Positively Senseless

Friday, 12 June, 2020 - 2:49 am

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

The Parsha this week is called ‘Behaalotcha’ which means ‘when you kindle’, referring to the lights of the menorah. 

Allegorically ‘kindling lights’ can also mean bringing light to others by engaging in acts of goodness and kindness.

When it comes to doing good for others, there are many variations of benevolence.

Tzedaka is always about helping someone else. But the hues and feelings associated with that help are quite diverse.

Sometimes the person you are helping elicits your feelings of empathy and you want to help them.

At other times, you may be appalled at the circumstances and life choices of the person you are trying to help.

Yet, quite clearly it is a mitzvah to help others even if you feel that they are ‘undeserving’ of your help.

(The Torah has an ironic clause that even someone who is being punished by the Beth Din for doing something grave needed to be punished in the most humane way possible. Even if the punishment meted out via Torah law was a corporeally severe one. Yes, the perpetrator must face the consequences. No, this is not a license to abuse the person who is facing judgement). 

You may not be surprised to hear that one of the greatest forms of charity is to help those whom you don’t feel like helping.

The Divine response to this pure form of Tzedaka, helping one who you don’t feel ‘deserves help’ is that Hashem helps the do-gooder even if we don’t ‘deserve’ His help.

A little while back, G-d gave me the opportunity to help save a fellow Jew from being arrested and sitting in Thai prison. 

As I went through my list of friends thinking about who to approach for help in defraying the expenses involved, I was reminded that ‘pidyon shevuyim’ (literally redeeming captives) is not an especially easy cause to raise funds for.

Why not? 

(I am not talking about a situation where the person is a danger to society. In that case he should be locked up where he cannot cause danger. A rabbi’s role in that situation is to serve as a chaplain and provide relief assistance within the framework of incarceration. After consulting with senior Rabbinic figures, we have a clearly established protocol of how and when to help in this important mitzvah). 

Without elaborating in print, in our locale particularly, it is clear that ‘pidyon shevuyim’ is an especially important lifesaving mitzvah. Why then is it not always met with great enthusiasm by usually generous philanthropists?

Simply, many people assume that the person who is headed to prison must have done something wrong. In many cases they are not off the mark. 

People who face prison time are sometimes victims of circumstance. Often however they are not entirely innocent. They may have done wrong things. Mistakenly or as I am sorry to say, perhaps even intentionally.

Therefore, I can understand why I have sometimes encountered pushback from well-intentioned generous people who help me on a plethora of causes. 

In going through my ‘rolodex’ of philanthropic friends, looking for help, I came across the name of a dear friend who used to help me with ‘pidyon shevuyim’ cases with a generous and open hand. His name was Menachem Mendel (Max) Ostro Z”L, a Holocaust survivor who jumped out of the cattle-car that was taking him to Treblinka. His father had cut the bars and urged him and his brother to jump out of the train hurtling to their certain extermination. Menachem Mendel survived and lived into his eighties; his brother was not heard from again.

Menachem Mendel, went on to marry and have a family. He brought more light to the world through his Jewish children and grandchildren. This was the ultimate revenge against the forces of evil. Am Yisrael Chai. Menachem Mendel’s tradition of kindness also lives on. I called one of his descendants this week, and with joy the agreed to carry on the family tradition of helping ‘pidyon shevuyim’. 

I started thinking. Was there a correlation between Menachem Mendel’s proclivity to helping in ‘pidyon shevuyim’ cases, and the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor?

I can only speculate, as he is no longer alive for me to ask. But I would like to share my hypothesis. I think it can teach a lesson that is timely and empowering.

The Holocaust is the greatest form of evil our world has seen.

The wanton acts of evil that any and every survivor witnessed with their own eyes, is unimaginable to us. As much as we may read about the horrors of the unspeakable, it does not equal even one moment living through that hellish time.

People were persecuted for no reason other than pure sadism and barbaric evil.

During the war years in Nazi controlled Europe, being locked up by authorities did not mean that you did anything wrong. Merely being Jewish was a capital offense. Officers and military who are to a moral society the enforcers of law and order did the exact opposite. They were the apparatus that was instrumental in the carrying out of the greatest atrocities of all times. Demons in uniform. 

Redeeming a prisoner from the clutches of evil during those times was a lifesaving mission of epic proportion. Vestiges of that feeling remained no doubt deeply ingrained in the psyche of my dear friend.

That may be the simple psychological reason. 

But I think it runs much deeper than that. And holds a message of immeasurable consequence if we are but ready to hear it and truly absorb it.

Darkness must be banished by light.

Thick incorrigible darkness must be banished by intensely radiant light.

For a survivor of senseless evil, doing sensible good is not enough. 

Only senseless good can be an appropriate inverse reaction that can attempt to counterbalance and overwhelm it. 

This message of senseless goodness and kindness must be incorporated into our lives. 

In the last few weeks, we tragically saw senseless acts of evil being carried out.  

We have the spiritual tools to fight this darkness. You and I can make a difference. No money, tools or membership in any organization is needed.

If our society has run amok without G-d being mentioned as the ultimate compass of morality, we need to include G-d in our everyday discourse. 

We need to make an unshakeable commitment to G-d’s eternal instruction to add in acts of goodness and kindness. To engage in Tzedaka and benevolence to an extreme. Not only carry out charitable acts that we feel like doing and that make us feel good, but we must take it to an extreme and engage in senseless and wanton acts of kindness.

If a human being can kill a fellow human being in cold blood, we must be prepared to counterbalance that evil by committing to save the life of a fellow human being with alacrity and urgency.

If a human being can steal from someone else without compunction, we need to be prepared to give freely even to strangers with no strings attached and no expectation of getting anything in return.

One of the beautiful and inspiring societal reactions to the Corona, has been the help that people are giving to each other. 

The frontline medical workers are heroes of the highest order.

Soup kitchens abound all over the world. Here in Thailand there are ‘pantries of sharing’ in many locations. Membership fees have been waived by many organizations. Publication companies have given more freedom to make copies of their books.

There are also so many examples of unsung heroes. 

Ordinary people helping ordinary people. 

When we take upon ourselves the mission of implementing Hashems commandments here on earth, Hashem sends us the wherewithal, energy, fortitude and blessings to accomplish extraordinary things!

Light up the world by acts of goodness and kindness. See how much brighter your own immediate microworld will become. 

It will bring Moshiach sooner for the benefit of all of mankind.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

PS Thailand is still in lockdown i.e. the borders are quite sealed shut. There is still a need for help to those in need. If you are able to help others through this difficult time, please donate generously


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