Each Shabbat we have a kiddush at our synagogue. During the winter when we pray Mincha around 12:30, we extend lunch with a class and often add some additional short speeches by congregants relating to that week’s kiddush dedication.
This past Shabbat we commemorated the Yahrzeit's of Mr. Alan Wagner the father of my long time Chevrutah, Rabbi Michael Wagner and Mr. Simcha Yusupov whose family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union, who I count among my dearest friends and who have become strong pillars of our community.
Four people spoke this Shabbat, the last being my friend Alex Yusupov who mentioned that although it's been 35 years since his father passed away, no matter the length of time, he can still smell his Dad's aftershave.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”
As the hour was late when it was my turn to speak, I decided to set aside the class and after hearing Alex recalled a lesson from Rabbi Abittan, z’sl. Although the rabbi has been gone for more than 11 years, he is with us in this congregation every day through his lessons and his teachings.
I was confused that the portion of Terumah which details the vessels, the ark, the show table, the menorah and the entire mishkan fails to mention the golden alter. In fact this alter which sat adjacent to the menorah and the show table and upon which Aaron burned the ketoret or incense offering every day is not mentioned until the final segment of this week’s portion of Tesaveh following all the details of the priestly clothing. “What happened”, I asked.
The rabbi explained, acharon, acharon, chabib …. The last is dearest! We are to understand that nothing is as important or as powerful as the incense offering. The Meam Loez explains that the word Ketoret is an acrostic of Kedusha- holiness, Tahorah – purity, Rachamim – mercy and Tikvah – hope and explains the function of the incense. It would add holiness to the Israelites, cure them of their sins, then Hashem would have mercy on them and the people would have hope.
Rabbi Ari Kahn writes that one of the major elements of the Yom Kippur atonement process was the incense with which the Kohen Gadol entered the Kodesh Kodashim: The incense was both a symbol and a vehicle of the transformation of the sins of the Jewish People on Yom Kippur.
What was so special about the reyach nichoach – what is so special about the sense of smell?
The Bnei Yissachar teaches with regard to the corruption of the senses by the sin in the Garden of Eden that when man sinned, all the senses were involved. She and he in turn hear the arguments of the snake, they see the fruit which is appealing, they touch the fruit and they taste the fruit. All of the senses participated with the exception of smell. Therefore, from the uncorrupted sense of smell, healing can take place. He suggests that this is why incense was a central element of the service of Yom Kippur.
The rabbis tell us that through the sprinkling of blood on the inner alter and the ketoret on Yom Kippur, the prosecutor can actually be turned from an accuser to an advocate. Rabbi Abittan would explain that our job is not to eradicate evil, but to actually turn evil into good.
We know that the incense contained eleven ingredients including the putrid smelling khelbona. The Rabbi would explain that through the ketoret, even this eleventh rotten ingredient, transforms and plays a role in the sweetness of the other ten. He would say that even a Rasha – wicked person - joining ten others in a minyan can be transformed and add to the sum.
The Talmud in Chullin asks, where is Mordechai to be found in the Torah? And replies with the words mor dror which refer to a particular fragrance that accompanies certain korbanot — and in Aramaic the words mor dror are rendered mira dichya which sort of sounds like “Mordechai.”
I believe the lesson is that Mordechai was able to take evil and use it for good. This is his power. He was able to use a plot hatched by others to kill the king - to catapult his own standing. He was able to use a plot woven by Haman to kill the Jews - to set in motion the recommitment of the Jewish people to Hashem and as a catalyst to rebuild the Temple.
Perhaps this is the theme of Purim which relates to Yom HaKiPURIM, the transformation of evil into good. Who can miss this in the fact that the Talmud in Gittin reminds us that the descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Kahn writes that Haman's fate is turned "upside down", not once but twice: He is hung on the tree he himself prepared for Mordechai's execution, and his descendants become a part of the nation he wished to destroy.
I saw this myself many years ago when my wife brought a talmid chaham from Benai Brak as my guide for a tour of Yad VaShem. The guide was a ger, a convert, who had become an expert of the holocaust when he discovered that his own father was a Nazi and this eventually led to his conversion. Today he is a scholar raising scholars in the study of Torah. Truly he is transforming evil into good.
Rabbi Abittan often marveled at the miracle of observant Jews and scholars coming from the Soviet Union. Lenin and Stalin and their cohorts tried for seventy years to eradicate Judaism and any vestige of it from the lives of Jewish Russians, yet against all odds they safeguarded their “pintele yid”, their Jewish flame until they were given the opportunity again to let it burn brightly.
I closed with an amazing story I heard from Rabbi Duvi BenSoussan, a Moroccan rabbi in the community whose father like Rabbi Abittan was one of the boys brought by Rabbi Kalmanowitz, Isaac Shalom and my great Uncle Dave Bibi to the Mirrer Yeshiva in America through Otzar HaTorah
The Rabbi related the tale of a Chabad Rabbi he knew in Short Hills, New Jersey. Some years back the rabbi was able to mekarev or bring back to Judaism a young man, a few years later he was able to do the same for a young girl from the same area.
The rabbi explained that these two became part of his ever-expanding and extended family. He was over whelmed with joy when the two decided to marry and assisted in arranging their wedding. He wanted it to be the most joyous wedding in Short Hills. There were about 100 guests from the two small families; most of them with little connection to religion. The rabbi hoped that when the bride and groom would come into the hall, everyone in the room would dance with them. He went from table to table encouraging all the people and getting their commitments. When the dancing began he felt joy that everyone in the room was dancing, but then he said he saw one elderly man sitting at a table alone. He walked over to the man, put out his hands and asked the man to join him for a dance. The man said he would love to but he was just into much pain and it was impossible for him to get up.
The rabbi asked him if he could help and the man explained that earlier that day he underwent a circumcision. The rabbi looked at him and asked if seeing the rabbi’s beard, the man was making fun of him. But the man said it all seriousness, “no, I did it this morning. There was the mohel, there was a sandak who stood behind me and it was all done kosher”.
The rabbi asked, "But how old are you?"
The man said that he was 92 years old.
And the rabbi asked, “Why now?”
The man explained that the groom was his grandson and a couple of months earlier his grandson and come to him with the news that he would be getting married, that he was so proud that he was getting married to a religious girl and he had become religious himself. At the same time he apologized to his grandfather and said to him that although he would love him to be at the wedding there was one place in the wedding that his grandfather couldn’t join them and that was under the chupah, because under the canopy was the presence of Hashem and as his grandfather wasn't circumcised he didn't want his grandfather standing there.
The grandfather said, “I love my grandson more than anything in the world and so I decided in his honor I would do this. And so today I had my own Brit Milah. And I was overjoyed this evening as they carried me and helped me under the chupa where I sat and shared in the ceremony of the marriage of my grandson”.
“But Rabbi, the old man continued, “I am in terrible pain and I can hardly move”.
The Rabbi had never felt so moved in his life and reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. On the envelope was written, Lubavitcher Rebbe 1991
The rabbi explained that this was the last dollar he had received from the Rebbe and with this dollar the Rebbe blessed him with health and since that day the Rabbi had never been sick. He wanted to give the dollar as a gift to the grandfather in hopes that it would help with his complete recovery.
The old man looked at the envelope held it in his two hands and started to cry. The rabbi fearing had done something wrong asked the old man if he was OK.
The grandfather told the Rabbi to sit down. Now Rabbi let me tell you a story. I came to this country 51 years ago. Because of Soviet law, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. A friend of mine told me on my second day in America that to begin life anew I should get a blessing from the Rebbe. He took me to Eastern Parkway on a cold Sunday morning where we stood in line for hours and reminded me of the lines in Russia.
When I finally got to meet the Rebbe , I looked at his piercing blue eyes, his long white beard and he looked at me handing me the dollar and then suddenly pulling it back. I wondered what happened. And then he asked me in Russian, Did I have a Brit Milah”? Embarrassed I looked at him and said no.
He handed me the dollar and blessed me that I should have my Brit telling me on the day I would be circumcised he would give me another dollar. And as he completed the story, the old man cried even more.
The Rabbi asked, “but this is really miraculous, why are you so sad still?” And the man looked up, tears still pouring down his cheeks and said, “Holding this dollar, I realize now that had I been circumcised when the Rebbe first told me to 50 years ago how different my life would be. I am so happy to see what has become of my grandson, but sitting here now for the first time in my life I wonder what could have become of me?”
Looking at my friends I noted that their success was that they were always quick to run after a misvah and never delaying it and blessed them that they and all of us should be zocheh to convert evil into good.
By: Rabbi David Bibi