The problems facing a fellow Jew are our problems, and the tears streaming down their faces are just as real to us as they are to them. If we are looking for ways to repent our sins with a complete t’shuvah and herald the holy day of Yom Kippur when we reunite with our Father in Heaven, this is where we must begin. We reach upwards by reaching outwards.
The Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah in Kew Gardens was known to be a man of towering greatness and wisdom. Worthy of being called the “Rosh Yeshivah’s Rosh Yeshivah,” Rav Zelig Epstein zt”l served as the address for countless individuals, including other well-known rabbanim and organizations, who sought his counsel and guidance. As a man who rendered and resolved serious life decisions, his broad shoulders provided succor and support to all those who needed it.
On one such occasion, Rav Zelig shouldered the burdens of a woman who had tragically been widowed. Having survived the Holocaust together with her husband, they arrived at the shores of America and went on to build a family with three children. Unfortunately, the pangs of the Holocaust took an irreparable toll on her husband and he could not take it any longer. Tragically, he decided to end his own life. Having left his wife behind, she now faced a murky future as both a Holocaust survivor and a lonely widow. She was very fragile and needed someone to turn to for solace. Rav Zelig was that individual.
Some time later, one of her children grew very ill and needed medical treatment. Once again, Rav Zelig stepped forward. Overseeing all the medical procedures that were involved in caring for the child, Rav Zelig’s efforts bore fruit, at least for a short while. Until Erev Yom Kippur of that year, when matters decidedly took a turn for the worse and the many sorrows that already troubled this widow grew exponentially. Her beloved son passed away, leaving her alone in the world.
It was already too close to Yom Kippur to go about with the burial, and so it would have to be postponed for another day. Yet, here was this woman, having survived the inferno of the Holocaust, lost a husband to suicide, and now a child to illness. She most certainly could have filled up a full cup with tears. Rav Zelig, however, was a bit more worried than that.
Walking to Kol Nidrei later that evening, Rav Zelig began thinking if just perhaps this tragedy would be the proverbial straw that would break the camel’s back. Just maybe, this woman would not be able to endure her loss and she would break down and meet the same fate as her husband, G-d forbid. Rav Zelig made a quick decision. He decided to skip Kol Nidrei and the Yom Kippur davening and instead walk to this woman’s house and spend the holy day with her. Were he to give her the emotional support she needed at this painful time, perhaps she would be able to pull through. But as Rav Zelig continued walking, he realized that it would take him well over an hour to make it to the woman’s house. And maybe an hour was too long.
Without further delay, Rav Zelig decided to confer with his mentor, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, as to the proper course of action. Quickly entering Yeshiva Torah Vodaath where Rav Yaakov was davening, he caught the Rosh Yeshivah in the middle of reciting the blessings prior to Sh’ma. But Rav Zelig had a pressing and urgent matter that could not wait even a minute.
Making his way over to Rav Yaakov, he asked, “Can I take a bus to visit this widow so she will not remain by herself?”
Well aware that between carrying the money for the bus fare and traveling to the woman’s house, some violation of Yom Kippur was involved, Rav Yaakov nevertheless pointed to a few coins placed near him. The money that Rav Yaakov had designated to be used for his own bus fare after Yom Kippur went to Rav Zelig instead, to do this important mitzvah.
And so, Rav Zelig Epstein, one of the preeminent leaders of the previous generation, ran to the nearest bus stop and traveled to the home of this poor widow on the night of Kol Nidrei – just so she would not remain alone. And it was all because he thought that maybe out of the misery of her life, she would decide to cut it short. It was there that Rav Zelig spent the rest of Yom Kippur, offering care and comfort to a woman who was facing the most trying of times. (Rabbi Yissocher Frand)