May 9, 2024
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May 9, 2024
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Mitzvahs Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Mitzvahs come in all shapes and sizes. We do not know the true value each commandment holds in the eyes of God. Some are easy, while others are hard. Easy or difficult, the obligation to perform them exists nonetheless. Naturally we can reason, “Well. it’s raining, so I guess I’ll skip minyan today” or “I would keep kosher but there’s very little kosher food where I work, so what can I do?” Yet as my wise pal Andy often quips, “Your excuses are your own.”

The good news is that Chazal understood this all too well, letting us know that “the reward is in proportion to the exertion.” Rather than viewing certain more challenging mitzvahs as a hindrance, view them as a golden opportunity to maximize that very mitzvah—and our reward—along the way. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the difference between a guy who throws on his tefillin for a minute, as opposed to the guy who is exhausted yet wakes up earlier and goes to minyan for a more meaningful, not to mention more effective davening.

Going the extra mile, particularly when the challenges are great, and fighting for your mitzvot, can elevate our neshamas to the loftiest heights.

No one understands this better than Judah Wallis, z”l, who was walking in Dachau in 1945 when suddenly a Jew being taken to his death flung a small bag of tefillin towards him. Being caught with tefillin was punishable by death, so he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his barracks.

In the morning, before roll call, he awoke early and quietly lay tefillin when suddenly a German officer appeared from nowhere, and sentenced him to death.

“Dog, what is your last wish?”

“To wear my tefillin one last time,” Wallis replied. The officer was dumbfounded, and Wallis put them on, reciting the brachas aloud.

The entire camp, including the neighboring female camp, was forced to watch, and the cries were many. In Yiddish, Wallis called out, “Yidden, I am the victor. Don’t you understand? I am the winner!”

Because German and Yiddish are similar, the German officer understood what he said and was livid. “You dog, you think you are the winner? He grabbed Wallis, who was then forced into a squatting position, and two huge rocks were placed under his arms. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head—the head where he placed his tefillin. The officer told Wallis that if he dropped even one of the rocks, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such a painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”

Wallis’ response was, “No, I won’t give you the pleasure.”

At the 25th lash, the prisoner lost consciousness and was left for dead. Later, a Jew moved him to the side, covered and eventually hid him for two months until he was ultimately liberated. During the beating episode, a 17-year-old girl witnessed the events and was clearly moved by this man’s unyielding kiddush Hashem. After the liberation, she eventually found Walls and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?”

The couple requested that the holy Klausenberger Rebbe perform the marriage ceremony. He wrote the ketubah (marriage contract) by hand from memory and married them. Their son still has the handwritten ketubah to this day. The greatness Wallis achieved, along with the brachas he brought his family from that one act, is unfathomable.

Hashem sees the efforts we make to fulfill many of the mitzvot, which not only heighten the mitzvah, but also shows Him how far we are willing to go for that mitzvah. Sometimes the effort we exert is the very ingredient that empowers our future generations to reach epic heights. I was reminded of this idea recently when I heard the following speech from my neighbor’s father, Ephraim, who along with his fabulous wife, just became great grandparents, b”ah.

“We lived through the vicious oppressive communist regime in the Soviet Union. Any religious activity was strictly forbidden. It was unimaginable and even scary to think and plan a bris for your baby. It was a criminal offense punishable by many years in prison.

“But we came out with a plan. There was one mohel in the town of Tchernowitz, about 250 miles from Khust where we lived—an old, dedicated man, a military feldsher comparable here to a PA, physician assistant, who risked his freedom to perform the mitzvah. But since he lived very far, he would prefer to do it for at least three babies.

“Chasdei Hashem, three babies were born within a month and he agreed to come. We hired a taxi for him and arranged for the day of the bris, which was in our house. But how do you get a minyan that the neighbors should not realize that some kind of Jewish gathering is taking place in your house? They would immediately inform the KGB about suspicious activity by us.

“We came up with a plan that the people would gather at 6 in the morning when the neighbors were still asleep. It worked and the bris was b”H successfully performed. There were no caterers, bagels, cream cheese or lox. My mother, a”h, baked bilkelech and a lekach. We opened cans of sardines, shared one lemon, had a l’chaim with Slivovitz and a piece of lekach. It was a real Yom Tov and a great feeling of relief that the important mitzvah of the bris was successfully performed.

“The men were filing out of the house one by one, so the gathering would not be detected by the goyishe neighbors. Later in the day, one neighbor walked over and inquired what was happening in our house. So Vera came up with a story that her parents visited us early in the morning and woke us up, causing a whole commotion. The lie worked. Then came the next issue: How do you conceal the baby’s bris from the visiting nurse? So Vera left Khust and went to her parents’ house in Selish, the next town. She stayed there until the baby healed.

“Had the authorities found out that we performed the bris, we would be charged with a criminal offense of abusing and injuring the baby and would be sent to prison. This is briefly the true story of mesiras nefesh we had to go through to perform the mitzvah of bris milah and secretly observe other mitzvahs to continue the way of Jewish life.”

This story took place so many years ago, but the seeds were set as this family went to great lengths to fulfill a mitzvah. Today, Ephraim and his wonderful wife have two amazing boys, grandchildren, and now, great-grandchildren b”ah, who are legitimate pillars of their communities.

It makes perfect sense to me. The seeds that were planted so many years ago by these courageous people became strongly entrenched and firmly rooted in the ground, making them impervious to even the harshest evil regimes. Indeed, the reward is not only proportional to the exertion, but it is also the blessing that sustains us as well as our future generations.

Avi Ciment lives in Florida and is a longtime columnist for The Jewish Press. He lectures throughout the world and has just finished his second book, “Real Questions Real Answers.” He can be reached at

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