The early 1950s was an especially terrible time for Jews in the Soviet Union, a period filled with terror and dread. With a maniacal tyrant leading the country, Joseph Stalin’s infamous “Doctors’ Plot” was at its peak, and Russia’s Jewish physicians were disappearing rapidly. People were being purged left and right, never to be heard from again. Around the world, Jews wept and pleaded for Divine salvation, but there was none yet in sight.
The year was 1953. In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a large crowd of Jews had gathered to celebrate the festive and joyful holiday of Purim with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l. Many of the participants at the Rebbe’s table had themselves just recently escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. A good number had personally suffered the wrath of Stalin’s tyranny, wasting away for years in Russian prisons. Still, many such chasidim could not forget their oppressed brethren across the sea.
That year at the annual Purim gathering, the Rebbe delivered a lengthy chasidic discourse. The Rebbe spoke for a very long time and, as he did, his countenance underwent a visible transformation. His face was aflame due to his elevated state of attachment to Hashem. As soon as he concluded his maamar (talk), his face resumed its natural color.
The gathering continued for the next few hours, during which the Rebbe gave several informal talks, chasidic melodies were sung, and numerous glasses were hoisted in “l’chayim.”
It was late at night – almost dawn, in fact – when an unusual thing occurred. For the second time that evening, the Rebbe’s holy face began to radiate and shine with that special solemnity and earnestness that meant that he was preparing to deliver another maamar. The chasidim could barely believe what was happening. The Rebbe had never delivered two discourses at the same gathering!
The room was still. No one uttered a sound. The Rebbe began to speak: “After the Czar fell in Russia, it was announced that the government would be holding elections. The Rebbe Rashab (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) sent word to the chasidim that they were to participate in the voting process. There was one chasid who was completely removed from worldly affairs; to him the political arena was foreign territory.
“Nonetheless, having received an explicit instruction from the Rebbe, he set out to fulfill the command. With a sense of awe and reverence, he immersed himself in a mikvah, donned his gartel, and set out for the polling booth. Of course, when he got there, he had no idea what he was expected to do, but some of the more worldly chasidim helped him cast his vote. Adjusting his gartel, the chasid did what everyone else was doing. When the votes were cast, smiles broke out all around, a bottle was passed from hand to hand, and everyone cried out ‘Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah!’ Taking his cue from those around him, he likewise cried out, ‘Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah!’”
The chasidim back in 1953 Brooklyn were in awe of the spectacle before them: As he uttered these words, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s face burned with a holy fire! They were astounded; they realized that more was going on than meets the eye, but they did not understand the significance of what had just occurred. The Rebbe looked around at the large gathering as he said the word “Hoo-rah!” Swept up by the powerful emotion that filled the air, the crowd spontaneously rose to its feet and began copying the Rebbe’s chant shouting, “Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah!” three times.
After this strange preamble, things quieted down and Rebbe Menachem Mendel delivered his second maamar of the night, a long and detailed understanding of the meaning of Purim.
In 1953, the fourth day of March coincided with the 17th day of Adar. On that fateful day, the Russian state radio in Moscow made the startling announcement that two days previously, in the wee hours of the morning, the Supreme Leader Joseph Stalin had fallen gravely ill and had lost consciousness. The next morning, 18 Adar, the whole truth was finally revealed: Stalin was dead. The brutal dictator had collapsed the very night – and based on accounts, almost at the exact time – that the chasidim in Crown Heights were shouting “Hoo-rah” at the Rebbe’s gathering. It was further noted that, in Hebrew, the words “hu ra” mean “he is evil”!
Jews throughout the Soviet Union breathed a collective sigh of relief, tempered, of course, by a realistic apprehension of the future. No one, however, could have imagined in his wildest dreams a more miraculous end to Stalin’s reign of terror. At long last, the “Doctors’ Plot” was over, and countless prisoners were set free. In the wake of Stalin’s death, the oppressive atmosphere in the Soviet Union lightened to a large degree, and so ended one of the grimmest chapters in the annals of Russian Jewish history.