You will never hear Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin say, “I was in prison” – because he never really was. Yes, his body sat in various jails and prisons for eight and a half years – but his neshama never did. With unwavering belief that Hashem was always with him, he lived a geulah-like existence every day of his sentence.
As one can imagine, living as a frum Jew in an Iowan prison is not easy. Sometimes Rubashkin had to fight to keep his yarmulka and tzizis, and sometimes for kosher food. In a recent speech, he recalled:
They brought me non-kosher food. I said, “I need kosher food.” The guard asked me, “Are you hungry?” I said: “Yes I am.” He said, “So eat!” I said, “I can’t eat unless it’s kosher.” So he says: “You don’t want to eat?” And I say: “No, I want to eat” – because if you say you don’t want to eat they can force feed you – “but I must have kosher food.”
This went around a few times. At the end I hadn’t eaten for over 28 hours and again the guard tried to get me to eat. But I said, “I’m not going to eat something that’s not kosher – it’s not gonna happen.” He walks out and two minutes later he walks in with kosher food.”
After recounting this story, Rubashkin reflected:
The guard was simply testing me. This is what life is about. He was testing me to see if I was going to find a hetter. You can tell yourself, “G-d is going to understand, I’ll explain it to him.” But it’s not about explaining. It’s about being connected to the Eibishter, and the only way to be with Him is to do what He wants. And I was happy. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t even hungry because I was busy doing what He wanted me to do.
I’m a simple person, but I was thrust into a difficult situation that left me with a choice to go through it like a Yid or not to and, baruch Hashem, I went through it like a Yid. When a person has a nisayon, the first thing to know is that it is coming from the Eibershter, and you can only withstand it by holding onto the Eibershter even stronger. That’s what I learned in yeshiva and that’s what I believe.
We all want to have bitachon. But we have to know that bitachon is not positive thinking; it’s not what you read about in self-help books. It’s a deep feeling that the Eibershter is with you and that He wants you to daven to Him and to know that He is listening to you. Emunah means believing that everything is l’tovah, even if you don’t understand it. Bitachon is a trust that Hashem will give you what you need.
But how do these two ideas go together? Once something happens to a Yid, if he lives with emunah, he says gam zu l’tovah. But, at the same time, for what he needs for tomorrow, he trusts that Hashem will do for him what he feels he needs. With that attitude, a Yid can live with simcha every day and not get disappointed if things don’t go the way he wanted them to.
How profound, and yet how simple. I believe we are all actually living in prison. Every day we face the challenge of living a truly G-dly life – connecting us to Hashem – or one with numerous hettereim as we rationalize our actions with questions like “What’s wrong with watching this?” and “And what’s wrong with wearing that?”
The choice is ours. We can live in “prison” – a galus of our own making – or we can choose to be free. In a few days, we will be celebrating Pesach and Yetziat Mitzrayim. The letters of Mitzrayim (Egypt) and meitzarim (constraints) are the same. Pesach is an opportunity to break free from bondage and constraints. And the only way to do that is to have emunah and bitachon and to be b’simcha throughout – without resorting to hetteirim.
So why not give it a try? Rubashkin, a “simple person,” did it – and so can we.
May we all experience a true Yetziat Mitzrayim this yom tov. Chag kasher v’same’ach.