Hashem sends us blessings every day, but unless we make an effort to look out for them and “see” them as blessings, we may not even realize that we are being blessed! In fact, the greatest blessing we receive daily is life itself. Rav Avraham Pam zt”l would say that when we wake up in the morning and say Modeh Ani, we should look at our breakfast as a s’udas hodaah (thanksgiving feast). By employing a singular term, “R’ei!” (See!), the Torah reminds us that each individual should see his blessing as an individual, and not as part of the klal, because everyone looks at life through his own individual lens. Since people don’t always realize the brachah they receive daily, it often gets misused, and that same brachah can turn into a curse (klalah).
Although the Holocaust of 1939-1945 clearly overshadowed it, the First World War, also known as the “Great War,” was the most appallingly savage international conflict in all preceding history, and had a profound impact on World Jewry. This was due to the existence of a large concentration of Jews within one of the principal arenas, the enlistment of unprecedented numbers of Jews to the armies of the belligerent nations, and the success of Jewish leaders in influencing the political policies of the major powers. Furthermore, increasing tensions during the war years deepened the hostile attitudes towards the Jews, particularly in Germany and in Eastern Europe. Russia was especially harsh towards its Jews.
During the second year of the war, with the Czar’s army being mauled on the Western Front, a new draft order went out for all young men to enlist and fight for the Motherland. At the time, a young Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was 20 years old and living in the Russian hamlet of Uzda, where his father, Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l, had been the Rav. Aside from the dangers of fighting in a war, serving in the Russian Army meant being forced to desecrate the Shabbos at the threat of death, as well as the transgression of other mitzvos. Therefore, Moshe and his parents felt it imperative to seek an army deferment for him. Moshe traveled many miles to speak with an attorney who was said to have helped others with this problem, but their meeting proved fruitless. Moshe headed back home but decided to make a stop on the way. He got off the train at Smilovitz to visit – for the one and only time in his life – Rav Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan zt”l, the holy Chofetz Chaim.
The Chofetz Chaim lived in Radin, Poland, but had been forced to flee to Russia, along with his family and yeshivah, because of the advancing German armies. They escaped just in time and found a temporary home in Smilovitz. Moshe found the Chofetz Chaim studying in the beis midrash with his famous disciple, Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt”l Hy”d. The tzadik had already heard of the “ilui (young Torah genius) from Starobin” and delighted in discussing Torah with him.
Moshe then explained why he had embarked on this journey and made clear the gravity of his situation. The Chofetz Chaim blessed his visitor warmly and then, together with Rav Elchanan, escorted Moshe to the door.
As they were about to part, the Chofetz Chaim turned to the future Gadol HaDor and said, “Chazal tell us: ‘Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and of worldly responsibilities will be removed from him’ (Avos 3:6). This means that if a person’s actions are purely for the sake of Hashem, then even decrees that have already been proclaimed upon him ‘will be removed from him.’” With these words, the Chofetz Chaim bade Moshe farewell.
Not long afterwards, the Russian government announced that fewer recruits would be needed than had originally been thought, and therefore rabbis would not be called to serve at that time. Many bachurim and Torah scholars scrambled to attain rabbinical positions throughout Russia to avoid conscription. The town of Uzda, Rav Moshe’s birthplace, was also in need of a Rav, and the Jews there were filled with pride to have young Moshe Feinstein, the renowned son of their former Rav serve as their leader. Twenty years old and still unmarried, Rav Moshe was appointed Rav of Uzda.
In his modesty, Rav Moshe would rarely speak of his meeting with the Chofetz Chaim. Only on Purim, when he was in a heightened state of joy and surrounded by his family and talmidim, did Rav Moshe allow himself to speak of it. He was convinced that it was the Chofetz Chaim’s blessing that had brought about his salvation at that time.