Eight years ago, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin was convicted on charges of bank fraud, which resulted in a twenty-seven year jail sentence and a restitution fine of 31 million dollars. Last Wednesday night, Rubashkin’s sentence was commuted by President Trump and the Jewish community erupted in celebration.
The night took on the feeling of a victory tour as thousands came out to greet him wherever Rubashkin went. When his car first left the Otisville prison, it was greeted by a handful of Jews dancing with glee. When he arrived in Monsey, New York, where his family lives, he was greeted by thousands. Even larger crowds came out to greet him in the middle of the night with music and festive dancing, when he visited Boro Park to greet his elderly parents. When he made his way to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to pray at the synagogue of his youth, the headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, he was once again greeted with music and festive dance.
Thousands celebrated around the world. From Australia to London, from Israel to New York, Jews everywhere dropped what they were doing to celebrate and dance when they heard the news. The joy was palpable wherever Jews heard the news. It was as if their own brother had been released. You could not discern any less joy on the faces of strangers than on the faces of family members.
And all this for a convicted felon?
Many have wondered why Jews gave Rubashkin a hero’s welcome. Why does a bank Fraud convict deserve it?
Well let me tell you why the Jews were so giddy with excitement. This was not just about a fellow Jew, whose conviction shocked the Jewish world with its excessiveness. Bank Fraud is a serious crime, but it doesn’t justify a twenty-seven-year sentence, the largest sentence in history for a comparable crime. This is what caught the interest of legal minds and policy makers, this is also what inspired President Trump to commute his sentence, but it was not why Jews were dancing.
Let me tell you why they are dancing. Let me tell you a little about Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin.
I will not whitewash his crimes. His actions were illegal, and he deserved to be punished. But when his sentence was handed down, and his family was in tears, Shalom Mordechai remained stoic. His approach was that whatever happens, is G-d’s will. If G-d willed him to have a 27-year sentence, his role was to accept it. He was surely willing to fight it, and should his appeals have succeeded, he would have been thrilled to accept G-d’s will again, but when his appeals failed, Shalom Mordechai still accepted.
On the day of his sentencing, his wife approached him in tears to inform him that the judge ordered him remanded to prison immediately and he could not even spend one last Shabbat at home. His reply to her, exemplifies his character and incredible reliance on G-d. He said, please don’t cry. Every door I will walk through, will be with the will of G-d. No lock will turn on me, unless it is the will of G-d. And the moment G-d wills it, I will walk out of prison.
Well, this week G-d willed it.
Throughout his years in prison, Shalom Mordechai spent his day and parts of his night in prayer and study. Thousands around the world wrote to him, and his responses were filled with words of encouragement and comfort. Those who visited in the hopes of comforting him, found themselves comforted. His studies on the subject of faith and trust in G-d, were remarkable. He literally lived his faith. He walked the walk that others just talk.
His simple message to anyone who reached him in prison was this: don’t despair, when G-d wills it, I will be free. As his legal hopes were shattered, his faith in G-d remained unaffected. He never described himself as a man in prison. He always said I live in the place they call prison. He never felt imprisoned. He felt free as he delved into his texts and ancient tomes.
He was a source of inspiration and encouragement to other prisoners. He regularly studied with fellow Jewish inmates and encouraged them to pray. He would help them fulfill Jewish rituals and took great pride in sharing his passion for Judaism.
When he was released, he repeated the same message wherever he went. If you believe in G-d and trust in G-d, he will come through for you. Despite the crimes that landed him in prison, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin became a symbol of trust in G-d. He personified the Jewish concept of Bitachon, trust under any condition.
Jews around the world erupted in dance at the news of his release because he embodied the notion of placing our faith in G-d, and letting Him carry us forth. When all else failed, Rubashkin’s faith in G-d, carried him through.
ON Wednesday afternoon, he was in his jail cell eating his daily fare of Matzah and tuna-fish, the kosher diet on which he subsisted in jail, when the guards informed him that he was to leave his cell. He had no idea that he was headed toward freedom as he grabbed his essentials, his prayer shawl and phylacteries, and walked through the jail’s corridors for the last and final time.
The key turned in the lock one more time and the moment finally arrived. The moment Shalom Mordechai spoke of on the day of his sentencing, the moment with respect to which his faith had never wavered. The moment when G-d decided that Shalom Mordechai would walk free.
He stepped from the house they call prison, seven years of confinement behind him. Years that were not lost. Years that were lived to the very fullest. His heart filled with joy, and his soul filled with faith, this special man strode forth into freedom and liberty.
His hopes un-shattered, his joy unmarred, and his faith intact.