The mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh, sanctifying the new moon, is the first mitzvah given to the nascent Jewish nation in Egypt, and forms the basis of the Jewish lunar calendar wherein all the festivals are found. The Skulener Rebbe, R’ Eliezer Zusia Portugal, zt”l, would understand the words of David HaMelech in Tehillim: “MeiHashem mitz’adei gever, konanu vidarko yechpatz, From Hashem a mighty man’s steps are established, for He delights in his way,” as a reference to the great hashgachah that Hashem affords a Yid who is scrupulous in the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh. He would relate the following story:
During the early to mid-19th century, the Russian Czar and various maskilim of the time were greatly distressed by the regal bearing and power of the famed Rizhiner Rebbe, R’ Yisroel Friedman, zt”l. Through his royal conduct, which was well-known and documented, the Rizhiner greatly uplifted the level of the downtrodden masses. The maskilim had long been plotting to bring about the Rebbe’s downfall, but without success. In 1838, when R’ Yisroel was 40 years old, he was arrested on charges of being complicit in a murder. An informer brought evidence that the Rizhiner had ordered the execution of a second informer and the Czar was only too happy to send the police to arrest him. As the Rebbe was taken into custody, he cried, “Gam ki eileich b’gei tzalmaves, Even as I am taken to be locked up, I am not afraid. One thing upsets me, though, ki Atah imadi, that You, Hashem, will be with me – Shechinta b’galusa, the Shechinah will also be in galus with me.”
Following the orders of the Czar himself, the Rebbe was locked up in the notorious Kiev dungeon under terrible conditions in a small, dark, and damp cellar. No charges were ever brought against him, nor was he ever put on trial. But these things didn’t bother the Rizhiner as much as the fact that he was unable to perform certain mitzvos while in prison. One mitzvah in particular that he was most distraught over was his inability to do Kiddush Levanah, blessing the new moon, which requires one to stand under the night sky and see the moon before making the blessing. The Rebbe was never allowed out of his cell and the guards were most strict about this. It pained him that he could not properly do this mitzvah.
One night, the Rizhiner was lying in his cell when he heard the sound of groaning coming from outside his door. He heard Yiddish words and realized that the guard was Jewish. He quickly knocked on the door. The guard opened it and the Rebbe saw a large, physically imposing man standing before him. He may have been big and burly, but deep down his heart was as soft and tender as befitting a true Yiddishe neshamah. The Rizhiner said to him, “My dear Jew, please allow me to walk outside for a few short minutes to fulfill a very important mitzvah. I will be very quick and no one has to know the wiser.”
The guard took pity on the Rebbe but he was terrified to disobey a direct order. This prisoner was never allowed to go outside, and if he was caught doing so, not only would the Rebbe suffer, but the guard in charge would pay dearly. “Rebbe, my shift is over in a few short minutes, and if the new guard will show up and find me escorting you outside, he will report me.”
But the Rizhiner’s soft voice and promise of blessings were too much to ignore. Finally, the guard agreed to allow him outside for just a few minutes. R’ Yisroel stood in the prison courtyard and poured out his heart to his Creator. He gazed at the shining moon and davened with such tremendous emotion and intensity. The mitzvah that had been eluding him was finally within his grasp. Tears poured down his cheeks as he said the timeless blessing and, indeed, time seemed to stand still.
As far as the guard was concerned, though, time had not stopped at all – it was moving along quite rapidly! Fifteen minutes went by, and then another 15 minutes. The guard was sweating profusely, terrified that he was about to be caught, but he could not muster the nerve to halt the Rizhiner Rebbe’s immense prayers. Finally, after 45 minutes, the Rebbe completed the blessing and dutifully went back into his cell, accompanied by the astonished and relieved guard.
Literally seconds later, the new guard came through the door, apologizing to his comrade. “I am so sorry. I have no idea how it happened, but I got lost on my way here. I walk this route every day and it is not far, but tonight, the moment I left my house, I became totally and completely lost. I could not find my way here. It took me over 45 minutes to find this place!”
Said the Skulener, “‘A mighty man’s steps are established.’ Every step a person takes is orchestrated from above – and if he gets lost, that too was meant to be!”
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com.