Never Lose Hope
December 3, 2021
An Inspiring Conversation with Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin
Rabbi Mordechai Resnick
Who doesn’t remember Chanukah of 2017, when Jews danced in the street to celebrate Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin’s release from prison? Rabbi Rubashkin’s horrifying ordeal had been followed closely by Jews all around the world; his suffering was our pain, and his ultimate miracle was our shared triumph. The brutality of the raid on his Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse shocked us all, and the open hostility and corruption on display throughout his trial and subsequent sentencing left us all horrified.
But his message of hope and bitachon never quieted throughout the long years of his wrongful incarceration. Rather than allowing his challenges to break him, he used them as an opportunity to grow in emunah and bitachon. People would travel to Otisville to provide some chizuk, and they would leave themselves mechuzak. Letters of encouragement sent to him were responded to with masterpieces of inspiration.
After meeting him at one of his Sha’ar Habitachon shiurim, Rabbi Rubashkin invited me to his home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Jackson to share his thoughts on his miraculous release and his recent work as a mashpia in the Lakewood area.
Rabbi Rubashkin was born and raised in Boro Park. He went to Stolin yeshivah through fifth grade, leaving every day with his brother before general studies began to learn in a local shul. For the next three years, he learned in Torah Vodaath, where he built a strong relationship with his eighth-grade rebbi, Rabbi Yitzchok Finkel. For ninth grade, he learned in Tomchei Temimim on Ocean Parkway, followed by Morristown and finally, Crown Heights.
He married in 1981 and moved to Crown Heights. Nine years later he joined his father’s slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors, in Postville, Iowa. For three years, he lived in nearby Minnesota, until he moved his family to Postville in 1993.
In 2008, Rabbi Rubashkin’s terrible nisyonos began when he was arrested following a massive ICE raid on Agriprocessors. After all efforts to have his conviction overturned failed and he spent eight years in federal prison, then-President Trump commuted his sentence to time served, thus ending his long ordeal and allowing him to return home to his family.
Moving to Jackson
Just over a year ago, Rabbi Rubashkin moved to Jackson to be close to two of his children who live there. Since then, he has initiated multiple shiurim in various locations on Sha’ar Habitachon. He also gives regular shiurim for women, including his “Heal the Heart” program, which outlines a practical path to overcoming anxiety and attaining tranquility through emunah and bitachon in Hashem. His shiurim are frequented by laymen as well as talmidei chachamim looking for some chizuk; his astonishingly clear grasp of the intricate details of this complex and easily misunderstood sugyah is quickly evident to all participants.
In addition, Rabbi Rubashkin frequently visits local mosdos and attends Shabbatonim. He finds teaching very enjoyable and fulfilling, and he rarely turns down a request. He also receives multiple calls weekly from people who are going through challenges such as illness R”l, and he tries his best to provide any chizuk he can by reviewing the yesodos of bitachon and answering any questions the caller may have.
Rabbi Rubashkin emphasizes that all his shiurim, speeches, and outreach are not affiliated with any organization, office, or fund. He does not advertise any of his shiurim, and attendees mostly find out about them by word of mouth.
When asked what his plans are going forward, he laughs. “‘M’Hashem mitzadei gaver’—Hashem plans our paths. If you would have asked me fifteen years ago what my life would look like, my answer would have been very different. Besides running the business in Postville, I was being mashpia on Jews in the local kehillah. Then Hashem gave me the big nisayon, which changed everything. The goyim thought it would take twenty-seven years before I got out, but Hashem helped and it only took eight years. From stories such as this you learn that your plans aren’t important. Your plan should just be to learn Torah, do mitzvos, and serve Hashem.”
Rabbi Rubashkin goes on to explain that although he is reluctant to use the word “plan,” Hashem has given him a unique way to be mechazek other Jews, and his singular career began immediately after his release from prison. It’s one thing to speak about these ideas from a theoretical point of view and relate nice stories in a speech; it’s another level entirely to learn about bitachon and then apply its principles to real-life experiences. Rabbi Rubashkin learned Sha’ar Habitachon many times and studied the mitzvah of bitachon in-depth, and he had the opportunity to apply what he learned on a practical level as he derived solace and peace from his emunah and bitachon in Hashem within the dark walls of federal prison. His ability to share his feelings and passion with others while commiserating with their challenges has catapulted him into this unique role. As Rabbi Rubashkin explains, bitachon is not simply our deeply felt beliefs—it is a way of life.
The Inside Story
The conversation turns to Getzel Rubashkin’s brand-new book, Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin: The Inside Story. Getzel is R’ Sholom Mordechai’s oldest son and was working in the factory at the time of his arrest. He witnessed firsthand the horrifying Postville raid and the subsequent travesty of justice during his father’s sham court case.
Rabbi Rubashkin clarifies that he is not affiliated with the popular children’s graphic novel that recounts the story of his brutal incarceration and subsequent miraculous release. However, the author did approach him to ask for permission to create the book. His reply was that as long as it is clear that it isn’t an official Rubashkin version of the events, he would be happy for anyone to publicize the nissim that happened to him, the message of hope and bitachon, and his mesirus nefesh for tzitzis and tefillin, among other mitzvos. All these can be a source of great chizuk to readers.
Rabbi Rubashkin recalls that recently, he visited a girls’ school, and one of the students asked him what the goal of his book is. That question is answered in his foreword to the book, where he spells out six main lessons that he hopes the reader will learn and absorb by reading the book. Among those ideas are: seeing ourselves not only as humans, but primarily as Jews and part of Hashem’s nation; the importance of learning Torah in order to understand the ratzon Hashem; remembering that Hashem is in complete control of every aspect of our existence; and maintaining simcha in all situations. Rabbi Rubashkin asserts that after reading the foreword and understanding these concepts properly, many of the stories will have new meaning.
“A Jew has an answer to everything in life, no matter the situation. Everything is found in the Torah, and there is no need to seek answers in any outside source. The Torah teaches us how to act, think, and respond to whatever comes our way. Throughout my ordeal, for every concern, anxiety, she’eilah, and dilemma that came up, I sought an answer from the Torah.”
Since his release in 2017 (almost 19 years early), Rabbi Rubashkin has used his tale of challenge and perseverance to teach and inspire people in emunah and bitachon. His mantra of “Aleph, beis, gimmel—emunah, bitachon, geulah” gained instantaneous fame as he traveled around the globe spreading his message of hope and strength.
“As Jews, we essentially believe that Hashem does only what is best for us and saves us from evil and hardship. Emunah is something we have naturally, but paradoxically, that causes us to become complacent and think that there is no need to study the sugyah in all its details. Then, when we begin to worry in the face of challenge, we do not know how to overcome our anxiety and attain peace of mind.” He explains that we may have the foundations naturally, but bitachon must be brought out and worked on until it becomes the way we think and experience life, and this is only possible through learning about bitachon from Sha’ar Habitachon and other works of the Rishonim.
Rabbi Rubashkin underscores the essential role of studying Sha’ar Habitachon: “The avodah of bitachon is to learn it in-depth and then apply what you learned when the yetzer hara tries to get you to worry about something. Just as it is impossible to keep Shabbos without learning the laws of Shabbos, it is impossible to fulfill the mitzvah of bitachon without constantly studying it.” Although many Rishonim (such as the Ramban, Rabbeinu Yonah, and the Sefer Ha’ikarim, among others) talk about the yesodos of bitachon, Sha’ar Habitachon stands out as a thorough and organized “Shulchan Aruch” for acquiring, applying, and mastering bitachon.
What is bitachon?
Understanding bitachon vis-à-vis hishtadlus is tricky without properly studying it in the sefarim. Hishtadlus is a prerequisite to enjoying Hashem’s blessings. However, along with the obligation of hishtadlus comes a serious pitfall: shituf, ascribing power to other sources other than Hashem, chas v’shalom. The hishtadlus itself does nothing to facilitate the desired outcome, which comes solely from Hashem.
For example, when a person takes medication or pursues other forms of medical intervention, they have to remember that although Hashem wants them to do any necessary medical hishtadlus, the medicine or treatment does nothing to restore the person’s health; health comes from the Rofeh kol basar.
This tricky dichotomy can be easily confused or forgotten without constantly studying the sugyah in-depth in Sha’ar Habitachon. Additionally, the yetzer hara constantly comes up with ways to confuse us with questions that cloud our understanding or application of these core concepts.
Rabbi Rubashkin shares an anecdote that underscores how careful a person must be to remember that it is Hashem who saves us, not our hishtadlus. At one point, his lawyers advised hiring investigators to question the jurors in the South Dakota trial, which is legal in that state (although some other states do not allow this). The private eyes discovered prosecutorial misconduct which put the judge and prosecutor in a very bad light. When the court found out that the legal team planned to file these details with the government in a motion for mistrial, it threatened to hold key members of the team in contempt of court if they go through with filing the claim. This threat constituted blatant, unabashed blackmail and an attempt to cover up the gruesome details of the gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated against Rabbi Rubashkin.
At this point, Rabbi Rubashkin was ready to go ahead with the filing anyway because of its excellent chances of success, but his daughter objected that it wasn’t right to do this if someone would get hurt as a result. “After seriously weighing all sides of the issue, I came to the conclusion that it was best not to use this course of action. Since it isn’t the hishtadlus that ultimately brings about our yeshuah, no matter how promising it may seem, we are only supposed to engage in hishtadlus that follows the will of Hashem.” Rabbi Rubashkin was fully aware that this one action could very well have spelled an immediate end to his ordeal, yet he recounts this story with firm determination and not a shred of remorse in his voice. His unwavering emunah that no legal motion in the world could have succeeded before Hashem decided to set him free is clearly evident.
The Zos Chanukah miracle
As is well known, Rav Rubashkin’s sentence was commuted by Trump on the last day of Chanukah 2017. When asked about his Zos Chanukah nes, Rabbi Rubashkin shares his personal musings on the subject. “Since I had bitachon throughout the ordeal that the yeshuah would come in its proper time, I always wondered what my reaction would be when it did, in fact, occur. Would I be as excited as would be natural for someone who experiences such an amazing yeshuah, or would I be less so because it was already expected and it didn’t take me by surprise?”
Before sharing what he felt upon learning that he was free, he explains the events leading up to his release. Just the day before, he had received notice that his final appeal was denied and that there were no further legal avenues at his disposal to fight his sham trial or draconian sentencing. As far as his enemies were concerned, he was stuck in prison for another 18 years. Rabbi Rubashkin explains that this sequence of events was not an accident. By closing off all hope of release through conventional methods, Hashem was showing that He is the source of the yeshuah and that no one else can take credit. In addition, once a person’s hope is lost, Hashem no longer expects them to engage in any hishtadlus since they have nothing left to do other than have bitachon. This in turn leads to higher levels of bitachon without relying on one’s hishtadlus, which helps the person merit yeshuas Hashem.
“When a person is faced with a tzarah and he does not see any way to escape, he must work on his bitachon. Hashem has no limitations, and nothing is beyond His abilities. Remember that everything is up to Hashem, and do not stop trusting in Him and davening for the yeshuah. Whenever you feel worried, realize that it is the yetzer hara and push back.”
A person can make the mistake of thinking that they are supposed to just accept their lot and despair of being saved. They had already experienced disappointment after disappointment. Perhaps this is what Hashem wants and they should just give up?
Rabbi Rubashkin shows me the words of Rabbeinu Yonah that state that the mitzvah of bitachon refers to when all hope is lost through natural means. As long as one is still alive, they must not give up hope.
So, how did Rabbi Rubashkin feel on the day of his release? “When I was told the wonderful news that my imprisonment was over, I felt a tremendous closeness to Hashem. After all my trusting in Him, my hopes, had come to fruition. I thought, Thank You, Hashem! But those words seemed so inadequate for the tremendous yeshuah I had received. The ahavas Hashem I felt at that moment was indescribable. I had bitachon in You, Hashem, and You saved me!”
He explains that had it been an unexpected surprise, he would have been momentarily wowed but then would have quickly moved on. It was precisely because the nes wasn’t a surprise that it resulted in a lasting impression. Since all that trusting in Hashem had culminated in the actual yeshuah, he felt an even stronger connection to Hashem.
Thanking the messenger
Although Rabbi Rubashkin credits his salvation entirely to ratzon Hashem, he acknowledges the role that Trump played as the shaliach to facilitate his release. He believes that the fact that such good things could come out of the former President’s actions shows that he is from the chassidei umos ha’olam. He points to the words of Sha’ar Habitachon that state that Hashem sends His yeshuos exclusively through a tzaddik.
When asked if he ever met with Trump to thank him for commuting his sentence, he responds that although he always mentioned Trump in speeches and thanked him for being the shaliach of Hashem’s miracle, askanim thought it would be best to maintain a low profile and avoid a publicized meeting in the White House. He did, however, send a carefully worded letter to Trump to show his hakaras hatov.
At first, someone wrote the letter for him, but he was unpleased with the results. He did not want it to sound like he credited Trump for his release rather than simply recognizing his acting as Hashem’s messenger to bring it about. To get the language exactly right, he opened a Sha’ar Habitachon to where Rabbeinu Bachya says how to thank someone for their role in bringing about a yeshuah: “You should thank Hashem and thank the person for his good heart and that Hashem brought about good through him, as it is known that Hashem only brings good through tzaddikim.” He used this as the basis for his letter to Trump.
“I wrote to him that I had constantly trusted in Hashem to get me out and He had seen fit to bring about my salvation through Trump. I wrote that it says in the holy books that Hashem does goodness through righteous people, so Hashem must see in him a good heart.”
As many before me have experienced, talking to Rabbi Rubashkin leaves me awed and inspired. I take leave of a man whose simchas hachaim remains intact even after being battered by years of suffering and persecution, a man who could have easily succumbed to the bitterness of the terrible injustices perpetrated against him, but instead his eyes twinkle without a hint to all that has befallen him. I leave fortified with a renewed resolve to grow in emunah and bitachon in all circumstances. And I can feel in my bones that all of Klal Yisrael will merit great yeshuos from Hashem on this Yom Tov of miracles, kein yehi ratzon.