By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died Aug. 30. His historic role in the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War is important to me as a Jew and on a personal level as well.
My maternal grandfather escaped the USSR in 1946 as a teenage fugitive, and my paternal grandfather endured seven harrowing years of forced labor in Stalin’s gulags for attempting the same. My father was born near Moscow, and his family emigrated to Israel in 1966, long before anyone imagined it possible.
Professor Herman Branover spent 15 years as a Refusenik—a Jew “refused” an exit visa by the government—in Riga, Soviet Latvia, where he became an active educator and leader in the Jewish community. He finally received permission to emigrate to Israel in the early 1970s, where at the behest and direction of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, he continued working on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
In the spring of 1985, weeks after Gorbachev came to power, the Rebbe instructed Branover to notify his contacts back in Russia that the situation would gradually improve, and soon every Jew would be allowed to emigrate. This was before the onset of glasnost and perestroika — the economic and political reforms that eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
That the Soviet Union would soon crumble was not at all obvious in 1985, but despite his incredulity, Branover called his friends and communicated the Rebbe’s message in the codes they knew so well.
“How could that be?” one Refusenik asked. “I am under constant surveillance from the KGB. I see their car parked outside my building!” Another confided to him that his wife was arrested two days earlier and had not yet returned home.
In 1987, months before President Ronald Reagan declared “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!,” the Rebbe called for the construction of thousands of homes in Israel for the Soviet Jewish immigrants that would soon be arriving. Again, no one appreciated the urgency of the matter, because the Iron Curtain seemed then as impregnable as ever.
A few years later, Communist rule was over and the underground Jewish infrastructure that survived 70 years of harsh, sustained persecution started flourishing openly. Hundreds of thousands emigrated en masse to Israel, to the United States and to destinations all over the world. As a child I knew over a dozen Soviet Jewish immigrant families that called El Paso home in those early days of freedom.
Gorbachev visited Israel in 1992 and at a ceremony held in his honor at Ben Gurion University, Branover shared with the former president how the Rebbe had predicted this outcome back in 1985. “How did he know that then?” Gorbachev exclaimed. “When I took office in 1985, I had no intention of liberalizing Russia.”
Prophecy is the core of divine communication. In addition to communicating divine messages to humanity, predicting future events is integral to the role of the prophets and the basis of their legitimacy.
Most people crave to know the future to take advantage of the financial markets or manipulate political power. Judaism teaches, however, the purpose of prophecy is to inspire us to live greater moral and ethical lives in accordance with G-d’s will, and to remind us that, although the world may seem to be going in the wrong direction, the future is brighter than ever.
In every generation since Moses, there have been prophets in various formats. As the USSR faded into history, the Rebbe declared that the Messianic era of world peace and tranquility that the Biblical prophets predicted long ago, will happen very soon. Every person can hasten the onset of this perfect reality we all wish for, through doing more acts of goodness and kindness.
Even if we think the global reality today, or our personal lives, seem to feel as uncertain as it felt for the Refuseniks in 1985, know that positive change is at hand, and it is up to every one of us to make it happen.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.