My children saw how a Jew reacts
Around a year ago, I wrote in this column about how Rav Yitzchak David Grossman instinctively removed his pants and gave them to another Jew, relying on his silk beketshe for cover. We shared the picture and reflected on the years of training necessary until someone has the ability to naturally react that way, until his impulse is to give himself away for another.
That act of instinctive giving was vintage Rav Grossman, we speculated, his generosity honed by years in Migdal Ha’emek, by his decades-long role as patron and advocate of the poor, forgotten, and downtrodden.
But Sholom Mordechai (ben Rivka) HaLevi Rubashkin recently told me a fresh story involving similar greatness of spirit and a gesture not that different.
We were sitting side by side on hard plastic chairs in the stifling hot visitors’ lounge of what he refers to as “a place called prison.” (The difference being that he isn’t imprisoned; he’s in the place HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants him, which is known as a prison.)
“Dos darftz du shreiben,” he said, his face shining as he recounted what he termed a “chassidishe maiseh” about a litvish rosh yeshivah.
Rav Yeruchem Olshin had taken advantage of the recent bein hazmanim period to travel to the mountains — no, not the Swiss ones, not even New Hampshire. The roads near Otisville, New York, are scenic if you appreciate a panorama of discarded tires and Trump signs serving as lawn ornaments, but I don’t know that the region is on anyone’s top five getaway lists — yet that’s where the Lakewood rosh yeshivah headed on his first free day, to visit Reb Sholom Mordechai.
After the always exasperating process of going through visitor admissions (wait here, stand here, go back there), the Rosh Yeshivah was led through security and into the visitors’ area.
Of course, there was the predictable delay until Reb Sholom Mordechai was led in. (As if he was in another meeting? Busy with a client?) They spoke words of Torah and chizuk, shared stories of gedolim.
The Bureau of Prisons has a service where, if the camera works and the officials are in a decent mood, they will take a picture of the visitor with the inmate and mail it to the family.
Sholom Mordechai rarely avails himself of it, but when the Lakewood rosh yeshivah was there, he wanted very much to have this memento, Rav Yeruchem along with the Rubashkin children. He asked Rav Yeruchem if they might pose for a picture. Sholom Mordechai described what happened next.
“I noticed that the Rosh Yeshivah hesitated for the briefest instant, and then his hand moved up toward his head. I realized that he was uncomfortable about being photographed without his hat, which had been taken from him upon entering. But after a flash of uncertainty — a second — the Rosh Yeshivah smiled and said, ‘Sure, of course.’
“I saw,” concluded Sholom Mordechai, “that his ahavas Yisrael was stronger than the discomfort, that his instinct was to do whatever he could to make another Jew freilech.
“And I had such hana’ah that my children saw how a Jew reacts. That keepsake means much more than the actual picture.”
Now, Rav Yeruchem Olshin and Rav Yitzchak David Grossman are very different sorts. Rav Grossman charged into discos in search of Jewish souls while Rav Yeruchem was sitting by his shtender learning. Rav Grossman was traveling to distant corners of the world raising money for what would become a chesed metropolis — not just schools, but also absorption centers, vocational programs, and subsidized housing — while Rav Yeruchem was sitting by his shtender learning. Rav Grossman was acknowledged by the most hardened secularists as an example of chareidi selflessness, an ambassador for the beauty of Torah living on the most public stages, while Rav Yeruchem sat by his shtender learning.
Sholom Mordechai’s observation was a reminder of something that so many would will us to forget.
It’s easy to get swept away with emotion or appreciation for a holy cause. We are a compassionate people and we’re deeply moved by those who give themselves away for others. Sometimes, the admiration for what they do comes at the expense of our reverence for those who don’t venture far away from the shtender; as if somehow, they’re less socially conscious.
But it ain’t so.
If you’ve spent time in a yeshivah or kollel, you already know that the one with the look of happy exhaustion, the guy humming over a Gemara when the large room has emptied out, who opens his Gemara — every single day — the way a child unwraps a gift, is also the first to smile and say “good morning,” the most likely to help you with a heavy package.
Torah elevates and refines. V’talmud Torah k’neged kulam — the first “shtickel Torah” of each new day — means that in addition to its inherent loftiness, Torah also bequeaths the learner with all the treasures one gets by being great in gemilus chasadim, hava’as shalom, hachnassas kallah, and all the other exceedingly worthy pursuits listed.
Rav Yeruchem posed, Sholom Mordechai at his side.
And at that moment, a question floated forth from the cinderblock room of shattered dreams and flattened hopes, where the decor is bleak, the layout unsettling by design. The room where snatches of conversation and bursts of laughter compose the soundtrack of people struggling not to go mad. The room where visitors from the outside try to offer reassurance, even as they themselves can’t fully quiet their inner worries. The room filled with hope and prayers that these khaki-suited men may be released one day — but also with the niggling doubts whether they will ever escape the prison of the mind.
The question made its way through the doors and metal detectors, past the scanners and swabbers, across the fenced-in running track.
Inside, the camera captured the smiles of two Yidden — one a child of tenacious chassidim who planted with spirit and defiance in the spiritual wasteland of Russia, the other a grandson of one of the most indomitable figures in recent Jewish history, father of America’s reborn Torah world. The Lubavitcher butcher learned a lesson from the Lakewood rosh yeshivah about ahavas Yisrael.
And the question rose to the Heavens: Can the soul be confined? Can the neshamah be held captive?
And in Heaven, they smiled too.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 684. Yisroel Besser can be contacted at email@example.com)