The meaning of each mitzvah a Jew does is illustrated powerfully in a story related by Rav Yaakov Galinsky, zt”l. He heard it from one of the renowned poskim, Rav Yitzchok Shlomo Unger zt”l of B’nei Brak.
R’ Unger related that about 30 years after the end of World War II, a Hungarian Jew came to him with a question in halachah. The man was shaking as they sat down to discuss the issue. The man began to share his story. He was a Holocaust survivor. He was sent to Auschwitz in the last year of the war. While there, he slept on a plank of wood in the barracks with another Jew who was a child of tzaddikim (בנן של צדיקים). They became very close.
One day, his bunkmate, who somehow kept track of the Jewish calendar in the camp, told him, “In two more days, it will be Pesach. We have no shortage of maror, bitterness, here in the camp, but where are we going to find matzah?”
Upon hearing this, the Hungarian Jew was so moved, that he set his mind to somehow find a way to bake two matzos, one for his bunkmate and one for himself. It took much intuition and resourcefulness. He worked quickly, risking his life each step of the way. In the end, he was indeed able to bake two matzos of the proper measure, one for each of them.
On the way back to the barracks, he was hiding the matzah in his clothes, when a Nazi officer saw that he was walking strangely. The Nazi ordered him to stop and put up his hands. He did so, and the matzos fell to the ground, breaking into many pieces. Seeing this, the animal became furious and beat him to the point of death.
After he moved on to another victim, the poor, beaten, and broken Jew picked up all of the remaining pieces of the matzah that he could salvage and hobbled back to the barracks, collapsing upon arrival. His friend helped him take care of his wounds and tried to ease his pain. The Hungarian Jew told his friend what had happened and showed him the matzah he was able to salvage. His friend begged him to give him the matzah, as he had never missed the mitzvah of matzah in his life. But the Hungarian man refused. He had risked his life and had now been beaten to a pulp in order to fulfill this mitzvah. There was only a drop left of it and he was not going to lose it. He originally made enough for both of them, but now that there was only one measure of matzah, he was going to eat it himself at his seder.
His bunkmate continued to beg for the privilege to do the mitzvah, arguing that his entire family had been killed already and doing this mitzvah would be a slight comfort. The Hungarian Jew responded that his entire family had also been killed. The bunkmate told him that he had memorized all of the Haggadah and Shir HaShirim and promised that if he would give him the matzah, he would recite it with him. The Hungarian Jew refused, saying that he would forego the recital of the Haggadah and would rather perform the mitzvah of matzah instead.
Broken, crying, and begging, the bunkmate finally said, “I promise you that if you give me the matzah, I will give you my reward of the mitzvah! I will also recite the entire Haggadah and Shir HaShirim with you as well!”
Seeing the utter desperation and sincerity, the Hungarian Jew paused to think, and then agreed to this arrangement.
Things ended better for the Hungarian Jew than for his bunkmate. The next morning, as they were trying to recite Hallel from memory, the bunkmate, overjoyed at being able to eat matzah on Pesach in Auschwitz, was so overcome with emotion that he yelled the brachah of Hallel out loud. A Nazi heard and became enraged. He was shot on the spot.
The Hungarian Jew survived the war, moved to Eretz Yisroel, built a family, and lived in B’nei Brak. This Jew then told Rav Unger why he asked to speak with him. The night before, his old bunkmate appeared to him in a dream, dressed in white with his face shining. He asked the Hungarian Jew whether he remembered him and the matzah he gave him that fateful Pesach. The Hungarian Jew told his old friend that he surely remembered him and everything that happened.
The bunkmate then said, “I have received reward for every mitzvah that I did in my life except for that one mitzvah of matzah due to our agreement. Please do me a favor. Please return the reward for that mitzvah to me.”
The Jew responded that he could not believe his old friend’s audacity. After he had risked his life and was beaten to the point of death, at the very least, he should be entitled to the reward he bargained for in giving up the matzah. After several arguments back and forth, the dream ended, and the Jew was haunted with thoughts of what he should do.
He explained that he came to visit Rav Unger to ask if he was obligated to give the reward for that mitzvah back to his friend. Rav Unger responded that this was a question for a rebbe, not a rav. So he sent him to ask the question to the famed Machnovka Rebbe, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel Twersky zt”l, who also resided at the time in B’nei Brak.
The man went to the Rebbe, told him the whole story, and asked him what he should do. After thinking for a while, the Rebbe told him that it is proper for him to give up the reward for the mitzvah to his friend. His old friend could no longer do mitzvos, but the Hungarian Jew had lived on and was able to continue doing mitzvos for many more years hopefully until one hundred and twenty. Just for that reason alone, he should do this kindness for his dearly departed friend.
Begrudgingly, the man told the Rebbe that if that was what he is being told to do, he would do it. However, the Rebbe could see that the man wasn’t comfortable with it. The Machnovka Rebbe told him he had to do it with joy. He should immediately go to a beis medrash, put his head inside the aron kodesh, and “remind” Hashem of every detail of the story. Then, he should willingly give the reward back to his friend. The Jew mustered up the strength and did so.
Exhausted emotionally and physically, the Hungarian Jew returned home that evening and immediately fell asleep, utterly drained from all the gut-wrenching events of the day. In the middle of the night, his friend appeared to him again in a dream to thank him for giving up the reward for the mitzvah of matzah from that night, over 30 years earlier.
The next day, the man came back to Rav Unger and told him what the Machnovka Rebbe told him to do and about the subsequent dream. Rav Unger responded that he was not surprised. “Imagine,” he told the man, “this Jew, who was the child of tzaddikim, surely grew up doing mitzvos his entire life and was enjoying an abode in the highest place in the World to Come. Not only that, but Chazal teach (Bava Basra 10) regarding one who is killed sanctifying Hashem’s Name that, ‘No being has a stature greater than they do in the world above.’ Yet, with all of that, it was worth it for him to leave that place of ultimate pleasure and delight in Hashem’s Presence and descend all the way back down into this world to try to pick up the reward for that one small measure of matzah!” (Aish Kodesh)