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Are You Making a Kiddush Hashem?

Yonoson Rosenblum

In communal affairs, “one bad apple…” often applies

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

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rchos Chaim: Ben Torah for Life by Rav Aaaron Lopiansky, which I highlighted last week, is first and foremost an extended argument for the potential religious significance of the time a Jew spends earning his or her daily bread. That’s because there will often be more opportunities for kiddush Hashem outside the sheltered walls of the beis medrash.

In his discussion of kiddush Hashem, Rav Lopiansky brings the well-known story of Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Kovno, who issued thousands of Japanese transit visas to desperate Jews seeking any escape route possible.

The problem was that Sugihara had been ordered by his superiors to leave Kovno, and even working 18 hours a day, he did not have enough time to complete all the transit visas. Rabbi Moshe Zupnik, a Mirrer Yeshivah talmid, persuaded Sugihara to allow him to help with filling out the documents.

That much is fairly well known. Less well known is that there was a third party who then joined filling out the transit visas, a German Gestapo agent, Wolfgang Gudze. The latter had been assigned to help the consul of Germany’s wartime ally, Japan. Gudze actually volunteered to assist in the processing of the visas, at the potential risk of his life. He explained his extraordinary action to Moshe Zupnik: “I have great respect for your kind [i.e., Orthodox Jews].”

At some point in his life, Rav Lopiansky speculates, the integrity, friendliness, or dignity of an Orthodox Jew or Jews had made an impression on Gudze, and as a result, hundreds of Jewish lives were saved many years later.

Nor is Gudze’s action the only one of its kind. One Shabbos evening in winter 1940, a telegram arrived at the home of Mike Tress from Rav Aharon Kotler. Rav Aharon wrote that the expected emergency visa had not been waiting for him at the US consulate in Moscow and he had only 24 hours to leave the city. Mike Tress, together with Rav Gedalia Schorr, worked through the night reconstructing Rav Aharon’s entire visa dossier. Tress then took a train to Washington, D.C., early Shabbos morning.

Arriving at the State Department, he found one office light on — that of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, the architect of much of America’s wartime immigration policy. Long was an extreme nativist, who had been accused, with justice, of being an anti-Semite by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Yet on that occasion, he responded to Mike’s pleas and cabled the required documents to Moscow. He even ordered an embassy car to be sent for Rav Aharon.

Despite his hostility to Jewish immigration, Long had cordial, even friendly relations with Mike Tress and other Orthodox rescue activists. He had testified to Congress in favor of the admission to the US of Torah scholars under the Special Emergency Visas program.

 

SADLY, HOWEVER, just as the exemplary behavior of some Jews has benefited other Jews and even the community as a whole, so has the opposite type of behavior brought much harm. My chavrusa Ari Wasserman shared with me an interview he conducted in preparing his forthcoming Making It All Work on women in the workplace. One interviewee described how she had built an excellent reputation over nine years working for a particular employer. When she left the firm, her employer was only too happy to hire other Orthodox Jews.

But sometime later, she received a call from her former boss. An Orthodox man he had hired had been caught making up non-existent Jewish holidays and moving the time for candle-lighting on Shabbos significantly earlier than necessary. “We will never hire another Orthodox Jew,” her former boss told her.

And in communal affairs, the rule “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” often applies. Thus Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv used to say that those who improperly claim an army deferment on the grounds of Toraso umanoso are rodef after tens of thousands of bochurim and avreichim sincerely immersed in Torah learning.

During the Pell Grant scandals of the 1990s, Rabbi Moshe Sherer was informed by New York state educational authorities that they could no longer rely on his say-so to determine the legitimacy of an institution (even though not one institution he vouched for had ever been implicated in the scandals.)

Rabbi Sherer viewed that loss of trust — the attainment of which was his proudest achievement — as the low point of his long public career.

The Ran (Drashos HaRan 9) enunciates a rule that each one of us owes it to both our fellow Jews and HaKadosh Baruch Hu to keep always before us. Whenever our gentile neighbors observe us behaving with absolute integrity — i.e., being scrupulous about the mishpatim of the Torah — they will attribute great wisdom to the chukim as well. But when we behave dishonestly, they will be filled with contempt for the chukim, the Torah’s unique ritual laws, and thus the Torah itself.

 

Ears Open at a Shivah call

I’m often amazed by how much one can learn at a shivah house, especially if the entire discussion is not taken up with pointless talk of the medical details of the final weeks or days of a long life.

I recently went to the shivah house of a longtime friend. I had no great expectations. I had not known his mother. And this particular friend is extremely self-effacing. His sense of humor runs to the self-deprecatory, and he studiously shies away from the limelight. As a baal teshuvah, he would be the only one sitting shivah, and I could not imagine how he would handle it.

Yet once there, I found myself transfixed. My friend held the floor, as if he had been waiting his entire life for this opportunity to be heard. He described in great detail the family history going back four generations in West Virginia and other points off the beaten Jewish track.

And he brought his mother to life with great tenderness and respect: her attachment to Judaism, despite not being fully mitzvah observant; her strength of character and firm sense of right and wrong. He did so in such a way that his own decision to take on a life of Torah and mitzvos seemed like a logical continuation of his mother’s principles. (That, I find, is true of many baalei teshuvah.)

When I left after almost an hour, I felt a tinge of regret that it took my friend sitting shivah for me to fully appreciate his depth. But then I consoled myself that at least now I have a grasp of who he really is.

 

SOMETIMES one picks up important insights from the life of the niftar. At another recent shivah house, one of the niftar’s sons related that his father had been in the brutal Janowska work camp on the outskirts of Lvov, together with the Bluzhover Rebbe and Simon Wiesenthal, and had lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust.

I remarked to this son that it was impossible to discern what his father had suffered from observing him at a distance. He appeared every bit the distinguished lawyer that he was, and his three sons, each a highly successful frum professional, seem to bear no scars.

My friend replied that his father had, as an act of will, simply closed off his mind to all that had been before the war. As a child, my friend instinctively knew not to ask his father about his life growing up or anything beyond the barest outlines of his wartime experiences. That steel barrier in his father’s mind between prewar and afterward was so firm that he could not even speak languages in which he had been fluent before the war.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 93a) asks what became of Chananyah, Azariah, and Mishael, who were miraculously saved from the fiery furnace after refusing to bow down to a statute of Nevuchadnetzar. Rabi Yochanan answers: They went up to Eretz Yisrael, married women, and fathered children.

The Gemara reminds us that these are not mundane achievements. They were purchased at a high price by the survivors, who did so much to rebuild world Jewry after the horrors they had experienced.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 744. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

 

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