “hand inside the glove”. This strength of spirit ultimately has the power to overcome the challenge and reveal how the “enemy” actually turns around and becomes a force for good.
This was the miracle of 1927. The Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak was not intimidated by the formidable enemy. He knew and understood that, as difficult as it may be, now the time has come to take a stand. To demonstrate that we are not afraid, we are not backing down.
At the time it may have seemed as an act in futility. What could he expect to gain and win? Why not pick himself and all the Jews and move away from the accursed Soviet Union?
But as a true leader, the Rebbe knew that, as much as we detest the challenge, there come times when the “darkness” of the Divine concealment shows its ugly head and does all it can to eradicate hope, faith and strength to forge ahead. And in such time, it is critical to stand strong and not retreat.
By doing so, you actually break the back of the “concealment” and not only does it cease to resist, but it actually becomes an asset, an ally that helps appreciate the revelation. Like an example that a teacher gives his student, which initially may conceal the concept, but once the student understand the concept via the example, the example itself becomes an extension that supports the idea.
At the time this “breakthrough” was not yet visible. The Rebbe was freed and ultimately left the Soviet Union and ended up coming to the United States. But the darkness of the times would only intensify. Stalin began his reign of terror, killing millions. The Nazis would annihilate millions more.
But the seed of redemption was born in 1927. It would take close to two decades before the dawn would break, and life could begin to be rebuilt. And the dawn did indeed break. Slowly broken people, who miraculously survived, began to miraculously rebuild their lives.
After the darkness of World War II and the Holocaust few believed that life could ever be rejuvenated. The worst in man had unleashed its fury on other men. How could the world survive that? How could young children, left alone with no family, home or country, ever expect to rebuild their lives?
Yet, rebuild they did. And how? Within a few years, communities began to spring up over Europe, Australia, South America, the United States and Canada. And of course, a major influx began rebuilding their lives in Israel. And finally, in 1967, the miraculous victory in the Six-Day war, transforming Soviet weapons to assets, consummated the 1927 miracle.
Within a few more years, rebirth turned into renaissance.
The key is to always recognize the Divine Hand behind these events, to perceive that the Soviet authorities in 1927 and the Soviet tanks in 1967 are just a “tool”, an example, to express the Divine power to transform the liability into an asset, the evil into good. By recognizing the hand of G-d in all events of the world, we actually access the Divine power that lies even in the negative experiences, and reveal them, so that the enemy is actually reversed into an asset.
Where did all this strength come from? When did this process begin?
Retracing the steps of the 20th century, from the miraculous renaissance back into the darkness of the 30’s and 40’s, suddenly the miracle that happened in 1927 looms large: It is the first spiritual victory of the century. And not just the first – it took place in the belly of the beast. It thus was the “door opener” of events to follow. Like a small ray of light in the pitch-darkness that would descend on humanity in all its horrible forms.
In 1927 – in the infancy of the 20th century tyrannies, before the worst would come – the seed was planted, and redemption born. And just like the Egyptians chased the Hebrews out of their land, the Soviets did the same with the Rebbe, with his family and belongings.
But the miracle of 1927 can only be appreciated 40 years later, in the victory of the Six-Day War in 1967 over Egypt and the other Arab countires. Just as the miracle of the Egyptian exodus could only be appreciated 40 years later as they were ready to enter the Promised Land. And even more appreciated now – with another 40 years of experience, as we stand in midst of unprecedented prosperity and freedom in 2007.
The Rebbe’s determination, his spiritual fortitude, pioneered the way – it opened up a new channel – that would give us all the power to overcome the darkness that was yet to come.
He took a stand against all odds, and his effort will forever ring in the annals of history.
Recognizing the roots of the renaissance following the World Wars is not a mere academic exercise. It teaches us that behind all our growth and progress lies an invisible hand – behind it lays the unwavering power of the spirit, which rises above matter.
80 years ago the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak demonstrated how the power of the soul can overcome and reverse the strongest forces of the material. Something we can now appreciate – 40 and 80 years later.
In every battle, a stand must be taken. Every victory in battle begins with the first stand that is taken against the enemy. And this first stand goes down as the benchmark, the milestone that turns the tide.
The liberation event that happened 80 years ago today marked the first stand against the atrocities of the 20th century – both in the Soviet Union and in Europe. And this first stand opened the door and paved the way making it easier for all of us to achieve spiritual conquest, the victory of quality over quantity, of the few over the many, of eternal faith over temporary power, of spirit over matter.
Yes, because of the stand taken by the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak eight decades ago we now each have the power of our successes and prosperity.
No period in time stands in a vacuum. Every event in our lives and in the world at large is a result of preceding events, and should not be taken for granted.
By appreciating the stand taken by the Rebbe in 1927 and following in his footsteps – which we can do today without oppression – we can better understand the world in which we live today, both our unprecedented prosperity and technological advances, as well as the unique challenges that we face. Moreover, this can help us understand and prepare for the future.
The challenge and question today is this: In our times of freedom and prosperity can we and do we appreciate the power of our souls, and how it carries the secret of our future successes?