Chassidic Story #163

(s5761-10 /2 Kislev 5761)
A Rabbi, a Man and a Goat
Rabbi Yaakov Mendel Zirkind was confident he could reach their Jewish souls, despite the iron bars between them.

A Rabbi, a Man and a Goat

It was a crisp fall day when Rabbi Yaakov Mendel Zirkind went to the Morris County Correctional Facility in Morristown, NJ for his bi-weekly visit to the Jewish inmates. Right when he started, Rabbi Zirkind was already confident he could reach the Jewish souls despite the iron bars between them. Now, the social worker on duty knows him by name and the warden waves him through the prison gates without a search. "There aren't many Jews here," he says,, "but those who are here really appreciate the visits."

His job as a county chaplain is a volunteer one; Rabbi Zirkind earns his livelihood as a scribe, writing Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs. During his visits, he tries to acquaint the Jewish inmates with Jewish tradition and often spends time telling them stories from the Torah or Chassidic tales of old. He makes sure each Jewish prisoner has at his access a Hebrew/English siddur to pray from, a chumash to read, and kosher meals to eat. At each visit he encourages them to don tefillin and at holiday time he directs them in the pertinent mitzvah of the day. On Rosh Hashana he blows Shofar for them, on Sukkos he brings his lulav and esrog for them to shake, on Chanukah he brings them menorahs to light, on Purim he reads the megillah and on Passover he makes Seder foods available to be eaten.

Rabbi Zirkind is a stocky man in his 30's who wears a long, black coat which reveals a talis koton, a religious garment with strings hanging on four corners reminding the wearers of all G-d's commandments. He wears a black hat, and a warm smile nestled comfortably behind a long brown beard. His eyes sparkle as the warden unlocks the doors with heavy iron keys. He moves swiftly through the iron door to a special meeting room.

Probably no one appreciated his visits more than Jonathan. A 35 year-old man whose last job involved working for a private company doing rubbish removal, Jonathan and his girlfriend were incarcerated for shoplifting. He was given a 90-day sentence, with 15 days off for good behavior.

Jonathan arrived on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. As he waited in the police car, several yeshiva students from the nearby Rabbinical College of America just happened to be standing on the sidewalk nearby blowing the Shofar outside the prison walls for the Jewish inmates inside to hear. And with the accompanying sound of the Shofar, Jonathan was escorted to the jail and walked through the doors to a whole new world.

Prison, with its black iron bars, plain gray walls, hard metal beds, and bare light bulb was not new to Jonathan. He had been there before on other charges of petty crimes. What was new to Jonathan, however, was a Jewish presence in prison. Rabbi Zirkind visited Jonathan every week and transformed his drab four-walled jail cell into a house of G-d.

Before they even met, Rabbi Zirkind had already arranged for Jonathan to receive kosher meals, a prayer book and a Chumash.

"When I first met Jonathan he had already been in the prison for two weeks. I don't know who was more afraid of whom; he looked like a typical big, rough-and-tough trucker type. But as I walked into his cell for the first time his face turned white. He seemed scared when he met this rabbi dressed in Chassidic garb."

Rabbi Zirkind knew he only had 30 minutes per visit and worked quickly to ease the tension. In the first 5 minutes he convinced him to make a blessing and shake the lulav and esrog. Jonathan's color returned to his pale face and his eyes softened as he said the blessing and performed the mitzvah for the first time in his life.

The next time the Rabbi came to visit, he asked Jonathan to put on tefillin. Despite the fact that Jonathan had never put on tefillin before, and didn't know what they were for, he eagerly extended his left forearm to do what Rabbi Zirkind called "a mitzvah". Jonathan said he remembered his uncle wrapping leather straps around his arm in just the same way. "It feels tight, like a blood pressure test," Jonathan said as Rabbi Zirkind explained that tefillin is a mitzvah, a divine command from G-d and is only one of many ways for a Jewish man to connect directly to Him. Jonathan's eyes liked deeply into Rabbi Zirkind's eyes, seemingly searching for more information, more meaning, more connection. Ironically the straps that bound him seemed to free him from his worries.

After a visit from the rabbi, Jonathan returned to his cell and sat there alone and worried about what would become of him. He was concerned about his girlfriend. He was fighting a dependency on drugs and he wasn't sure what the future would hold.

"The more I came to visit the more open Jonathan became, and the more he looked forward to our time together," Rabbi Zirkind said as his voice broke up with emotion. "Whenever I would visit, I always asked him to put on tefillin, told a little bit about the Torah portion of the week and related a short Chassidic story. Jonathan seemed to have a special affinity for tefillin and he especially loved Chassidic stories."

Jonathan had a Jewish cellmate who loved reading science fiction. "Jonathan used to tell him: "Don't bother with those crazy stories, come with me to the rabbi and hear the real stuff." It wasn't long before his friend also came to see the rabbi twice a week. Unlike Jonathan however, this Jew could read Hebrew and could fluently recite our quintessential prayer, the Shema. After seeing this, Jonathan wanted to learn how to read Hebrew too. And so the rabbi began to tutor this big burly guy in Aleph-Beit. Jonathan was a good student and advanced quickly. But he still always wanted to hear more miracle stories, from which he seemed to draw new life and strength.

Cellmates came and went, but Jonathan remained. Rabbi Zirkind recalls how the stories of miracles and Divine Providence in our times, and stories of tzadikim of old, seemed to lift Jonathan's spirits and make him forget all about his physical confinement. Jonathan liked forward to his visits with the rabbi and did everything he could to extend their allotted time together.

As weeks passed, Jonathan's thoughts turned to the future. He wondered if he could still date his non-Jewish girlfriend and expressed a strong desire to spend a Shabbat with Rabbi Zirkind in his home after his release from jail.

Finally, Jonathan was released from jail and went home on a weekend. On Monday morning, Rabbi Zirkind was putting some finishing touches on a pair of tefillin when he got a call from the social worker at the Morris County jail. "l'm sure you know why I am calling you," she said. After a long pause, Rabbi Zirkind replied that he wasn't sure.

"Didn't you read the paper this morning?" The social worker uttered into the phone. "Jonathan died of an overdose last night. They found him in his car. His mother is trying to get in touch with you. They want you to take care of Jonathan's funeral."

Rabbi Zirkind quickly got in touch with Jonathan's family. Jonathan's father said, "Because Jonathan was so fond of you, we would like you to officiate at his funeral, but we don't want a big thing." But for Rabbi Zirkind, this funeral was a big thing. Not only was it his first time officiating at a funeral, but also Jonathan held a special place in his heart.

Rabbi Zirkind met Jonathan's family for the first time at the New Jersey cemetery. He suggested certain religious practices, such as the need for a minyan, a quorum of religious men, and the custom of lowering the body totally into the ground. Although they are Jewish, Jonathan's family members were totally unfamiliar with religious custom; nevertheless they agreed to the rabbi's requests and in this way, gave Jonathan a proper Jewish burial. Then the rabbi eulogized Jonathan the Jew.

"Every person's life is like a book. "I don't know about the first 35 years of Jonathan's life. I only know about the last chapter of his life. As we all know a good writer usually saves the best chapter for last. Jonathan's last chapter began with him hearing the blowing of the Shofar, blessing and shaking the lulav and esrog, donning tefillin, eating kosher food and learning and loving Torah.

"We should all learn from Jonathan's love of Torah and mitzvos and strive to add in our own observance and spirituality. In this way we will perpetuate Jonathan's memory and his soul in Heaven. Jonathan's spiritual life began with the blowing of the Shofar and G-d willing, our acts of increased spirituality will lead us to the time of the sounding of the great Shofar with the coming of Moshiach."

Rabbi Zirkind had brought along some shaimus to bury. Shaimus are written works of Torah that include G-d's holy name and that according to Jewish law are not allowed to be destroyed only buried, As Rabbi Zirkind reached for the bag, he wiped his teary eyes. He had selected several items from his bag to bury with Jonathan that Jonathan specifically related to. These included Chassidic works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, parchment from a pair of tefillin, and written works on lulav and esrog. "These things were so much a part of Jonathan that they will also go up to heaven with him," Rabbi Zirkind said as he threw in the bag followed by the first handful of solid earth. Then family and friends followed his cue and filled the grave with dirt. They brushed off their hand and walked away, as if the final chapter had been written and the book had ended.

But the Jewish neshama, the soul, knows not the boundaries of time and space. For Jonathan, the journey of his soul may have just begun. Rabbi Zirkind surmises that Jonathan's story did not end with the death of his physical body and his burial at the cemetery that cold autumn day. For Rabbi Zirkind there was a powerful epilogue to Jonathan's story.

Rabbi Zirkind arranged for someone to say kaddish for Jonathan, and for shiva to take place with a minyan. The week of shiva passed. Rabbi Zirkind continued to make his rounds at the county jail and continued his work as a scribe.

"Right after shiva I got a call from a local slaughter house," Rabbi Zirkind recalled. As a sofer who uses the hides of calves and goats upon which to write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs, he often had dealings with slaughterhouses. "I dealt with this one slaughterhouse in Greenvillage, New Jersey, many times over the years. I buy my hides from them or I shecht my animals there," he explained.

"Carl, one of the people at the slaughter house, called on Friday afternoon to say: 'I have a gift for you.' When he says this usually it means he has some animal I could use and shecht. Friday afternoon was not a good time for me to go to the slaughterhouse. Shabbos came early this week and I needed time to prepare, so I politely refused. But Carl persisted: 'It's a kid goat and he was born just last night! If you don't take it, it's going to be killed; we are not set up for animals to be born and taken care of here," Carl pleaded, adding. 'C'mon rabbi, you're a man of G-d.'

"When he said that, I felt that it would be a chilul Hashem, a disgrace to G-d, if I didn't take the animal. So I said yes."

Rabbi Zirkind keeps a few goats on a farm near his house to give milk for his family to drink. Recently one of his goats had twins, so he just happened to have special baby goat food on hand for this newborn goat. "I brought the kid home at 1PM and prepared some straw on the floor in my baby's room." With only moments to spare, Rabbi Zirkind made sure the goat was comfortable, prepared himself for Shabbos and left for shul.

When he came home from shul he made sure, as Jewish law dictates, to feed his animals before himself. So before reciting kiddush, he went upstairs and fed the baby goat. It struck him that the kid seemed happy to see him. He then made kiddush for his family, discussed some Torah insights, told some stories and sang Shabbos songs, all within earshot of their unusual Shabbos guest.

By nightfall, the baby, who was in the same room as the goat, could not fall asleep. "My 2 year-old-baby loves animals and usually sleeps through anything, but on this night he was screaming hysterically. My wife stayed up with the goat and the baby telling stories ad singing Jewish songs," Rabbi Zirkind related, adding, "both the baby and the kid seemed to enjoy this."

Then, finally, after a few hours, the baby and the goat fell asleep.

At the second Shabbos meal, Rabbi Zirkind again fed the baby goat. At each feeding, the animal would cuddle up to the rabbi. On Shabbos morning the rabbi recited some preliminary prayers as well as tehilim at its side. That night, after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Zirkind returned home. He went up to feed the goat, but to his astonishment, the goat lay dead on the floor.

"These are the facts," says Rabbi Zirkind. "Now I am going to tell you what I think all of this means. I think this goat was a gilgul, a reincarnation, of Jonathan's soul. For Jonathan wanted so much to experience Shabbos and had eagerly accepted an invitation to spend Shabbos with my family upon his release from jail. During shiva there is no din, judgment, on the soul of a person. However, after shiva he may be judged. I imagine Jonathan's soul up in Heaven defending the course of his life. He probably said something like: 'I know I spent time in jail for some not so good things, but by the end of my days I spent a lot of time with this rabbi who showed me how to live as a Jew. I heard the Shofar, put on tefillin, shook a lulav, and ate kosher food." I imagine the heavenly court looked kindly upon Jonathan's soul and considered him to be a ba'al teshuva, a sincere returnee to Judaism, and wiped his record clean.

"But then along comes an accusing angel and says 'But you never had Shabbos, your life ended before you had Shabbos!' The heavenly court consults and determines that this soul deserves a second chance. 'But how do we enable it to experience a Shabbos, now that it is no longer in a body? Is it fair to have the soul go down to earth and be born into another body, to loving parents, only to die upon experiencing a Shabbos?' asks a heavenly angel. No, they agree, too much grief to put parents through, so they decided to send the soul down in the body of a newborn animal. This animal, this baby goat, must have housed Jonathan's soul," Rabbi Zirkind declared in a firm voice, "all the details fit too perfectly."

"First of all, how often do animals give birth in slaughter houses?" he questioned. "This was the first time Carl had ever called me, with such a request; why did it happen just one week after Jonathan had passed away? The kid was born on Thursday night but Carl called me on Friday afternoon. I think that is because this goat needed to be in my house for Shabbos and Shabbos officially begins on Friday afternoon. Also it could only have happened after shiva, when, according to mystical interpretations, judgment would be allowed. This particular Shabbos, was the week after shiva, the first opportunity for this soul to experience Shabbos!"

He added with confidence: "I know it sound like one of the Ba'al Shem Tov stories I tell my children. Truly it's the kind of story Jonathan loved. But this is a sorry that happened in our days."

"Furthermore, when Carl said, 'I have a gift for you,' I declined. What convinced me to take it was when he said 'You are a man of
G-d.' Of course, it wouldn't look nice if a 'man of G-d' would refuse such a request, but I think there was something deeper meant by the phrase. For if I were truly a 'man of G-d' I should be able to understand spiritual matters, and thus understand that this goat was a gilgul, a reincarnation, of Jonathan's soul."

"Also, the three feedings took place precisely around the three traditional meals of Shabbos. And while the goat was in my house he heard tehilim, prayer, stories, and songs. These were all things that were important to Jonathan at the end of his life.

"In addition, why did my baby cry so uncontrollably, when usually he is so passive around animals and is such a sound sleeper? I think that it is because so much G-dliness was revealed in his room that he was unable to sleep. This is similar to a Sukkah, for although we are required to dwell in a Sukkah for 7 days, including sleeping, G dliness is so revealed that some Jews have the custom of not sleeping there, in the face of a G-dly presence."

"And finally, the goat was no longer here after Shabbos. That's because he didn't need to be. The soul had completed its mission: it had experienced Shabbos!"

Rabbi Zirkind skinned the remains of the baby goat and made tefillin from its hide. In this way, the tefillin would act as an elevation for Jonathan's neshamah in heaven, he explained.

Rabbi Zirkind returned to his work as a scribe and volunteer chaplain. While in his car on his way to the county jail to visit new Jewish inmates he heard a news reporter comment that a recent study found that goats are quite spiritual animals. Rabbi Zirkind smiled. He felt this was Jonathan's way of saving thanks.

[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the Morristown Kesher, as told by Rabbi Zirkind to Pessy-Leah Lester.]

P.S. We have been informed that after Yom Kippur this year, when Rabbi Zirkind checked his answering machine, there was a message from the slaughter-house. A baby kid had been born the night before (on Yom Kippur); would he please come to pick it up!








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