"Do not withhold the wages due to your hired hand... that very day shall you give him his payment." (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
An interpretation which I heard for this particular verse on the third Shabbat in the month of Elul 1970 in the synagogue of Riga, Latvia, in the then-USSR changed my life forever. I had been sent on a mission by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, to establish four underground yeshivot – one in Moscow, one in Leningrad, one in Riga and one in Vilna. These yeshivot were to be established in a communist Soviet Union which had forbidden every aspect of Jewish life. A transgressor, whose sin may have only been owning a Hebrew primer, would be exiled to Siberia and never heard from again.
I had succeeded in Moscow and Leningrad. When I left my hotel in Riga that Shabbat morning, I noticed that I was being followed by four very tall and burly individuals who barely gave me breathing space. They literally surrounded me in the sanctuary where I was seated in splendid isolation on the extreme corner of the right side. The other 28 congregants, each individual clearly over the age of 65, were all sitting together on the extreme left side of a large space which could easily seat 600. The cantor and choir chanted the service as if they were performing before thousands. I was given the honor of returning the Torah to the ark.
The gabbai, a short man with a white, wispy beard, whispered to me in Yiddish, “We are thirsty for Torah. We have a Kiddush after the service downstairs. We expect you to teach us. Please come down after the praying – but without your friends.”
The interminable service ended at exactly 12 noon, the four goons miraculously disappeared (they probably went for lunch) and I went down into a pitch-black room where 15 people were seated around the table. The table was set with many bottles of clear white liquid (which I thought was water) and slices of honey cake. A chair of honor was set for me with a large Kiddush cup.
The gabbai repeated, “We are thirsty for Torah” as he poured me a full glass of liquid which he told me was vodka. I chanted the Kiddush, gave a lesson from the Torah, they sang a tune, they did a dance, and then poured me another vodka. Another lesson, a tune, a dance and again more vodka – nine times!
By the ninth time, no matter how hard I racked my brain, I didn’t have any more words of Torah to give on the portion of Ki Tetze. In the group of 15 – many of whom were young and, I learned later, studying for conversion to Judaism, I recognized the Torah reader from the synagogue. I later learned that his name was Yisrael Friedman and he was a staunch Chabadnik. I asked him to give the Torah lesson in my stead. He agreed, and it was his lesson that changed my life. Here are his words:
“Elisha ben Avuya was a great rabbi of the Mishna who became a heretic. The Talmud (B.T. Kiddushin 39) explains why. He saw the great tragedy of a son who climbed a tree to bring down a pigeon for his father after sending away a mother bird; in doing this he performed two commandments which promise the reward of long life, nevertheless the youth fell from the tree and died.
"‘There is no judge and no judgment,’ cried out Rav Elisha and he became a heretic. His grandson, Rabbi Yaacov, claimed that had his grandfather only understood a major axiom of Jewish thought he would never have left the Jewish fold. ‘There is no reward for the commandments in this world.’”
Friedman looked out at the basement assemblage with blazing eyes and then looked up, heavenwards. “But God, that’s not fair! How can You expect Your Jewish servants to pay the day laborer on that very day when you withhold our reward for the commandments till after our lifetime, in the world to come?! It’s not fair!”
Friedman answered his own question. “The Talmud in the seventh chapter of Bava Metzia differentiates between a day laborer and a contractor. Yes, a day laborer must be paid at the end of the day, but a contractor is to be paid only at the end of the project.
"We, vis-a-vis God are not day laborers, we are contractors. Each of us, given his/her unique gift and the time and place in which he/she lives, must do his share in helping to complete the world in the Kingship of God. Whether we have performed the right function or not, whether we have done most of them or little of them or perhaps were in the wrong ballpark altogether, can only be determined at the end of our lifetimes. For us contractors there is no reward for commandments in this world.”
Despite the nine vodkas, or perhaps because of them, I was moved to tears by his words. After witnessing firsthand the persecution of Soviet Jewry upon the heels of the Holocaust atrocities, I was overwhelmed by thinking of God’s great gift of a newborn State of Israel. I felt deeply in my heart that I could not possibly have been born in a free country in these most momentous times in order to fulfill a function in New York.
And so, in the basement of Riga I made an oath: I will bring my family to the State of Israel and hopefully there realize my function. And when I get to Israel I will make Kiddush on vodka every Shabbat afternoon.