There are countless people who are far more proficient in the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, than I can ever wish to be. But there is one teaching in particular that has always struck me as exceedingly motivational and one that represents his educational methodology like few others. Citing the words of Chazal, “He who has 100 [zuz] desires 200, and having achieved 200, he desires [not only a similar increase but] 400,” the Rebbe would remind people that ambition grows with accomplishments. “If such is the case in material things,” he would frequently point out, “how much greater should be one’s spiritual aspirations.” Thus, he impelled a person forward in his spiritual growth, not allowing him to content himself with the spiritual heights he had scaled yesterday.
The release from prison of Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin calls for the reiteration of that teaching so that we don’t become overly self-congratulatory and hence complacent. In truth, in addition to the President of the United States, who acted with such benevolence and compassion, there are many people who deserve credit for the commutation of his exorbitant sentence. The entire Jewish community, in fact, is owed a debt of heartfelt gratitude. But rather than reflect on our accomplishments, we would be far better off to heed the Rebbe’s advice and concentrate on what we still need to do.
The Rambam writes that there is no greater mitzvah than pidyon shvuyim (the redemption of captives; see Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 8:10). While it is true that there are some cases that are less “popular,” or where the circumstances render it more difficult to help the defendant or inmate, the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim is not canceled as a result. In fact, l’fum tzaara agra, and the more difficult the circumstances, the greater the mitzvah! We should certainly never allow ourselves to be swayed by the cynics.
If the commutation of Sholom Mordechai’s sentence teaches us anything, it is that where there is a collective will, there is a way. Moreover, it demonstrates that it is not improper to ask the courts and our elected officials for mercy.
Assisting the court in understanding the human being behind the offense is not merely a halachic obligation, but also a moral and civic one. As the Supreme Court ruled in Gall v. United States: “It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue.” Furthermore, “In cases where the defendant led an otherwise praiseworthy life, the court should consider a sentence below the advisory range” (U.S. v. Wachowiak, 496 F.3d 744 citing U.S. v. Page, 2005).
In Hilchos Brachos (10:26), the Rambam writes: “In general, a person should always cry out in prayer regarding the future, asking for mercy. At the same time, he should give thanks for what has transpired in the past, expressing his gratitude and praise [of G-d] according to his ability. Whoever praises and thanks G-d abundantly and continuously is worthy of commendation.”
At this time in history, we need to do the same. Thank G-d for Sholom Mordechai’s freedom, and pray for those who are still in need of mercy.
Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter