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 (Joseph) was suddenly released from prison and became the Ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. The prisoners appreciated this. This message is so appropriate, because, when you are in prison, you feel helpless. You know that your only hope comes from beyond you! “Min hamaitzar … from the straits I called upon G-d. G-d answered me with expansiveness!” (Psalm 118)
“Ha Maitzar … the straits.” This word means that one feels pressed on every side. The Hebrew word “tzaar,” which is part of the word, refers to pain and trouble. There is no room to breathe. You feel as if you are locked in a cage.
This is how I felt for the thirty years before I found Hashem, as if I were trapped in a spiritual maze. In his own difficulties, King David called out to Hashem, Who answered him “bamer-chav-ka.” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 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 Torah Portion finds the Children of Israel imprisoned in Egypt. Hashem is sending Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) 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 Heaven. In the words of Rabbi Hirsch, “[King David] 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 Psalm 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 Psalm 112:8)
It is so vital for us to connect with the world of Egypt which is revealed to us in these Torah Portions. 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 the late Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus. 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 the last day of Chanukah. Joseph was rushed from prison on Rosh Hashanah. The Children of Israel were rushed from Egypt on Passover.
Suddenly, “b’keref ayin” … in the twinkling of an eye, our Redeemer will appear to release us from the “straits,” and we will return to our Holy Land, to dwell there in eternal service to our Father and King!