Ready for the Journey

Like many who had known the late Sadigura Rebbe, I was heartbroken last week when learning of his passing. He was a regal, worthy heir to the crown of Rizhiner chassidus. I came to know him through my involvement in the Rubashkin saga. Let me share with you, dear readers, a story that has not yet been told.

The rebbe had gone to visit someone in the satellite camp at the jail in Otisville, NY, during the month of Elul several years back. He delivered messages of chizuk and wishes for the coming year to the men incarcerated there. While in the camp, permission was granted for him to visit the jail where Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was housed. The rebbe did not know him and was only vaguely familiar with the case. Much is made of the relative comforts of being held in the “camp” as opposed to a traditional jail, but the rebbe found men hungry for inspiration and support.

As he went through the series of gates and fences to approach the “real” jail, the rebbe imagined that this Rubashkin person he was going to visit would be in a melancholy, sad state. How surprised he was to be welcomed at the door by a man wearing a gartel over his orange khakis, singing and dancing with a huge smile on his face. It took a while for the rebbe to realize that the man who was facing a virtual life sentence in prison was not crazy, but a legitimate oheiv Hashem with ironclad emunah and bitachon, which generally only exists in storybooks. They spoke in learning and chassidus for a while, and after a rekidah, the rebbe bade Sholom Mordechai farewell.

Most people would have returned home and gone back to regular life, but the rebbe wasn’t a regular person. Upon his return, he contacted his sister’s brother-in-law, Reb Yitzchok Shapira, an extremely well connected and accomplished individual. The rebbe told him about the man he had met in the Otisville jail and how impressed he was with him. He told Mr. Shapira that he must do something to help right the wrong and get this man the freedom he deserved.

Mr. Shapira contacted me upon his next visit to New York on a Friday morning. I drove to meet him the same day and he told me the story. At that time, having a high-profile lawyer to advance the case legally and politically was a pressing concern. I suggested that we hire Attorney Alan Dershowitz. His name had come up before, but we couldn’t afford his price. Energized by the rebbe with the mission of helping save Rubashkin, Mr. Shapira immediately agreed to the proposal. He called Mr. Dershowitz and arranged for us to meet him Sunday morning. We met him in his Upper East Side apartment and a deal was struck. Mr. Shapira would pay the bill. Dershowitz went on to have a leading impact on the case.

After Sholom Mordechai’s sentence was commuted by President Donald Trump, we went to meet the rebbe in Boro Park and thank him for his involvement and share in the rescue. We later visited him in Bnei Brak. He could not have been more effusive and kind. When speaking to him, it was evident that we were conversing with a great man. It was also like finding a long-lost friend. Little did we know that he would be gone so soon.

Back during that Elul, the rebbe met a person he did not previously know, and because of his deep sense of responsibility, he devoted time and effort, becoming involved in an undertaking that would be an eternal zechus for himself. He didn’t do it for publicity and very few people knew of the rebbe’s involvement. He did it because he was a good Yid who cared about Yidden. He saw a good person in a place where he didn’t belong and marshalled his kochos to do what he could so that man would get to see the light of day.

UPRIGHT AND JUST

Elul is a time when we seek opportunities for nitzchiyus. We ponder our actions, words and deeds as we become aware of the approaching yom hadin and seek for ourselves sources of merit.

This week’s parsha of Shoftim opens with the commandment to appoint shoftim, judges, and shotrim, enforcers. For centuries, darshonim have been thundering with the onset of Elul that the posuk refers to us.

The posuk is telling us that we have to be able to judge each act and properly determine whether it should be done or not. Even when it is difficult for us to act on the judgment, we must be able to force ourselves to do what is proper. We shouldn’t be doing anything that a proper judgment would determine to have no beneficial value.

The pesukim continue with the injunction to judge properly, not to twist a judgment and not to accept bribes even when reaching the right decision, for doing so will lead to corruption and improper understanding. The Torah refers to judges who are ruling on legal cases, but the application to our own actions is there as well. We must not let ourselves be led astray and become affected by things that subvert our equilibrium. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must always pursue what is right and just, as a people, as a community, and as individuals.

Take a look around us and see what happens when justice is perverted, when prosecutors are corrupt, when policemen are afraid to police, and when judges twist the law. See what happens when police are handcuffed and prosecutors don’t press charges. Look at what has happened to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where stores are failing, businesses are closing, and people are escaping from once-great cities now overrun with crime, homeless vagrants and blight, as liberal mayors gloat.

People who fail to judge and police themselves face the same outcome. That’s why Elul is here. It is here for us to proclaim to ourselves, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” We must straighten ourselves, act properly, be good, and do good.

For the past couple of months, we have turned down the flame a bit. The calm, warmth and light of summer replaced the tension, cold and darkness of a dreadful spring when we feared for our lives and livelihoods.

And now, as summer winds down, bungalow colonies empty out, camps close, and schools prepare to open, we enter the month of seriousness and introspection as it plays a vital role in leading us to life and joy.

Since the Jews repented for the sin of the Eigel, Elul has been a month of self-improvement, empowered with affording us the ability to become closer to Hashem. When Hashem responded positively to the pleas of Moshe Rabbeinu, Elul became for all-time a period during which our attempts to return are more readily accepted.

Aveiros create a separation between us and the Creator. Teshuvah removes the stain of sin and enables us to return to Hashem’s embrace.

The carefree days end with the approach of Elul, as we embark upon a period of increased foresight and thought.

SPIRITUALLY UPLIFTED

The Gemara in Maseches Bava Basra (78b) asks about the definition of the posuk (Bamidbor 21:27) which states, “Al kein yomru hamoshlim bo’u cheshbon,” explaining that it means that those who rule over themselves say, “Let us make the proper calculation,” before undertaking any action.

Those who rule over their yeitzer don’t allow themselves to be guided by impulse and fleeting temptation. Rather, they consider the reward of doing a mitzvah, as opposed to the loss incurred by sinning. A person who lives his life in that way will not fall prey to contemptuous actions, and will lead a life of value and success.

This explains the statement by the Alter of Kelm in his sefer (vol. 1:121) that at the root of mussar is cheshbon. It is also the basis for the teaching of the Maharal (Droshas Shabbos Shuvah) that a person who is considerate about his actions will not sin.

How do we approach Elul, and from where do we learn how to make the required calculations?

As with all halachos, to gain an understanding of the halacha, the best and first place to go is the Rambam’s sefer Mishneh Torah. By studying the halachos of teshuvah as clearly laid out and explained by the Rambam, it is possible to arrive at a deep understanding of the process, thus making it easier to repent.

Through studying the succinct, direct and information-laden words of the Rambam, we gain an appreciation of the weight of a mitzvah and the destruction caused by an aveirah, as well as the cheshbonos involved with each. It is impossible to undertake even a cursory study of his words and not be emotionally affected and spiritually uplifted.

The Rambam’s captivating words touch your soul and leave you ready to quietly undertake heroic acts to mend your ways and live a holier life. Aspirations for professional success, as well as for fame and fortune, fall by the wayside as you become swept up by the beauty of his words and clarity of his arguments of living a richer, fuller and better life.

The spirit of the mitzvah envelopes the student, and as he learns one halacha after the next, a holy spirit overtakes him and he finds himself going from being petty, uncharitable and rigid to selfless, patient and honest.

If, before we act, we would think about what we are doing, and whether good or bad will come from it, and for what purpose we are doing it, we would become better. If we would think before speaking, we could save ourselves lots of anguish.

We can do something that may bring momentary happiness, but when we look back at the time, energy and money we wasted pursuing a fleeting passion, we realize that had we thought about whether we were accomplishing anything, we would have spent our time in a beneficial way.

Life is a test of wills, and to the degree that we follow the urge to do good, we are good. But if we let go and fall prey to the urges that ignore the good in favor of the temporal, then we lose out every time.

The Gemara in Brachos (61b) quotes Rav Yosi Haglili, who says that the righteous are guided by their yeitzer tov, the wicked are ruled by their yeitzer hora, and beinonim are ruled by both.

Everybody is led by a yeitzer. If he is a good person, he follows his yeitzer tov, and if he is an evil person, then he is led by his yeitzer hora. Beinonim vary. Sometimes they follow the yeitzer tov and other times the yeitzer hora. Nothing that we do is just pareve. Our actions are either good or not good. Our task is to ensure that we don’t permit faulty considerations to mislead us into following the yeitzer hora and do things that are silly, wasteful and wrong.

FIGHTING FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T

This week’s parsha concludes with the halachos of the eglah arufah. If a person is found dead outside of a town, the elders and judges of the town, along with the kohanim and levi’im, proclaim that they had no hand in the death of the person. They didn’t see the dead man walking in their town and not offer him food and seek to care for him. They vow that they had no remote role in his death.

This week, as we read and study the parsha, let us contemplate people who have been wronged or misjudged, people who don’t get a break and are abused and mistreated, and let us vow to do what is right and proper. Let us stand up for the ones who have no one to stand up for them. Let us fight for what is right.

Let us do what we can so that every child has a place in a school where they belong, and every child, rich or poor, smart or not-so-smart, healthy or not, receives a proper environment in which they can grow and excel.

Let no person feel that nobody cares about them, that they aren’t worth caring about. Let no one feel that they are just strangers passing through. Let us be among those who work to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry and sad.

Let us learn from the lesson of the Sadigura Rebbe and do what we can to help other people, even those we don’t know, to feel their pain and do what we can to heal wounds and restore damaged souls.

The story is told of a man who approached a shadchan. “My daughter is getting older and has not yet found her mate,” he said. “We are willing to compromise and will accept someone who is less than perfect, as long as he is not a fool.”

The shadchan went through his many résumés and found someone. He called the father.

“I have someone for your daughter. He is a fine, intelligent boy. But he’s not perfect, as he has a speech impediment. Is that something you can deal with?”

The father repeated that he knew they had to compromise, and since the boy is fine and not a fool, they would go ahead with the shidduch.

The date was set and the boy came to the house to pick up the girl and meet her parents. The father answered the door with a smile and a hearty shalom aleichem. The boy was flummoxed. He just stood there. He couldn’t get any words out of his mouth. It took him two minutes to respond, “Aleichem shalom.”

The father was irate. He called up the shadchan as soon as the couple left the house. “What did you do to me? I told you that I’d compromise on other things, but you sent me a dope.”

The shadchan responded that he had told the man that the boy had a speech impediment.

“Apparently, he was overcome by the moment and it took him a while to gather his wits. But that doesn’t mean he’s a fool.”

“That is exactly the problem,” said the father. “He knew he was coming here. He knew he would knock on the door and I would answer. Had he prepared and rehearsed for that moment, he would not have become flustered.”

We are now entering Elul, a month designated for preparation for the yemei hadin of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Let us use the time wisely so that we don’t end up looking like fools on the day of judgment.

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