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.