“Pidyon Shvuyin (Redemption of the Captured) takes precedence over the sustenance to the poor and their raiment. There is no greater Mitzvah than that of Pidyon Shvuyim … and he who turns his eye from redeeming him, transgresses the commandment: Thou shalt not harden thine heart and shalt not close thy hand… Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor”(Rambam, Hilchos Matnos Aniyim, 8:10).
There are 100,000 of them. A tenth of a million Jews.A tenth of a million brothers and sisters. They come in terror and bewilderment, a million fears in their hearts and but one franc in their pockets. They come to the slums of Marseilles and Paris and Lyon; to the misery of ill paying, long hour employment; to the anarchy and wilderness of a non-existent communal life. They look for a synagogue and there is none, for a mikvah and none is to be found. They seek a school of Judaism for their children and their search is in vain, their call for the G-d of Israel falls on empty ears.
“They” are the Jews, refugees from Algerian terror. The land of religious anarchy they come to is France. Crushed by grinding poverty, caught within the urban slums that know no synagogue or mikvah or even kosher meat store, their bodies and souls, both hang by a thread on the market place of the common, there available to the first bidder.
Their children roam the streets. Not for them is the music of the Aleph Beis — for no Yeshiva graces their neighborhood; not for them is the melody of tradition — for no Talmud Torah has ever seen the grimy Light of the Parisian working district. Not for them is the helping hand of an established Jewish community — for they are “Shchorim,” darker skinned Jews, and wealth and assimilation flee from such “contamination”.
But all hope is not lost. There is indeed a friend; there is still a compassionate neighbor; there is still one who seeks to help. The shadow of this friend is cast over each home; his beneficent hand is outstretched to every family; his overtures are extended to all who but desire them. Seek shelter under my shadow, it calls. Find help here, O Jews, it calls; find help and shelter beneath my shadow – the shadow of the Cross.
The missionaries of the Church, like birds of prey they, sensing intuitively the opportunities waiting for them in this morass of poverty, misery and isolation. From house to house they come, priests and nuns, offering aid. Your child wanders the streets? We have schools and shelters and play centers for him. He lacks friends and companionship? We have games and songs and guides. He knows nothing of his holidays? Come, come to our Shavuos celebration, our Hanukah party (and perhaps also our fete de Noel). Whatever you lack — come, find it here, here in the shadow of the Cross.
These words do not come easily and the phrases are measured. When the P’eylim organization, composed of young Bnei Torah giving of their time and energy and monies for the preservation of Torah especially among the youth, came with the story of the massive missionary efforts directed against North African Jews in France, the importance of finding the proper words, of painting the true enormity of the danger, was obvious.
How to tell of the missionaries, garbed in long black coats and dignified beards, looking for all the world like roshei yeshivas, and hoping by this to deceive naïve refugees.
How to write of the apostate Feldman, the traitorous Jew, who drags down souls of gullible Jews, to the depths of conversion?
How to inform American Jews that at this moment there sit thousands within the shadow. Jewish children sitting beneath the Cross; the children of Abraham celebrating the Mass; the children of Isaac praising Mary; the children of Jacob praying the Rosary.
How to cry out to Orthodox Jews, that at this moment a Jewish soul is being destroyed. That at this moment the Torah is spurned and the Gospel adopted, the rabbi forgotten and the priest begotten.
How to reach religious Jews, we who are so full of self-satisfaction with our piety and our generosity, with our Sabbath observance and yarmulka wearing, with our synagogue attendance and UJA donation, that these souls are within our hands. How to let ourselves know, we satisfied ones, who intend to spend a pretty sum at a summer resort this year that these souls are going by default.
If there were yeshivas in Paris — the missionaries would crumble! If here were Talmud Torahs in Marseilles — the Church would fail! If there were play centers and teachers in Lyon — the Cross-would fade! And above all, let us know, we satisfied ones, that the yeshivas and the Talmud Torahs and the teachers and the centers AND THE BEDEMPTION are ours for the giving!
Pidyon Shvuyim–the redemption of the captured, whether in body or soul, tales precedence over all. But it is of course more than merely a question of whether we will respond to a Mitzvah. It is more than a men test of the capacity of the community to meet a need.
It is rather, above all, a test. It is a test of our souls, of our image. Are we indeed of the seed of Abraham — merciful and men of charity? Are we indeed worthy of the obligation implied in the name “Jew”? Are we capable of the dignity and sacrifice and holiness, which is our inheritance? In short, it is we who an on trial; our souls, our worth are weighed in the balance. May G-d save him, who is found wanting in this most crucial of tests. May our share be with him who responds to this greatest of Mitzvahs.