BEHAR (Leviticus, 25:1-26:2) — “Aharon Moshe: Servant of G-d and His Children”

aaron_steinhart

Count … forty-nine years.  Sound a blast on the Shofar… on Yom Kippur you shall sound the Shofar throughout your land.  (Leviticus, 25:8-9)

Every 50 years, the Jubilee Year was announced with the sounding of the Shofar.  (See “Free as a Bird.”)   Nowadays, in these post-Temple (and pre-Temple!) times, the Jubilee is not currently observed.  However, to retain the Tradition, and to remind us of how things are supposed to be, we continue the practice of sounding the Shofar at the end of EVERY Yom Kippur.

The Shofar at the end Yom Kippur has come to symbolize the end of the fast.  When we hear the Shofar, we breathe a sigh of relief; the Yom HaKadosh, the holy day, has come to an end and we look forward to a healthy, successful, and happy year.  The Evening Service is said, Havdallah is recited, and everyone leaves the synagogue to break the fast.

For me, over the last few years there has been an additional component to the ritual.  The Gabbai (for lack of a better translation, the sexton, in charge of calling people up for honors, and keeping track of the million-or-so little details that make a Shul run efficiently) would come up to me and congratulate me on conducting the Services.  We would hug each other and wish each other well.

It was a great hug, one that I really appreciated.  After all, one should always strive to receive blessings from righteous people.  He blessed me with wishes for a good year.  I, of course, blessed him too, but it is clear to me that I got the better end of that deal.

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Next Yom Kippur, things will be different.  My beloved Gabbai will not be there to hug me and bless me.  Our beloved Gabbai, Aharon Moshe ben Shmuel Zanvil, Mr. Aaron Steinhart, Zeicher Tzaddik Levrachah, of Blessed Memory, has gone home.  After 91 years, he has returned his Neshamah, his soul, to its Creator.

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It is customary among Chassidim to bring written requests to righteous people.  All of their needs are written on these “Kvittlach” — notes, and the righteous people are asked to pray to G-d for the fulfillment of these requests.  After the Second World War, there was a dearth of such holy people.

One great Rabbi, the Rebbe of Satmar, of Blessed Memory, was asked what to do.  “Now that so many of our Tzaddikim, righteous people, have been killed, to whom should we bring our requests for blessings?”

The Rebbe gave two answers.  “Go into any Shul on a weekday morning,” he said.  “Watch the men rolling up their sleeves to put on their Tefillin.  If you see numbers on their arms, ask them to bless you.”  Any person who could endure the hell of a concentration camp and still be devoted to G-d, he reasoned, is truly a Tzaddik, a righteous person.

The second alternative that the Rebbe gave was an American-born Sabbath observer.

Today in America it is easy to observe the Sabbath.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Mr. Steinhart, born in the Bronx in 1914, told me that many of his friends abandoned religious observance.  He was eternally grateful to a Chassidic rabbi who had reached out to this 16-year-old and helped him maintain his identity and religious commitment.

And that religious commitment was total and uncompromising.  During his career as a mailman, and while working at the local “Y”, he managed to squeeze in charity collection and distribution, bathing people who couldn’t bathe themselves, and even conflict resolution with members of the local Bronx gangs.

CORRECTION: He didn’t “squeeze in” those good deeds.  If anything, he squeezed in his career.  If you would ask him “Vos macht ir,” — “How are you?”– Literally, “What do you do?” he would answer with a smile, “Mitzvos and Maasim Tovim! (Good deeds)”

To Aaron Steinhart, your profession is what you have to do to pay your bills.  But what does a Jew DO?  What he DOES, his entire purpose, his raison d’être, is Mitzvos and Maasim Tovim!  G-d put us here to serve Him and His children, and there’s a lot to do!

When I became the rabbi of a new retirement community six and a half years ago, I knew that we needed a Gabbai for our Shul.  I had just met this friendly man who was obviously comfortable in Shul and I asked him if he would consider serving as our Gabbai.  I didn’t know that he had already been a Gabbai in the Bronx.  He readily agreed and went on to serve our congregation with distinction and devotion.

Mr. Steinhart always managed to be aware of who needed to be given what honor and when.  He truly saw himself as a servant of the people, and made it his business to know the needs of our congregants.  If someone needed to be pushed into Shul in a wheelchair, he did it.  (Let us remember that he came to us at the age of 85!)  If someone needed a prayer book, he ran to get it.  When I was going to speak, he ran (when I wasn’t able to stop him) to roll the heavy lectern into place and put the appropriate book on the lectern. 

[This past Monday, three days after he passed away, I noticed 3 large piles of heavy books on a table in the Shul.  That is very unusual.  They were obviously still out after being used on Shabbos.  They are usually back on the shelves long before Monday.  Suddenly I realized why they were still out.  Mr. Steinhart had been putting them away all along!]

Torah study was paramount.  He made every effort to attend Torah lectures whenever possible, and share what he had learned.  The closest thing to a complaint one would hear about his advancing age was that he couldn’t remember the lectures as well as he had in the past.  But this, too, he accepted with a smile.  “G-d is teaching me how to be an old man.”

He possessed a wonderful Simchas Hachaim, a joy in living.  He took an almost child-like pleasure in doing Mitzvos.  If the Shul bought new prayer books, or anything else that enhances Mitzvah observance, he was thrilled.

He respected Torah students of all ages.  “Oh, you’re going to Israel to study in Yeshiva?  Yofi!”  (Beautiful!)

A rabbi, in his eyes, was especially honored.  He would often address me in third person, as “the Rav,” or “the Rebbe.”  I’ll never forget the time, several years ago, on Erev Yom Kippur.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, we are supposed to apologize and forgive each other before we ask G-d for forgiveness.  He approached me with tears in his eyes.  “I want to ask the Rebbe for forgiveness if I offended his honor in any way.”

“The Rebbe.”  I was half his age, and he felt he had to ask for forgiveness.  And he meant it.  And it wasn’t just rabbis.  It was ANYONE.  The following year, on Erev Yom Kippur, he made the identical request to the entire Shul!  Such humility!  Such nobility!  In his devotion to serving G-d and His children, he gave it his all, always fearing that he was not doing everything he could.

I went to visit him when his wife passed away.  “When I get up from Shiva,” he said, “I need to talk to you.  I have to decide now where I should live.”

He had come to our retirement community because his wife needed the additional help.  Now that she was gone, he no longer needed to be there.  However, by the time we got to speak, he had already made his decision.  Walking back into the building, he came upon a new resident in the community, a retired rabbi with some medical problems.  Here was a person who needed some help.  “G-d has already answered my question, and showed me what I need to be doing.”

One Rosh Hashanah I was leading the Services and heard people praying a little louder than usual.  When I finished my own prayers, I turned around and saw what the commotion was all about.  He was standing next to a resident whose macular degeneration prevented him from reading.  The man knew most of the regular prayers by heart, but not the High Holiday prayers.  Our Gabbai, servant of the congregation that he was, was standing next to the man, reciting the prayer one word at a time so the other fellow could say each word.  He later told me that he realized he could pray with more concentration if he went elsewhere for the High Holidays, but he felt that he had to help others.

His Hebrew name was Aharon Moshe.  Like Aaron, he “loved people and brought them close to Torah.”  Like Moses, he was the devoted servant of G-d, who went to great lengths to serve His People.

In recent months, our 91-year-old Gabbai began to slow down.  That beautiful smile was still there, but walking became more difficult, and he was often very weak.  Still, he pushed wheelchairs and helped other residents with their Tallis and Tefillin. He often talked about “retiring” as Gabbai, but I wouldn’t hear of it.  First of all, there was no other resident in the retirement home who could fill his shoes.  More importantly, HE was our Gabbai.  I told him that I would call people up to the Torah, and do whatever I had to do to make it easier for him.  But I would not consider taking that honored title away from our dear Gabbai.

Last Wednesday, I called him to ask a favor.  (Another Shul-related Gabbai-type activity.)  It turned out that he wanted to speak with me.

“Rabbi,” he said weakly, “you’re going to have to find someone else to take over.  I’m just too weak.  Higi’ah Hazman.” 

“Higi’ah Hazman — The time has come.”  I sensed that he was talking about more than just the Gabbai position.

The next morning he remained in his seat as I called up the various people for honors.  I did a sloppy job.  A professional is someone who makes a hard job look easy.  I joked to him that he had sent a boy to do a man’s job.

Later that day he went into the hospital.  His son heard him say, “Ribbono shel Olam!  Ich hob nisht kein koach l’ovdicha.” (“Master of the World!  I don’t have any strength to serve You!”)

 That’s what it was all about.  “L’ovdicha — to serve You.”  That’s why we’re here.  To serve G-d and His children.  To do “Mitzvos and Maasim Tovim — Good deeds.”

Aaron Steinhart spent 91 years “L’ovdo — to serve Him” with Mitzvos and good deeds.  He was no longer able to do that.  His mission accomplished, he left us.

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This was not an easy article to write.  (Tears don’t show up on computer screens.)  He loved everyone, and everyone loved him.  Another person’s Simcha was his Simcha.  Another person’s sorrow was his sorrow.  He called me “the Rebbe,” but he taught me more about how G-d wants us to live than I ever could have taught him.

Friday afternoon, at the end of my eulogy, I referred to that Erev Yom Kippur.  Now, it was my turn to cry.  “I want to ask the Rebbe for forgiveness,” I said, “if I offended his honor in any way.”

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I am profoundly saddened over this loss.  I feel impoverished over the departure of this very special man.  But I am forever enriched by having known him.

Yes, next Yom Kippur’s Shofar blast will be different.  Let us pray that we will soon hear the sounding of the Shofar that will announce our ultimate redemption.  Let us pray for the day that we will enjoy the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (25:8):  “Death shall cease forever and G-d shall erase the tear from every face.”

May G-d console his family among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.  May we all enjoy happiness and good health.  May we all learn from the example of this exemplary human being.

Have a good Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

POSTSCRIPT (May 6, 2010): The memory of this giant of a man lives on in many ways. 

See page 16 of this article from Jewish Action. 

I mentioned in the article that future Yom Yippurs would be different, that I would no longer get to enjoy the pleasure and honor of his blessing and his hug.  Well, I’ve had to compensate.  I told his son not to be surprised if he gets a knock on his door after the fast. 

Every year after the fast I come to Mr. Steinhart’s son’s house to collect my hug! (And a Blessing. And a little bit of Scotch!!) 

It has been my honor and privilege to usher four of Mr. Steinhart’s great-grandsons, (three of whom bear his name—the 4th was a twin!) into the Covenant of Abraham.  And I’ve allowed a little —  just a little 🙂 — of his Chassidic leanings to wear off on me.  

Mr. Steinhart came from Chassidic stock and took on many Chassidic practices, including donning a second pair of Tefillin toward the end of Morning Services, and wearing a Gartel — a special belt designated for prayer.  I am what they call a “Kalter Litvak” — literally, a Cold Lithuanian.  We don’t get into that Chassidic stuff! 

Right before I performed the first Steinhart Bris, I walked over to his son, the grandfather of the baby.  I looked over my shoulder to my right, then to my left, and whispered to him conspiratorially, “Quick!  Give me Zaidie’s Gartel!” 

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From the Archives 

(Sometimes the Torah Portions of Behar and Bechukosai are read in the same week, and sometimes they are read in separate weeks.  To avoid confusion, both are listed here) 

From Behar, the first of this week’s two Torah Portions 

“The Palestinians are Right!” (2010)

 Israel is ours.

From time immemorial, theLandofIsraelhas been inhabited by Jews.  There is no such thing asPalestine.  The so-called “Palestinians” need to wake up to that fact, get a life, and move on.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, dismiss this notion as wishful thinking on the part of the Jews.  They continue to argue that there is no proof that the Land is ours…

Of course, as we know, the Palestinians are wrong … Right? …

THE TRUTH IS THAT … ISRAELDOES NOT BELONG TO THE JEWS.  It never has…

Read more.

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“The Price of Tea in China” (2006)

“…  For six years you may sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and you may gather its crop.  But the seventh year will be a complete rest for the Land…”

…  A farmer works his field for six years, trying his hardest to produce an income to support his family.  Now we tell him to take a year off.

Take a year off?!  How am I gonna eat?!

Good question…

Read more.

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“Aharon Moshe — Servant of G-d and His Children” (2005)

… It is customary among Chassidim to bring written requests to righteous people.  All of their needs are written on these “Kvittlach” — notes, and the righteous people are asked to pray to G-d for the fulfillment of these requests.  After the Second World War, there was a dearth of such holy people.

One great Rabbi, the Rebbe of Satmar, of Blessed Memory, was asked what to do.  “Now that so many of our Tzaddikim, righteous people, have been killed, to whom should we bring our requests for blessings?”

The Rebbe gave two answers…

This was not an easy article to write.  (Tears don’t show up on computer screens.)…

Read more.

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“Ask a Stupid Question…” (2004)

… CHAYIM: I can’t believe what happened to me today!

YANKEL: What happened?

CHAYIM: A guy came by the office today selling ties.  He showed me some hand-made silk ties.  He told me that they were worth $50, but he was willing to sell them for only $30.  What a bargain!  Twenty dollars off!  I bought five!

YANKEL: That’s great, Chayim!  What’s the problem?  You saved $100!  That’s wonderful!

CHAYIM: Well, not exactly.  As it turned out, they were actually made of polyester, and are available on Ebay for $3 apiece.

YANKEL: Oh…Uh, Chayim…

CHAYIM: Yes, Yankel?

YANKEL:  You, my dear friend, are a jerk.  A naive, stupid fool!  You should be ashamed of yourself!  What’s the matter with you?!  How could you allow yourself to be ripped off like that?!  Boy, that con man must be laughing at you now!

We have just observed two violations of Torah Law…

Read more.

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“Free as a Bird” (2002)

We’re all familiar with the famous words on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land…” Many people are not aware that it is actually a quote from the Torah. (Leviticus, 25:10)

…”Proclaim ‘D’ROR’ throughout the land.”

You’ll notice that I left the word “D’ROR” untranslated. Most commentaries give comparable translations… synonymous with the bell-maker’s translation – “Liberty.”

… Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra presents an interesting insight into the word “D’ROR.” … the Dror is a very independent bird. As long as it is in its own nest, it sings to its heart’s content. However, once it is taken into captivity it silently refuses to eat and eventually starves. (“Give me liberty or give me death!”)…

Read more.

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From Bechukosai, the second of this week’s two Torah Portions 

“Don’t Just STAND There…” (2009)

We strive to be holy.  It is not an easy task.  The Torah was not given to angels; it was given to human beings with human weaknesses.  Yet, we make the effort.

In our daily prayers, we make reference to the angels in Heaven and the divine symphony of praise that they offer to G-d every day…

The Heavens ring forth with holiness that we mortals cannot even begin to imagine, much less, understand.  Yet we try:

We shall sanctify Your Name in this world, just as they sanctify it in Heaven above, as it is written by Your prophet, “they call one another and say:  ‘Holy, holy, holy..’

The above prayer is recited standing, with our feet together as if they are one foot, just like the angels, about whom it is written, and their legs are one straight leg” (Ezekiel 1:7) and who are referred to as “Standers.” (Zechariah, 3:7)

All this, of course, begs the question: whom are we trying to kid??!

We are simple, mortal human beings.  How can we even contemplate a serious attempt at being like the angels?  Their level of holiness is so far beyond ours that it seems pointless to even make the comparison…

Read more.

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“Confessions of a Would-Be Vegetarian” (2005)

… it began to sink in.  Do I really want to KILL my chickens?  Do I really want toEATmy chickens?  After months of watching their antics, running and wing-flapping and squawking around my back yard, making me laugh and giving me eggs, do I really want to put them in a soup pot?…

Read more.

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“Your Money or your Wife!” (2003)

How much is a person worth?  What is the dollars-and-cents cash value of a human being? … The Book of Judges tells us the heartbreaking story of Yiftach, whose poor judgment led to a tragedy … Yiftach was praying for success in battle … “If You deliver Ammon into my hands, the first thing that comes out of my house to greet me, I will offer as a sacrifice.” (Judges,11:31).

The Talmud says that Yiftach had made an irresponsible vow.  Not every animal is acceptable as an offering.  If the family cow or his pet lamb had ambled out the door to meet him, either one would have served as a fine Thanksgiving offer on the Altar.  But what would he do if he were greeted by Fido or his daughter’s pet iguana?!

Actually, the scenario was even worse…

Read more.

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“Labor Gains” (2001)

Jewish life is all about choices.  We are given the option of choosing the path that G-d wants us to follow, or a path that goes the other way.  Either way, says the Torah, there are consequences to our choices….

We are, of course, proud to be Jewish.  We fulfill Mitzvahs and we recite prayers.  But do we LABOR IN TORAH?  Do we toil and struggle to make Torah the be-all, end-all emphasis of our lives?  Is Torah our lifeblood?  Or is it little more than a cultural appendage, a potpourri of chicken soup, matzah balls and gefilte fish?… There are two types of people who subscribe to my weekly messages…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on May 20, 2005 at 4:10 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thank you, I cried too.


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