Drawing on the story of Chanukah, HaRav Avrohom Grodzinski and HaRav Aharon Kotler teach us two leadership principles for addressing the biggest strategic imperative of our times – bringing more Torah to more Jews in empowering and inspiring ways.
One of the great heroes of the Holocaust was HaRav Avrohom Grodzinski zt”l, spiritual leader of the Kovno ghetto. Until the outbreak of the war he was the mashgiach of the famed Slabodka yeshiva, and one of the leading sages of his generation. Entering the yeshiva at the age of 17, and under the tutelage of the legendary HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, the “Alter of Slabodka”, Rav Grodzinski devoted himself to both intense Torah learning, and equally intense character refinement.
Later, amidst the horrors of the Kovno Ghetto, people would attest to the open, friendly, almost joyful countenance Rav Grodzinski carried at all times, which was a source of hope and great comfort to all those who encountered him. In the latter years of the ghetto, when the situation was at its most dire, and most of the inhabitants of the ghetto had either perished from the horrifying conditions or been carted off to the death camps, he formed a group of ten of his former talmidim from the Slabodka yeshiva who would meet every Shabbos to discuss what spiritual and physical actions they could do to improve the plight of those around them.
Rav Grodzinski believed that a small group of tzaddikim working together could make a big difference for good, even under the most difficult circumstances. He based his theory on the Gemora Sanhedrin (99b), which learns from Avraham’s plea to Hashem to save Sodom that ten righteous people can have a decisive impact on an otherwise hopeless situation.
Rav Grodzinski says that this powerful idea goes right to the heart of Chanukah. The mighty Greek empire, which had conquered most of the known world, had invaded the land of Israel, attempting to remove every vestige of Torah living from the Jewish people. The situation seemed hopeless. There were even many Jews at the time who were abandoning their faith due to both the existential threat and the enticements of Greek culture. It was at this point that a small group of people banded together – Matisyahu and his brothers – to try and do something about the situation. What began simply as an act of defiance became a miraculous military defeat of the mighty Greek army, allowing the Jewish people to reclaim Eretz Yisroel and their Torah way of life.
Generations later, in the depths of the Holocaust, Rabbi Grodinksy drew on the Maccabees’ example, recruiting a small group of righteous people of his own to bring hope and strength to the inhabitants of the ghetto, spreading light in a time of complete darkness.
The principle – from the Gemora Sanhedrin, from the story of the Maccabees, from Rav Grodzinski’s own life – is clear: when righteous people come together even in small groups, big things can happen. This is a principle of social change and leadership, centered on personal responsibility. No one officially appointed Matisyahu and his brothers to lead the revolution against the Greeks. Instead, they saw the crisis and felt a responsibility to do something.
Making a difference to Klal Yisroel begins by feeling a deep sense of personal achrayus. And then acting. But not alone – with others, coming together initially in small groups, to catalyze big changes.
There’s a second principle about how to go about changing the world that we learn from the story of Chanukah and from the personal example of one of our great Torah leaders.
HaRav Aharon Kotler zt”l, the great founding rosh yeshiva of Lakewood, was one of those fortunate to escape Europe before the Holocaust swept everything away. He came to America and established a small yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. In the 1940s and 1950s, few people held much hope for the prospects of a classic Litvishe yeshiva in the heart of the new world. Indeed, the conventional wisdom was that Judaism had to adapt – had to be diluted and even changed to be made more palatable to a modern Jew – if any form of it was to survive.
And yet, Rav Aharon proved this thinking to be totally wrong. Starting with a handful of students, and in defiance of all these doom-laden predictions, the yeshiva grew to become the largest centre of Jewish learning in the diaspora, with 8000 students. From the modern-day open miracle of the rebirth of Torah learning and re-emergence of the great yeshivos destroyed in the Holocaust, we discover a powerful principle of leadership and social change.
It is a principle that Rav Kotler articulated in the context of Chanukah. The message of the small jar of pure oil the Maccabees found when they recaptured the Temple, which burnt for eight days when it should have burnt for one, is that the kedusha of Torah can overcome all odds provided that it is undiluted. In its pure state, the Torah’s Divine light can transcend the limitations of this physical world.
This idea is a natural extension of our belief that the Torah is unique because it is the direct wisdom of Hashem. To dilute it is to deny that fact. The purer it is – the more it will enable us to flourish. This is the great lesson of Chanukah for the Jewish people – that if we remain upright and loyal to our Divine mesorah, we will always succeed in ensuring a future of growth and vitality. Rav Kotler’s personal life story bears this out. He started small, battling the odds, but his vision had the power of purity behind it.
To sum up, from the lives and teachings of these two gedolim, HaRav Avrohom Grodzinski and HaRav Aharon Kotler, we have two principles for changing the world – the first is the power of Klal Yisroel, of good people working together driven by a sense of achrayus. The second is that the Torah is from Hashem, and therefore the purer it is the more light it sheds in the world. We have to maintain and deepen our faith in the power of pure Torah – understanding that, as the wisdom of Hashem and the blueprint for creation, it has the answers to all the questions of modern living, and the solution for every situation or challenge we find ourselves in.
In all my years of work, both as chief rabbi of South Africa and in the Shabbos Project, I’ve seen both these principles validated in the field of action, time and again. As chief rabbi, I’ve seen the power of individuals taking personal responsibility – and not only from positions of official leadership – changing the community by spreading pure Torah. Indeed, it was inspiring individuals who came together, initially in small groups, and then organizations, to bring Torah learning and living to the South African Jewish community who inspired the baal teshuva revolution which has made this community famous. From just a handful of shomrei mitzvos and bnei Torah, the community has over decades grown into a real makom Torah. I’ve seen how an entire community can connect with the compelling relevance and inspiration of real Torah.
And I’ve witnessed these same principles – the power of people taking personal responsibility, and the transformative effect of pure Torah – bring the Shabbos Project to life.
The Shabbos Project calls on Jews of all backgrounds around the world to keep one full Shabbos, in full accordance with halocha. Though it has reached millions, the Shabbos Project is a people’s movement – a grassroots initiative driven by thousands of volunteers on the ground; passionate Jews who have made the project their own, who connect with its ideals and objectives, and feel a sense of responsibility for bringing it to their communities.
It is thanks to their efforts that the Shabbos Project has reached more than 1500 cities and 100 countries. Like the Maccabees, like Rav Grodzinski’s group of leaders, no one appointed our volunteer partners – they simply saw a great need and took responsibility for addressing it. When great people come together like this you really can change the world.
Through the Shabbos Project, I’ve also watched how pure Torah can change the world. The project promotes the full halachic Shabbos experience, which gives it the purity and the impact it needs. Shabbos is a magnificent gift given to Klal Yisroel – but its beauty and power come only from the total immersive experience of keeping it properly. And it is this pure beauty that has drawn Jews from all walks of life, on every continent.
From the stories that have poured in from all over the world over the last six years, we have heard from people who kept Shabbos for the very first time during The Shabbos Project, and how that changed their lives, transformed their families and their relationships, and took them to a new elevated plane of living.
The pull of Shabbos is so powerful it draws Jews in places where decades of government oppression all but uprooted Torah. Consider the remarkable scenes in Mariupol, Ukraine in 2019. Alisa Rostovtseva, one of our partners in the city, describes the event:
“Every year on this Shabbos, little miracles happen. This year was no different. Seeing the girls lighting Shabbos candles who had never in their lives even heard about this mitzvah. Seeing these kids learning about the parsha, joining a prayer service, listening to Torah reading, learning what Kiddush is, what Shabbos is. You can literally see them changing in real time, you see them opening up and blooming. Thanks to your project, more and more people in every corner of the world feel this connection and unity, a renewed sense of belonging to the Jewish people. And more and more people are starting to keep Shabbos.”
Scores of towns in Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania that once bustled with Jewish life before the Holocaust have had a Shabbos-inspired reawakening. Places where Judaism had been crushed by the Soviet regime. And yet this spiritual connection to pure Torah was simply waiting beneath the surface, waiting to be awakened.
There is so much to do to make a real difference to the Jewish world. We are living through a miraculous time of the great rebirth of Torah – but also in a time of rising assimilation and disintegration. We cannot rest on the breath-taking achievements of rebuilding the Torah world after the Holocaust. There is still so much to do. New challenges and opportunities await. So many Jews to reach. Klal Yisroel needs each one of us. We all have a responsibility. And we have a clear way forward. Drawing on the story of Chanukah, Rav Grodzinski and Rav Kotler teach us two leadership principles for addressing the biggest strategic imperative of our times – bringing more Torah to more Jews in empowering and inspiring ways.
The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder of The Shabbos Project. Rabbi Goldstein is looking for volunteers to pilot new ideas to support and guide those who have been inspired by the Shabbos Project and are looking to grow in their keeping of Shabbos throughout the year. If you are interested in starting a group you can email him at [email protected].