שבת טעם החיים בחוקותי תשע”א
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Bechukosai 5771
Is Berlin really Jerusalem?
אם בחקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם ונתתי גשמיכם בעתם ונתנה הארץ יבולה ועץ השדה יתן פריו, if you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the trees of the field will give its fruit. (Vayikra 26:3)
I have always wondered if Berlin really is Jerusalem. Not that I ever contemplated the thought that Berlin will always be Jerusalem. Yet, it seems from speaking to Jews in America that we are destined to be here forever. We vote, we have all the freedoms we can ask for, and we have Torah study and mitzvah observance without restrictions. Nonetheless, we are still in exile, and it is worth pausing to understand how we can merit the redemption. This week’s parsha, Bechukosai, commences with the blessings that Hashem promises us if we toil in Torah study. It is said (Vayikra 26:3) אם בחקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם ונתתי גשמיכם בעתם ונתנה הארץ יבולה ועץ השדה יתן פריו, if you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the trees of the field will give its fruit. Rashi writes that the words אם בחקתי תלכו refers to toil in Torah study. Further on it is said (verse 8) ורדפו מכם חמשה מאה ומאה מכם רבבה ירדפו ונפלו איביכם לפניכם לחרב, five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand; and your enemies will fall before you by the sword. Rashi raises the following question: is this calculation accurate? If five will chase one hundred, then one hundred should chase two thousand? Proportionately, those being pursued should be twenty times more than those who are chasing and not a hundred times more. Rashi writes that the answer to this question is that one cannot compare a small amount of people studying Torah to a multitude of people learning Torah. This answer is puzzling, however, as the Torah does not appear to be discussing Torah study. Rather, the Torah is referring to war. What connection is there between war and Torah study?
In order to understand what we need to do to herald the redemption, it is worthwhile to examine a time in Jewish history when the Jewish People were actually worthy of redemption. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 94b) states that when Chizkiah, king of Yehudah, was faced with annihilation from Sancheirev and his armies, he stuck a sword in the Study hall and declared, “whoever does not engage in the study of Torah will be pierced by the sword.” He then had his officers check from Dan until Beer Sheva and they found that every Jew was educated in Torah and from Gevas to Antiparas, they found that every adult and child was an expert in the laws of purity and impurity. In the merit of this Torah study revolution, Sancheirev and his armies were defeated. One would think that in a generation that was so meritorious, they would have been worthy of redemption . In fact, the Gemara (Ibid) 94a states that Chizkiah himself could have been Moshiach, but he failed to sing songs of gratitude for all the miracles that HaShem performed for him. We learn from this incident that in order to bring the redemption, the Jewish People are required to repent and the multitudes are required to toil in Torah study. Yet, repentance and intense Torah study by themselves are insufficient. We are also required to sing songs of gratitude to HaShem for the daily miracles that he performs for us.
Based on what occurred with Chizkiah we can better understand the correlation that Rashi draws between war and Torah study. While the Jewish People certainly need to prepare to wage a physical battle against their enemies, victory in the war can only be guaranteed if the multitudes are studying Torah. Victory and redemption are directly related to our efforts in toiling in Torah. Today, when we have so many people studying Torah in Yeshivos and Kollelim, one must wonder why we have not been redeemed. It is true that our generation is far away from the level of piety and scholarship that Chizkiah’s generation achieved. Nonetheless, we are still capable of singing songs of gratitude to HaShem for all the miracles that He performs for us. As we have mentioned many times, Rav Yaakov Emden writes in his Siddur that in his opinion, the greatest miracle of all time is that the Jewish People have survived the long and bitter exile. Recognizing this miracle itself can be the catalyst for our redemption.
We are now counting the days of Sefirah, every day approaching closer to the day when we received the Torah. Simultaneously, we are in mourning for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, of whom the Gemara (Yevamos 62b) tells us that they died between Pesach and Shavuos. The reason for their death was because they did not show respect to each other. Here we have twenty four thousand great Sages, studying Torah intensely, from Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest teachers in Jewish history. How could it be that such great people died merely for not demonstrating sufficient respect for each other? The answer to this question is that an important component of singing HaShem’s praises is when one sings the praises of his fellow man. One cannot proclaim ahem as His loving father if he does not treat his father’s children with respect. We see that to merit the redemption and salvation from our troubles, we must engage in Torah study, repent our sins, and sing HaShem’s praises, which include singing the praises of our friends.
Is Berlin Jerusalem? That was our opening query. I would venture to say that when one is focused on singing HaShem’s praises, it would be difficult to suggest that exile is a place to call home. However, we must also acknowledge our gratitude to HaShem for having allowed the Jewish People to survive the exile for the past two thousand or so years. The way we express our gratitude is through Torah study, good deeds, repentance, and perhaps most important, treating our fellow Jews with proper respect. In the merit of all those actions, Hashem will surely have compassion on us and redeem us from Berlin, America, and all the exiles, with the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily, in our days.
Shabbos in Action
On Shabbos one receives a נשמה יתירה, an extra soul that allows him to delight even more in the Holy Shabbos. One should do his utmost to prepare for this exalted moment when the extra soul enters his body, and then he will surely reap the limitless rewards of delighting in the Shabbos.
Please submit your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will print them in next week’s issue of Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim. I wish you a wonderful Shabbos. Good Shabbos.
The Kidnapped Sultan
The life of the Baal Shem Tov is known to be filled with miracles. As The founder of Chassidic Judaism in the 18th century, stories abound of how the Baal Shem Tov was in frequent, close contact with the upper metaphysical worlds. Here is one such account…
The Baal Shem Tov was once on his way from Europe to the Land of Israel — but heaven willed it otherwise, and he was compelled to return when already halfway there. This is how it came about.
After all manner of tribulations that befell him on the way, the Baal Shem Tov arrived at Istanbul two days before Passover. But there his accustomed heights of spiritual sensitivity vanished; as well, he was in dire want. He sought out the local synagogue and endeavored to savor the familiar delights of Torah study — but this was denied him. So it was that he and his daughter Adel were distressed indeed.
On the morning before Passover eve, Adel went down to the seashore to wash her father’s clothes in honor of the approaching festival. It was already a few hours before Passover, but there was yet no sign of matzahs, or wine, or anything else. Blinking away her tears, she looked up and saw a passenger boat drawing near. Among the people who stepped off at the shore was a wealthy and God-fearing man who had just returned home from his business.
“My daughter, why do you weep?” he asked.
“My father is a saintly man,” she sobbed, “but he can no longer enjoy the nearness of the Divine Presence as he always does. Right now he is sitting in the synagogue. I don’t know what to do, because we haven’t got anything at all for Passover.”
“Go along and bring your father to me,” said the compassionate stranger. “Throughout the festival you will be my guests, and I will see to all your needs.”
With that, he gave her his address, and off she sped to the synagogue. She told her father the whole story, and they set out for the house of the merchant.
Their host greeted them warmly, even though he could not discern any mark of especial greatness in the Baal Shem Tov. The latter declined to eat, for it was so late in the morning before Passover that he could no longer eat bread — and in readiness for the mitzvah of eating matzah at the Seder at night, one is not permitted to eat matzah during that day.
Until nightfall, the tzaddik slept in the room which his host had given him. When the host returned from his evening prayers, he asked Adel to rouse her father from his sleep, for it was now time to proceed with the Seder. This, she said, she would never do (since it is considered disrespectful to wake a parent from their sleep). So the host opened the door himself, and beheld a face all flushed and afire. The eyes were protruding, and tears were streaming from them. Alarmed, the host at once retreated.
By now he realized that his guest was a man of God, and did not return to waken him. After some time, the Baal Shem Tov awoke and washed his hands. The evening prayer which he now began was the worship of a soul in ecstatic union with its Maker — for during his sleep he had been restored to his former stature. He then joined his host at the table for the Seder, and read the words of the Haggadah with inspired fervor. By the time he arrived at the Psalms of thanksgiving that comprise Hallel, it was three hours past midnight. One verse in particular he exclaimed aloud and with devout emphasis: “Praise Him Who alone does great wonders, for His loving-kindness endures forever.”
Throughout the entire proceedings, the merchant did not allow himself the liberty of asking any questions of the Baal Shem Tov. Once the Seder was over, however, he asked him to explain: why had he wept in his sleep, and why had he cried out one particular verse in the Haggadah?
“A fearful decree threatened the lives of the Jews of Istanbul,” replied the Baal Shem Tov. “I made every endeavor to have it annulled by the Heavenly Court — and, thank God, my efforts bore fruit. And at the very moment when I was reciting that verse of praise, the decree was in fact quashed. Tomorrow morning in the synagogue you will hear what it’s all about.”
Next morning, when the congregation was ready to start the morning prayers, a prosperous wine-merchant burst in the door and exclaimed: “Mazel Tov, gentlemen, Mazel Tov! We’ve all been saved from a terrible decree!”
This is as far as the narrative is related in the published anthologies of stories on the Baal Shem Tov. Of the nature of the decree, and the manner of salvation, there is not a word. These have been passed on to us by word-of-mouth by the elder chassidim of the intervening generations. Here is their story…
There was once a sultan in Istanbul who liked to take an occasional stroll incognito, disguising himself as a common citizen. On one such outing he so much enjoyed the beauty of the countryside that he did not notice how far he had strayed from the town. All of a sudden he found he had stumbled upon a gang of bandits, and they dragged him off to their gloomy den.
There they emptied his pockets of all his money and valuables. He thought he would now be freed. Instead, they informed him that they would of course have to kill him so that he would never be able to disclose their whereabouts.
After a moment’s deliberation he decided not to identify himself — for if they knew that it was the sultan that they were freeing, what hope would they have of not being brought to justice? Rather than give them a reason to kill him immediately, he would leave them in their ignorance, and in the meantime rely on his own resourcefulness as the last spark of hope.
“Look here,” he said. “If you kill me, you won’t earn anything by it. But if you let me live, I will be able to perform a service that will earn you an enormous amount of money.”
“How? How?” they asked.
“I am the master of one craft,” said the captive, “and if I engage in it, you won’t regret it. I know how to make bed-covers out of plain mats. Connoisseurs pay high prices for them. Buy me the mats I need, I’ll make one bed-cover a day, and let one of you take it off to Istanbul for sale. The proceeds, of course, will be yours; my gain will be my life.”
Duly convinced, they bought him a mat in order to see whether his claim was valid. He spent the next day working on it, and as he handed the finished product to one of their henchmen to be sold in Istanbul, he said: “The fixed price of this bed-cover is such and such; if you are offered less than this, do not sell it on any account. Remember that this is merchandise which is appreciated only by the experts, so don’t take it to heart if the first customers you encounter laugh at you when you ask for such a high price. Just keep on walking from shop to shop, until you run into someone who is sufficiently expert to be prepared to pay you this fixed price.”
The messenger set out with this odd piece of handiwork, and in each bazaar dutifully demanded the stipulated price. Everywhere he was laughed at — so much so that at one point a whole circle of scoffing merchants thronged around him, calling him a madman.
At this moment a Jewish wine-merchant happened by, and seeing the smirking and snickering crowd, he approached out of curiosity. He was told that this individual was offering for sale an ordinary mat, somewhat reworked, and was demanding an exorbitant price for it, claiming that it was a first-class bed-cover that needed a connoisseur to recognize its quality. “Clearly out of his mind!” concluded the bystander.
The Jew took a long look at the stranger: his face was certainly not that of a madman. He then examined the mat, and noticed that it had one letter woven into it. (The letter was in fact the initial of the sultan’s name.)
Suspecting that there might be something behind this odd affair, he invited the stranger to his shop, paid the set price, and assured him that he was able to appreciate this fine article at its true value. He went on to ask who it was who made it. He was told that this could not be revealed, but if he so desired he could buy one more like it every day. The Jew agreed.
When the sultan heard the messenger’s story and saw that the price had in fact been paid, he guessed that the purchaser had detected the letter and was anticipating some code or message. This of course encouraged him to apply himself to his work even more industriously.
The next day, when the Jew duly bought another mat and found in it the second letter of the sultan’s name, he understood exactly what he had to do: he went straight to the royal palace, and recounted his bizarre story.
Now from the moment the sultan had disappeared, the palace had been thrown into consternation. His trusty bodyguards had sought him everywhere. Now, at long last, they had lighted upon a fruitful clue. The Jew was ordered to continue with his daily purchases, but to keep them in strict secrecy. And so it was that day by day, letter by letter, he had spelled out before him the name of the royal prisoner, and his precise whereabouts. The palace thereupon dispatched a squad of fearless warriors. In order to be sure they would find their obscure destination, they seized the sultan’s hapless messenger and hustled him along with them. They surrounded the dismal hideout, fell upon the bandits by surprise, and freed the sultan.
Now the sultan was not a man to forget a favor of this magnitude. Once safely back among the colonnades of his palace, he summoned the Jew to whom he owed his life and said: “What do you request? I shall grant it!”
The Jew demurred: “If God has granted me the privilege of saving the life of my royal master, could I ask for any further reward?”
But the sultan still desired to give fit expression to his gratitude, and a royal decree was duly signed, sealed and proclaimed: “By this irrevocable decree be it known by all people in our invincible Ottoman Empire that to this Jew and his seed after him throughout all the generations do we in our wisdom hereby grant and bestow the privilege of entry and admission to the royal presence at all times and at all seasons, without requesting permit or permission.”
Years passed and decades rolled by, and the Jew never had occasion to make use of this prerogative. He lived his life as a wealthy and respected member of his community, and was never in need of any particular favor for which he might need to trouble the sultan. In due course the sultan was succeeded by his son, and the Jew too left behind him a son — who inherited this rare privilege.
One day the young sultan went driving in the streets of the capital, accompanied by his grand vizier. Looking through his carriage window he saw groups of Jews bringing home crates of matzos by wagon, for it was a few days before the festival of Passover.
“What are these strange wafers?” the young sultan asked.
The grand vizier was a bitter Jew-hater.
“These wafers,” he explained, “are the matzahs which the Jews eat during their Passover festival. And, if it pleases your illustrious majesty, the most zealous amongst them eat a special kind of matzah which in the language of the Hebrews is called shemurah. This means that one of its necessary ingredients is the blood of a Moslem child, whom these Jews select and slaughter in preparation for their annual ritual.”
The sultan was alarmed. The vizier proceeded to make his libel plausible by advising that his master investigate for himself whether there were in fact Jews who ate matzah which was known by the special name of “shemurah.”
This much was of course easy to prove. The credulous sultan at once believed the whole infamous fabrication – without knowing that shemurah means “guarded,” and is the name that simply denotes the kind of matzah which is baked with extraordinary precautions against the remotest possibility of leavening. Following the advice of his vizier, he issued a secret order that an exhaustive list be drawn up of the Jews who baked this kind of matzah. They were to be arrested by surprise on the first day of the festival, and rounded up for execution.
The eve of Passover was still quite some hours off, so the son of the Jew who had saved the late sultan’s life lay down for a daytime nap. In his dream his father appeared to him and said: “My son! A fearful threat hovers over the Jews of this city. You alone are in a position to save them. Go to the sultan, in accordance with the privilege which is yours, and tell him that it is a malicious calumny that his grand vizier has concocted concerning the Jews — that they use Moslem blood for the festival. Tell him further that the vizier himself is an impostor: only outwardly does he make a pretense of being a Moslem, for in fact he is a Christian of the Greek church. If the sultan wants to be convinced of this, let him send secret agents to his house, and they will find him in his bed at night with a crucifix around his neck!”
The young man awoke from his dream, and dismissed it from his mind. He busied himself with preparations for the evening’s Seder, and planned to go to his synagogue as usual at nightfall. But in the meantime he was overwhelmed by such a stupor that he soon fell into a deep sleep. Sure enough his father appeared to him again, adjuring him to fulfill his earlier command, and warning him that if he failed to do so, the blood of his fellow Jews would forever lie on his head.
When he awoke it was night. The young man understood that such a warning was not to be taken lightly. He hesitated no longer, but set out at once for the royal palace. By the time he reached the spiked iron gates it was so late that he decided it would be imprudent to exercise his hereditary privilege, for it was clear that the sultan had already retired for the night. He therefore requested the court officials that he be admitted to the presence of the ex-queen, the widow of the late sultan.
He told the aged lady of his strange dream, which he was convinced was not to be swept aside. He entreated her to speak at once with her reigning son, in an endeavor to have the malicious decree annulled. Ever since his father had saved the life of her late husband, he reminded her, the right had never been used by himself nor by his father; if now he came to speak with her, it was because the lives of many Jews were in peril.
Moved by his pleas, the ex-queen told him to wait, and she went to rouse her son. Now until this moment she had known nothing of the secret decree, and she was apprehensive as to whether his whole dream might be a vain imagination. Perhaps it would be preferable not to mention the Jew or his dream at all. Instead, she decided at this point to tell her son that his father had appeared to her in a dream; he had told her that since their son had decided upon a certain course of action which was exceedingly evil, she should warn him that if he did not undo it forthwith, his end would be bitter indeed.
The young sultan listened carefully to his old mother’s story, but disclaimed knowledge of any such course of action.
“Perhaps,” ventured his mother, “you have contemplated doing something against the Jews?”
“Against the Jews? Yes, mother,” he replied, “that I have — but what I plan is something irreproachable. You see, amongst them there is a sect of individuals who on their Passover eat matzahs which are baked with Moslem blood. I have therefore given the command that this evil be wiped out from our midst.”
Seeing the Jew’s dream thus verified, the ex-queen went ahead and told her son the whole story of her visitor and his plea, reminding him meanwhile of the eternal debt which the royal family owed the resourceful Jewish wine-merchant and his descendants. The young ruler took her words to heart, and dispatched an aide to summon the Jew.
Upon arrival, the young man fell to his feet, retold the story of his dream, and begged the sultan to put his father’s words to the test by sending trusted troops to the mansion of the vizier in order to establish whether he was in fact a Moslem only in appearance.
This request was granted. A secret squad was dispatched forthwith. They roused the startled vizier, searched him, and found the crucifix around his neck. Their blood seethed with fanatic zeal; they drew their swords and slew him.
This had taken place exactly at the moment when the Baal Shem Tov had exclaimed the Psalmist’s words: “Praise Him Who alone does great wonders, for His loving-kindness endures forever.”
The decree was at once annulled, and the next morning, as the local congregants gathered anxiously in the synagogue in readiness for the prayers of the first day of Passover, in burst the beaming wine-merchant with his “Mazel Tov, gentlemen, Mazel Tov!” He then went ahead and recounted the whole story of how Divine Providence had given him the privilege of being an agent in the salvation of his townspeople. (www.innernet.org.il)
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Bechukosai 5771
is sponsored by Rabbi and Mrs. Tzvi Bider of Chicago, in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of their son Bentzion נ”י. May they have much nachas from Bentzion and from all their children
Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos
Prepared by Rabbi Binyomin Adler
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