Last week marked 279 years since the passing of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, known as the holy Or Hachaim – rabbi, leader, commentator, Kabbalist. Here are five facts about his life:
- Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar was born into a family of exiles from Spain in the Moroccan city of Salli. The meaning of the word “attar” is perfume. He perfumed the Jewish world with the fragrance of his Torah.
- He lived in Morocco during a troubled time of persecutions against Jews. In one of his books, he noted the lack of symmetry in his commentaries. Sometimes they were long and sometimes – due to riots interrupting his concentration – they were short.
- At the age of 43 he left Morocco, traveling by way of Algiers and Italy, to the Land of Israel. He did not make aliyah only for himself, but encouraged those around him to do the same. He arrived at the port of Akko with a group of 30 student disciples and their families and soon settled in Jerusalem where he established a yeshiva. All elements of Torah were studied in the Yeshiva, from Gemara and Halacha to Kabbalah.
- He is called “Or Hachaim” after the title of his famous Torah commentary. This commentary was accepted by all Jewish communities. Thus, a Sephardic sage became an esteemed figure in Poland and in Ukraine.
- Here is an idea found in his commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1: “If people would experience the sweetness and pleasantness of Torah, they would pursue it madly and passionately… because the Torah includes all the good that exists in the world.”
In his memory.
When Biden Knelt
Last week, the leader of the strongest superpower in the world met two of the strongest women in the world. This is not just about these two women personally, but about the message and the spirit of the entire generation of Holocaust survivors.
It wasn’t written in any protocol, but during his visit to Yad VaShem, Biden knelt down for an extended conversation, while Israeli government leaders waited, with Rena Quint and Gita Cycowicz. “This meeting was like the fulfillment of a prophecy,” Gita said.
Gita survived Auschwitz and other camps and, upon liberation, began a journey of 600 kilometers back to her home in Czechoslovakia. Later she would build a life in the United States. Her schooling was interrupted at the age of 12 due to the war, but at age 56 she completed a doctorate in psychology. She later made aliyah and until today has worked as a counselor for Holocaust survivors. Fluent in both English and Hebrew, she accompanies many groups that travel to Poland to increase their understanding of the Holocaust.
Rena was born in the city of Piotrkow, Poland, and was eventually sent to the camp at Bergen-Belsen. This was exactly the same path traversed by my grandmother, Ada Rosenstrauch, z”l. At the age of 10, after her entire family perished, Rena was left alone. She eventually immigrated to the United States where she was adopted by a Jewish couple. 40 years ago, she made aliyah with her husband and four children. Since then, she has served as a guide for thousands of visitors at Yad VaShem. “Each day I am given another opportunity to help others live fully Jewish lives,” she said. “The fact that I survived is a great privilege, but with it comes great obligation and great responsibility.”
I am reminded of the last time Biden knelt before a Jewish woman – Rivka Ravitz, chief of staff of former President of Israel Reuven Rivlin and mother of 12. On that occasion, too, he asked to hear the story of refugees from Europe who established a new life for themselves and raised a glorious family of their own.
There will be other headlines surrounding this presidential visit and many controversial issues will be raised. But perhaps the visit’s climactic moment is already behind us. Beyond the question of who was waiting for Biden’s plane and who would shake his hand, there was the question of before whom Biden would kneel. Last week, that question was answered as he knelt before the story of our people.
What Can We Learn From Kurt Rothschild, z”l?
Most of you never heard of Kurt Rothschild who passed away last week at the age of 101, but it is reasonable to assume that most of you benefited from him in some way. He was the engine behind numerous organizations and institutions in the Jewish world – from World Mizrahi (the religious Zionist movement), which he served as president, to Yad Sarah (volunteer-based health and home care in Israel), from the Shaarei Zedek Medical Center, to Bar-Ilan University, to say nothing of Jewish education in the Diaspora, concern for Jews in the Commonwealth nations, establishment of communities in Israel’s outlying areas, and many other projects. Here are a few lessons that I learned from him:
- The value of money depends on how it is used. Rothschild was born in Germany. He was forced to leave during the Second World War and immigrated to Canada where he was imprisoned for a year and a half while awaiting a residency permit. He eventually raised a family and built a highly successful construction business. As a wealthy man, he invested most of his energy and financial resources in acts of tzedakah. It would be difficult to assess how many millions of dollars he contributed from his own money or solicited from others on behalf of Israel. “The most important thing to me is Jewish continuity,” he said again and again.
- Getting credit is not the main thing. You did not hear about him day and night because living a meaningful life of action does not depend on being in the news. In Israel, as we head toward a fifth round of elections within three years, when everyone wants to be a leader, Rothschild is a reminder that leadership is not only political. He was a man who did a lot more than many so-called leaders whom we speak about non-stop.
- You can remain active until the end. A few years ago, I was privileged to host a celebratory event held in honor of his birthday. All those who spoke noted that even while nearing a hundred years, he still came to work in his office in downtown Jerusalem every morning. Although he recently began to weaken, many saw him walking slowly down Jerusalem’s streets each evening on his way to a Torah class. Even after a century of non-stop doing and building, he still had something to learn, old but like a young student at heart.
In his memory.