By Roy S. Neuberger
Why did I not visit Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin in prison? Only after his release did I realize that he had been imprisoned in New York and not Iowa. I could so easily have gone there. I know what it means to visit a prisoner. Decades ago, when Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was scheduled to speak to Jewish prisoners in Rikers Island Prison in New York City, an emergency arose and she asked me to fill in for her.
You can easily see Rikers Island if your plane happens to land on a certain runway at LaGuardia Airport. It is the next island over, looking out the right-hand windows. By car, it is reached by a bridge from the Borough of Queens. It is usually the first place prisoners are taken if they are so unfortunate as to be brought into the New York City prison system.
There are, of course, many layers of security before you actually enter one of the prison buildings on the island. First, at the end of the bridge, they have to know who you are and what you are doing there before they let you on the island. Then you go through several additional layers of security. I was finally allowed to enter the building. I passed through a glass door that slid open automatically as I approached. There was a long corridor behind the door, with another door at the far end. The door behind me shut, and the door ahead of me would not open until the one behind me had closed.
I already felt trapped. I walked through the corridor. On each side, wardens stared through glass windows. Only when I had passed through this passageway and was apparently “approved” by all the staring eyes, did the door on the far end open. I entered the prison. What a feeling! I imagined that perhaps a mistake might be made and they would forget I was a visitor. Maybe those doors would never open again, and I would be trapped forever!
This visit took place during Chanukah. I spoke about how Yosef ha Tzaddik was suddenly released from prison and became melech Mitzraim! The prisoners appreciated this. This message is so appropriate, because, when you are in prison, you powerfully feel your own helplessness and the fact that your only hope comes from beyond you!
“Min hamaitzar … from the straits I called upon G-d. G-d answered me with expansiveness!” (Tehillim 118)
“Ha Maitzar … the straits.” This word means that one feels pressed on every side. “Tzaar,” which is part of the word, refers to pain and trouble. There is no room to breathe. It is a feeling of mental and physical imprisonment, as if you are locked in a cage.
This is in fact how I felt for the thirty years before I found Hashem, as if I were trapped in a spiritual maze. In his own difficulties, Dovid Hamelech called out to Hashem, Who answered him “ba-merchav-ka.” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l, this word means “Divine ‘breadth’… liberation from every sensation of constricting anxiety … a blessed relief which only G-d can provide, and which causes anyone confined in the narrow straits of oppression to sense that G-d is near.” (Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers 2014)
This week’s Parsha finds Am Yisroel imprisoned in Mitzraim. Hashem is sending Moshe Rabbeinu to rescue us. This is the essence of our existence as Jews: we are alone in a world in which there is no help from anywhere except Shomayim. In the words of Rabbi Hirsch,
“[Dovid Hamelech] sensed [this, as he says,] ‘When I was utterly forsaken by men … I still knew no fear, even though all of mankind was against me. And when men were at my side to help me, I viewed them simply as messengers of G-d…. I regarded the aid they rendered me as help coming to me from G-d Himself, and therefore, I could look calmly upon those who hated me.” (On Tehillim 118) The happiness of the man who fears G-d “consists not only of the circumstances in which things are well with him at the moment, but in that he can calmly face whatever the future might bring….” (On Tehillim 112:8)
It is so vital for us to connect with the world of Mitzraim which is revealed to us in these parshios. If we think that we are not in prison, then we are not aware of what is going on. I want to quote something powerful that I saw in the words of Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus zt”l. This quote illustrates the nature of the surrounding society, which we tend to accept as “normal.”
“We live in a ‘modern’ world, but with all its technological advances … the results are shockingly poor. Everything is put to use for the bad. The world was a more beautiful place without modern cameras and their streams of indecent images that now flood the world. And so it is with technology’s other products. There is no modern invention that did not do harm to the world, without exception.” (Nefesh Shimshon)
My friends, this is the prison in which we reside, the prison built by a foreign culture that does not fear Hashem. But Hashem is sending us signals; we have to watch for them. Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was rushed from prison on Zos Chanukah. Yosef ha Tzaddik was rushed from prison on Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashana 10b). Bnai Yisroel were rushed from Mitzraim on Pesach.
Suddenly, b’keref ayin, the Goail Tzedek will appear to release us from the “straits,” and we will return to our Holy Land, to dwell there b’simcha in eternal service to our Father and King!
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Roy Neuberger, author and public speaker, can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2018 by Roy S. Neuberger