Eastern Europe was, for nearly half a millennium, the heart of Jewish life. From large cities to miniscule hamlets, there were thousands of Jewish communities of every stripe spread over a thousand square miles.

The war in Ukraine has brought many of these once household names to the fore, though for painful reasons. One such city that has been spoken of recently is Rostov, or Rostov-on-Don. This Russian city has a flourishing Jewish community, and was the heart of Chabad in the early twentieth century. The fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, moved Chabad headquarters here in 1916 to escape the German army’s advance during WW1. He passed away in Rostov in 1920, and was succeeded by his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak who lived there until 1924. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak eventually moved Chabad to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn in 1940.

Economically speaking, Rostov is sometimes referred to as the ‘port of five seas’ (the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, the Caspian Sea, the White Sea and the Baltic Sea all flow to Rostov) making it a major shipping center. While a far flung Russian city connecting five seas might not seem like a very inspiring thought, let’s have a go at it anyhow.

First, let’s rewind a few millennia further back to the very beginnings of the Jewish people. The third patriarch, Jacob, had twelve sons who would later become the twelve tribes of Israel. Perhaps the most famous of these are Judah (from where the name ‘Jew’ originates), and Joseph (who became viceroy of Egypt under the Pharaohs). Today let’s focus on tribe number five, the tribe of ‘Yissachar’.

Yissachar represented a sort of Jewish paradox. For Judaism is known as a faith, whose basic principle is belief in one G‑d. Judaism is encapsulated by Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all time, in two words: ‘I believe’, אני מאמין.

The tribe of Yissachar, however, focused their entire Jewish experience on study and real world understanding. The members of the tribe of Yissachar were known as brilliant Torah scholars, thinkers and astrologers whose council was constantly sought out by King David and others. Even the ancient Athenians sought them out, as they were experts in real world scholarship and technological advancement. The very name Yissachar is rooted in the word reward (‘Schar’ in Hebrew), referring to the rewarding feeling which logical analysis and discovery gives a person.

What a strange angle with which to approach faith!

Yet not only was Yissachar’s Jewish experience accepted by the rest of the Jewish people, it was held high as a standard bearer. When the Jews were camped in the Sinai desert for four decades, Yissachar was given the honor of having their camp situated next door to Moses. Yissachar’s stone in the Temple (every tribe had one) was set as sapphire - the same material that the Ten Commandments were written on.

The reason for this is that Yissachar, perhaps precisely due to their wisdom, understood that G‑d wants us to be happy - real world happy. There is no way, taught Yissachar, that G‑d made our world to be anything other than a happy, caring place. Yes we believe and we trust - and it’s precisely that belief in a kind, loving Creator which drives us to accept nothing less than a beautiful, shining and peaceful world.

While faith has a mystical ring to it, study and real world understanding are all about how people actually experience life. Yissachar wanted goodness, kindness and holiness to be out in the open for all to see and experience in the real world. If Yissachar saw suffering, they would not say, ‘Well, we just believe’. They would say, ‘This does not add up! It should not be happening, and we will do everything in our power to make it right’. It was their rock solid Jewish faith and belief which powered their real world understanding and pursuit of the betterment of the world.

It was for this reason that Moses, who is called the ‘Shepherd of Faith' in Jewish tradition, accepted Yissachar so enthusiastically.

Talk about a tangent! Didn’t we start with the Russian city of Rostov?

Yes, we did. In Jewish tradition our intellectual powers are composed of four parts (e.g.the four lobes of the brain). Yissachar added a fifth dimension - their faith in a loving, caring Creator pulsed through their Torah study and logic. Like Rostov, which ties five seas into one, the tribe of Yissachar - the fifth tribe - infused their intellectual pursuits with meaning, soul and warmth, using them as a catalyst for change for the better in a real, meaningful way.

What can we do to make our world a better, kinder place today?

Rabbi Avrohom