Late on Purim night this past week, when the happy tiredness of the day was taking hold but while the echoes of simcha and song were still reverberating through the streets, my phone rang. The voice at the other end was singing, “Layehudim, layehudim,hoysah orah, orah vesimcha vesason vikor.” It was a song I had heard many times that day, and it wouldn’t have been as meaningful had it been emanating from anyone else. But it was Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. He was returning to his cell when he noticed that the jail phone was available, so he jumped at the opportunity to use up another few of his precious phone minutes.
How well can a Jew be doing on Purim when he is locked up with murderers?
“How are you?” I asked.
“Gevaldik! Mamesh gevaldik.”
“Yes, I had a seudah here, we lained the Megillah, it was freilach!”
Imagine that. Imagine his seudah. Imagine the scene. And then imagine a normal person saying that it was gevaldik.
Sholom Mordechai was a regular normal guy. He was another sweet, ehrliche Yid working long hours to feed his family and many others. Had he never been targeted for prosecution, it is likely that none of us would have ever heard of him. By now, we have discovered that he is far from regular. It was probably news to him how special he is. It is probably news to him how strong he is. It is likely news to him as well to have discovered his capacity for emunah and bitachon and his ability to be besimcha tomid.
There are so many people whom we view as being regular, normal, guys. There are too many people who view themselves as being nothing special. They thus become despondent and are unhappy with themselves and their accomplishments. They compare themselves to other people, who are more famous than they are, who drive fancier cars, or who live in bigger homes.
They compare themselves to the ones who ask the brilliant kashos and answer the brilliant tirutzim and they find themselves lacking. They fail to perceive their own greatness. They look at the brilliant orators and see themselves as people with limited vocabularies and imperfect dictions.
People are unhappy because they don’t appreciate the greatness that lies within themselves. They don’t appreciate the power that remains dormant inside their souls.
Awareness of how great we really are, of the potency and power of our kochos, makes us happy, content in the knowledge that we are blessed with unique capabilities which are waiting to be utilized.
A tale is told about a chossid who felt that he needed Eliyohu Hanovi to help him out of his troubles. He went to his rebbe, whom he was confident merited regular visits from the legendary novi, and asked him if he could facilitate such a meeting.
It was a few days before Rosh Hashanah. The rebbe gave his chossid an address in a small shtetel and told him to go there for Yom Tov. The chossid’s heart was in his hands as he hitched up his horse and bumped along the unpaved roads to the tiny town. He found the address the rebbe gave him. It was a run-down, ramshackle hut.
He knocked on the door and a poor widow answered. There were nine children in the hovel.
The rebbe had said that he would find Eliyohu Hanovi there, so he asked the widow if he can stay there for Yom Tov. It was already late and he told her that he had nowhere else to go..
She let him in and he stayed for Yom Tov, but he didn’t find Eliyohu there.
The forlorn chossid went back to his rebbe and said, “Rebbe, where did you send me? I didn’t find Eliyohu there. The address you gave me was of a poor almanah who didn’t even have enough food for herself and her children. I had to help them out. Luckily, there was enough time for them to run off and buy what was left at the grocery store with the money I gave them.”
The rebbe listened and told his chossid to go back there for Yom Kippur. With no choice but to follow his rebbe, the man once again hitched his wagon to his horse and headed out. This time he made sure to bring along food.
Finally, he reached his destination. As he was standing by the door of the hovel, he heard one of the children crying to the poor mother, “Oy,mammeh, morgen iz Yom Kippur un mir hoben gornit heint tzu essen. Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, when we will fast, but we have nothing to eat today. We are starving. Mamma, please give us something to eat so that we don’t die of hunger.”
The chossid stood there lost in thought, wondering how he ended up at this house once again. He couldn’t imagine why the rebbe had sent him back to this house and the poor, starving family. He was looking for Eliyohu Hanovi. He wasn’t looking to spend Rosh Hashanah and now Yom Kippur in some forsaken shtetel with an almanah and her nine hungry children. There was no way he was going to find Eliyohu here. Who would help him out of his tzaros? Obviously, Eliyohu Hanovi wasn’t to be found in this hut, and, to top it all off, he couldn’t trust his rebbe anymore either.
Then he heard the mother’s response, which changed his life forever.
With pure motherly love, she responded to her child, “Mein tayere kind, on Erev Rosh Hashonah we also didn’t have any food to eat, but then Eliyohu Hanovi came to our house and brought us food for the whole Yom Tov. Who knows? Maybe he will return for Yom Kippur!”
The story teaches us that we shouldn’t be looking elsewhere for our salvation. We shouldn’t be searching for greatness outside of us. Greatness lies within our hearts and abilities. We can achieve what we set out to do.
The American electorate is perpetually in search of “the guy next door,” a regular person whom they can relate to. They are unable to connect with a candidate they consider above them or of a different station and situation.
What they are really saying is, “We want someone ordinary to show us that he is great. We want to be reminded of the greatness within us, in our dreary, mundane lives.”
Sholom Mordechai, who has learned just who he really is, was besimcha this Purim.
He asked me for a vort. I shared with him that Rav Chaim Vital, the preeminent talmid of theAri Hakadosh, states that Mordechai Hatzaddik was agilgul of Adam Harishon, Esther was a gilgul of Chava, and Haman was a gilgul of the nochosh.
The three-day fast that Mordechai and Esther ordered for the Jewish people, says Rav Chaim Vital, was a tikkun for the original sin of eating from the Eitz Hadaas.
Sholom Mordechai took the vort to heart and was clearly impacted by it, saying that it reminded him that the Ribbono Shel Olam has acheshbon for everything. He internalized that every incident that takes place in the world, including what is happening to him, is part of a larger, far-reaching plan and plot.
He told me that once, in easier times, he traveled in a small plane. The pilot showed him the various gauges and dials and said, “When you’re up here, you have to ignore your instincts and put your trust in the gauges. You have to throw away everything you know, because if you don’t, you will die in this plane.”
A person has an innate sense of up and down and right and left, but when airborne, explained the pilot, one’s senses are impaired. You think you are going up and in truth you are going down. You may think that you are taking the plane down, but you are really flying up. The only way to maintain your equilibrium is to follow the gauges and ignore what your brain tells you.
That is the rule for a Torah Jew as well. We may think we know which end is up and which is down. We may think that we understand on our own what is happening and can thus prognosticate what should be happening. But, in truth, if we want genuine life, if we want to be besimcha, then we have to look to our gauge, the Torah, and follow it religiously.
We discussed this topic a little further and said that this lesson represents the sublime joy of the Purim din of “ad delo yoda.” Inner simcha is achieved when we ignore our perceptions and recognize that we really don’t properly understand all that is taking place and that we are totally in Hashem’s Hands. If He says that something is good, then we know it is good, and if he says it isn’t, then it isn’t, no matter what preconceived notions we might have. On Purim, we taste that awareness. We recognize that we know nothing and that without Torah we don’t really know when we’re up and when we’re down.
“Quick, quick,” said Sholom Mordechai. “Tell me another vort before I have to hang up. I have another minute. Tell me something quick.”
I pictured the scene in my mind’s eye. A prisoner with minimal human contact, on Purim, in one of the worst places anyone can imagine being, outside of a hospital r”l. He is peering down the hallway and looking at the clock. His allotted time is ticking away. The guard is coming to take him back to his cell. And he is gulping for more oxygen. My mind was racing to think of something smart and appropriate that would give him chizuk and simcha. The seconds were passing by.
In brief, I told Sholom Mordechai the story about the Piacezna Rebbe, who, on Purim in 1941, in the Warsaw Ghetto, gathered a few broken souls around him and told them, “No Jew can say that he’s not in the mood of fasting or doing teshuvah on Yom Kippur, and Purim is no different. On Purim, you have to be besimcha. You can’t say that you are not in the mood.”
“Wow!” Sholom Mordechai said. “That rebbe was talking to me.” And then he added, “They’re coming now to take me away. They will lock me in my cell for the night. But do you know what I will do? I will dance. I will sing Layehudim. I will be besimcha…”
With that, he was gone, mid-sentence.
But even after he hung up, I heard him singing and I saw him dancing.
I heard the Yiddelach singing in the Warsaw Ghetto.
I saw Jews all over the world, no matter what their matzav, dancing, overcome with the joy of Purim.
They were singing, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu umah na’im goraleinu.” They sang the same song the kedoshei Kelm sang.
They sang it louder and louder and they danced faster and faster.
Layehudim hoysah orah. The Yidden had light. Orah zu Torah. They had the light of Torah. They knew which end was up. They knew everything has a purpose. They were free. They were happy. They had their eyes on the gauge.
May the simcha of Purim last all year. May freedom reach all those who yearn to be free. May all those who are ill be well, all who are sad be delivered from their misery, and all who are poor see an end to their deprivation with the arrival of Eliyohu Mevaser Tov,bimeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.