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  • Crushed for the Light

    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    There are lives that are lessons. The late Henry Knobil’s was one. He was born in Vienna in 1932. His father had come there in the 1920s to escape the rising tide of antisemitism in Poland, but like Jacob fleeing from Esau to Laban, he found that he had fled one danger only to arrive at another.

    After the Anschluss and Kristallnacht it became clear that, if the family were to survive, they had to leave. They arrived in Britain in 1939, just weeks before their fate would have been sealed had they stayed. Henry grew up in Nottingham, in the Midlands. There he studied textiles, and after his army service went to work for one of the great British companies, eventually starting his own highly successful textile business.

    He was a passionate, believing Jew and loved everything about Judaism. He and his wife Renata were a model couple, active in synagogue life, always inviting guests to their home for Shabbat or the festivals. I came to know Henry because he believed in giving back to the community, not only in money but also in time and energy and leadership. He became the chairperson of many Jewish organisations including the national Israel (UJIA) appeal, British Friends of Bar Ilan University, the Jewish Marriage Council, the British-Israel Chamber of Commerce and the Western Marble Arch Synagogue.

    He loved learning and teaching Torah. He was a fine raconteur with an endless supply of jokes, and regularly used his humour to bring “laughter therapy” to cancer patients, Holocaust survivors and the residents of Jewish Care homes. Blessed with three children and many grandchildren, he had retired and was looking forward, with Renata, to a serene last chapter in a long and good life.

    Then, seven years ago, he came back from morning service in the synagogue to find that Renata had suffered a devastating stroke. For a while her life hung in the balance. She survived, but their whole life now had to change. They gave up their magnificent apartment in the centre of town to a place with easier wheelchair access. Henry became Renata’s constant carer and life support. He was with her day and night, attentive to her every need.

    The transformation was astonishing. Before, he had been a strong-willed businessman and communal leader. Now he became a nurse, radiating gentleness and concern. His love for Renata and hers for him bathed the two of them in a kind of radiance that was moving and humbling. And though he might, like Job, have stormed the gates of heaven to know why this had happened to them, he did the opposite. He thanked God daily for all the blessings they had enjoyed. He never complained, never doubted, never wavered in his faith.

    Then, a year ago, he was diagnosed with an inoperable condition. He had, and knew he had, only a short time to live. What he did then was a supreme act of will. He sought one thing: to be given the grace to live as long as Renata did, so that she would never find herself alone. Three months ago, as I write these words, Renata died. Shortly thereafter, Henry joined her. “Beloved and pleasant in their lives, and in their death undivided.”[1] Rarely have I seen such love in adversity.

    In an earlier Covenant and Conversation, I wrote about the power of art to turn pain into beauty. Henry taught us about the power of faith to turn pain into chessed, loving-kindness. Faith was at the very heart of what he stood for. He believed that God had spared him from Hitler for a purpose. He had given Henry business success for a purpose also. I never heard him attribute any of his achievements to himself. For whatever went well, he thanked God. For whatever did not go well, the question he asked was simply: what does God want me to learn from this? What, now that this has happened, does He want me to do? That mindset had carried him through the good years with humility. Now it carried him through the painful years with courage.

    Our parsha begins with the words: “Command the Israelites to bring you clear olive oil, crushed for the light, so that the lamp may always burn” (Ex. 27:20). The sages drew a comparison between the olive and the Jewish people. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked, why is Israel compared to an olive? Just as an olive is first bitter, then sweet, so Israel suffers in the present but great good is stored up for them in the time to come. And just as the olive only yields its oil by being crushed –­ as it is written, ‘clear olive oil, crushed for the light’ – so Israel fulfils [its full potential in] the Torah only when it is pressed by suffering.”[2]

    The oil was, of course, for the menorah, whose perpetual light – first in the Sanctuary, then in the Temple, and now that we have no Temple, the more mystical light that shines from every holy place, life and deed – symbolises the Divine light that floods the universe for those who see it through the eyes of faith. To produce this light, something has to be crushed. And here lies the life-changing lesson.

    Suffering is bad. Judaism makes no attempt to hide this fact. The Talmud gives an account of various sages who fell ill. When asked, “Are your sufferings precious to you?” they replied, “Neither they nor their reward.”[3] When they befall us or someone close to us, they can lead us to despair. Alternatively, we can respond stoically. We can practice the attribute of gevurah, strength in adversity. But there is a third possibility. We can respond as Henry responded, with compassion, kindness and love. We can become like the olive which, when crushed, produces the pure oil that fuels the light of holiness.

    When bad things happen to good people, our faith is challenged. That is a natural response, not a heretical one. Abraham asked, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” Moses asked, “Why have You done harm to this people?” Yet in the end, the wrong question to ask is, “Why has this happened?” We will never know. We are not God, nor should we aspire to be. The right question is, “Given that this has happened, what then shall I do?” To this, the answer is not a thought but a deed. It is to heal what can be healed, medically in the case of the body, psychologically in the case of the mind, spiritually in the case of the soul. Our task is to bring light to the dark places of our and other peoples’ lives.

    That is what Henry did. Renata still suffered. So did he. But their spirit prevailed over their body. Crushed, they radiated light. Let no one imagine this is easy. It takes a supreme act of faith. Yet it is precisely here that we feel faith’s power to change lives. Just as great art can turn pain into beauty, so great faith can turn pain into love and holy light.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    [1] 2 Samuel 1:23.
    [2] Midrash Pitron Torah to Num. 13:2.
    [3] Berakhot 5b.

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  • Time Management

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    Do you struggle with time management? Are you stressing out over all the things you have to do? Are you finding it difficult to juggle all your responsibilities? Would you like to accomplish more?

    Many of us are accustomed to starting are s'machot-happy occasions latter then the scheduled time. It has becoming quite ordinary to be fashionably late. However, perhaps no one realized how the person feels on the other side, the one who follows the invitation time literally. I came across an article by the great Rabbi Berel Wein which I found interesting and I would like to share an excerpt with my beloved readers.

    "All of us have experienced the discomfort of arriving at a wedding/chupah called for 6:30 PM and not having the actual ceremony begin till after 8PM or sometimes even later. I have never been able to fathom what it is within us that allows us to so abuse the time and patience of others. The fact that 'everyone does it' and that this is a common social malady in our circles in no way serves to justify this behavior. The wedding was called for 6:30 so I arrived at 6:10 to complete the necessary documents and prepare for the wedding ceremony. Imagine my consternation when I arrived at the hall and discovered that I was there before the bride and groom and their respective families, the photographer, the band and the catering staff! The wedding ceremony took place at 8:30 and I was vastly disturbed that no one thought that this was somehow not really acceptable behavior. Since then I try to avoid being the first person to arrive at the wedding hall though no matter how hard I try I always seem to come too early."

    My partner Aharon Ambalu and I were spearheading a rather formidable youth group, which was part of our Synagogue, back in the early 1990s in Queens. One of our first "breakout" events was a lecture by the pioneer of the lecture speaking circuit, Rabbi Berel Wein. This style, although now seems ancient, was innovative and very different. He was the first, the lone ranger in this new field and It was a first time such a powerhouse speaker was brought in to the Sephardic community in Queens.

    As Aharon and I were preparing before the crowd arrives, I noticed a lone car outside the shul. "It's not time for anybody to arrive," I said, scratching my head as my curiosity took the better of me. I approached the car, something that is dangerous to do in New York. Lo and behold, it was Rabbi Wein. "Rabbi you're early," I said. "Yes, I know" he answered back. "Why didn't you come in?" I said as a curtesy, offering my hospitality. He said "No, I'll just stay here till 7:00 if you don't mind." I was taken a back. Why does he want to wait in his car? I heard an incredible answer. Once, someone went for an interview to the Bryors Rav in Manhattan. The German Jews are very meticulous about punctuality. He was a few minutes early. Interestingly the Rav addressed the soon to be guest by sayings "a few minutes early is also not on time".

    We Orthodox Jews are regulated by time. There is an interesting story told by a Baalat teshuva-someone who became observant which I found. "I'll never forget the first time I was invited to a Shabbat meal in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was told to be there no later than 6 PM. Well, as I am slightly time-challenged, I took "6 PM prompt" a bit figuratively, and showed up at 6:15, which was the most on-time I had ever been at that point. I noticed the Shabbat candles beautifully dancing, apologized for being late, and asked if I too could light the candles. "Better late than never," I said with a smile, reaching for the matches. To which I was told, "I'm so sorry, but you can't. It's too late." It's too late? What? But it was only 6:15. Really? That was it. Over. Done. I was so used to second chances, extended deadlines, one more opportunity . . . but this time there was no discussion. I wasn't going to get to light. Now, it wasn't as if I had lit candles for however many years prior to that. But being told I couldn't really bothered me. So much so that it prompted my decision to check out more about Judaism, and why being so on time in this particular situation actually mattered. It's been over 20 years since that one Friday night, and I have been lighting my Shabbat candles, on time."

    Lighting Shabbat candles at a very specific time teaches us how important it is to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. And sometimes, being ready just a tad too late, or even too early, is not really helpful at all. In this week's parsha, the children of Yisrael came to Mt. Sinai. There, Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, joined the nation. Yitro observed that Moshe was overwhelmed by his leadership responsibilities. Yitro asked Moshe to explain his various responsibilities. Moshe replied that he has three basic tasks. First, the people come to him to seek Hashem. Second, he judges between the people. Third, he reveals to the nation the laws of Hashem. Yitro advised Moshe to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people.

    We are often overwhelmed with tasks that can easily be allocated to other people. Furthermore, there is "time spent" on project and jobs that can be utilized in a more efficient and productive matter. Time is of the essence. We often neglect it, abuse it, or are not economical without time. We have to approach it shrewdly. Rabbi Bilus asks, "Where do you find the 25th hour? Get up an hour early!"

    We read three times daily the paragraph in the Amida called Modim Anachnu lach a prayer that acknowledges our appreciation towards G-d. In that prayer there is a phrase "for Your miracles that are with us every day and for Your wondrous deeds and favors at all times: evening, morning and noon". The Sages hint that if we carry that mindset of "At all times" we will have a great deal of success in building our lives. What exactly may that mindset be? How can we attain that mindset?

    There is a Gemarah where the great Sage Hillel was dancing in front of the Chattan and Kallah and he said, "All of me is here". If one reads the statement at face value, one might think Hillel is battling the evil inclination regarding an inflated ego. But we know the great Sage would never mean that or feel that. What exactly did he mean? Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1080-1164) quotes: "The past is gone, the future is yet to be, and the present is only a split second. Adopting this philosophy leaves no room to worry." Learning to control our mind to be fully focused on the now is the most precious gift that we can give ourselves, our children and our loved ones. This is what Hillel meant. He is implying that you, Chattan and Kallah have my full attention. You have my dedication and devotion.

    What does the Torah say? What has been the secret of our great leaders and their ability to do so much in such a short amount of time. Here are just 2 examples. The Rambam, Maimonides, a royal doctor, a great scholar and writer, teacher, mentor, spiritual leader and family person. Published many books and all that before there were computers or internet. Or Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, known as the Rashba (1235 - 1310). He became a successful banker and leader of Spanish Jewry of his time. He served as rabbi of the Main Synagogue of Barcelona for 50 years.
    The Rashba was considered an outstanding rabbinic authority, and more than 3,000 of his responsa are known to be extant. Questions were addressed to him from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, and even from Asia Minor. His responsa, which cover the entire gamut of Jewish life, are concise and widely quoted by halakhic authorities.
    He also was a doctor, gave 3 lectures each day and managed to take a walk every day for health and relaxation.
    How did they do it? How did they manage their time? What is the secret?

    The very first mitzvah of the Torah, the first commandment that we received as a people, is to value time. "Ha'chodesh ha'zeh lachem.... G-d said to Moshe and Aharon - This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year." With this commandment comes the privilege and responsibility to control the Jewish calendar through testimony of the new moon and the determination of the human court of when the month begins and consequently when our holidays fall.

    For two hundred and ten years, as slaves in Egypt, our people had no control over their own time or their own destiny. Our taskmasters and oppressors determined how we spent every single moment. It is specifically at that point, when the Jewish people are on the cusp of attaining freedom, explains the Sforno, that we are given the commandment about time. At the core of freedom is the ability to be the arbiters and determiners of our own time. Freedom and time are intertwined. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the freedom to control time as the very definition of a human being and the very essence of consciousness. The only creature that can experience time, that feels its passage and senses its movement, is man.

    Time awareness is at the core of our humanity and is the responsibility of freedom. Being relaxed about punctuality, running late, and having a casual attitude towards start times, is not Jewish time, it is the antithesis of the Jewish notion of time. Wasting time, bitul z'man, is tantamount to burning money, and killing time murders possibility and potential. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once asked what time a certain event would begin. He was told around 10:00 or 10:15. He asked which one it was, for he explained that there was an incredible amount that he could accomplish in fifteen minutes.

    It is so easy and so cliché to say that we should use our time well
    and take advantage of every day. But it is true. For what a shame and
    waste that a twenty-four-hour period can pass, and we might feel that
    during our day we did "nothing." All the more so if we let that day
    turn into a week, or even longer. Steve Jobs has been famously quoted
    as saying: "Live each day as if it is your last. One day you will be
    right." We can't live in the past, and we don't know what tomorrow
    brings, but we can determine how we want today to be.

    Rabbi Elya Lapian teaches us an amazing insight of the mindset one should be in. "The world says that time is money. But I say time is life! He went on to say that we all allow ourselves to become busy, and busyness detracts from life.

    Referring to the teaching by the 18th century mystic, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, known by the initials of his name as the Ramchal, said in his name no one knew this powerful method none other than the Pharaoh, king of Egypt himself.

    In the second chapter of his widely studied ethical treatise, Mesillat Yesharim, Path of the Upright, Ramchal writes of the tactics of the yetzer, the evil urge of man which is buried within each of us:

    "A man who goes through life without taking the time to consider his ways-to reflect on his life is like a blind man who walks along the edge of a river... This is, in fact, one of the cunning weapons of the evil yetzer, who always imposes upon men such strenuous tasks that they have no time left to note wither they are drifting. For he knows that, if they would pay the least attention to their conduct, they would change their ways instantly...

    "This ingenuity is somewhat like that of Pharaoh, who commanded, 'Let the heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein, and let them not regard lying words' (Exodus 5:9). For Pharaoh's purpose was not only to prevent the Israelites from having any leisure to make plans or take counsel against him, but by subjecting them to relentless never ending work, to deprive them also of the opportunity to reflect." For if one reflects long enough he will discover and appreciate G-d and the love-family -his own skills that are occurring morning afternoon and evening.

    To become so busy and have no time to reflect, no time to really live, is bondage. Ramchal's insight into Pharaoh's scheme epitomizes the essential nature of our years of exile in Egypt. Incredibly, our ancestors problems is currently and alarmingly ours! To have no time, that is slavery. He proposes to take a deep breath. One should not get sucked into a system where we are similar to "horses riding without paying attention of their travels, not looking to their left or right". One should have a diary, as the Ramchal suggests, where he can reflect of what transpired throughout the day. This process will help him organizing the future. Then, he will devote full attention to the events and people in his life

    How farsighted were the words of Rav Elya Lapian. Time is life. And how applicable is his teaching for contemporary man, who despite the "time-saving" technological devices which surround him is even busier than those who came before him. Contemporary man has no time for himself, certainly no quality time, no quality time for his love ones and thus no life.
    Time is life.

    Millennia ago, an Egyptian tyrant knew this secret.....and perhaps Rabbi Wein knew it too.

    Rabbi Avi Matmon

    This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi's Berel Wein, Yissachar Frand, Asher Hurzberg, Yossi Bilus, Bernie Fox, Zalman Marcus, Yaacov Lieder and Sarah Esther Crispe

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  • The Great Shabbat

    Rabbi Simon Jacobson

     What defines greatness? A closer look at the significance of Shabbat HaGadol (lit. the great Shabbat) – the traditional name for the Shabbat preceding Passover – can perhaps shed some light on the meaning of greatness. And also give us a laugh or two – hey who can’t use it a bit of humor?…

    If you thought that long, drawn-out Rabbinic sermons are a modern phenomenon, think again. None other than the great 11th century scholar and commentator, Rashi, writes in his Sefer ha’Pardes (p. 343), in the name of a Rabbi Yitzchak Yuskuntu that the customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol speech makes the Shabbat feel long and drawn out. Hence they called the day Shabbat HaGadol, gadol as in long and protracted – the long Shabbat. “When people do not move around, but stay in one place for an extended time and don’t have what to do, they customarily will say: ‘what a long day…’”

    I tried researching the identity of Rabbi Yitzchak Yuskuntu that Rashi cites, but with no success. All Rashi writes is that he was a “katzin” (which usually means a prominent individual, a magistrate), and that he was from Hungary (“eretz hagar”). If anyone has any more information on this Rabbi, I would appreciate you letting let me know.

    Just in case you think that this was an anomaly only in Rashi’s town (and in the vicinity of the above-cited Rabbi Yitzchak), this reason for Shabbat haGadol is brought down by quite a few other Torah authorities, like the 13th century scholar, R’ Tzidkiyahu ben Avraham in his Shibolei Haleket, R’ Yechiel in Tanya Rabsi and others.

    I guess the difference between the Synagogue sermons in the Middle Ages and today is that people then stuck around even if the sermons dragged on and the day turned long and drawn out. While today most congregants would simply leave and not hang around too long… Was it the sermon or the people? Probably both: The sermons were better and the people were more committed. Today, on the other hand… – you can fill in the blanks.

    Before drawing any bizarre conclusions that the Shabbat before Passover is so named (The Long Shabbat) simply due to people’s feelings about the lengthy sermons, we must qualify this statement with a very clear and loud declaration that our sages, including Rashi himself, offer other reasons for this Shabbat being called Shabbat HaGadol.

    Primary among these reasons is the one given by the legal (halachik) authorities, namely the Tur, Shulchan Oruch (code of Jewish law) and the Alter Rebbe in his Shulchan Oruch (Orech Chaim sec. 430) – that a great miracle happened on this Shabbat a few days preceding the Egyptian Exodus. There are various opinions as to the nature of this great miracle. Here is a summary of them:

    1) The Jewish people were commanded by Moses to take a lamb and tie it to their bedposts on Shabbat, the 10th day of Nissan, five days before they were to leave Egypt. When the Egyptians inquired by the Jews why they were buying lambs en masse, they were told that these lambs were intended for the Paschal Offering, which would be sacrificed in preparation of the Plague of the Firstborn. For some reason, this information rattled the Egyptian firstborn, who immediately insisted that Pharaoh grant the Jews the liberty they demanded. When Pharaoh refused their request, the Egyptian firstborn waged war with Pharaoh’s army, and many Egyptians who were guilty of atrocities against the Jews were killed on that day. This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 136:10): “Who struck Egypt through its first born; for His kindness is eternal” (Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch, from Tosafot Shabbat 87b).

    2) On this day it was demonstrated that the Egyptians were powerless against the Jews. They were very disturbed by the fact that the Jews were planning to slaughter lambs, an Egyptian deity – but were incapable of doing anything to hamper their plans (Tur. Levush).

    3) The Egyptians wanted to kill the Jews for slaughtering their deity, and G-d miraculously spared them (Rabboseinu Baalei haTosafos Bo 12:3. Rashi in Sefer HaPardes cited above, as well as in Sefer haOrah and Siddur Rashi).

    Despite these reasons, it still seems kind of puzzling that a sage on the caliber of Rashi should cite the above-mentioned reason that people felt that the sermon made the day seem so long. Why would it be important to tell us this? And why would anyone suggest such a satirical name to a day so special like the Shabbat before Passover?! Especially considering that there are many other very positive reasons for calling this day Shabbat HaGadol – reasons that reflect the special and great miracles that transpired on that day! In addition to the reasons cited above, many scholars over the generations have posited different beautiful insights into this name (like the Avudraham and the Pri Chadash. – Many are gathered in Rabbi Menachem Kasher’s Hagoda Shelemah. See also Bnei Yissachar and Shaar Yissachar, among others).

    Another oddity about Shabbat HaGadol is the fact that this name is not mentioned in any Biblical or Talmudic literature.* The first time we find it mentioned is in the writings of Rashi (cited above) and his contemporaries, like R’ Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry in his Machzor Vitri (section 259). And they both write that the name is shrouded in mystery: “The Shabbat prior to Passover people are accustomed to call Shabbat HaGadol. And they don’t know why it’s called Shabbat Hagadol, [why it is distinguished as being] greater than the other Sabbaths of the year.”

    And yet, they continue to provide the reason for this name due to the great miracle that happened on that Shabbat in Egypt! Since Rashi and the other sages know and are giving us the reason, why are they emphasizing the ignorance of the people in their time who call it by that name without knowing why?! And why is it that people at the time were not aware of the reason? Clearly the name of the Shabbat was quite popular, suggesting that it was passed on by word-of-mouth from generation to generation. Yet, the reason was not passed on except to a select few. The question remains: Where did this name originate? How far back?

    The history of Shabbat HaGadol and its name seems to be muddled, almost intentionally, in obscurity. Not to say that Jewish law is unclear about the matter; the Shulchan Aruch is very lucid about the great miracle that happened on that Shabbat, and how we honor that every year on this Shabbat HaGadol. Many eloquent thoughts and yes, sermons, have been delivered over the years explaining the moral and spiritual lessons from these miracles. And yet, when we go back and explore the past, the origins of the name seem to fade in the annals of history.

    I will not attempt to unravel the mysteries of Shabbat HaGadol. Instead, allow me to just point out that perhaps we may have here a full-blown manifestation of the paradoxes and absurdities of life, which is acutely reflected in Jewish life.

    On one hand, Shabbat HaGadol celebrates the great miracles that preceded the Exodus. After years of oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, the oppressors finally got their due, as they turned on each other and witnessed their gods being destroyed, helpless to do anything about it. Year after year on this Shabbat throughout the millennia, sermons upon sermons were delivered, educating, inspiring, motivating, cajoling the people to honor these miracles, improve their lives and heighten their consciousness.

    On the other hand, the Jewish people, though free at last, are never allowed to gloat and succumb to pride and self-importance.

    To remind us of that fact, we don’t really know when and where the “Great Shabbat” got its name. Furthermore, in an almost tongue-in-cheek way – quite refreshing if you ask me – we are reminded that some of these sermons (even back then) may have gone too long; or if that sounds too harsh, that the long sermons made the people feel that the day was very, very long… “What a long day?”

    They say that there is a very thin line between comedy and tragedy, as well as between intensity and lightness of being. Sometimes the only way to survive and not be trampled by existential loneliness and the contradictions of life is with a bit of humor and self-deprecation; not to take yourself too seriously. Not becoming smug in the face of success; and not to be depressed in the face of (perceived) failure.

    Balancing the two – seriousness and cheerfulness, intensity and buoyancy, realism and optimism, sadness and laughter, pain and joy, success and humility – is the secret to resilience and success; the power to withstand all challenges and endure. The mystery of immortality.

    And in some strange way, this is the secret of greatness. The mystique behind the Great Shabbat.

    May everyone be blessed with a very meaningful, transcendent – and disarming – Passover.


    *) The term Shabbat Hagadol is mentioned Zohar II 204a and Tikkunei Zohar 40b. But it is not referring there (at least explicitly) to the Shabbat preceding Passover.


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