How many advertisements have you seen that claim to “make your Pesach easier this year”? How often have you heard people complaining about the price of matzoh?
Every time I hear or see such kvetching, I’d like to remind the person, who likely doesn’t know any better, that it wasn’t too long ago that Jews paid for matzoh with their lives or blood, and how thankful we should be that we live in a time when Jews are free to hold a Seder, drink wine, and eat as much matzoh as they want.
Rather than complaining, we should be thankful. Instead of seeing Yom Tov as a difficult period, we should be thankful for the opportunity to have a break from the mundane and live on a higher plane, becoming closer to Hashem, raising our levels of kedusha, and living – at least for a few days – on a more sanctified level.
Not wanting to sound sanctimonious, I usually don’t respond when such comments are offered. I know that whatever I say will sound trite and I will be accused of being uncompassionate.
The next time someone complains about the expenses and “difficulties” of Yom Tov, think of this story related by Rav Yaakov Galinsky as told to him by Rav Yitzchok Shlomo Ungar, who served as rov of K’hal Chug Chasam Sofer in Bnei Brak.
Hungarian Jewry was virtually the last to fall into the evil grip of the Nazis. During the last year of World War II, as the German army faced multiple defeats on the battlegrounds of Europe, they tightened their vice on Hungary. One million Hungarian Jews were herded into ghettos. Two months later, they were shipped off to death camps to be annihilated.
The protagonist of this story was one of those Jews. He arrived at the camp with his wife and children. They were sent straight to the gas chambers, while he was declared fit for work, tattooed with a number, and granted life. His bunkmate was a rebbishe ainikel who used every available moment to learn Torah. He would constantly offer chizuk to our friend and others in the block.
One day, the bunkmate whispered to him that Pesach was coming. There was no shortage of marror, he said, but he wondered how they would be able to observe the mitzvah of eating a kezayis of matzoh.
Our friend discovered where wheat was stored for the camp. Anybody caught taking anything faced being shot dead on the spot, but the rebbishe kind told our friend that he should be prepared to risk his life for the mitzvah. He began gathering a few wheat kernels at a time and hiding them until he had enough to make flour for two kezaisim of matzoh. One day, he found two stones and used them to grind the kernels into flour. He heated a piece of metal, added water to the flour, and baked the mixture on the white-hot piece of metal.
He produced a fist-sized matzoh, thick enough for two kezeisim, one for him and one for his friend. He hid the prize under his shirt and held his arm close to his body to keep the matzoh from falling. If he’d get caught, he’d be dead in an instant. He got past one check, but at the entrance to his block stood a Nazi, who saw that one arm was held stiffly. He pulled the arm of the hapless man and the treasure fell to the floor.
The accursed Nazi beat the man until he fainted and fell to the floor atop his matzoh. The Nazi continued stomping on him until he found another Jew to torture. The man came to, gathered as many of the crumbs and pieces of the matzoh as he could, and dragged himself to his cot, where he fainted again.
His friend found him there and waited for him to awaken. When he did, with a wide smile upon his beaten face, he told his friend what had happened. He then opened his hand to reveal his treasure, a kezayis of matzoh.
And that was when the dispute broke out.
His friend begged, “Please, let me have the matzoh. I never missed having matzoh at the Seder.”
He answered, “No way. It’s my matzoh. I almost gave my life for it. I was beaten to a pulp and fainted a couple of times. I’m not giving it up.”
And so it went, back and forth, in that awful bunk of the death camp.
“Please. I will recite for you the whole Haggadah from memory, and also the entire Shir Hashirim. You can repeat after me word by word. Just let me have the matzoh.”
“I’ll give you my whole Olam Haba for that kezayis. I lost my wife. I lost my children. I lost everything. Please, let me have the matzoh.”
“I also lost everything. But the matzoh is mine and I am not giving it up.”
Finally, our friend, the one who is retelling the story, could take it no more and gave up. He allowed his bunkmate to eat the matzoh and say the Haggadah, but the reward for the mitzvah was to accrue to him. They cried and laughed together, doing their best to relive the deliverance from Mitzrayim, and they prayed, “Leshonah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” with all their hearts.
The next day, they both went out on their work detail. The rebbishe einikel began davening to himself. He got as far as Hallel and then collapsed and fell to the ground. He stood up and tried to walk, calling out the brocha, “Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav.” A Nazi bullet hit him just then. Hashem yikom damo.
The other man lived. After the war, he moved to Israel, established a new family, and became a member of the Chug Chasam Sofer kehillah.
All this he tells to Rav Ungar by way of introduction to his question.
Then he tells the rest of the story.
“Last night, that man came to me in a dream. He was dressed in white and his face was as bright as the morning sky. He said to me, ‘Do you remember when you let me eat the matzoh on the condition that you get the s’char? I came to ask you to please let me have the reward for that mitzvah. I received s’char for all the mitzvos I performed, except that one. It is the only mitzvah for which I received no reward. Please. I beg you to let me have the reward for that mitzvah.’
“In the dream, I responded to him. I reminded him that it was my matzoh. ‘I had risked my life for it. I gathered the kernels. I ground them. I baked them. I snuck it into the camp. Each step could have gotten me killed. I was beaten for it. I could have died on the spot. You begged. You cried. I gave you the act of performing the mitzvah. At least I should get the s’char.’
“He knew I was right. He agreed. But he reminded me that he was the one who kept track of the calendar. It was he who knew that Yom Tov was days away. He was the one who had prompted me to bake the matzoh. He recited the Haggadah with me. And now he came down to this world from on high to ask for the reward for that mitzvah. It was that important to him.
“I turned him down. His face became extremely sad. He was very upset. And then he disappeared.
“With that, I woke up. My heart and mind were racing. What was I supposed to tell him? It was my mitzvah. I should get the reward. But how can I say no to a holy neshomah? How can I turn down the wish of a dead man?”
He asked Rav Ungar what he should do. Should he let the martyred man have the reward for the mitzvah of matzoh or should he keep it for himself?
Rav Ungar told the man that this wasn’t a question for a rov. It was a question for a rebbe. He sent him to the Machnovke Rebbe and asked him to please return and share the response he receives.
He returned the next day and told Rav Ungar what happened by the rebbe. He found out that the rebbe saw people in the evenings and waited with bated breath at the rebbe’s door until he was able to enter. Then he told his story.
The rebbe told him that by right, he should give the reward to the other man.
“By right?” he exclaimed. “By right it belongs to me! My question is whether I should go beyond what is right and give it to him anyway.”
“No,” the rebbe responded. “You need to understand. Every day, you put on tallis and tefillin. You daven three times a day and make 100 brachos daily. There’s Shabbos and Yom Tov and so many other mitzvos that you perform. You have children who you were mechaneich to perform mitzvos, and thus you share in the reward for what they do. It is only fair that you be mevater and let the man have the reward for that mitzvah.”
The man conceded.
“Okay,” he muttered, “if the rebbe feels that I have to give him the reward, I will.”
“No, not like that,” the rebbe said. “You have to mean it. You have to do it b‘lev sholeim.”
The rebbe took a ring of keys from his pocket and gave them to the survivor.
“Here. This key opens the door to the bais medrash. There is nobody there. Go inside. With this key, open the aron kodesh. Stick your head in there. Pour out your heart to Hashem. Tell Him how you got to know the other man. Tell Him of your friendly relationship. Tell Him of the chizuk he gave you in that awful place. Tell Hashem that he gave you the idea to obtain matzoh there.
“Tell Hashem what it was like that Seder night, the last night of that man’s life. And when you are done, tell Hashem that b’lev sholeim you are mevater on the s’char for the mitzvah performed that night, and you surrender it to the other man, in order to give his neshomah a nachas ruach in the olam ha’elyon. When you are done, lock up and return to me.”
The man did as the rebbe had told him. He recounted the whole experience in the camp. It took everything out of him. He could barely drag his legs away from the aron kodesh. He locked the bais medrash, but didn’t have the strength to return to the rebbe. He was drained. He gave the keys to the gabbai and asked him to tell the rebbe that he would return the next day.
He went home, collapsed into bed, and fell asleep. His friend came to him in a dream once again. With a shining face and bright countenance, he said, “Thank you,” and was gone.
The next morning, the man went to daven in the minyan of the rebbe. After davening, he went over to the rebbe and told him what happened. The rebbe was not surprised. He shared with the man a message that he remembered for the rest of his life and that we should take to heart, particularly in this period leading up to Yom Tov. This is what he said:
“Think about it. Your friend was a rebbishe kind. He grew up in a home of Torah and yiras Shomayim. There is no doubt that he performed many mitzvos. To top it off, he merited to die al kiddush Hashem. Even if Heaven would have had any complaints against him, they would have been erased. So he was a person who had only mitzvos and no aveiros, which is why Chazal say that in Gan Eden nobody can come close to people who were killed al kiddush Hashem. They are in the most exalted place.
“Yet, it was worth it for him to leave the bliss of basking in the glow of the Shechinah to come down here, to come like a beggar, and plead with you to give him the reward of just one more mitzvah. Think about what that tells you regarding the value of a single mitzvah.
“And here we are, with the opportunity everywhere to pick up mitzvos, and we don’t run after them. Every parsha of the Torah, every Mishnah and every page of Gemara contains so many mitzvos, yet we lackadaisically waste time.
“Every time we help someone, when we just say a nice word to someone, we get another mitzvah, yet we ignore other people. Think about it.”
The man returned to Rav Ungar and told him all that happened and what the rebbe said.
There are so many teachings of Chazal about the value of a mitzvah. There are so many lessons we have come across in our lifetimes about the reward that awaits those who fulfill Hashem’s commandments, but rather than engage in a discussion of them as we usually do in this space, I thought to try something else and instead, transcribed this story.
How can we not be moved by it? Who can complain about the price of a kezayis of matzoh after reading this? Who cannot feel proud to be a Jew? Who cannot be excited that Pesach – the Yom Tov of cheirus, daled kosos, Mah Nishtanah and matzoh – is almost here?
Let us get our priorities straight and enjoy and appreciate all we have been blessed with.