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September 1, 2014 / 6 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Har Sinai’

The Mercy Of Hashem

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

“Speak to the Jewish people and they should take to Me terumah; from each man whose heart so motivates him, you should take My terumah.” – Shemos 25:2

The entire Jewish nation – every man, woman, and child – experienced the revelation of Hashem on Har Sinai. They saw Hashem as clearly as humans can, and they attained a level of prophecy. Now they were being offered one of the greatest gifts imaginable: Hashem Himself was going to dwell among them. They were going to experience Hashem’s presence regularly, and have the opportunity to participate in the building of the greatest edifice ever created – Hashem’s dwelling place in this world. The gold, silver and copper, the wood, hides and oil will all come from the people themselves: “from each man whose heart so motivates him.”

It should come as no surprise that the people offered their donations to the Mishkan with zeal and enthusiasm. After a short while Moshe had to turn away more donations; there was more collected than could be used.

Interestingly, the Ba’al Ha’Turim explains that when Hashem told Moshe to ask for contributions, He told him to ask in a gentle tone. Since it means people will have to part with their money, please speak softly.

This Ba’al Ha’Turim is very difficult to understand. Why would Moshe have to make this appeal in a gentle manner? This wasn’t a tax the people were being forced to pay. It wasn’t some despot demanding an exorbitant bribe. This was a moment in history – the people of Israel were being given this great opportunity to be a part of building the house of Hashem, and they understood it for what it was. Why would Moshe have to speak softly? Surely they would give willingly.

The question is even more pointed because the Jewish people were fabulously wealthy. Hashem promised Avraham Avinu that when his children would leave bondage, it would be with great riches. Right before the Jews left, they went to their Egyptian masters and “borrowed” gold, silver, and all types of valuables. They despoiled Mitzrayim, walking out with wealth that had been gathered for hundreds of years.

They were being offered the chance to convert some of that wealth into one of the greatest honors given to man – to become a builder of the Mishkan. If every contribution was given willingly, and the entire generation had enough to give, and it was a great honor to give, why would Hashem be concerned that Moshe gently coax them into giving?

The answer can be best understood when we focus on man’s relationship to his Creator.

Hashem’s Relationship to Man

The Chovos HaLevovos explains that if you to take the most generous, loving person that you have ever met and then multiply that mercy by ten thousand ten thousands, you won’t begin to reach the love Hashem has for each of His creations. The one concept that must be firmly embedded in the mind of every Jew is that Hashem is more concerned for his good than he is, and Hashem loves him even more than he loves himself.

This love manifests in many ways. Chazal tell us that Hashem has mercy on the money of Yisrael, as if to say Hashem feels badly that the Jewish people have to spend money, even on mitzvahs. Granted it is for their good, and granted it is the greatest investment they could ever make, but, it means parting with things valuable to them, and if it could be, Hashem feels badly. Hashem is the Giver, always wishing to share of His good, to give more, not to take. This seems to be the answer to the question on the Ba’al Ha’Turim: There is no doubt the chance to contribute something toward the Mishkan is a great honor. Anyone whose donation would be accepted would bear a mark of nobility he would cherish for years. But it involved his giving. He had to part with some of his wealth, and Hashem, if it could be, felt badly.

It was as if Hashem were saying: “It must be difficult. You have that precious gem, that beautiful gold. I feel badly even asking.” Even though the act of giving had taken something fleeting and turned it into the greatest investment, something that would remain with them for eternity, at the moment the person gave over those stones, it was difficult on some level. Hashem felt his pain and said: “Moshe, please be gentle with them.”

This is a fantastic illustration of the extent of Hashem’s concern for us, and the extent to which He is sensitive to our feelings. When we focus on the loving kindness Hashem showers on us daily, we grow in our apperception of that love, and then reciprocally we feel an overwhelming sense of appreciation and love for our Creator.

Shavuos And The Reality Of Redemption

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Having walked through the Valley of Death, I feel I can understand Shavuos better.

My wife and I just returned from Auschwitz and other tragic sites in Poland. We were never there before and I had thought we never would be, but an opportunity arose and we took it.

What does this have to do with Shavuos?

Everything.

Once upon a time, we were slaves in Egypt. Hashem took us out and we marched for seven weeks through the desert. We arrived at Mount Sinai, where we became one with Him. Our kesubah is called the Torah.

Our rabbis teach us that the Final Redemption will resemble the Redemption from Egypt. Mitzraim was real; Har Sinai was real. Auschwitz was real. And so, it is clear, the Final Redemption will be real. If the impossibly bad could happen, the impossibly good can happen.

Having felt the reality of Auschwitz, I think I understand better what Egypt was, how real it was, how terrifying it was, how endless and all-encompassing it seemed.

I have seen the gas chambers. I stood under the “showers.” I have seen the ovens. I have seen a “lake” of ashes, all that physically remains of uncounted thousands of children and their mothers. I stood on the platform where Mengele pointed, right or left. I have seen the torture cells. I have stood where our brethren stood, in their filthy striped rags, for up to nineteen hours during “roll call,” in the brutal sun and freezing cold.

Hitler, may his name be ground to dust, did not torture and kill us in order to conquer the world. He tried to conquer the world in order to kill and torture us.

For the thousands of non-Jews who come there, Auschwitz is a museum. For us, lehavdil, it is reality, a plague that is still killing us.

At the site of the crematoria, I thought about Yom Hadin, the Final Day of Judgment, and the words of the Av Harachamim prayer:

“Father of compassion, who dwells on high, in His powerful compassion may He recall with compassion the devout, the upright, and the perfect ones, the holy congregations who gave their lives for the sanctification of the Name . May He, before our eyes, exact retribution for the spilled blood of His servants ”

In Egypt we dropped down to within a hair’s breadth of eternal destruction, and Hashem lifted us to within a hair’s breadth of Shamayim. When Nachshon ben Aminodov entered the Red Sea up to his nostrils, the sea split for him and for his people.

At Auschwitz, we fell into the cesspool of the world, up to our nostrils in the filth of the nations that hated us. At the Final Redemption, Hashem will lift us high, high, higher than the heavens.

“Anyone who mourns over Jerusalem will merit to see it in its joy” (Taanis 30b).

This Shavuos, let us understand that it is all real. As Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, told me years ago, before our first trip to the Holy Land: “You should know that we can learn the truth even from the English language: Israelis real.

Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, came from the depravity of Moab, just as we have emerged from the depravity of Auschwitz. This is the way of Hashem. “He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute” (Psalm 113).

In the third chapter of Megillas Ruth, Boaz wakes up on the threshing floor and sees a strange woman lying at his feet. Ruth explains to him why she is there. He replies, “And now, my daughter, do not fear. Whatever you say, I will do for you . Now while it is true that I am a redeemer, there is also a redeemer closer than I. Stay the night. Then in the morning, if he will redeem you, fine. Let him redeem. But if he does not want to redeem you, then [I swear that] as Hashem lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”

The Ben Ish Chai explains that these are not only the words of Boaz speaking to Ruth, but also of Hashem speaking to His People. Hashem is saying to Am Yisrael: “Stay through the long night of Exile. Don’t give up. The morning will come. When it does, you have a ‘closer redeemer,’ your own mitzvos and good deeds. Perhaps they will be sufficient to redeem you when Mashiach comes. But if not – even if you do not have sufficient mitzvos and good deeds to save you on that Great Day – if you have been loyal to Me, then I swear that I Myself will redeem you. Do not fear!”

Israel’s True Road Map: From Physical To Spiritual Redemption

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

As Jews in Israel and all over the world prepare to celebrate Shavuot, it is incumbent upon us to take the time to reflect on the meaning of our traditional values and history with regard to our current challenges and goals.

Today, as the Jewish people face external and internal threats, we may learn to cope with the dangers we face through the lessons learned from our history in biblical times.

Our celebration of the Passover holiday commemorates our physical redemption from slavery in Egypt and the miracles that accompanied our salvation.

The follow-up to this miraculous event is the spiritual redemption of the Jewish people with the acceptance of the holy Torah on Mount Sinai, which we commemorate on Shavuot.

There is a parallel to this: The miraculous establishment of the State of Israel following the tragedy of the Holocaust as the physical salvation of the Jewish people from the slaughter that took place all over Europe.

Unfortunately, we are still challenged with achieving our spiritual salvation in the Land of Israel and all over the world as Jews cope with anti-Semitism, delegitimization of the Jewish state, and above all the battle to maintain Jewish identity and values while living under the influence of modernization.

Possibly the most glorious moment in our nation’s history took place right before the acceptance of the Torah. The Jewish people declared to Moshe (Shemot 24:8): “Na’aseh v’nishma“- “We will do and we will listen.”

The Midrash Tanchuma states that R’ Abba bar R’ Kahana said, “When Bnei Yisrael stood by Har Sinai and said, ‘All that Hashem speaks we will do and we will hear,’ the Almighty sent two angels to each of Am Yisrael. One angel girded him with a sword and the other one placed a crown on his head” (Tetzaveh 11).

The crowns testified to their lofty status.

The Beis HaLevi explains: “Why did each individual respond in the plural, ‘Na’aseh v’nishma,’ we will do and we will listen? Each person should have said, ‘I will do and I will listen.’ How could they speak for everyone else?

The Beis Halevi answers that everyone made two acceptances. One was to personally observe the Torah, while the second commitment was to take responsibility for his friend, to ensure that he would also keep the Torah faithfully.

This is stated in the Midrash: “Rebbi said that when the Jewish people stood before Har Sinai together and accepted the sovereignty of Hashem with joy and with one heart, they also became guarantors for each other” (Tanchuma Yitro 13).

Among the mitzvot observed by the people of Israel are those pertaining to the settlement of the Land. The entire world is currently up in arms proclaiming that the Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel are an obstacle to peace.

What is being ignored is that Jerusalem, the Golan and Judea and Samaria were included in the British Mandate delegated by the League of Nations for which the UN is responsible through Article 80, as well as the Anglo-American Treaty of 1924, which the United States government is responsible to implement according to the Constitution.

The fact that the Jewish people living in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and the biblical regions of Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights, are indigenous to these lands (and as such protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) has been largely ignored by the international community and left-wing opponents of the Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael.

With the resumption of the peace process under the guidance of the Obama administration, Jews in the U.S. and all over the world must take responsibility for their fellow Jews and raise their voices to ensure the Jewish right to fulfill the mitzvah of living in the land of our ancestors, the “promised land” as given to us by the Almighty.

By remaining silent in face of the international effort to deny us this mitzvah, the Jewish people will be going back on the biblical promise made when they accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai – “Na’aseh v’nishma.”

The peace process needs to go forward and to succeed – but not at the expense of our Jewish identity and our rights to the Land of Israel.

Sefirah And The Pull Of Torah

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes.

In the End of Days, after the Children of Israel have returned to their land, the children of Ishmael [the Muslim world] and the children of Esau [the Western Nations] will unite to attack Jerusalem. They will form a world coalition against the tiny nation of Israel. But something will go wrong with their plan. The religious beliefs of the children of Ishmael and the children of Esau will clash, and the two nations will collide and destroy each other. This is what is referred to as the War of Gog and Magog. Following this cataclysmic conflict, the Final Redemption of the Jewish People will occur with the coming of Messiah the Son of King David.” [Malbim on Ezekiel 32:17, from the Introduction to my book 2020 Vision]

We are seeing the “world coalition” forming and we can well imagine what the next steps will be. Perhaps the only comfort in this difficult world is that all the events we are witnessing have been predicted by our prophets. What else gives one the strength to endure what would otherwise be unendurable?

We are in the middle of Sefirah. Why have terrible things – including the decimation of the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva – happened to the Children of Israel during Sefirahs haOmer? And what happened on the thirty-third day of the Omer to turn them around?

According to Book of Our Heritage, during the period of Sefirahs haOmer “man’s future sustenance is on the line” because it is the period of harvest. “Will he be blessed with plenty or cursed by famine?…. Because this is a period of judgment that lasts for fifty days, the trepidation accompanying these days is great.”

But this is not the only cause of trepidation. Sefirah is the period during which, in biblical times, we marched from Egypt to Mount Sinai, attempting during these seven weeks to eradicate the terrible effects of long-term immersion in Egyptian immorality and idolatry. That’s not so easy. We have only to look at ourselves, immersed as we are in Western culture, to understand how the Jews could have felt that it was natural to live in the Egyptian culture. Only very few, apparently, felt they were completely out of place, and thus only one in five left Egypt.

This is the frightening aspect of both Sefirah and our current exile. Even those who did leave Egypt found it difficult to disentangle their souls from poison of exile: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt the cucumbers, melons, leeks onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:5).

During Sefirah there is a titanic spiritual battle over which way to go: backward toward Egypt or forward toward Mount Sinai and Hashem’s Torah. Apparently the turning point occurred on Lag B’Omer. Was it coincidence that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was niftar on that day? Was it coincidence that on that day the Zohar was revealed? What is it about Lag B’Omer?

We say in the Shema, “do not follow after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray “It seems the heart is the leader in going astray. If our heart is focused on Torah, we are safe, and all follows the direction of the heart. If it is focused on material objects, we are in danger, and our eyes and all our other limbs follow it to dust and destruction, God forbid.

As our rabbis tell us, “Rachmana liba ba’ei” – God desires the heart(Rashi on Sanhedrin 106b). Sefirah is forty-nine days. The gematria of “lev tov,” a good heart, is forty-nine. (The word “lev” (heart) is thirty-two (lamed-beis) and the word “tov” (good) is seventeen (tes-vov-beis). The first thirty-two days of Sefirah seem to focus on the battle for the heart. It is still in danger, pulled back by the lure of Egypt. Which way will we go? Will we in fact go forward toward Mount Sinai and a life of sanctity? Or will we return to the bottomless pit of Egypt?

On the thirty-third day, apparently, the issue was decided in favor of “tov” because in fact we went onward to Mount Sinai. Thus, the last seventeen days of Sefirah seem to reflect the gematria of “tov.” We took the good course. We seem to have felt the pull of Torah drawing us forward.

The Fifth Commandment

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

The Aseres HaDibros, the Ten Commandments, comprise the cornerstone of our edifice of life. Every clear-thinking individual is cognizant of the fact that a home built on a shaky foundation is in danger of crumbling. Absent the divinely communicated belief system that forms the basis of our day-to-day existence, our humanity would be diminished and we would become malleable, essentially physical creatures – much like a heartless and soulless golem.

God Himself relayed the Aseres HaDibros, disseminating them to us all at once. According to a midrash, the bulk of the people gathered at Mt. Sinai in anticipation of receiving God’s word discerned only the first two commandments before losing consciousness. The remaining eight were delineated in suspended words of fire that hung in the atmosphere surrounding the mountain.

When the Torah complained to Hashem that it was to be granted to living and breathing entities, God availed Himself of the dew reserved for the resurrection of the dead to resuscitate those whose soulshad left them. The Sefas Emes suggests that the reason the masses were thus affected was to teach all forthcoming generations that only through self-sacrifice could one hope to draw near to the Torah.

How is it that not all Torah scholars beget children who go on to become talmidei chachamim? One reason stated is that some fathers preoccupy themselves with learning to the point of neglecting to say the blessings recited each morning over the mitzvah of studying Torah. A sincere and heartfelt rendering of the blessings, which includes a plea for success in sweetening the words of Torah for us and our offspring, is indispensable if one is to merit children who will follow in their father’s footsteps. – Nedarim 81

In reaction to the heavenly enunciation of “Ani Hashem Elokecha” – I am Hashem your God – the nations rolled their eyes and scoffed, “Is there then a king who does not crave recognition?”

Equally unimpressed with the injunction of “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” they sneered, “Which god is interested in sharing his glory? They all want to be the only one!”

Of the commandment to keep the Shabbos day holy, they declared, “Every king wants his special day, like his birthday, to be remembered and celebrated.”

But upon hearing the words “Honor thy father and thy mother,” the nations stood at attention and began to praise God, readily admitting that were any of them to be elevated to the highest station in the land, they would cease to heed their parents altogether, let alone pay tribute to them.

At the giving of the Torah, the envious nations wanted to know why they could not be the recipients of the Torah. Hashem responded by demanding that they produce a letter of yichus(privileged ancestry). The Yalkut Shimoni asks why yichus would figure as a requisite for learning Torah – should not a desire and willingness to learn suffice? The Ramban posits that belief in the Torah is only sustainable when earlier generations transmit their knowledge and traditions to later generations.

Our elders validate the true meaning of acceptance of the Torah by illustrating their own reverence and adherence to the belief system. A nation whose children regard themselves as being more perceptive and intelligent than their forebears lacks that laudable lineage essential to receiving the Torah.

On one of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky’s flights back to America from the Holy Land, he was seated next to a prominent secular Jew. From time to time, a man accompanied by a young woman would approach Reb Yaakov to inquire about his state of comfort.

Rav Kaminetsky’s seatmate was intrigued by such absorption in the rabbi’s welfare, so Reb Yaakov explained that the man was his son and the young lady his granddaughter.

“Really?” exclaimed the secular gentleman, who then related that he seldom got to see his children, who didn’t show much interest in their father, and that his grandchildren hardly ever stopped by to visit their grandfather.

Reb Yaakov responded, “We believe God created the world and gave us the Torah on Har Sinai. As such, a father is closer to the generation that stood at Har Sinai and one’s grandfather even closer to his forbears of that significant time. In fact, the farther back one goes, the higher esteemed the ancestor.

“You, on the other hand, believe you evolved from the family of apes. Stands to reason that your son would consider himself to be of greater stature than his father or grandfather who are closer descendents of the animal and subsequently less refined as humans – and therefore less deserving of any respect.”

The Chasam Sofer lost his father as a child and his mother remarried. Renowned as a scholar and tzaddik, the Chasam Sofer was a sought-after prospect by affluent members of the community eager to gain him as a son-in-law. Even his stepfather wished to win his wife’s worthy son for his own daughter from a previous marriage. The Chasam Sofer’s brother was against this shidduch for he felt his acclaimed brother ought to marry a girl from a well-to-do family, an arrangement that would enable him to continue learning with ease.

In the interest of kibud eim – to spare his mother any shalom bayis upheaval – the Chasam Sofer turned down all the offers he received from wealthy families and married his stepsister. He later attributed his success in Torah learning to his wife, who never made any demands on him and allowed him a peaceful existence – whereas had he married into wealth, his wife would have expected to be supported in the lavish style in which she was raised, stifling his lofty ambition and holy works.

* * *

“… ushnei tzmidim al yadeha asarah zahav mishkalam …” When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose ring, weighing half a shekel, and two bracelets for her arms, weighing ten gold shekel (Bereishis 24:22). These words describe the gifts Eliezer bestowed on Rivkah, the virtuous maiden.

Rashi connects this gift that Eliezer gave Rivkah – two bracelets for her arms, each weighing in at 10-gold shekel – to the two tablets etched with the Ten Commandments.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarim) discusses the issue of whether a man can be mekadesh a woman with a Sefer Torah. The idea is subsequently negated since the Torah could not belong exclusively to her, as many others would have a share in it.

Yet the two gold bracelets alluded to Yitzchak’s being a living Torah and to his and Rivkah’s union resulting in the birth of Klal Yisrael who would, by virtue of accepting the Torah, be made a holy nation unto God. The bracelets were thus symbolic of the living Torah – by which Eliezer, Yitzchak’s messenger, was mekadesh Rivkah.

Moreover, there are exactly 613 Torah verses from the beginning of Bereishis to the particular verse that speaks of the bracelets, backing up Rashi’s contention and essentially corroborating that promise that the shidduch of Yitzchak and Rivkah would result in a people who would keep the Torah holy and observe its 613 commandments.

The two tablets of the Ten Commandments are reflective of one another. The commandment of Kabed es Avicha v’es Imecha (honoring one’s parents) thereby relates to the commandment of Lo Sachmod (do not covet). What possible connection is there between the two?

Regarding the latter, it is written that one who covets that which belongs to another will have a son who will curse him. How does such punishment fit the crime? According to Shimon HaGadol, the only possession one can unequivocally claim as his own is his children (literally a part of him). When one covets that which does not belong to him, his own son – his true possession – will, in turn, display behavior in a contradicting nature.

* * *

When the Sochatchover Rebbe, later to become the Baal Avnei Nezer, was a young child, he studied with his father, the Rav of Biala. The Rav once posed a difficult question to his son who was by then already an outstanding student. The son proceeded to explain it without hesitation, but the elder dismissed the hasty commentary and additionally admonished his son with a light slap on the cheek to teach him to refrain from hurried elucidations.

The child remained calm and continued learning as though nothing extraordinary had transpired.

Many years later, when the youngster had grown to become a gadol hador, he paid his aged and ailing father a visit. The Biala Rav recalled the incident of long ago and revealed how he had shortly thereafter discovered that his son had accurately interpreted the Gemara. However, he had held back from telling him so for fear of imbuing the child with an air of self-importance and smugness. Now he wanted to ask his son’s forgiveness for having chastised him without justification.

The Avnei Nezer replied that he had known at the time that his answer was correct and the slap unwarranted – and, he added, he’d forgiven his father on the spot. He nevertheless abstained from deliberately pointing out that his father had erred because of his deference to the mitzvah of kibud av (according a father respect and honor).

* * *

“Honor your father and mother so that your days will be lengthened.” Various sources in the Torah indicate that Hashem regards the honoring of one’s parents to be on par with honoring our Father above.

The creation of a human being occurs through the three-way partnership of Hashem and the biological father and mother. The child derives his bones, nails, brawn, brain and the white of his eyes from his father; skin, flesh, blood, hair and the black of his eyes from his mother; endowment of eyesight, hearing, speech, movement of limbs, understanding, spirit, soul and physical appeal by his heavenly Father. – Niddah 31

When the Brisker Rav, Reb Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was to become the Rav of Jerusalem, he moved to a new home. Among his instructions to the mover was the stipulation that two specific oversized cases stacked one upon the other were to remain in that same order during transport and delivery.

Despite the issuance of his strict order not to reposition the cases, Reb Yehoshua Leib accompanied them all the way.

The mover’s curiosity was aroused. What could the cases possibly contain to warrant such care and vigilance? And what could possibly occur if their order were reversed?

The Rav explained that the container that lay on top carried all of his father’s holy writings while the bottom case held all of his own. And it wouldn’t be right for his own to be placed atop his father’s – even for just the briefest of time.

* * *

Rabbi Tarfon, the renowned Mishnah sage, was said to revere his elderly mother to such a degree that he would stoop low to the ground so that she could use him as her stepping stool whenever she had need to ascend to or descend from her bed. When he reached the Bais Hamidrash and discussed the great honor he gives his mother, he was told that he was still far from fulfilling the mitzvah. Were he to keep silent and not embarrass his mother if she took his wallet filled with money and tossed it into the river, he would then be on his way to discharging the commandment properly.

The eldest of many children of a prominent family in Jerusalem was an accomplished young lady, well rounded in both character and intellectual capacity, and was expected to find a shidduch with relative ease. To everyone’s surprise, she rejected countless match proposals by invoking every excuse in the book: He was not compatible; she did not feel anything; she was not ready; she still needed to further her education; etc., etc. The pleas of her parents and rabbonim were duly ignored; regardless of how illustrious or well-suited the potential match proffered, the girl did not bend or break.

Soon, the second in line came of age, and the oldest daughter granted her categorical consent and approval for her younger sister to proceed. This pattern repeated itself down the line with all her siblings as their time of maturity approached, until they all were married.

When the still-single daughter turned 32, her mother initiated a heart-to-heart dialogue with her firstborn. “Do you recall when many years back I suffered a terrible illness and doctors just about gave up every hope for my recovery? I visited a tzaddik who granted me a blessing that I would regain my health and would merit to see all my children to the chupah. Your incomprehensible delay has been causing me so much grief that I would sooner prefer death over continuing to live with this heartache.”

When the daughter heard her mother’s words, she agreed immediately to be receptive to any offer that would come her way. Before long, a suitable 34 year old was suggested, and, true to her word, the match was concluded.

At the wedding, everyone’s joy was boundless – save for the bride, who emanated an unmistakable aura of underlying sadness. Her mother, escorting her daughter to the chupah, remarked that this day was the happiest of her lifetime. These were the last words she would utter, for shortly thereafter she collapsed and departed this world. The week of Sheva Brachos was transformed into a week of mourning.

The daughter finally revealed the secret behind her refusal to marry – she had hoped to prolong her mother’s life on earth, as the tzaddik whom her mother had seen had verbalized that she would live long enough to see all her children marry. With her mother’s expressed desire to die rather than watch her daughter become an aged single, the daughter’s noble objective lost its purpose and she found herself with no alternative but to honor her mother one last time.

(This essay is dedicated l’ilui nishmas Sara bas Bentzion, z”l, my wonderful mother, who was an exceptional human being and my greatest inspiration. May her memory be a blessing in the life of the World to Come.)

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.

Was The ‘Rabbi’ Really A Missionary?

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

The story of Jacob Mayer is one of the most bizarre in the annals of American Jewish history. In order to understand how such a thing could have occurred, one must keep in mind that for many years America was a Jewish free-for-all. Anyone who came here could declare himself a rabbi. Short of going to Europe to investigate his credentials, there was no way to know if someone was a truly qualified rabbi.

It was not until 1840 that an Orthodox-ordained rabbi, Abraham Rice, came to settle in America. All other so-called rabbis who settled here before him, were, in truth, not qualified rabbonim. Even as late as the third decade of the 20th century, one could find a plethora of unqualified men claiming to be authentic rabbis.

Reverend Dr. Jacob Mayer was the spiritual leader of (Reform) Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore from 1874 to 1876. He had come to America from Europe and had served congregations in Cincinnati and Cleveland before his arrival in Baltimore. He had an engaging personality and was a sensational preacher who filled the temple at every service. It did not take long before he became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.

All went well for him at Har Sinai until two other Baltimore Jewish clergymen, Dr. Benjamin Szold and Dr. Henry Hochheimer, dropped a bombshell, claiming Mayer had once been a convert to Christianity and had worked for a London Missionary Society preaching the gospel in Africa.

This information soon became public knowledge and created a huge scandal. The congregants of Har Sinai were outraged and could hardly believe their spiritual leader had once been a missionary. For his part, Mayer vehemently denied the charge, going so far as to avow his innocence before his congregation at a Sabbath morning service while holding a Torah. Despite this denial, many congregants were not convinced.

Not long afterward, Mayer called on William Rayner, a founder of Congregation Har Sinai who played a prominent role in Baltimore Jewish affairs. Mayer asked Rayner if he could speak with him in utmost confidence. The two men went to Rayner’s private office where Mayer, according to the account below, told an amazing story:
 
 He said that he had a twin brother, whose resemblance to him was so close that they could not be told apart. It was this brother who had apostatized to Christianity and had been a missionary to the Jews. He had thought never to reveal this incident in his brother’s life, but now he was compelled to do so to clear himself of the disastrous charge. Upon Mr. Rayner’s inquiring whether he had any proof of the truth of his statement, he said, “Oh, yes, there are people in Europe who could and would substantiate what I have said.” If he could go to Europe and see these people, he was sure that he could obtain all the necessary evidence.

 Mr. Rayner, usually one of the shrewdest of men, permitted himself to be hoodwinked. He even advanced the money for a trip to Europe. What did the rascal do? He arranged the following plan with a confederate in Europe. He sent to the confederate letters addressed to Mr. Rayner. He himself remained in Canada. The confederate remailed the letters to Mr. Rayner in Baltimore. When he returned to Baltimore and gave out the cook-and-bull story about his twin brother, quite a number of the members of the congregation refused to credit it, although another faction, headed by Mr. Rayner, swallowed the tale hook, line, and sinker. A split ensued in the congregation.

 Before long it appeared that the tale was fabricated out of whole cloth. The apostate disappeared and had a sorry end in great destitution. The differences were healed in the course of time. The apostate-rabbi became a memory, but there were men even years afterward who raved about the eloquence of Dr. J. M[ayer].”1
 
Others, however related a different version of the above story. When a certain David Kemper first heard Mayer speak, he immediately recognized him as the brother of his former teacher, Jesaias Mayer. He also recalled having met Jacob Mayer when he visited his brother Jesaias in Westphalia, Germany. Furthermore, he confirmed that the two brothers were identical twins.

Kemper was pleased that Dr. Jacob Mayer had been hired as the spiritual leader of Har Sinai. In his opinion he led services in an effective manner. In addition, many were impressed with his sermons and lectures. Mayer had the ability to speak effectively not only in German, the language in which sermons were most often given, but also in English, French and Italian. When he lectured in German, he always spoke to an overflow crowd.

According to some, Mayer’s popularity made some of the other Jewish spiritual leaders in Baltimore so jealous that they started the rumor that he had been a convert to Christianity. This, of course, created turmoil in Mayer’s congregation, with the result that two factions were formed – one that believed the accusation and one that did not.

The congregation appointed a committer to investigate the matter. They sent a letter to Jesaias Mayer asking him to go to Glasgow, Scotland, where authorities would identify him as the brother who had converted to Christianity. Jesaias, however, refused to make the trip, saying he was not in good health and did not like the people in Glasgow to whom he was to report. Given this, the committee felt it had no choice but to recommend that Mayer be relieved of his duties.

Despite this, Mayer still had his supporters:

“The minutes of the congregation reflect a strong belief in Dr. Mayer’s integrity. On March 16, 1876 a Mr. F. Stern of Albany, Georgia, appeared before the Board, testifying to the truth of Mayer’s claims. A month later a letter was read from a Mrs. Elsie Fuchs of New York City, also supporting the rabbi’s integrity. The money sent to the brother amounted to $50 in gold, with a letter of credit on a London bank in the amount of $200.

“At more than one meeting the Board seemed ready to join the rabbi in filing suit against those parties who, they claimed, were guilty of slanderous charges. Finally it was decided to hold a congregational meeting on May 21, 1876. In the meantime a number of members withdrew from the congregation and began to hold their own services at the Masonic Temple.”2
In the end, Mayer tendered a letter of resignation that was accepted. However, the truth of the matter was never really resolved.

“It is not fair to pass judgment on Jacob Mayer without additional information on his background. He may have been guilty as charged or he may have been a victim of circumstances. It also was unfortunate that the congregation was victimized by conditions not of their own making and largely beyond their control.”3

“The Jewish Times (New York) invited a suit; it stated bluntly, ‘Let convert Mayer appeal to the courts…. We defy him or the congregation [Har Sinai] to bring a libel suit or any other suit.’ Mayer did not sue, nor was he able to prove his innocence; finally, he resigned [on August 31, 1876].”4

As they used to say, “Nur in Amerika” (only in America).

(I wish to thank Roberta Saltzman of the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library for her assistance in locating the materials on which this article is based.)

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently retired after serving for forty years as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


1 My Life As An American Jew, An Autobiography, by David Philipson, John G. Kidd & Son, Inc., Cincinnati, 1941, pages 40-41.

2 “The Legacy of a Liberal” by Abraham Shusterman, Har Sinai Congregation, Baltimore, 1967, pages 32-35.

3 Ibid.

4 The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920 by Isaac M. Fein, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1971, page 111.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/was-the-rabbi-really-a-missionary/2008/11/05/

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