By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Friday morning of Parshas Ki Savo.
Women added potatoes to their cholent. Men lingered a few moments after Shacharis and looked at the weekly parsha. Some headed to work, others to yeshiva. All looked forward to sunset, and with it, some blessed peace.
Mrs. Leah Rubashkin turned the keys in her car and set out on her familiar trip to Otisville, New York, where her husband, Reb Sholom Mordechai, is incarcerated. Unlike so many previous trips when she arrived bearing hopeful news or an encouraging development, this Friday she came with a report that a federal court had resoundingly rejected the Rubashkin appeal. Not a very pleasant gut Shabbos visit to have to make.
The Sefas Emes, the Gerrer Rebbe, suffered throughout his life. One day, a young granddaughter came into his room to bring her zaide his meal and she saw his eyes shining with simcha. His face was suffused with joy. She asked him the reason for his ecstasy.
“Gesheinishten, happenings and circumstances, come from the Ribbono Shel Olam,” he remarked to her, “but agmas nefesh, men tit zich uhn alein, the anguish those occurrences cause us, is like a cloak we choose to put on and take off.”
Many years later, when the granddaughter was an elderly women living in Yerushalayim as the wife of Reb Itche Meir Levin, Gerrer chassidim would come up to visit, simply to hear her repeat that lesson she had heard from the Sefas Emes: Reactions are up to us.
I don’t know if Reb Sholom Mordechai has ever heard the story, but it makes no difference, because he’s living its lesson.
This past Friday, Erev Shabbos, he reacted as one would expect from a man who, at his own sentencing, made a bracha of Shehecheyanu on the mitzvah of emunah that his uniquely difficult situation afforded him. He reacted with chizuk and optimism, with the resilience that has been a Yiddishe trademark throughout centuries of oppression and struggle.
And we looked on astonished.
Because even as we think we know this man, and even as we assume we are acquainted with his simcha, his faith, and the bond of steel he’s forged with the pages of Chovos Halevavos Shaar Habitachon, nevertheless, with each hurdle and each bump in the road, he displays ever-more understanding that Hashem’s ways are not ours and that our role isn’t to understand but to accept.
And the cloak he chooses to put on, time and again, is that of simcha and emunah. It is nothing less than staggering.
So we sit here, somewhat numb, reeling from the severity of the decision, surrounded by a pile of dashed hopes, contemplating a journey that started a few years back and is not yet over, it seems.
It’s a path paved with legal might. Sholom Mordechai was defended by Nat Lewin, one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country. That not one of the arguments he set forth found any merit in the eyes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is hard to fathom.
Former attorneys general, prosecutors, professors and legal experts of every stripe weighed in on this case in Sholom Mordechai’s favor, and with a brush of the pen, their arguments were discarded.
Amicus briefs written by such disparate groups as the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Washington Legal Foundation, were shunted aside.
The road we’ve traveled is decorated with Jewish heroism. The heroes are the people like you who came out in winter’s cold and summer’s heat to donate money for the cause of someone you probably will never know. The heroes are the people who daven with all their hearts for him each and every day, not forgetting his plight, even when the case receives less exposure in the newspapers.
The heroes are bar mitzvah boys who have given from their bar mitzvah money to pay for his lawyers. The heroes include the yungerman at the Lakewood asifa who approached the dedicated askanim with a well-worn envelope stuffed with small bills totaling a thousand dollars – money he had saved up a whole year to go away for bein hazemanim with his family.
The heroes are the rabbonim, roshei yeshiva and activists who marched together, inspiring and guiding us every step of the way.
And on Friday, we learned that this road hasn’t ended yet.
We march on.
The posuk in Tehillim says, “Kavei el Hashem chazak veyameitz libecha vekavei el Hashem.” Why the seeming redundancy? Why does the posuk repeat itself, stating “kavei el Hashem” twice? Rashi explains, “Ve’im lo tiskabeil tefillascha, chazor vekavei.” If you believe in Hashem and turn to Him in your time of need, if you don’t see an answer to your prayers, don’t despair. Have faith again and again.
Nothing has changed. We hoped yesterday and we hope today. The apparent failures and setbacks seem devastating and demoralizing to us. In the real world, though, it’s chazor vekavei.
On Motzoei Shabbos, as Yidden around the world sat by the flickering candles and sang the melava malka zemer of “Al Tirah Avdi Yaakov,” one of those avadim sent a message, via email, to his family.
Dear Family Sheyichyu,
Gam zu letovah, gam zu letovah. When we see from Hashem what is doing for us, we know that gam zu letovah. Boruch Hashem, thank you Hashem. Baruch hatov vehameitiv.
Picture Nochum Ish Gam Zu when he realized that the box that had been filled with valuable contents was instead filled with simple dirt. He said, “Gam zu letovah – Also this is for good.” He said that because he knew that Hashem is good and all that comes from Hashem is good.
Seeing the replacement to the contents in the box he was carrying for Klal Yisroel, he did not let the worldly measurement of value interfere with the eternal truth of the Torah as he was mekabel it from Moishe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai. He was not going to let himself be deluded by the value that people put on things. He knew one thing steadfast and ironclad – that Hashem is good and what Hashem does is good. When he saw a change to what he had planned, he knew that the change is for the good.
It’s important to know that all Yidden of all times have said, “Gam zu letovah,” which means that we see good in the very thing that happened, even when it appears to be dirt.
In the same letter, Sholom Mordechai quotes a vort from the Ruzhiner Rebbe, Rav Yisroel.
In kappitel 13 in Tehillim, Dovid Hamelech bemoans the situation of hester ponim he finds himself in, asking three times, “Ad ana – Until when?”
“Ad ana Hashem tishkacheini netzach? Ad ana tastir es Ponecha mimeni? Ad ana ashis eitzos benafshi?”
The Ruzhiner taught that the first two are questions: “Until when, Hashem, will You forget me? Until when, Hashem, will You hide Your face from me?” The third one, however, is the answer: Ad ana? Until ashis eitzos benafshi. Hashem will hide as long as we seek comfort and reassurances from “solutions,” believing that this idea will save us, that a certain person will help us, or that this argument will convince them.
We will be helped when we are all out of eitzos, when we realize that atzas Hashem hi sokum.
We tried the other way, protesting the fact that a nationwide media storm convicted Sholom Mordechai 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 that 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 was denied bail and has been incarcerated ever since.
Elected and appointed officials in this great country, the United States, worked with us, adding their letters and opinions to the voice of a unified Jewish community. And guess what? The Court of Appeals, in brazen fashion, ignored it all.
But Hashem heard us, and now, with Sholom Mordechai as our example, we lift our eyes Heavenward and say with complete conviction, “Ein lanu al mi lehisha’ein. There is no one else.”
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate time of year for us to be studying this lesson.
Rosh Hashanah is called “bakeseh” in the Torah, a reference to the fact that the moon is virtually unseen, or “covered over,” when the Yom Tov arrives at the start of a new month. While it is an interesting feature of the day, is the moon’s visibility really central enough to what Rosh Hashanah represents that the Torah hakedoshah defined the Yom Tov by it?
Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter explains that it is not only significant, it is the very essence of the day. Kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim doesn’t mean accepting His will when we understand it, when we’re in the mood, or when we feel inspired and awake. It means that at a time when everything is bakeseh, when everything is hidden, dark and cloudy, we cry out, “Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim!”
We are getting ready to stand around the bimah, the baal tokeia dressed in white, shofar in hand. We will cry out together as one, “Min hameitzar karasi Kah, anani.” When we feel like we are in a narrow, constricted place, we will beg Hashem, “answer us.”
When we feel like we are in a cold, lonely jail, far from our loved ones, struggling to find the peace of mind to say a posuk of Tehillim, “answer us.”
It’s a time when everything starts anew, when the Divine reset button is pressed and creation begins once again. A new world awaits.
We approach the upcoming Yom Hadin, when we face the only true Judge, with confidence and optimism, reassured that the Tov Umeitiv will give us reason for joy.
Rav Yaakov Galinsky tells a story of a man with whom he survived the Second World War. They were together in Siberia and then in a refugee camp. The man lost everything he had in the Holocaust. All his relatives were killed, and following the war, he was inconsolable, in a deep depression, unable to go on.
Rav Galinsky suggested that he go to the Chazon Ish for support. The fellow refused, saying that he couldn’t bring his family back to life, so seeing the gadol served no purpose. Rav Galinsky insisted and literally dragged his friend to the Chazon Ish.
Dear friends, listen to what the Chazon Ish said.
He related the story of a woman who supported her family. She would travel to the big city with loads of cash and buy desirable merchandise at wholesale prices before returning home to sell it at a profit.
On one of her trips, she lost her bag of money. She searched for it, to no avail, and she was heartbroken, having lost all the money she’d saved up with such sacrifice. In desperation, before heading home to inform her husband of their loss, she went to the city’s rov and asked him to announce that if anyone found her bag of cash, they should turn it in to him.
A poor man found the bag. He responded to the rov’s call and went to his home. There, he explained that since he is learned, he knows that the Mishnah states in Maseches Bava Metzia that if one finds a lost object in a city with a non-Jewish majority, he is permitted to keep it. He told the rov that the find represented an answer to his prayers. He saw it as a gift from Heaven to enable him to marry off his daughter.
The rov was inclined to side with the poor man, but since it was obvious that he had found the money that the woman had lost, he told the man that he had to submit the question to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah, for a ruling.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon responded that the money belonged to the woman. His reasoning was sheer brilliance. He said that the reason a person can keep an object found in a city with a non-Jewish majority is because we say that the owner surely gave up any hope of having it returned and was thus meya’eish. In this case, however, the money belonged to a woman, and the Gemara in Maseches Gittin (77a) states that a husband takes ownership of all his wife’s possessions, and the husband was not aware that she had lost the money and thus could not have been meya’eish. Therefore, ruled, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, the money must be returned to the woman.
The Chazon Ish finished relating the story and looked the depressed man in the eye. “That same ruling applies to you,” said the Chazon Ish. “Who gave you permission to be meya’eish? Chazal teach that ‘afilu cherev chada munachas al tzavaro shel adam,’ even if the executioner’s sharp blade is on a Jew’s neck ready to decapitate him, he must not be meya’eish, he may not despair, for Hashem can still save him.
“Are you the boss over what transpired?” asked the Chazon Ish. “Are you the owner over yourself? We are but shluchim of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. It is He Who determines the field that we operate on. He decides what happens to us. We have to do our jobs and pray that we succeed. Who gave you permission to give up and be meya’eish?”
And so it is in this case. We dealt with the situation that Hakadosh Boruch Hu handed us. We worked as hard as we could. We wrote letters. We davened. We gave money. We hired the best lawyers. We made every possible hishtadlus to overturn this terrible gezeirah. We still haven’t seen the end of it. We cannot be meya’eish. We cannot think that our work was for naught.
We cannot fathom the ways of Hashem. We do ours and we wait patiently to see the blessing and the light at the end of the nisayon we are experiencing.
We will continue davening for Sholom Mordechai ben Rivkah. We will continue donating to the Klal Yisroel Fund so that he can take his case to the US Supreme Court and hope for a measure of justice. We will continue davening for other Jews being held in bondage. We will not give up.
We will never give up on the chance of Sholom Mordechai tasting freedom again.
And in our own personal lives as well, when experiencing tribulations and difficulties, we will endeavor never to give up on receiving the yeshuas Hashem.
Chazak ve’ameitz libecha. And then, once again, vekavey el Hashem.