THE SKULENER REBBE

Our rabbinic sages thought that they covered all bases, when they zeroed in on the conclusion of  Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbat, otherwise known as the 92nd psalm. Interpreting the double simile that the “tzaddik (righteous person) will flourish like the palm tree, like a cedar in Lebanon, he will grow tall”, our sages delineated between two different types of tzaddikim. The former produces others like himself,  while the other does not. The former actively influences others through suggesting, prompting and even cajoling, while the latter serves as a role model, placing no demands whatsoever upon others.

Had our sages known about the Skulener Rebbe, they would have realized that there is yet a third type of tzaddik. Unknown to the vast majority of Jews, the Skulener Rebbe shunned notoriety and would not entertain the notion of spiriting Jews away from other synagogues or rabbis. Unlike other Chassidic Rebbeim, the Skulener Rebbe insisted that the spotlight shine upon the individual Jew, rather than the leader. The Skulener Rebbe had a name – Yisroel Avrohom Portugal and he was taken from this world towards the beginning of this month, at the ripe old age of 95.

Yet, in his own self-effacing unassuming way, it is the Skulener Rebbe in my opinion,  and not the leaders of other worldwide Chassidic sects, who embodied the tripart essence of the Pesach Seder, in which Jews in all parts of the world will be participating, later this week.

It was the great sage Rabban Gamliel, who reminded us, that whoever does not use the Seder to expound upon Pesach, Matzah and Maror does not fulfill his duty. When all is said and done, it was the Skulener Rebbe who in his everyday life, exemplified Pesach, Matzah and Maror.

Unlike Matzah and Maror, there is no blessing over Pesach. Pesach, represented by the shank bone, is reminiscent of the Passover sacrifice. A tzaddik – one, who is of the caliber of the Skulener Rebbe – is himself a sacrifice. He role as Rebbe is not to make a name for himself, but to give up his time and to devote his days to serving others. Photogenic, he wasn’t; charismatic, he didn’t yearn to be. And yet, the still small voice (I Kings 19:12) that we make mention of each Rosh Hashana, was in essence the still small voice of the Skulener Rebbe that could be heard loud and clear.

If Matzah is tantamount to simplicity, then the Skulener Rebbe came as close to exemplifying  matzah, as any religious leader. The Skulener Rebbe took but one meal a day and got by on little sleep. Predictably, his lifestyle was one of humbleness. And yet, despite the fact that his picture was not splashed all over, although there are no Skulener sites on the internet to supply us with countless stories and endless religious instruction, on any given day, long lines of Jews formed outside his home in the hope of benefiting from sagacious counsel or simply to receive a blessing.

When other Rebbes are called to their makers, they continue to be venerated in their death, just as they were venerated in their life. Accordingly, their burial plot becomes set apart from other burial plots earning it the title Ohel. I may be wrong, but I cannot help but feel that the resting place of the Skulener Rebbe will not be set apart from others in that cemetery in Rockland County, New York.  What distinguished the Skulener Rebbe, was not any edifices he built in life, but the learning, the mitzvot and the countless deeds of kindness that defined his life.

“A tzaddik must feel the hurt and pain of his people,” said the fictional Reb Saunders to his son’s friend Reuven Malter in Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen.” There was nothing fictional about the Skulener Rebbe. Whenever one came to unburden himself/herself to the Rebbe, he would literally cry. It’s not that tears came easily to him, it’s that his heart and neshomeh (soul) were directly linked to his tear ducts. The tsorres (problems) of those who unburdened themselves to the Skulener Rebbe, were his tsorres, their bitterness was his bitterness, their maror was his maror.

As well-known, meaningful and appropriate terms such as Alav HaShalom (peace be upon him), Zechrono l’Vracha (may his memory be a blessing) are, there is a third term that we ought to add to our vocabulary. It applies to Rabbi Yisroel Avrohim Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe. Z’chuyoto yagein aleinu (may his merit protect us). As we participate in fulfilling the teaching of Rabban Gamliel this Friday and Saturday evening, as we explain Pesach, Matzah and Maror, let us also bring to mind the Skulener Rebbe, whose many merits will surely protect us.

* I am indebted to Joseph Berger whose recent article in the New York Times was the impetus for this week’s column.

HAVING YOUR SAY AT THE SEDER

Statistics have it that more Jews participate in a Passover Seder than light Chanukah candles. Before you delude yourself into imagining how proud HaShem and Moshe are knowing that the revolutionary event of the Exodus from Egypt lives on millennia later, consider the fact that there are a good many contemporary Jews who conduct a Seder for purely selfish reasons. The Seder provides them with a forum to further a point of view that they hold as sacred. Put differently, in many instances, the Passover Seder has evolved into the most politicized tradition known to our people.

Politicizing Passover is nothing new. Close to a century ago, following the overthrow of the Czar, Communist leadership used the Passover Seder to advance its cause. Nicholas II was seen as Pharaoh, Vladamir Lenin was portrayed as Moses, life in Czarist Russia was indistinguishable from Egypt where cruel enslavement of the masses ran rampant, and the Soviet Union under Communism, where everyone enjoyed “equal rights,” was a panacea perhaps even superior to the Promised Land.

With the most modicum of imagination, the Passover Seder serves as the venue for any number of causes you hold to be sacred. At present, I’m sure that there are those who use the Seder to advance the plight of the poor Palestinians living in bondage under the wicked Israelis who deny them dignity as a people.

Don’t hijack the Passover Seder for selfish reasons. For two nights a year, even disaffected Jews ought to be able to find it in their hearts to accord Moses his rightful place among our people. As for using the Seder to further one’s personal agenda, one might consider using the conclusion of Passover as an appropriate time.

It would bookend the festival. Rather than watch the dissipation of Passover encroach as the crumbs of the Seder are brushed aside, a post Passover Seder could provide symmetry. Should you wish to resort to maror and matzah to highlight the plight of those you maintain are being denied freedom, then by all means! A post Passover Seder affords you to introduce bread and all over symbols to represent a future filled with hope. A post Passover Seder guarantees that the festival not only begins with interest and participation but ends with interest and participation as well.

It would show that you are no usurper. Those with an agenda all their own feel that they deserve a platform. If so, don’t deny Moses the platform that is his. Show others that you have the courtesy and sensitivity to permit Moses eight days of fame each year. Once Moses has had his say, beginning with “And you shall tell your son on that day” (Exodus 13:8) and concluding (seven days later) with “HaShem shall do battle for you and you shall remain silent” (exodus 14:14), you will have ample time to have your say and customize the message of Passover to fit your needs.

It keeps it in the house. You have every right to champion whatever cause you feel to be important. Do so within the walls of your own home. Chances are that others really don’t care about the beliefs you hold to be so sacrosanct. On the other hand, it may very well be that others care a great deal and are repulsed by those beliefs. Why should you be the cause for acrimony in the community? Doesn’t the Seder begin by extending an all-inclusive invitation? Keep your politicized Seder with your beliefs inside your own home where you can rant and rave to your heart’s content.

STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Rabbi Yehudah was one brilliant sage. By creating the mnemonic D’tzach, Adash, B’achav, he provided an excellent way for all to be able to recount the ten plagues (D’tzach is comprised of three letters, representing three words: dam – blood, tzfardaya – frogs, kinim – lice. The same hold true for Adash and B’achav). Far be it for me to place myself in the league of Rabbi Yehudah, but I too would like to offer a mnemonic device – three actually, to help us recall the very essence of Passover:

From slavery to bravery. Meaning no disrespect, but the very first Passover? A success story, it wasn’t! While it is true that our ancestors successfully left Egypt, Egypt never successfully left them. For the cynics among us, the generation that was led out of Egypt exchanged being enslaved to Pharaoh for being enslaved to their own human foibles. Had that generation not lacked faith in HaShem, as well as in itself, it could have easily made the journey to the Promised Land in a matter of months at most. But because those who left Egypt could not shake off the slavery and because they possessed not even a scintilla of bravery, they ended up taking the long way home. If any generation could lay claim to the “lower forty” (as in years), they could. Unfortunately, “from slavery to bravery” was not within their grasp.

Grain causes pain. Story has it that we are living in an era where eating healthy has become synonymous with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are cautioned against trans fats, triglycerides, and a whole host of other harmful foods Americans ingest. Despite what you see on the supermarket shelves, diet-wise, Pesach is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Forget the burgeoning food products that Jewish homes just have to have for an eight day period of time. I am no nutritionist, but even I know that staples such as: chicken, beef, fish, fresh fruitm and vegetables make for a healthy diet.  Interestingly enough, not one of these foods requires Kosher for Passover certification. Believe it or not, we humans can manage quite nicely for the time period of Passover without cake and cookies, as well as other baked delicacies. Other than the Seder night, there is no requirement to eat matzah! Humor me and sit down to a meal of broiled salmon, a baked potato, steamed broccoli, freshly tossed salad and wash it down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. You too can survive eating a meal on Pesach that requires no kosher for Passover certification.

History is mystery. Why should an event – however earthshaking it may have been – that took place over three millennia ago continue to have such an impact on Jews throughout the world? What’s more, the amount of hagaddahs with new translations, interpretations and explanations that continue to be published each year is simply mind boggling.  Add to that the burgeoning of Kosher for Passover products that are introduced into the already flooded market and it seems that Pesach continues to grow, rather than diminish in importance each and every year. It’s simply beyond me why Passover affects so many in so many ways. No puns intended, but Chanukah doesn’t even hold a candle to Pesach, regardless of how many families from the nominally Jewish to the highly observant light up the dark winter nights. Nor does our appetite for observing Yom Kippur come close to what takes place on Pesach. The irony of it all is that upon being commissioned by HaShem, Moshe doubted he would have any impact on the people of that generation. However well founded Moshe’s doubt may have been, in no way could Moshe foresee the impact he would have generations later. Here we are over three millennia later, still crazy (in the most positive fashion) about a festival that commemorates our peoples exodus from Egypt.