Obviously, it was “among them.” Pinchas did not go into a backroom to negotiate a settlement between the sinners. He acted decisively within sight of the entire nation. Horav Yehudah Tzedakah, zl, explains that the Torah places emphasis on the b’socham, among them, to teach us that Pinchas did not fear repercussion. His sincerity and love were apparent as he placed Hashem and His Glory above his personal life and welfare. He epitomizes the true kanai, zealot. Indeed, in his commentary to Bereishis 18:26, “If I find fifty righteous (persons) within (b’soch) the city,” Ibn Ezra writes, “Those who fear G-d publicly.” Regrettably, there are many G-d-fearing, righteous, wonderful people who, despite their credible virtue, shy away from taking a public stand against spiritual aggression. They fear for their jobs, their standing in the community, their children – all spineless reasons for reneging one’s responsibility.
The Ponevezer Rav, zl, was an individual who was loved by many and revered by all. He never shied away from assuming responsibility, from taking a stand, from telling it like it was. Like many cities in Europe prior to World War II, Ponevez was beset with Jewish secularists whose primary goal in life was to destroy the relationship which the observant Jew had with the Torah. Whenever the opportunity arose to denigrate Torah, defame the Orthodox community, slander Hashem and His adherents, they were there, fully committed to doing the damage. As citizens of Ponevez and proponents of the Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment, they fought the Rav at every juncture, since he was usually the only one who had the courage to stand up to them.
The secularists were determined to provide the community with an evening of entertainment. They wanted the entertainment to reflect their own allegiance to the base society that prevailed in Europe. Nothing was too ribald. Debauchery and flagrant degradation of morality were what they felt would not only allow the people to have a pleasure-filled evening, but also ensure the breakdown of the hold that religion had on them.
That Shabbos, prior to Tefillas Mussaf, the Ponevezer Rav ascended to the lectern to deliver his drashah, lecture. Instead, he made the following appeal to their sensibilities. “My brethren! [He always prefaced his speeches with achai, my brethren]. Yehudim, Jews! We are descendants of Mordechai and Esther and not descendants of the foolish King Achashveirosh, who sought to display his Queen Vashti for all the land to gaze upon her beauty.”
That was all he said. No more. He did not have to say more. The mispallelim, worshippers, knew to what he was referring. They understood his subtle message: “We are not fools. We are not animals. We are Jews, descendants of a noble and illustrious lineage. Why would we descend to the nadir of depravity, to act like the base goyim whose culture we should eschew?”
The cracks were appearing in the spiritual fiber of Lithuanian Jewry. Every city had its issues. Every community had its breaks with traditions, its secularists, its avowed apostates. Shabbos became the first korban, sacrifice, to the god of secularism. Once the sanctity of Shabbos was impugned, the rest of the mitzvos were sure to follow. The protective spiritual gate which watched over the Jew – Shabbos Kodesh – was breached. Now, anything goes; anything could worm its way into the community. One city was spared. In Ponevez, the kedushas Shabbos, the sanctity of the holiest day of the week, the day which Hashem ordained as His day of rest, was upheld. Why? The Ponevezer Rav – of course.
The Rav spoke from the podium, addressing the overwhelming significance of Shabbos observance. There was no room for excuses. Shabbos was Shabbos. There was no wiggle room in its observance. One either observed every aspect of Shabbos, or he was a mechallel Shabbos, desecrator of Shabbos. There was no allowance for negotiation of any kind. Noted for his oratory skills, the Rav spoke sharply, passionately, with abounding love – but emphatically stating that he would not condone any chillul Shabbos.
The people listened – well, most of them: “Rebbe, I have no recourse but to end Shabbos prematurely. I cannot wait until after sundown,” the town’s baker declared, “or I will lose my livelihood.” People had been talking about his entering his bakery an hour before the end of Shabbos to fire up the ovens and prepare the dough. Bread was a staple; it was his source of income. “Rebbe, what should I do?” the baker cried out.
The Rav looked at the man and countered, “What do you want from me? Is Shabbos my personal possession that I can forego part of it? Shabbos belongs to Hashem. It is concerning Shabbos that Hashem writes in the Torah, Mechalilehah mos yumas, “Those who desecrate it will surely die.’” The Rav was not holding back. These people had to hear him tell it like it was – without embellishment or compromise.
Nonetheless, there were those who had the chutzpah, audacity, to desecrate Shabbos, continuing to work on Friday night as if Shabbos did not exist. Concerning them, the Rav acted with diplomacy. He neither reproved them, nor did he deride them publicly from the podium; he did not go out against them to protest their flagrant desecration of Shabbos. He believed in silent protest. Every Friday night, on his way to shul, he would stop by the barbershop which remained open, stick his head into the store, and, with his huge signature smile say, “A gutten Shabbos!” He immediately continued on to shul.
This subtle form of protest went on week after week. The Rav did not tire. Regrettably, the barber kept up his desecration of Shabbos. The man was a barber, and Shabbos was a busy day. Finally, one Friday night, when the Rav made his rounds, the barber came over to him and said, “Rebbe, I cannot continue like this. You are causing me to renege on my Judaism and apostatize myself!”
The Ponevezer Rav was not fazed by this remark. He replied, “Do not worry. Do not concern yourself. If you must – you must. In fact, I will give you the necessary funds to pay the priest for your baptism! One thing is for certain: No Jew in this city will keep his store open on Shabbos!”
Sadly, even this latest admonishment did not succeed in bringing the barber to his knees. He refused to close his doors on Shabbos. It was nothing personal. He just had to earn a living, and people were willing to take haircuts on Shabbos. The Rav tried another tactic, one which he hoped he would not have to employ, but it was crunch time: Shabbos was being desecrated in his city. He could not stand idly by and allow this tragedy to continue unabated.
One Friday night, the worshippers in the city’s main shul noticed that the Rav was late in arriving. This was unusual, since the Rav was always one of the first men in the shul. After a half hour went by, the people began to worry. Something must have happened. The Rav was never late. After an hour had elapsed, the members dispatched one of the yeshivah students to search for the Rav. After combing the town, the student discovered the Rav sitting in the Jewish-owned barbershop. He was certainly not taking a haircut. He just sat there learning from a sefer. Apparently, after weeks of trying to get the barber to close his business for Shabbos, the Rav had come up with a new idea – one that was working. Anyone who entered the barbershop and noticed the Rav sitting there immediately found reason to leave. It was one thing to be mechallel Shabbos; it was totally another to do so in the presence of the Ponevezer Rav. Finally, after the barber literally threw in the towel and promised to no longer remain open on Shabbos, the Rav left the establishment and went to shul. Now, he could daven with a restful mind. This is the meaning of quiet protest – kanaus, with diplomacy. It may not work with everyone – nor does it work for everyone, but it does work. Perhaps it should be the first response to a spiritual incursion.