How can you influence someone to do something he refuses to do?

The battlefront where the Russians and Germans fought during the outbreak of WWI was near Vidzy in Lithuania, dwelling place of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt’l. The area was under German domain and Rav Kahaneman was concerned lest the Russians advance into the territory. He therefore established a relationship with the German officer assigned to lead operations in that region. Rav Kahanamen felt it was imperative that he fortify the connection and he made it a priority to dedicate time to play chess with the officer.

One day the officer requested that Rav Kahaneman find someone who could cut down trees of the local forests, and arrange to have the wood shipped to Germany. Rav Kahanamen found someone suitable. At the time that the deal was sealed, the officer told this individual, “This arrangement will make you a wealthy man. However, you must always keep in mind that there are three partners in this venture, you, me and the Rabbi.”

Meanwhile, the Germans set up a camp for Russian prisoners of war near Vidzy. Thousands of prisoners were taken and the living conditions were unbearable. Among them were approximately 800 Jewish prisoners. Rav Kahanamen asked to meet with the officer in charge of the prisoners. He presented the fact that the horrific conditions of the prisoners could lead them to die of starvation. The officer responded, “We are in the midst of a war! We have no place for these prisoners. We want them to die!”

Rav Kahanamen readied himself for action. He approached the person whom he had gotten hired to cut the trees, and asked for his share in the profits. He took that money and used it to bribe those who had held the Jewish prisoners captive. Upon their release he placed them in Jewish homes. By the time the last prisoners were released and placed, there was a cry Heavenward from the Jews of Vidzy. If the Germans would find out that they were housing and protecting the enemy, they would be put to death. He needed to find housing!

Rav Kahanamen went to a nearby city and asked to address the community that Shabbos. He appealed to them to have mercy and house the Russian Jews. The response was negative. “Our lives come first,”[1] they claimed. The Rav asked for another opportunity to address them that afternoon. His delivery was so on target and persuasive that not only did the people change their minds, they begged for forgiveness for their previous response.

After he arranged with them the saving of hundreds of Jews, he asked to speak with them again. This time it was to convey appreciation. He explained that after Moshe had expressed his concerns that Bnei Yisrael would not believe he was sent to be their deliverer, Hashem instructed him to throw his staff to the ground and it turned into a snake. Hashem then told him to hold onto it and the snake turned into a staff.[2] What happened? What message is there that had to be recorded for all generations?

Hashem wanted to impart an important lesson to Moshe. If you take Klal Yisrael and throw it to the ground, it could turn into a snake. However, if you lift Klal Yisrael with your hand and bring it closer you will have a staff in your hand, willing and ready to come to your aid and stand with you.[3]

After the sin of the Golden Calf, realizing the enormity of their sin, Klal Yisrael felt lowly, something that typically occurs when people fail. Hashem instructed that they should be counted, but rather than saying count them, Hashem said, “Sisa,” lift them. Don’t let them feel like all is lost. It is not sufficient to just counter their feelings of despair. Help them aim high.[4] As Rav Kahaneman observed, with encouragement and a helping hand, it is possible for someone to be transformed and rise from lowliness to great heights.

Do we give up when we are told no? Do we look towards others with high expectations?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Hershel D. Becker

[1] Bava Metzia 62a; Vayikra 25:36

[2] Shemos 4:1-4

[3] Likras Shabbos Malchesa Shemos pp/ 612-613

4] Ohr Hachaim Ki Sisa 30:12