TASTING THE PAIN

Want to make me grimace? Tell me that you feel my pain. Or anyone else’s pain for that matter. As a rabbi, as one who has been in the presence of a goodly number of individuals who are either hurting emotionally, in mental anguish or in physical pain, I cringe, grimace and wince whenever I hear a well-meaning but witless individual make an attempt to sound empathetic. Because no two people are identical, it is impossible for any human being to feel the pain of any other human being.

One can, however, see the pain of others; one can, however, see that others are in pain. And that’s precisely what happened when Moshe made that fateful decision to abandon the lap of luxury of Pharaoh’s palace and go out to his enslaved brethren. It was there amidst the Children of Israel that Moshe saw their pain (Exodus 2:11). One look was all it took. Especially, when Moshe cast his eyes in all directions and realized that there was no one else prepared to so much lift a finger to correct the injustice of inhumanity. Moshe saw the pain of others; HaShem saw how it pained Moshe. And the rest as they might have said is biblical history.

Pain in others is poignant. While those who are in the presence of people in pain, as well as those who are cognizant of people in pain, cannot feel the pain being experienced by the sufferer, they can be very much aware of that pain. They know that others are hurting. As a result, it saddens them. It may even break their hearts. But they are not the ones who furrow their brow or clench their teeth or contort their faces when the pain becomes excruciating. Moshe saw the pain of his brethren; HaShem knew their pain (Exodus 3:7). And true to His word, HaShem embarked on delivering the seed of Abraham from enslavement to freedom.  HaShem made good on His word to liberate them from a foreign people in a foreign land and deliver them to freedom, as they embarked on a journey that would ultimately bring them to the Promised Land.

In recounting an event of our people that occurred over three thousand years earlier, our rabbinic sages were redoubtably realistic. They realized that it was impossible for later generations to know the pain of their Israelite ancestors in Egypt. They understood that it was futile to expect later generations to see the pain of their ancestors in Egypt. Instead, they embarked on a different course. They mandated that later generations taste the pain of their Israelite ancestors in Egypt. Building on the biblical commandment of ingesting matzah and maror at the seder (the Torah commands that we eat Korban Pesach together with matzah and maror. Yet, ever since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash or holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Korban Pesach has ceased to exist), our sages handed down the following: If, after reciting the blessing for eating matzah, one ingested a capsule of pulverized matzah in keeping with the minimum amount of a little over one ounce of matzah, one has fulfilled the mitzvah. If, however, after reciting the blessing for eating maror (typically horseradish or romaine lettuce including the bitter root), one ingested capsules of pureed maror in keeping with the minimum amount of a little over one ounce of maror, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah. Consider the following: should it ever happen that you conduct a poll, asking others who have been regular participants at the seder, to list three things they liked best, it is highly doubtful that fulfilling the mitzvah of eating the maror would ever make it into that list. That’s precisely why our rabbinic sages were adamant that the maror must not only be eaten but tasted as well. Put differently, if our ancestors tasted the bitterness of subjugation as they endured the pain of slavery their entire lives, then surely, we ought to be able to endure the bitterness of maror for a few brief moments. Surely, we ought to be able to taste their pain.

Come the second Wednesday and Thursday evenings of this month, you’ll have a difficult time finding Moshe, the one who saw the pain of enslaved ancestors, as you read the Haggadah. Hopefully, HaShem, who knew the pain of our enslaved ancestors, will have an easy time finding you at the seder table. Equally as important, I look forward to hearing from you how you tasted the pain of enslaved ancestors, as you fulfill the mitzvah of eating the maror at the seder.

With Blessings for a Meaningful and Memorable Pesach!


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.