A MITZVAH RABBA
THE PLIGHT OF JONATHAN POLLARD
Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg - The Jewish Observer Magazine - February 2007
J4JP Note Re Hebrew Terminology: The Jewish Observer Magazine, where this article originally appeared, is geared towards an audience which is largely familiar with the Hebrew terminology that appears scattered throughout. To assist readers unfamiliar with the terminology, J4JP has added a Lexicon below]
A Top-Level mitzvah
It is human nature to pursue the big score. The three million dollar lotto jackpot doesn't attract much attention. By contrast, the powerball 100 million dollar jackpot finds people standing on long lines for a chance (slim as it may be) for the big score.
Mitzvos (lehavdil elef havdalos) are no different. The seemingly small mitzvos are performed without passion or excitement. The "big mitzvos," the ones that one may think offer the greatest reward, should really draw attention. The problem is, however, that the Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that we have to treat all mitzvos alike, for we do not know which are considered "big" or "small" mitzvos.
Yet there is one mitzvah that transcends this Mishna, one that Chazal refer to as a "mitzvah rabba," and that is the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim - gaining release for captives.
The Gemara relates how Ifra Hurmiz, who was the mother of the king, once threw a pouch filled with gold coins before Rav Yoseif and told him, "Use it for a mitzvah rabba." Rav Yoseif pondered what could be characterized as a mitzvah rabba, and concluded that pidyon shevuyim is just such a mitzvah (Bava Basra 8a). The Rambam (Hilchos Ma'tenas Aniyim 8:10) explains that there is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives, and that this duty takes priority over even feeding or clothing the poor. Chazal explain that being held captive is considered worse than hunger and death, because it encompasses everything. In fact, Ginas Veradim (Yoreh Dei'a 3:10) explains that while there is much discussion in the poskim whether pidyon shevuyim is part of the mitzvah of tzeddaka or is in a category all by itself, most opinions view it as part of tzeddaka.
Our sefarim are replete with stories about our gedolim and the great efforts they exerted to perform this mitzvah. (See Sefer Yalkut Lekach Tov, Parashas Shelach, page 127, which relates how Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik zt"l of Brisk traveled on Yom Kippur in an attempt to fulfill the mitzvah, even though it was very unlikely that he would succeed in his efforts.)
Chizuk: To Give and to Gain
I've long contemplated visiting Jonathan Pollard. I had come across a press release reporting that Pollard, very ill, was about to "celebrate" his twenty-second year in jail. I reached out to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel, who has distinguished himself by supporting Jonathan Pollard in a myriad of ways for the last decade or more, and asked him to arrange for me a visit with Pollard. The day arrived.
While not usually at a loss for words, I wondered: how does one offer verbal chizuk to someone who has endured, is enduring, and is destined to continue to endure the shiva medurei Geihinnom (seven levels of Geihinnom) each and every day? His first seven years were spent in the infamous maximum security facility, the USP Marion, including four years in solitary confinement, several levels below ground. [J4JP: Jonathan spent most of the first 7 years in solitary confinement, not 4 years!] Then, in 1993, he was transferred to the Butner Federal Correctional Facility near Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where he remains today.
I agonized for nothing. I traveled to Butner to give chizuk and instead received chizuk. Jonathan Pollard is an amazing individual with an insatiable appetite for life. He is strong and upbeat despite his predicament, and has an unimaginable level of bitachon. To live and walk around in a place that is home to some of "the worst violent criminals in the United States" with a yarmulka on his head and tzitzis on his body is not only unbelievable, it is heroic. His pride in being a Jew and his love for Eretz Yisroel are simply inspiring.
He shared with me his close personal relationship with the late, unforgettable Torah leader, Rabbi Moshe Sherer z"l, who, for a period, spoke to him on the telephone very often. When Jonathan called, Rabbi Sherer always took the telephone. Rabbi Sherer once said to him, "Jonathan, I want you to promise me three things. You will keep Shabbos, eat only kosher, and never grow to hate Hakadosh Baruch Hu, despite whatever happens to you."
I asked Jonathan Pollard, "If Rabbi Sherer were to walk into this room right now, what would you say to him?"
He paused for a moment, then smiled and said, "I would say, 'Rabbi Sherer, I kept my promise to you on all three.'"
I asked him to describe his daily routine and what life is like in a place surrounded by barbed wire, electronic iron gates and thousands of hardened criminals responsible for every and any type of violent crime imaginable (and unimaginable). He did so with remarkable detail. Most of what he said is too horrific to describe. I will limit myself to the details of his life that he shared with me. His cell door is unlocked at night. Every night, before going to sleep, he places a contraption of sorts on top of the door, so that if someone would enter, the booby trap would fall to the floor, and the noise would awaken him, and he would hopefully avoid having his throat slit in his sleep.
It is impossible to imagine what it is like to be on guard for your very life seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day for one week, let alone for an incomprehensible twenty-two years. Jonathan Pollard does not have to imagine it, for he lives with it each and every day of his life.
Keeping the Promises
I asked him how he manages to fulfill the three promises he made to Rabbi Sherer years ago in this place that the inmates refer to as "hell on earth." He explained each point with clarity and commitment, reflecting great courage.
Being a person of superior intellect (as is obvious after just a few minutes of conversation), he was selected to head the administration in the prison factory where many of the inmates work each day. That type of work (the most respectable job in the institution), however, would not allow him to avoid chillul Shabbos and Yom Tov, and would also force him to interact with the fellow inmates on a regular basis. He therefore had himself switched to the degrading job of cleaning latrines and toilets several times a day, each and every day. This difficult, backbreaking job could sink any man's spirits, especially someone of superior intelligence. Yet, to Pollard, it represents a victory, as it reduces the possibility of violating Shabbos, and allows him the solitude to daven (as he does every day), and carry on Jewish living to the best of his ability under those circumstances.
His adherence to kashrus (his second promise) has not come without a huge price tag. Subsisting on canned tuna and sardines for so many years has caused his body to have a dangerously high mercury level that has resulted in a severe blood pressure problem, a heart condition, and a host of other maladies that have brought his health to a very precarious state. Not only are there no complaints, but he also views this as another small victory against his detractors.
His third promise is the most difficult one. For a man who has suffered so much for more than two decades, and is totally ignored by the country that he attempted to help, to remain steadfast in his emuna and bitachon is truly a heroic feat of epic proportions. He explained how he does so with three different deep and heartfelt thoughts, expressed in different parts of our four-hour conversation. At first he said, "I promised myself at the beginning of this nightmare that I would come out the same way I came in." Then he added, "I love my land, Eretz Yisroel, and I love my wife more than my enemies hate me." Finally, toward the end of our conversation, he made the following bold explanation: "I don't represent myself. I represent all Jews. Our enemies are watching me to see if they can break me. For that alone I must remain strong. I must stay strong in my emuna and bitachon to show the world what Klal Yisroel is all about."
What motivated Pollard to do what he did? One can gain an insight from several articles published years ago that reported a conversation that Pollard had with his supervisors in the U.S. Department of Naval Affairs. He asked them why information about the poison gas capabilities of Israel's sworn enemies was being withheld from Israel. He was reportedly told, "Jews are too sensitive about gas."
Did the information he conveyed to Israel help them? In 1998, William Northrop, the Middle East Bureau Chief for New Dimensions, wrote that Israeli intelligence experts called him "the ghost of the sealed rooms," for it was largely due to his efforts and sacrifice that they were prepared when Saddam launched El-Abed, the Iraqi missile, at Israel in January of 1991.
This author has no intention of discussing the pros or cons of Pollard's actions and whether they were halachically permitted or not. We will leave that to the beis hamidrash. The purpose of this article is to focus on what the Torah community has done (or has not done) for Pollard in the past, what it is currently doing (or not doing), and what we must do in the future. We as a community have neglected him long enough.
In 1993, a kol korei (public proclamation) was issued calling for Klal Yisroel to do its utmost for Pollard, and it was signed by no less than thirty gedolim from a broad range of kehillos. Since that kol korei was issued, the major response has been one of silence. Jonathan Pollard constantly questions his visitors regarding the lack of voices from the Torah community. "What happened to the kol korei of a decade ago?" he asks.
Response to the Kol Korei
It may be of no surprise that secular Jews throughout the world have ignored the Pollard story, both on an individual and an organizational basis. In fact, just six days after he received his life sentence, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations sent a
letter dated March 10, 1987 to the United States State Department, promising to never interfere on Pollard's behalf. We have not galvanized and organized ourselves after the issuance of the kol korei in 1993. We should be asking ourselves the question that Jonathan Pollard asks.
In my address at Shalosh Seudos at the recent National Convention of Agudath Israel held in Stamford, CT on Thanksgiving weekend, I posed this question to the esteemed assemblage that included rabbinical leaders, lay people, and hundreds of wonderful Jews. All had the same two reactions: We were not aware of this. To the contrary, what can we do?
What is it about the Pollard issue that prevents people from getting involved? I decided to find out, and I selected ten rabbinical leaders and, with a sense of respect, asked each of them why they hadn't taken any initiatives on the matter. Let me share briefly a sampling of their thoughts, with some comments.
Some felt that every legal option had been pursued, and had failed. With the U.S. Supreme Court confirming the life sentence, [J4JP: the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. It did not confirm the sentence. It ignored it!] it is really a hopeless situation. I offered an insight from the Zohar that says that there was a criticism directed at Avraham Avinu for not continuing to daven for the people of Sodom, even after being told by Hakadosh Baruch Hu that there were not ten righteous people in the city. And even though Avraham understood that according to midas hadin (strict justice), the city was to be destroyed, he should have davened anyway. Even though the legal situation clearly looks hopeless, the Zohar instructs us that we must continue to try.
Several others pointed out that efforts were made, and after so many failures, one becomes fatigued. While that is understandable, Jews should never give up. When a person loses his energy, his entire perspective and even his way of life suffers and sometimes, even his entire destiny. This, too, is to be found in the Torah's description of Bnei Yisroel in their battle with Amaleik. It says "ve'atta ayeif veyageia - and you were tired and fatigued." This implies that if Bnei Yisroel permit an ayeif state to take hold of them, then and only then can Amaleik overtake them. Being tired or even exhausted from previous efforts on Pollard's behalf should not be permitted to take its toll on us. We must redouble our efforts as he begins his twenty-second year in Geihinnom.
And finally, one rav suggested that some people are not aware of Pollard's religious dedication. They judge him by his physical demeanor, such as his long, shoulder-length hair. I shared with him an incident involving the late Satmar Rebbe zt"l.
The Rebbe felt greatly indebted to the late Agudah leader, Reb Elimelech Tress l"z, for having saved him from the inferno in Europe. When Mr. Tress passed away, the Satmar Rebbe came to the levaya and also paid a shiva call to his family.
One Chassid remarked to the Rebbe, "Why do you show Mike Tress so much honor when he didn't have a beard?"
The Rebbe replied, "I know that he didn't have a beard, and in the next world they are going to ask him, 'Jew, Jew, where is your beard?' But do you know what they are going to say to you? They will say 'Beard, beard, where is your Jew?'"
Jonathan Pollard has given his freedom, career, health, future and very life for Klal Yisroel and Eretz Yisroel. Who among us, with our finely trimmed hair, can make a similar claim?
Consulting Gedolei Eretz Yisroel
The day after the Agudah Convention, I flew to Eretz Yisroel to present this issue to the senior poseik and Torah authority, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv shlita, and for his position as to our communal responsibility to focus our efforts on freeing Pollard. I was zocheh to spend a considerable amount of time with Rabbi Elyashiv in his home on Wednesday, November 29th, 2006.
Rabbi Elyashiv showed great interest in the case, and when he heard that I visited with Pollard just a few weeks ago, he questioned me in great detail about his health, state of mind, and level of commitment to mitzvos. He commented that although Pollard is being held captive because he committed a crime, his long and difficult sentence is not in line with his crime. Clearly, at this stage, he is being penalized because he is a Jew. Add to that the long period of his suffering - now 22 years. It is clearly a chessed gadol - a great act of compassion - to do whatever we can do for him.
When I asked if I could quote him that this is indeed a "chessed gadol," he said, "No." He then quickly continued, "What you can say in my name is that it is a 'chessed gadol me'od - an extremely great act of compassion.'" Rabbi Elyashiv then concluded with a beracha that all who involve themselves in this mitzvah be zocheh to all the berachos of "osei mitzvos." (Rabbi Aryeh Elyashiv shlita, grandson and confidante of the Rav, was present during this conversation.)
Should we initiate a massive letter-writing campaign throughout the community, and in all the yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, to our senators and congressmen? For this, we turn to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) of Agudath Israel of America for guidance as to the proper course of action. Since this writing, the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah has met on this matter, and issued
the statement that appears on the facing page.
One thing is obvious. We must do whatever we can. Not only for the sake of Jonathan Pollard. Klal Yisroel is currently in a very difficult situation. How much do we all need the individual and collective zechus of a mitzvah rabba!
[For more information on the Pollard case, one can visit the website: jonathanpollard.org, or call the National Council of Young Israel office (212) 929-1525 ext. 115, or e-mail Rabbi Pesach Lerner at email@example.com.]
To assist Jonathan Pollard and enable him to buy the food items he desperately needs from the prison canteen, and enable him to pay for the phone calls he needs to make, etc, etc. contributions can be sent to Young Israel Charities, 111 John Street, suite 450, New York, NY 10038, att: Pollard.
Rabbi Ginzberg, founding rav of Ohr Moshe Torah Institute in Hillcrest, NY, is currently rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center of Cedarhurst (Long Island), New York. He is a frequent contributor to these pages.
Here are the approximate meanings in English of some of the Hebrew words in the above article:
mitzvah/mitzvos: commandment; an obligatory divinely ordained imperative
mitzvah Rabba: an exceptionally great mitzvah
(lehavdil elef havdalos): to make clear distinction
Pirkei Avos: Ethics of the Fathers
Chazal: Our Sages of Blessed Memory
Chessed: a mitzvah to perform; an act of lovingkindness
Sefarim: religious books; holy books
Gedolim: Sages; Great Leaders
pidyon shevuyim: the mitzvah of redeeming a captive
chizuk: strength and encouragement; moral support
emunah: faith in G-d; belief in G-d
bitachon: trust in G-d; reliance upon G-d
Klal Yisroel: the Jewish People
Tzitzis: ritual fringes
Chillul Shabbat: desecration of the Sabbath
Hakadosh Baruch Hu : The Holy One Blessed Be He
Beis Hamidrash: Jewish study hall
To be zocheh to all the berachos of osei mitzvos: to merit all the blessings that accrue to those who perform mitzvos.