Weekly Chasidic Story #774 (s5773-03 / 8 Tishrei 5773)

From Prayer to Forgiveness

Reb Mendel Futerfas was imprisoned in the Soviet Union on the night of Kol Nidrei, and had to observe the entire Yom Kippur within the walls of his cell.

Connection: Seasonal: Yom Kippur


From Prayer to Forgiveness

[Two short ones this week for Yom Kippur]

1) Question and Answer

Once I [Mendel Futerfas] was imprisoned in the Soviet Union on the night of Kol Nidrei, and had to observe the entire Yom Kippur within the walls of my cell. For the evening and morning prayers I succeeded somehow in saying the prayers by heart. However, I only remembered a small part of the liturgical poems of Musaf with difficulty, and it happened that I remembered "All are True Believers." In the middle of reciting it, I was given pause by the thought "Is it really true that 'all are true believers'? What of the evil communist regime? And the members of the 'Jewish section' of the party who actively uproot Torah: should they be called 'believers'?"

Two weeks later they transferred me to a concentration camp, and there they squeezed me into a hall, where about sixty beds were crammed in tiers on the surrounding walls. All the criminal offenders snatched the best places, and I was pushed into a corner. I tried to hide from these hoodlums, and since it was Shabbat night, I closed my eyes and immersed myself in the Shabbat prayers. After several minutes a mustached Uzbek with a powerful physique and a scarred face approached me and asked, "You are praying now, aren't you?" I nodded.

"You should know that I am also a Jew! This year, for the first time in my life I fasted on Yom Kippur in prison, and I even prayed! Actually I don't know a word of Hebrew, for even my father received a communist education, and I did not see a trace of Judaism in my father's house. However, my grandfather taught me in my childhood to say Modeh Ani. Believe me, Mendel, I fasted all day, with my lips murmuring constantly: 'Modeh ani…modeh ani…'."

"This was an answer from Heaven," concluded Reb Mendel, "to my question concerning "All are true believers."

[Source: From "Days of Awe, Days of Joy", compiled by Rabbi Eli Friedman; translated by R. Chaim Miller (Kehot).]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Menachem-Mendel ("Reb Mendel") Futerfas (1906 - 4 Tammuz 1995), was a near legendary Lubavitcher chasid, even for those who knew him personally. In 1947 he was arrested for administrating networks of underground yeshivas and Jewish schools, and for facilitating the repatriation of thousands of Soviet Jews to Poland after WWII. For three months he was interrogated, tortured and threatened with death, but he would not reveal anything about his co-conspirators or the underground religious schools. Finally he was sentenced to 8 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, which he went through without compromising any religious observances, despite the cruel pressure to do so. After six more years in Siberian exile, he was allowed to emigrate to England, thanks to an appeal for family repatriation made by prime minister Harold Wilson during his summit meeting in Moscow with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. In 1973 he settled in Kfar Chabad, Israel, where for twenty years he was a major influence on three generations of chasidim.

* * * * * *

2) Tumult in Heaven

One Kol Nidrei night, Reb Yaakov the shamash (synagogue attendant), led the Yom Kippur Night Service in the shul of Yanova, and prayed the Shemona Esrei prayer for a lengthy period of time. Annoyed and impatient, the wealthy Congregation President went over and slapped his cheek. Reb Yakov did not react, finished Shemona Esrei calmly, and continued praying as if nothing had occurred.

After Yom Kippur, one of the wealthy members of the community approached Reb Yakov and offered to buy his heavenly portion in the World-To-Come that he had merited by quietly accepting the public embarrassment. Reb Yaakov said, "I have nothing to sell, for already before taking the three steps back when finishing Shemona Esrei I had forgiven the president.

"Indeed, if I would have still had a grudge against him, I would not have been able to continue as the Prayer-leader on Yom Kippur. And anyway, he was right, for it is inappropriate for the president of the congregation to have to wait for its shamash."

The simplicity and righteousness of Reb Yaakov aroused a tumult in Heaven, until it was decided to reward him with the merit of having a special son. This turned out to be Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, one of the greatest of the followers of the Mezritcher Maggid, successor to the Baal Shem Tov as head of the Chasidic movement.

[Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel tilles from Lma'an Yishme'u]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Aharon ("the Great") of Karlin; (1736- 19 Nissan 1772) was a disciple of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch. He was the pioneer of Chasidism in Lithuania, as is evidenced by the fact that in contemporary sources, "Karliner" became a local synonym for "chasid". He is remembered for the ecstatic and unrestrained fervor of his prayer, for his solicitude for the needy, and for the moral teachings embodied in his Azharos ("Warnings"). He was succeeded by his disciple R. Shlomo of Karlin, after whose death the succession reverted to R. Aharon's son, R. Asher of Stolin (d. 1823). The dynasty still thrives today; the Chasidim are known for the volume of their communal prayers.

Editor's note: R. Aharon is mentioned in the Lubavitcher High Holiday Prayerbook! - Look at the note accompanying "HaMelech," the dramatic opening to the Morning Prayer.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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