Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
“Chassidus and light. Prison and darkness. When the two collide, what happens?” Rabbi Elchonon Jacobovitz and his class of sixth-grade students set out to discover the answer to this question when they began a correspondence with Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who has been imprisoned since 2010.
Though he had never met R’ Sholom Mordechai, R’ Jacobovitz, of Yeshivas Darchei Torah in Detroit, felt a connection to him after davening for his release and gained chizuk from his display of emunah. R’ Jacobovitz wrote R’ Sholom Mordechai and asked if he’d be willing to receive a dvar Torah from himself or one of his students each week and then respond with his own. The school-year correspondence, in the form of email letters, has been published by the Rubashkin family. It offers an uplifting glimpse into the life of R’ Sholom Mordechai.
From the outset, the camaraderie between the two is palpable; R’ Jacobovitz writes of the “invisible sanctum” Rubashkin has created in prison, where he “lives as a free man, with Torah, avodah, and kiddush shem Shamayim his constant preoccupation.” At the same time, R’ Sholom Mordechai writes of the strength he received from the relationship. “R’ Elchonon sought to give his talmidim a lift by exchanging divrei Torah with me. Little did they imagine what kind of chizuk they would give me in this cold, dark place through our weekly correspondence!”
Although the book proceeds chronologically through the parashios, from Lech-Lecha to Korach, the Table of Contents lists the divrei Torah by theme (rather than by parashah) with such thought-provoking titles as: “We live by miracles…But what about histadlus?,” “The revolving wheel of destiny,” and “Think of the power of a tiny atom.” Formatting the book this way makes it easy for the reader to select a topic he or she might be interested in at that moment. Another plus is that the book contains very accessible, yet profound divrei Torah, with each correspondence a standalone chapter.
Woven throughout the volume are recurring themes, such as the struggle between gashmiyus (materiality) and ruchnius (spirituality), loving fellow Jews, serving Hashem with simchah, the uniqueness of being a yid, and, probably the strongest theme, unwavering bitachon, even in the bleakest of situations. Some of the most poignant pieces are, predictably, those where R’ Sholom Mordechai discusses bitachon in the context of his own situation.
In “Lessons from the tightrope walker,” R’ Sholom uses the mashal of a tightrope walker to discuss avodas Hashem. “A yid needs to be focused on life’s goal – serving Hashem – and to move toward that goal step by step…in a place where the sum total of a person’s daily activity can easily amount to zero, it’s very easy to be fooled by the yetzer horah into chas v’shalom thinking, ‘I don’t make a difference.’ The truth is that every Yid’s avodah actually does matter greatly to Hashem Yisborach. Wherever Hashem places a Yid, he has an important avodah to do there – to make that place and the world a dwelling place for Hashem Yisborach.”
In the middle of the book, there is a wonderful group of divrei Torah where R’ Sholom Mordechai delves into Megillas Esther. In these writings, R’ Sholom Mordechai’s profound connection to Torah and Hashem is palpable, as is his desire to inspire and encourage the boys. The divrei Torah from the talmidim are short yet insightful, while R’ Jacobovitz writes more involved pieces. However, the bulk of the writings are R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin’s. His divrei Torah reveal that, despite his body being in prison, as the book’s title suggests, R’ Sholom Mordechai’s neshamah is as free as ever.
When he was first incarcerated, a guard quipped, “A lot of things are about to change for you from now on.” But R’ Sholom Mordechai was not fazed by this; in fact, the guard’s comment increased his conviction. “My connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu that I have as a Yehudi would not change in any way.” Shortly thereafter, he asked for (and was given) his yarmulke, tzitzis, tallis and tefillin back. He writes, “No one could take control of my neshamah…”
The writings of R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin reveal that in the darkest of places, a person is capable of bringing great light – becoming brighter and brighter themselves, and helping others around them find their own light. Learning the Torah in this collection is a great chizuk; learning about the life and behavior of R’ Sholom Mordechai in prison is perhaps an equally great inspiration.
Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is the uncle of Shalom Rubashkin, Editor of the Jewish Home