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.

TEARS OF RELIEF

For the longest time, a set of faux dog tags bearing the names of Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman hung behind my office chair in my New Jersey Synagogue. The fate of those three Israeli soldiers, who fell into the hands of the enemy during the 1982 War in Lebanon were unknown and the three soldiers were therefore listed as missing in action. While I do not recall whatever happened to those dog tags, they came to mind this past week, when it was announced that Israel had secured the remains of Sergeant Zachary Baumel.

I pray that there much needed closure for the family. I hope that three much needed messages will continue to live on, long after Zachary’s remains have been laid to rest at Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, last week.

We Jews do not forget. It’s part of our collective DNA. Next week, countless Jewish families throughout the world, will be sitting down to special dinner accompanied by Haggadahs, to recall an event that occurred over three millennia ago. Those who include traditional daily prayer as part of their spiritual diet, are reminded of that event twice each day. It is our ancestors being taken out of Egypt.  I cannot help but feel that as Jews, we remember people and events – perhaps not as many as we ought to – but more than many other nations. As Jews, we not only remember foes, but we remember friends as well. Last Thursday evening in Jerusalem, thousands came to remember, as Zachary Baumel finally received a proper burial service, in accordance with Jewish law.
The next time you are in search for a topic for dinner conversation, you may wish to remind guests seated around the table that in Judaism, we believe that there is sanctity to the human body. That’s why we have a Chevra Kaddisha; that’s why the Jewish community will do anything and everything in its power so that that every Jew receives a Jewish burial. Bodies of the deceased are to be accorded dignity and respect. Does according dignity and respect to the human body, also apply to wanton murderers and terrorists who prey upon the innocent? Are the bodies of murderers and terrorists to be accorded the same dignity and respect as their victims? Is the Jewish view of a human body absolute, or does that view allow for exceptions, when it comes to those who willfully desecrate human bodies?  One thing is for sure. The 37-year-old remains of Zachary Baumel were accorded dignity and respect, as they were laid to rest at Mount Herzl, the same cemetery when Jonathan Netanyahu, the hero  of the raid at Entebbe, lies buried.

Even though not all Israelites left Egypt under Moshe’s leadership, independent of the fact that any number of Israelites known as the mixed multitude “took it on the lamb” with our ancestors, as they charted their course for the wilderness, we of later generations have adopted “no Jew left behind” as our credo. This credo is very much ingrained in each and every soldier of the Israel Defense Forces. As a people, we do not differentiate between the living and the dead. Given the choice, members of the Baumel family would have done anything to have received Zachary back alive. Nevertheless, they left no stone unturned at receiving him back as earthly remains.
Come Pesach, the message of true liberation must not be defined as mere commemoration. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder and digest what “Jews do not forget” truly means. If our history is beyond compare, shouldn’t our collective memory be beyond compare as well?  For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder with renewed appetite toward dignity and respect toward our fellow Jew. If our tradition mandates that we  accord honor to the dead, how much more so ought we to accord honor  to the living. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” must take on real meaning, so that no Jew is overlooked or left behind and we set an extra seat for someone who might not have been invited to a Pesach Seder.

Toward the beginning of the Seder, as we participate in “karpas,” may the salt water remind us of the tears of relief shed by the Baumel family last week.