By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
I’m sorry for writing about Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin again, but I can’t help it. His tale haunts me.
I have a painting in my house of an old Sephardic woman. Painted in 1963 by a famous Israeli artist named Weintraub, I bought it for $200. It was dusty and banged up and lying in a pile of junk in the back of a store, but the minute I laid eyes on it, I knew that it had to be mine. The lady was talking to me from under the dust and grime which had accumulated on the sorrowful painting that the storekeeper had purchased as part of an estate.
What is so great about this painting and what attracted me to it is that when you study the woman portrayed in it, you sense in her the tale of the Jewish exile. You can almost hear her telling her tale of woe: how she was driven from her native land and brought to the Promised Land where she was forced to live in a tent city. Her children were educated by the state in a language and fashion totally unfamiliar to her. Yet, she attempts to maintain her dignity and pride. And if you look carefully, you can note the hints of a smile on her lips.
This well-executed portrait tells the tale of an era much as a couple of stanzas of well-written poetry so potently because the author is able to illuminate and portray a detailed, complicated story in but a few words.
We have been highlighting the plight of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin for some two years now, portraying it as a man fighting for his life. We were accused of being hyperbolic and, at times, I wondered if perhaps I was overplaying the drama. Maybe some secret journalistic juices which I never knew I possessed had gotten the better of me and caused me to exaggerate what was transpiring in the heartland of America. But on Friday, when government prosecutors recommended that Sholom Mordechai be sentenced to life in prison – yes, life in prison – for his bank fraud conviction, the veneer of justice was peeled off. No longer can anyone claim that the government is simply carrying out their mandate of pursuing equal justice under the law. Now it has become blatantly obvious for all to see that there is something sinister at work here.
In our Pesach edition, we published a painstakingly researched article documenting the way in which the Rubashkin case was prosecuted and the way he has been treated since his conviction. It appears as if the tale of Rubashkin is a microcosm of the tale of the Jewish people.
A simple, G-d-fearing man gave up his rabbinic position to move to an area of this country which had never had Jewish residents in order to assist his father in providing affordable kosher meat to the citizens of this land. Successful beyond anyone’s imagination, he aroused the ire of unions and radical vegetarians who marked him for destruction. Though he was an exemplary citizen, providing employment for an entire town, dispensing charity to people from all walks of life, supporting religious and educational institutions, and contributing immeasurably to the betterment of mankind, once the fix was in and the word from the bosses came down, he could do no right. The man who was regarded as a heroic figure and revered by people of all religions in town was vilified to such an extent that representatives of a country known for its pursuit of justice and fairness dedicated themselves to locking him in jail for the remainder of his life.
A nationwide media storm convicted him of crimes against humanity and cruelty to animals long before he even went to trial. In fact, those charges were never heard in a court of law. They didn’t have to be. He was convicted in the court of public opinion. Charges unrelated to what had caused his downfall were brought, and he was convicted in a case which will be pointed to for years to come as a travesty. Deemed a flight risk, because he would flee to that far off country of the Jews which embraces all Jewish crooks and swindlers, he sits in a country lockup dressed in a bright orange uniform, is housed in a small room with a pillow-less bed fit for a murderer, and is treated like one of the worst predators to ever walk the lily white streets of Iowa.
Yet, he maintains his belief and refuses to be broken. His relationship with G-d remains steadfast and he prays and studies holy books from that awful place as he awaits his redemption.
My friends, that is the story of the Jewish people in exile. His story is our story. His tale is our tale. His pain is our pain. And it’s no exaggeration. Wherever we have gone, we have been buffeted about. In whichever country we have found ourselves over the past two thousand years, we have done our best to be model citizens, to support ourselves and to help others. We have sought to cause no harm to anyone and we have brought wealth, education and health to whichever exile we landed in. Yet, we have been accused of poisoning the wells, murdering babies, demanding pounds of Christian flesh as loan repayment, and every other crime imaginable.
Without comprehension, we were pushed beyond the pale of settlement, crucified, imprisoned, and taxed into poverty. We were unable to work or go to school. Our sin? We were Jews. We believed in a Higher Authority. We hewed to an ancient honor code and moral system. We looked different. We acted different. We spoke different. We dressed different. Yes, we were different.
It made no difference to anyone how much we paid in taxes. It was never enough. We were never patriotic enough. Never clean enough. Never good enough. We were always suspect. We were always despised. We were always, dare I say, dirty Jews.
We have risen to unprecedented levels in this country and thought that here it would be different. Here we would always be accepted. Here we would always be tolerated. In this land of opportunity, anti-Semitism wouldn’t rear its ugly head so obviously. In this malchus shel chessed, we thought that we would forever be given a fair chance.
This week, many Jews will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, the holiday of Israel’s independence. Zionists believed that if there would be a Jewish state which would act as a civilized, honorable country, the scourge of anti-Semitism would come to an end. No longer would we be treated as a pariah nation. No longer would we be judged by a double standard.
The Jewish state would herald the dawning of a new era in which all of mankind would once and for all recognize that all Jews want is to be treated like everyone else – no better, no worse. Having a Jewish state would demonstrate to the world that Jews really are capable of belonging to the brotherhood of nations. Yidden would be welcomed to the group and never again would we fear pogroms, blood libels, trumped-up legal cases, and mass annihilation.
This past Sunday, most of the Jewish world commemorated the awful Holocaust that took place during the period of World War II. Yom Hashoah speakers in synagogues, schools, and various public gatherings, who believe that we are in control, all thundered that “never again” will Jewish people stand defenseless, waiting in vain for an apathetic world to rise to their defense. Never again will Jews be marched off like sheep to death camps. Never again will desperate Jews go begging at the shores of foreign nations to be let in. Now that the Jewish people have a state and armed forces at their disposal, they will stand proud and tall and defend themselves against all comers. As if it’s up to them.
Yet, at the same times as they uttered their slogans, the enlightened nations of the world played word games with the militant Islamic regime of Iran. The Iranians continue with impunity in their mad rush towards procuring nuclear weapons with which it promises to wipe Israel and the people living there off the face of the earth. At the same time as Yom Hashoah gatherings take place, Jews were taught once again that as many times as they scream never again, they are still powerless to stem the rising tide of international state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Jews are impotent as they flail about in a desperate losing battle to stop the Iranian nuclear march.
As Israel celebrates its Independence Day, it is confronted by an American president who makes no secret of his animosity towards the state. The posture of the administration towards its strongest ally in the volatile Mid-East is troubling to lovers of peace and democracy the world over. The Israeli head of state just recently suffered unprecedented humiliation at the hands of the American president over Israel’s right to build homes for civilian Jews in the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Enemies are coddled, friends are threatened, and Jews wonder what is going on.
“What have we done to bring this upon us?” they ask. “What does he want from Israel?” they wonder. “How can this be taking place in the modern era?” they ponder.
It is an age-old question, as old as the anti-Jewish canards we all thought were things of the past. Apparently not. What can we do about it? Where do we go from here?
In this, as well, the Rubashkin saga has a lesson for us. Sholom Mordechai maintains his bitachon. As a true eved Hashem, he knows that all that transpires is for a greater purpose, which we do not yet understand. Yidden of all types demonstrate true achdus as they stand by him. Our appeal to write letters to him brings him writings from Jews of all ages from around the world, who pen letters of chizuk which warm the heart and move the people who read them to tears. The mail delivers checks of all amounts for the Pidyon Shvuyim Fund, from Jews rich and poor, with nothing more in common than Jewish compassion.
People who will never meet him, who daven a different nusach than he does, pour their hearts out in tefillah for Sholom Mordechai ben Rivkah.
Thus, not only does all this assist him in ways we can perceive and feel, but the achdus generated by the care and compassion rises above and evokes Heavenly mercy on behalf of a righteous man who spent his life helping others prior to his legal battles. It will no doubt lead to his eventual freedom.
This is the secret of Jewish survival throughout the ages. The way we cling to emunas avoseinu, the fact that we stubbornly refused to surrender in the face of overwhelming adversity, the fact that we maintained our emunah and bitachon in the darkest days of golus – all this is our lifeblood.
The Chofetz Chaim writes that if the mitzvah of gemilus chassodim would spread among our people, the world would fill with chessed and all tragedy would disappear from the world. He says that while in Mitzrayim, all of Klal Yisroel, rich and poor, looked for ways in which they could do chessed with each other and this was one of the things that led to their redemption from slavery.
It is comforting to see how even in a shaky economy, people continue to contribute to institutions of Torah and chessed. Untold amounts were distributed by maos chittim funds in every town and city where Jews reside to those unable to afford the myriad expenses of Yom Tov.
The forces of Torah strengthen from day to day as yeshivos burst at their seams and more bochurim and yungeleit than ever before in Jewish history dedicate their lives to aliyah in Torah.
The Rubashkin case portrays our tribulations in golus, but it also hints that we may very well be on our way out of here. The way Yidden have risen to the challenge and performed so many acts of chessed and achdus has created major zechuyos for all of us and has hastened the day of our redemption.
May it happen speedily, in our day. Amen.