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Shofetim 5782 ~ Sept. 2, 2022

Several years ago, when I was the rabbi of a congregation in Swampscott, MA, a congregant approached me as I arrived at shul to begin Kol Nidre services. He asked if I could offer a special mishebeyrach for a friend during the service. I turned to him and invited him to join me on the bimah in front of the aron hakodesh, and I would open the ark and recite the prayer for cholim, for the sick. As I came to the moment where the name should be included, he turned and said Raisa Gorbachev.  I paused, somewhat taken aback, and then continued on with the rest of the prayer. I was careful not to ask more about the friendship. The man thanked me and then went down to sit in his seat, just below.

The next morning, as the Torah came around, he turned to me and said, “Thank you again for saying the prayer. Raisa passed away during the night and her husband shared with me that he was comforted by the fact that you offered that prayer.”  He understood that the holiest day of the year for Jewish people was one where his prayer could be answered and his hope was that his wife would finally be at peace. Mikhail Gorbachev shared that thought with me when the former Soviet leader joined Lisa, our daughter Stacey, his daughter, Irina, and myself at a dinner before he addressed my congregation. It was his way of expressing his appreciation. I was touched by his words. After learning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing, Lisa reminded me of how he had cried in front of my congregation when he once again shared those words. She also remembers his tears when I shared with him, in front of the entire congregation, how impressed I was with Irina with how she was very much like her mother, and how she had taken care of her father following her mother’s passing, including being with him as he met with us. Lisa remembers his laughter and his kind mannerisms, something that in front of the public may have been different. As the leader of the former Soviet Union, he had the responsibility to reflect confidence, but in person, Mikhail Gorbachev, was simply a wonderful person who made those of us who might be nervous to meet him, at ease and at home with him.

Our Torah reading for this Shabbat, Shofetim, instructs us of the importance of setting up courts with magistrates who are understanding of situation, fair and honest.  In another section, we are reminded that when the nation institutes the concept of a king, there were key realities that must be part of that leadership. One of those responsibilities of the king was not to overindulge with possessions, such as horses. A second was that the king was required to ensure that he did not impose the ugly realities of other nations and their kings upon the people.  And finally, the leader was mandated to have by his side a copy of the Torah, to learn not only how to rule, but how to live life amongst people, and to give them respect. It admonishes him not to be overly pompous, but to be humble and human.

As a young Jewish teen, I recall the many rallies I attended at Nathan Phillips Square that surrounded Toronto’s city hall. Those rallies took place around Simchat Torah and were directed to freeing Soviet Jews, including Anatoly Sharansky. I remember watching as he was finally freed and seeing his walk across the bridge as part of a prisoner exchange.  And as many of us do, we remember as Gorbachev worked together with President Ronald Regan in changing the dynamics of the world, ending the Cold War. Clearly the many news channels and articles will debate the roll of Gorbachev in our world. For former Soviet Jews, there will be both the feelings of dismay as oppressed individuals, but also joy in that they were able to finally exit and arrive to new homes in other countries, including here in the New London area. 

While, I am not a historian of the former Soviet Union, though I experienced the anti-Semitism when I visited refuseniks and studied with them in the winter of 1982-1983, I am quite certain that the world will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as the man who he was – a visionary and one who heard the words and brought down “the wall.” We only hope and pray that the current leader of the Soviet Union might learn not only from Mikhail Gorbachev, but also from the words of Torah. And perhaps then he will be remembered, not for his aggression on Ukraine, and his own egotistical needs, but on what our world demands of him.

Sat, April 1 2023 10 Nisan 5783