Small Deeds, Great Rewards
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
When the kings of Mesopotamia overran Sodom and Amorrah, the Torah tells us (Bereishit 14:13) that "the refugee came and reported to Avram" that his nephew Lot and his family had been taken captive. Avram quickly marshaled his forces, gave chase and liberated the captives.
Who was this mysterious escapee? Our Sages identify him as Og, king of the Bashan, who escaped death during the Flood by holding on to Noach's ark. His timely report from the battlefield enabled Avram to rescue his captive nephew.
Many years later, when the Jewish people prepared to launch the conquest of Canaan, Og's kingdom stood in the way. The Torah tells us (Bereishit 21:34), "And God said to Moshe, 'Do not fear him, for I have delivered him into your hands.'" From this, we can infer that Moshe was afraid. Why was he afraid?
The Talmud explains (Nidah 61a) that Moshe was afraid that the merit of saving Lot's life would protect Og against the invading Jewish people.
But let us dig a little deeper. Why indeed did Og bring the battlefield report to Avram? What were his motives? Was he concerned for Lot's safety and welfare? Hardly. Rashi explains that he was hoping Avram would rush into battle with the Mesopotamia kings, as he actually did, and that he would perish on the battlefield. This would leave Sarah a widow, and he, Og, would marry her.
Not very noble motives. Og was certainly not thinking of chessed, of performing an act of kindness. And yet, despite the glaring lack of altruism, the act itself was considered such a powerful merit for Og that Moshe was afraid to engage him in battle so many years later without specific Divine reassurance. Rav Leib Chasman points out that this shows us the incredible power and reward of a mitzvah, no matter how small and imperfect.
A similar story took place during the Holocaust, where a relatively minor good deed was, according to the Bluzhever Rebbe, repaid with immense reward.
A Jewish family by the name of Hiller - a husband, wife and a 6-year-old boy named Shachne - were living in the Krakow ghetto in 1942. Prospects for survival were extremely dim. People were being deported to Auschwitz almost daily. Only those capable of working for the German war effort had any hope of survival. A little boy didn't stand a chance.
As time passed, the situation grew ever more desperate. The Hillers despaired of keeping little Shachne alive in the ghetto. There was only one chance. The Hillers were friends with a Polish couple named Jakovicz, who had no children of their own. They felt that these people were trustworthy and that they would take good care of little Shachne until the war was over.
On the night of November 15, 1942, Mrs. Hiller and little Shachne, at the risk of being shot on sight, slipped past the guardposts of the ghetto and into the city. Hearts pounding, they ran through the streets under cover of darkness, two shadows in the misty night, until they reached the Jakovicz house.
"Who knows if we will ever survive this horrible war?" Mrs. Hiller told her Polish friend. "If my husband and I survive, or even one of us, we will come back for our precious Shachne. But if we do not survive, Heaven forbid, I am relying on you to deliver him to our relatives." She slipped her hand into her pocket and brought out two envelopes addressed in a spidery handwriting. The ink was smudged as if by falling tears. "Here are two letters. One is to our relatives in Montreal, the other to our relatives in Washington. Either of them will take him and raise him as a Jew. Even if we die, at least Shachne will carry on as a Jew. I am relying on you, my dear friend, to see this through. God bless you, my friend."
Unfortunately, the Hillers' trust in the Jakovicz family was misplaced. The Hillers perished in the Holocaust, but they had not left their precious Shachne in good hands. Mrs. Jakovicz, a devout Catholic, loved the boy, and he loved her in return. She took him to mass regularly and taught him all the Catholic hymns and prayers. Within a few years, he was just like a Christian child.
In 1946, when it became clear that Shachne's parents were not coming back for him, Mrs. Jakovicz approached the young parish priest to discuss having the boy baptized as a Christian. During their discussion, the priest discerned that the boy in question was already 10 years old so he asked Mrs. Jakovicz why he had not been brought for baptism in all the preceding years. Mrs. Jakovicz was evasive, and the priest grew more curious. Finally, she told him the entire story.
The young priest urged Mrs. Jakovicz to fulfill her promise to the boy's dead parents and honor their wishes for their son. Mrs. Jakovicz relented and sent off the letters to the relatives in America. In June 1949, through the efforts of the Canadian Jewish Congress, fourteen Jewish orphans from Poland, Shachne among them, were allowed into Canada. In February 1951, by a special act of Congress signed by President Truman, Shachne was allowed into the United States, and he went to live with his family in Washington.
Shachne grew up as a religious Jew in the United States unaware of his close call with baptism. He was successful in the business world, rising to the level of vice president of an important corporation. Throughout the years, he retained close bonds of love and gratitude with Mrs. Jakovicz. He kept in touch with her and sent her letters, gifts and money. She never mentioned that she had almost had him baptized.
Finally, in 1978, Mrs. Jakovicz felt she had to clear her conscience. She wrote a letter to Shachne in which she admitted the entire story to him. She wrote about the parish priest who had urged her to do the right thing. His name was Karol Wojtyla, better known to the world as Pope John Paul II.
"Who can know why God does what He does?" observed the Bluzhever Rebbe. "But it seems reasonable to me that for that one word of good advice the young priest gave this Polish woman he was rewarded with the greatest award possible for a priest. He became the pope."
COUNT THE STARS
What are you supposed to do when you are asked to do the impossible? Most people would simply shrug their shoulders and forget about it. After all, doing the impossible is impossible, isn't it? Not necessarily.
The Torah tells us that Hashem promised Avram that he would have children (Bereishit 15:3-5). "And Avram said, 'O my Master, Lord, what can you give me if I am childless?' ... And He brought him outside, and He said, 'Look up at the sky and count the stars, can you count them?' And he said to him, 'So shall your children be.'"
Rav Meir Shapiro asks what a person would do if he were told to count the stars. One look at the myriad stars in the heavens would tell what an impossible task this was, and he would not even bother to attempt it. But that is not what Avram did. When Hashem told him to "look up at the sky and count the stars," that is exactly what he did. He began to count the stars even though doing so appeared to be impossible.
"Koh yihyeh zarecha," Hashem responded. "So shall your children be." Avram's extraordinary trait of eternal optimism, his refusal to acknowledge the impossibility of any task, will characterize his descendants. This will be the hallmark of the Jewish people. No matter how difficult a task may seem, the Jew will not despair. He will try and try and try again.
And when we try, amazing things often happen. Even if we think something is entirely beyond our meager abilities, when we try persistently we discover strengths and abilities that we never knew we possessed. We find in ourselves new reservoirs of capability, new potential that we never knew existed. We learn we can go beyond all the limits and restrictions that we had considered impenetrable boundaries.
A blind Jew once brought a volume of his Torah insights to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. He asked Rav Isser Zalman to take a look at one particular piece. "That piece," he remarked, "was the last piece I wrote, and then I went blind."
"I worked on my sefer for many years," the man explained. "I toiled over the Gemara and Rishonim and Poskim with every fiber of my being, and my labors were blessed with some success. Some of the pieces are really very good. But they took so much effort, and I was getting older. One day, after finishing work on a chiddush, I decided that I had had enough. I just didn't have the strength to keep this up. From now on, I decided, I would continue to learn, but I would not put in the effort necessary to come up with chiddushei Torah, novel Torah insights. I wrote down my chiddush, and there and then," he paused and took a deep breath, "I became blind!"
"Did you go to doctors?" asked Rav Isser Zalman.
"Of course I went to doctors," the man replied. "And you know what they told me? They said that based on the condition of my eyes I should have been blind ten years earlier. They simply could not understand why I hadn't gone blind before."
For ten years, this man had done the impossible. He had studied and written chiddushei Torah, using eyes that should not have been functioning. But "so shall your children be." Jewish people, the descendants of Avraham, can accomplish the impossible.