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Friday, 31 August, 2018 - 1:53 pm

A couple had an argument. The wife called her mom and said, "He fought with me again, I am coming to live with you."

Her mom responded, "No darling, he must pay for his mistake. I am coming to live with you."

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin related the following personal story that happened on this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, in 1952.

I had never been to this particular synagogue, a renovated hospital turned shul two miles from where I grew up in Brooklyn. Nor had I ever prayed with Hassidim. But the Klausenberger Rebbe was known as a saintly Hassidic rebbe who had re-settled his Hassidim who had survived the Holocaust in and around the Beth Moses Hospital, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And so, one summer morning on the Shabbat of Ki Tavo, I set out from my home on Hart Street to the world of black gabardines and round fur hats, eager for the opportunity to be in the presence of a truly holy man and to experience a Hassidic prayer service.

Ki Tavo contains 53 verses which catalog the punishments in store for Israel when they forsake God’s teaching: “If you don’t obey the Lord your God and all His commandments and statutes, then these curses shall come upon you… God will smite you with consumption and fever and inflammation and extreme burning and with the sword... God will turn your rain into dust, and it will come from the skies to destroy you... Your corpses shall be meat for birds of the sky and beasts of the earth. God will smite you with madness and blindness and a confusion of the heart. God will bring a nation from afar against you, from the end of the earth, swooping down like an eagle, a nation whose language you don’t understand. A haughty arrogant nation which has no respect for the old nor mercy for the young.”

It’s understandable why custom mandates that these verses be read in a low voice. The “Warning” is not something we’re very eager to hear, but if we have to hear it as part of the Torah cycle, then the hushed words, without the usual dramatic chant, are shocking.

I arrived at the huge study hall even before the morning service had begun–and although I was the only pre-Bar Mitzvah boy in the congregation not wearing a black gabardine, I felt swept up by the intensity of the people praying, swaying and shouting as though they suspected the Almighty may not bend His ear, as it were, to a quieter service of the heart.

Then came the Torah reading. In accordance with the custom, the reader began to chant the Warnings in a whisper. Unexpectedly, almost inaudible but unmistakable, the Yiddish word “louder” came from the direction of the Rebbe’s lectern at the eastern wall of the synagogue.

The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning and even mildly shocked silence. Had they heard correctly? Was he ordering the reader to go against custom and read the Warnings out loud?

The Torah reader continued reading in a whisper, apparently concluding he had not heard what he thought. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, faced the stunned congregation, and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read these verses aloud! We have nothing to fear, we’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know it’s time for Him to send the blessings!”

The Rebbe turned back to the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the cantillation out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my cheeks, my body bathed in sweat. I had heard that the Rebbe lost his wife and 11 children in the Holocaust–but refused to sit shiva for them because he could not spare a moment from the task of trying to save Jewish lives by enabling them to leave Europe. He himself refused a visa for America until the majority of his Hassidim had been saved. His words seared my heart.

I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!” After the Additional Service ended, the Rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love, leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul.

“My beloved brothers and sisters, it is time for us to go home, to the Land of Israel.”

And so Kiryat Sanz was established in Netanya, and the Rebbe built a Torah Center there.

The Talmudic rabbis taught… He who has not seen the finished building of the [Second] Temple, has never seen a beautiful building… referring to the building of Herod [the ruthless ruler of Judea appointed by Rome], who renovated the Second Temple, just a few decades before its ultimate destruction. With what materials was it built? Said Rabba: “From yellow and white marble.” There are some that say, “From yellow, black and white marble.” One tier of stones projected outward, and one tier of stones projected inwards in order to hold concrete. Herod wished to overlay the marble with gold, but the Rabbis said to him: “Leave it alone! It is better this way because it looks like the waves of the sea.” So he did.

But why did the Rabbis care if it was covered in gold? Why did they prefer waves of the sea?

One explanation is that Herod renovated the Temple during the final chapter of the Second Temple. Herod, the Roman king of Judea, died in 4 CE, only 60 years before the destruction. The Sages felt this was the beginning of the end. They knew “it was not dark yet,” but it was sure getting there.

They wanted to convey the message from Psalms to the Jewish people: “The rivers have raised, O Lord, the rivers have raised their voice; the rivers have raised their depths.” Yet, “More than the voices of great waters and… the mightiest breakers of the sea is the Lord mighty on high.” This would give our people the courage, confidence, and strength not only to survive but to thrive and rebuild.

After the storms that inundated our people and world since those last days of the Second Temple which reflected the waves of the sea, the time has come for peace, serenity, and redemption.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova U’metukah,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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