Standing a bit under five feet, the speaker surprised his audience with the passion and power of his voice.
The Purim message he delivered was born on a hurried journey a half-century before, but its impact was timeless.
"Haman convinces Ahasuerus to exterminate the Jews. 'There is one people, scattered and dispersed ... and it is not befitting the king to tolerate them (Esther 3:8),'" said Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky, today a major rabbinic luminary in Israel.
"The comment by the rabbis of the Talmud," he continued, "is remarkable: One people -- that say 'Hear O Israel, Hashem is God, Hashem is One.' Why would the evil Haman reference the 'Shema,' the classic affirmation of Jewish faith? Why would he care? I found out on a wartime railroad platform.
"The Germans were advancing upon my town in Lithuania," Galinsky explained. "I was a young yeshiva student, and many of us had no other plan but to put as much distance between ourselves and the Nazis. Trains were still running, and I purchased a ticket eastward, as far as I could get. We all figured that we were better off with the Soviets.
"I got off in a strange location, not knowing anyone, with the winds of war threatening to blow in at any time. Where could I go? I looked for a Jewish face on the railroad platform and found none. I did notice a figure at the other end, shining shoes and wearing a cap. Jews commonly wore such caps, but then again, so did many others.
"I could hardly go over to him and ask him if he were Jewish, and give away my identity and vulnerability. Without uttering a word, I sat down at the shoeshine stand, and the local fellow began to work, without even establishing eye contact. After a minute or two, I turned my head to the side, and quietly muttered the first line of the 'Shema' under my breath. I figured that if the fellow was not Jewish, he would hardly take notice.
"He did not look up, and continued his rubbing and polishing. But the words that escaped his lips were unmistakable: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va'ed -- the familiar response to the first line of the 'Shema.' The fellow took me home, hiding me for a week before I could find transportation further east. That week enabled me to survive, and to eventually reach Siberia, where I took refuge for the rest of the war."
Galinsky paused before bringing the point home to his Los Angeles audience.
"We did not know each other," he continued. "But that 'Shema' immediately established our brotherhood and common fate. I understood that this is what the rabbis meant. Haman could not have cared less about the 'Shema,' or any line of our liturgy. But he did notice that it takes but a few words -- albeit the right ones -- for unrelated Jews to prove themselves brothers.
"Jews share a history and a belief system that unites them, that makes them one. Their unity, their rallying around common convictions, is a mystery to others. To some, like our enemies, our instant connection arouses jealousy and hatred."
Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague, struggled with tradition's embrace of drinking -- even in moderation -- on Purim: It just doesn't seem like a Jewish thing to do. Indeed, he said, Jews ordinarily should not dull their minds with drink. There are too many important decisions that we must make everyday. One day of the year, though, on Purim, we are struck by our inexplicable survival through the help of God. We are so appreciative of the gifts of Jewishness, that we trust ourselves to comport ourselves properly, intoxicated with our love of God.
Beset by troubles, we have much to be thankful for, least of which is our miraculous survival, and our ties to each other.
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