In 1826, Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, the second Rebbe of the Chabad movement, known as the “Mitteler Rebbe,” was arrested by the czarist government of the Russian Empire. His arrest came on the heels of a libel that his detractors reported to authorities, that he supposedly misused funds that were contributed for the construction of a synagogue. The intention of the detractors was to quell the then-nascent Chassidic movement, and the hope was that by locking up the Rebbe, the movement would falter and eventually disappear.
His father and predecessor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, endured a similar experience, where he was imprisoned on false charges stemming from his support of the Jewish community living in Israel, then under Ottoman rule.
During Rabbi Dovber’s brief stint in jail, after which he was released having proven his innocence, the authorities recognized that for “humanitarian” purposes, it was important for him to be allowed to continue teaching his students. He was a prolific writer and teacher of Chassidic philosophy, so at various intervals they allowed a group of ten Chassidim to visit the Rebbe and he would spend several hours delivering a Chassidic discourse. This made his imprisonment much more bearable than that of a typical inmate, and in fact it kept his health stable, since depriving him of this outlet would have been like depriving someone of their basic necessities. Unlike his father, who endured significant suffering in prison (and was eventually released to great fanfare), one could argue that Rabbi Dovber flourished during his imprisonment. He was permitted to engage in what he lived for: teaching others.
But despite the comforts in prison, no one for a moment assumed that he was actually comfortable there. It was still prison with all that it entailed, and thus the day he was released, the 10th of Kislev, was celebrated then and continues to be celebrated today, as a “Festival of Liberation,” similar to the anniversary of his father’s release on the 19th Kislev, several years earlier.
Jewish history is replete with instances where our ancestors thrived despite less-than-ideal circumstances. They not only refused to let their predicaments hinder their Jewish way of life but also grew in numbers and strength, much to the chagrin of their oppressors. But that doesn’t mean they enjoyed their time suffering in exile. Even while doing great there was always the understanding that the situation was temporary, with the real goal being liberation.
Our patriarch Jacob was perhaps the first to personify this. The Torah describes how he worked for his sinister father-in-law Laban, who kept changing the terms of their agreements and yet somehow Jacob always came out on top; to the point that Jacob amassed extreme wealth as a result of his years in Laban’s employ. It is also where Jacob started his own family, having twelve children, who were the beginning of the future Jewish nation. But he never lost sight of his true goal — to return to his homeland and be reunited with his parents. Jacob had everything he could want, money, family, all the comforts of the world, yet he knew that he still didn’t belong there. His true place was back home and prayed and yearned for that day throughout the decades he spent away.
We often boast how well Jews have done over the last few centuries, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. We have become integrated into society, assimilated if you wish, we have grown both in size and in influence, but every once in a while we are reminded that this is still far from ideal. A Jew doesn’t belong in exile, a Jew deserves true freedom and liberty. Exile doesn’t refer to specific geographic location, in fact even Jews living in Israel today are still in exile, as recent events have tragically reminded us once again. Even once the hostages are rescued and the war is over, we mustn’t become complacent and comfortable. We demand and deserve better.
None of this is ideal and this isn’t the state of the Jewish we should ever be comfortable with. Just like Jacob, and similarly just like the Mitteler Rebbe, we must keep our eye on the prize. While we must continue to thrive and grow despite our circumstances, our ultimate goal is the true redemption of the Jewish with the coming of Moshiach, and that is what we pray for every single day.