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“Then Ya’akov took a stone and raised it up as a monument:” (Bereishis 31:45).
The Hebrew word for “monument” in this verse is mateivah. Its purpose is to state a message which is to be remembered by all who see it. One place where mateivos are abundant is in cemeteries where they serve as reminders to visitors and let them know who are buried there and what kind of life they lived.
In the big, old cemetery in the town of Chulon, there are many thousands of mateivos. But one of them is extraordinarily beautiful and stands out prominently among the rest. In Aleynu Lishabeach, Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein tells the story behind this beautiful monument and what it represents.
Many years ago, an importer of marble and a manufacturer of monuments was doing very well until his life was destroyed by criminals. A group of drug dealers realized that a great way to smuggle large quantities of illegal drugs into Israel would be to hide the stuff among the huge slabs of marble this fellow imports regularly. They offered him a huge amount if he would help them and he just couldn’t refuse the temptation to get rich quick. Everything went fine for a while until the members of the group quarreled among each other and broke up. Then, one of them informed the police of his former partner’s activities, and the next time the importer went to the shipping port to pick up his marble “and accessories,” he was arrested on the spot.
There was nothing the defendant could really argue in his defense and so he was sentenced to ten years in jail.
Behind bars, he had plenty of time to think how he had fallen from a prestigious lifestyle to one of sin and immorality and he was full of remorse. While out on one of his respites from prison, with a heart full of thoughts of repentance, his mother died. The businessman-prisoner went to a synagogue in Chulon to recite the kaddish after her.
In this particular shul, there wasn’t an official rabbi; but a Torah scholar who was a prominent member of the congregation served as a good substitute. Noticing a strange face in the group, the acting rabbi approached him and greeted him warmly. Upon comprehending his situation, the young man took him aside and patiently taught him how to say the kaddish and other laws of mourning. He then promised that the shul would make a special meal to dedicate the thirtieth day of his mother’s passing.
“This won’t cost you a penny,” he told the astonished visitor. “You just have to come and join us, listen to the words of Torah and the chapters of Mishnayos which we will learn in memory of your mother, and then you will recite the kaddish. I will speak to the prison authorities and arrange for them to allow you to come and attend.”
The monument dealer could not believe what he was hearing. He had long ago ceased to believe that there were people who did favors for others for free. Especially now that he was getting to really know the kind of people who were his inmates, the impression this rabbi made upon him was overpowering. He decided, then and there, that when he would be freed from prison, he would become a loyal student of this rabbi and would learn from him and do whatever he told him to.
When the time finally came, and the man returned to a normal, honest way of life, he kept his vow. He became a regular student of the rabbi; learning with him whenever he was free from business, Eventually, he himself became a Torah scholar and began to teach others and to return the wayward to the path of the Torah. He became famous as the former “drug dealer” who now peddled the kosher “drugs” of the Torah.
And he always remained grateful to the rabbi who had shown a sincere interest in him and had turned his life around completely. When the rabbi died, the monument dealer decided to honor him with a beautiful, big marble monument, at his expense, the likes of which had never been seen in the old cemetery of Chulon. It stands as a reminder to all of us that we can help others so easily, if we merely take a sincere interest in them and help them find their way.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network