"A Kind Word or Deed Can Go a Long Way. It Can Even Reach Vladimir Putin"
Today’s Torah reading details the gifts that were made to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle the Jews used for worship during their 40-year trek through the dessert toward the Promised Land and beyond till the Temple of Solomon was built. The gifts were given (Ex. 35:5) n’div libo, willingly from the heart.
Most of us do acts of charity, kindness and compassion from the heart every day—a kind word here, a smile there, a call to someone who needs a friend. It can become so second nature that we don’t think about it or even recall what we’ve done. The result is that rarely do we realize the impact we may have had upon another’s life. But the good things we do can come back to us in unanticipated ways.
Let me share with you 2 stories that demonstrate this in a most powerful way. The 1st is from Rabbi Shmuel Dishon. It’s a story that can leave you tingling and energized to help others:
The year is 1917, the communists take over Russia and begin their tyrannical campaign to wipe out religion and Judaism. In Minsk, a rabbi, Reb Shiah, vows no matter the cost, he is going to continue leading a life of mitzvot (following the commandments of Gd) and helping others fulfill the Torah. After an inexplicable 4 years without interference from the Communists, the rabbi is “invited” to an interview with the Chehka, the secret police. Knowing what the invitation means, he puts his affairs in order, says good-bye to his family and prepares for the worst.
At the secret police headquarters, he is ushered into a room. The interrogator greets him cordially in Yiddish, “Reb Shiah, would you like to have a seat?” This is not how these sessions were described to him by the people who had survived them! Seeing that the rabbi is frozen in indecision, the interrogator tells him to “please sit down.”
He then asks, “Reb Shiah, perhaps you and your family would like to go to Palestine?” Reb Shiah doesn’t know what to answer. If he says “Yes,” then he is a disloyal citizen. He doesn’t answer.
The interrogator sees that he is getting nowhere, so he reaches into a drawer and pulls out a 5-inch thick file and puts it down in front of the rabbi. “Reb Shiah, this is your file. It details everything—every mitzvah, every child you taught, every bris that you performed.” Reb Shiah looks at the file and trembles.
“Reb Shiah,” says the interrogator, “for the last four years I have been assigned to your case. It is I who has protected you and watched out for you. Now I am being promoted and there is no way it will go well for you with a record like this. The best I can do for you is to help you and your family get to Palestine. I see that you don’t recognize me.” He then tells the rabbi his name and the rabbi is shocked. The interrogator is the son of a famous rabbi who died young.
The interrogator continues, “I want you to know why I have been protecting you. After my father died, it was very difficult for our family. One Friday, before Shabbos, my mother came running to your home with me in her arms. She cried out to you, ‘Reb Shiah, what are we going to do? We have nothing in the house!’ You were dressed in your long black Shabbos robe and you had a beautiful gold watch and chain. Without a moment's hesitation, you reached down, grabbed the watch, handed it to my mother and said, ‘Take this!’ For months we lived from the money we got for the watch and I have never forgotten it!”
Rabbi Dishon concludes, “Don’t think that when you are helping someone that you are only helping him—sometimes you are also helping yourself!”
The second story is most surprising. It’s about one of the most powerful men in the world today, and some would say, one of the most difficult men in the world: Vladimir Putin. (Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz 12/2/15, “Surprising Jewish Connection is Revealed.”) Did it ever occur to you why we no longer hear about the problems of the Jews in Russia? Yes Communism is in decline, but a change of government in Russia has never stopped anti-Semitism in the past. Vladimir Putin, the current President, however, is a powerful exception. Why hasn’t Syria attacked Israel or allowed Israel to be attacked in the current war in Syria? I suspect Russia’s presence has helped restricted Syria’s movements in this regard. Why?
At the International Assembly of Chabad Representatives, Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Berel Lazar—often referred to as “Putin’s Rabbi”—told a remarkable story about the Russian President which he heard from Putin himself:
When he was a young child, Putin grew up in a very poor family. His parents were always out at work. He was often hungry. He was fortunate that the next door neighbor was a Hasidic Jewish family, and they always made sure to invite him over for meals and to play with their children. They were extremely kind to him, and he realized that not only were they kind to a child that wasn’t theirs, not only were they kind to a child that wasn’t Jewish, but they were kind to a child in a time and place when it was dangerous to do that.
30 years later, because of the gratitude he felt for that family, and for the respect he felt for the Jewish people as a whole, as deputy mayor of the city of Leningrad, he granted official permission to open the first Jewish school in the city.
The Hassidic family was that of Anatoly Rakhlin…a man he considered to be a father-figure and at whose funeral he cried. Putin described the family in his autobiography, First Person: “[They were] observant Jews who did not work on Saturdays, and the man would study the Bible and Talmud all day long. Once I even asked him what he was muttering. He explained to me what this book was and I was immediately interested.”
Putin’s Jewish connection was not an anomaly limited to his childhood memories. In 2005, when Putin made an official visit to Israel, he visited his high-school teacher, Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, who lived in Tel Aviv. He even bought her an apartment in the city when he heard she was living in poor conditions…
Putin has surrounded himself with rich and successful Jews, such as Moshe Kantor, Lev Leviev, Roman Abramovich and Victor Vekselberg. They are all close friends and confidantes of the Russian president, and they are all quite openly Jewish…
Putin puts his money where his mouth is and donated a month of his salary as president to the Jewish Museum in Moscow. His name is proudly listed on the museum wall as a donor.
When Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September to discuss the developing situation in Syria he said: “We never forget that in the State of Israel reside many former Soviet citizens, and that has a special implication on the relationship between our 2 states…We are aware of the artillery against Israel and we condemn it.”
Putin is a powerful player in the explosive situation in the Middle East. The personal connection he has with Jews has undoubtedly help lead him to be the most pro-Israel Russian leader the world has seen for hundreds of years.
As I said, most of us do acts of charity, kindness and compassion from the heart every day—a kind word here, a smile there, a call to someone who needs a friend. It can become so second nature that we don’t think about it or even recall what we’ve done. The result is that rarely do we realize the impact we may have had upon another’s life. But the good things we do can come back to us in unanticipated ways. It helped save Reb Shiah and his family in the early days of Communism, and it helped mold the attitude of Vladimir Putin towards the Jewish people—all because of the kindness of one Hassidic family.
Let me close with a Poem called, “Every Time” appearing in by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: Kindness - Changing people's lives for the better:
Every time you act kindly,
the world has more kindness.
Every time you are compassionate,
the world has more compassion.
Every time you smile to someone,
the world is a more cheerful place.
Every time you give money to charity,
the world is a more charitable place.
Every time you calm someone who is angry,
the world is a more pleasant place.
Every time you judge someone favorably,
you are making the world a kinder place to live in.
Every time you help transform someone's worry into serenity,
the world is a more serene place.
Every time you encourage someone to do something for others,
you create a partner to make a better world.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis