by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 6, 2011
In one of his regular talks, the noted rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, Rabbi Yissocher Frand mentioned an incident that occurred in McKeesport, Pennsylvania some 70 years ago on the Shabbat when the Torah section of Ki Tetze was to be read:
R. Simcha Schepps was a disciple of the Brisker Rav, a student at the Mirrer Yeshiva, and a student in the Yeshiva of Baronovich and eventually became a rosh yeshiva in Yeshivat Torah Vadaat in New York. During the war he reached Japan with the Mirrer Yeshiva and in 1941 was able to escape to the United States. Like others who arrived at the time, his main focus was getting other Jews out, particularly yeshiva students who were still stranded in Shanghai.
In 1941, on the Shabbat when the Torah section of Ki Tetze was to be read, R. Schepps was in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He asked permission of the gabbaim of the two synagogues there to make a financial appeal on Shabbat for the yeshiva students stranded in Shanghai. The gabbaim refused, explaining that around the time of Sukkot they would always conduct an appeal for the Federation and an appeal now for these yeshiva students could negatively impact upon that appeal.
That Shabbat, there was a bar mitzvah in one of the two synagogues accompanied by a big kiddush. R. Schepps asked permission from the father of the bar mitzvah boy to speak at the kiddush, which he was granted.
At the kiddush, R. Schepps asked the following: The Torah forbids us in the Torah section of Ki Tetze to marry an Ammonite or a Moavite because they did not greet us with bread and water when we were on the road after leaving Egypt (Devarim 23:4-5). When countries, however, are at war, we understand that there will be an embargo. We all understand, R. Schepps pointed out, that there is at that time no trade between the United States and Japan because they are at war. What then, is the Torah’s complaint against the Ammonites and Moavites for not providing the Jews with food and drink? There was an embargo! No commerce was taking place. The government did not allow any trade to go on between countries at war!
The answer is, R. Schepps noted, that during war one does not conduct trade between countries, but refugees – stateless people who do not belong to any country – are different! Governments are not at war with refugees, they are at war with countries! Therefore, the Torah is upset at the Ammonites and Moavites for ignoring the needs of the stateless refugees! That should have had nothing to do with politics or the protocols of states. It was utter wickedness and cruelty for which there is no room among the Jewish people.
At this point R. Schepps said, “My friends, there are refugees in Japan without country, without family, without food, without anything! If you do not give them money, the Torah will record about the people of McKeesport that they are like Ammonites and Moavites who refused to contribute to stateless people. Do you want that to happen?”
At this point the response was “G-d forbid!” An appeal was made and they raised money which allowed them to bring over several more young students from Japan.
The message came over loud and clear. Do not turn your back when the situation calls for action. You must not ignore another’s need. Otherwise, if the tables are, G-d forbid, turned, one may find G-d doing the same.