Friday, 5 May, 2017 - 5:00 pm

 One day, a tax inspector knocked on the door of Izzy's deli in London. "How did you deduct $80,000 for business travel! Your returns say that you and your wife went on 28 business trips to Israel, the USA, Italy, Switzerland, France, Hawaii, and the Caribbean! What is going on?"

Izzy smiled. "We deliver!"

One verse in this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, represents a wonderful truth about Judaism: You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord.

The Talmud expounds, " Live by them," not die. The word's significance cannot be underestimated. Some religions still equate G-d with a fascination with death. Radical Muslims blow themselves up and say, “Allah Akhbar!” "G-d is great!" For them, G-d is found in death.

If there is even the slightest chance that a Mitzvah may cause death, G-d does not want it. Jewish law states that if it is possible to save a life, we must violate every Mitzvah to do so. The High Priest may be in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, in communion with the Divine, but if he hears that there is an infant in danger, he must run out of the sacred space and try to save that baby!

In fact, the Talmud cites this verse, “man shall... live by them,” as proof that one may violate Shabbat to save a life: “To live by them”—“and not to die by them.”

The Chatam Sofer presents a marvelous interpretation of another verse cited by the Talmud as proof that saving a life overrides Shabbat. There, G-d tells Moses: And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: "Only keep My Shabbats! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy."

What does this mean? How can we get to know that we are holy through keeping Shabbat?

The Chatam Sofer answered: Without a doubt, the greatest-ever project was the building of the cosmos. It is the miracle of all miracles. Yet, the Torah teaches there is something even greater than the universe.

In the beginning of Genesis, the Torah devotes 31 verses to describing Creation. In striking contrast, the Torah devotes 371 verses to describing how the Jews created the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, in the desert!

This seems strange. The universe spans some 176 Trillion Billion miles, and is an awesomely complex structure. After millennia of research, we have not yet scratched the surface of its mysteries. The Tabernacle, on the other hand, was around 150 feet long and 75 feet wide, and was an impressive structure, but essentially a small tent; a mini mobile "Shul." Why would the Torah expound so much about the creation of this humble albeit grand tent in the desert, yet be so terse about Creation?

The answer is that the universe is the home G-d makes for man, while the Sanctuary is the home man makes for G-d. It is smaller and simpler, but its purpose makes it more significant and prominent.

However, even greater than the Sanctuary is Shabbat! Even to construct the Sanctuary, we were not allowed to desecrate Shabbat. The sanctity of Shabbat trumps the Sanctuary, which in turn trumps the universe. This tells us that Shabbat is a day of intimacy with G-d Himself.

However, there is something even holier than Shabbat! For this, even Shabbat needs to be "broken." That is the Jewish person. Shabbat must be violated to save a life. Even if there is barely a chance that a life may be saved by violating Shabbat, even just to prolong a life by a few minutes, all the laws of Shabbat must be broken. The sanctity of life trumps even the sanctity of Shabbat, which trumps the sanctity of the Tabernacle, which trumps Creation—the origin of everything.

The Chatam Sofer explains that the word "Shema" is made up of three letters which are an acronym for “Shabbat, Mikdash, Olam,” the Shabbat, the Temple, and the world. These are the three most precious items of existence, in descending order.

Nonetheless, this word is followed by "Yisrael"—the Jew himself! These three items are trumped by a Jewish life, for the Jew is literally one with G-d in His very essence. "Yisrael" is part of “Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Echad.” That is the meaning of the verse the Chatam Sofer asked about. This shows the true holiness of Israel—for even Shabbat cannot interfere in saving a Jewish life. “To know that I, the Lord, make you holy”— The sanctuary is holy, Shabbat is holy, but the deepest holiness lies in “YOU,” the Jewish person.

A teenage boy in Israel, a learned Yeshiva student, was struck with a terminal illness. The boy knew the end was near, and he shut everyone out of his life. He lay with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling, in deep despair. He was just waiting to die. His parents tried to engage him in simple conversation, to at least say goodbye. They loved their child. Why should his last moments be spent alone?

They asked a well-known rabbi, Rabbi Tauber, to visit him and try to infuse him with "life," albeit temporarily.

As much as he had attempted to envision the boy, Rabbi Tauber was ill-prepared for the image which confronted him. The boy was a mass of skin and bones, his face contorted in agony, his eyes staring into space. As his mother sat next to him, weeping, she whispered to her son, "Do you need anything?” He only stared.

Rabbi Tauber entered and said, "Shalom Aleichem, hello." There was no response. The rabbi tried several more times, but after continued staring, he said, "I came quite a distance to see you. It was not easy. The least you could do is answer me." He saw a glimmer of movement from the boy's eyes; not much, but more than before.

"Perhaps you can clarify something for me," Rabbi Tauber began. "If a thief approaches a Jew and demands that he hand over all his money or transgress a Torah prohibition, like he should eat pork or give up his money, what should he do?

The boy's lips moved as he forced himself to speak. "He gives up his money. No Mitzvah may be transgressed."

The rabbi responded, "Maybe this only applies to one who does not have much to lose, or who supports only himself. What if the victim is a wealthy man who supports a multitude of organizations and people? Should he be forced to relinquish it all, and jeopardize so many?"

"Yes!" the boy replied. "The ruling is in place regardless of the consequences. A Mitzvah may not be transgressed for anything. One's relationship with G-d is priceless."

"What would be the law," asked the rabbi, "if, rather than having one's wealth threatened, it was his life that hung in the balance? What if the thug said, 'eat pork or die'?”

"In such a case, human life takes precedence. Under no circumstances may one's life be put in danger (except for the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry and adultery). G-d wants us to live through the Mitzvot, not die through them," was the boy's response.

"What if it is necessary for many Jews to transgress to save someone? Does the Torah still say one life is more important than many transgressors? asked Rabbi Tauber.

By this point, the boy was beginning to enjoy the talk. He answered, "It holds true under all conditions. Human life is sacrosanct and takes precedence over all."

"If Shabbat desecration was a surety, but saving a life was, at best, doubtful, would life still prevail?"

"Yes," said the boy. "Even the slightest doubt affecting a  human life is rendered more important."

"Tell me, my young scholar," Rabbi Tauber continued, "What is the law in a situation where someone lies deathly ill; indeed, there is no hope for him to live more than a very short time. Are we allowed to desecrate Shabbat just to extend his life by a few hours?"

The boy, no fool, smiled. He got the message.

Shabbat is more important than all my worldly possessions, but to extend a life for a few minutes, I have to give up Shabbat! Obviously, life is G-d's greatest gift, and every moment of it transcends every other holiness. We may not fathom its significance, but the entire Torah is pushed aside to save a moment of life.

Rabbi Tauber bent down and kissed the boy on his forehead. As he parted from him, he said: "It is no secret that you are undergoing indescribable pain. I am so sorry. I will never understand why. But do not give up. The flow of life still coursing in your veins is of infinite value. We cannot fathom how precious it is. As long as you are alive, embrace that gift with love."

The boy gave a weak smile, and the rabbi left.

The boy passed on a few days later. When Rabbi Tauber visited the family during the Shivah, the mother told him, "After you spoke with my son, he was a different person. He no longer lay there waiting for the Angel of Death to take him. We communicated. We said good-bye.” The mother could not thank him enough.

A young teenager once asked a rabbi, "I am small, one in seven billion. I am a regular kid: Not brilliant, not super athletic, smart, or witty. My grades are average. What is the purpose of MY life? I will never make it big. I will never become a Mozart or a Kant!"

The Rabbi responded with a story:

The great Italian symphony conductor, Arturo Toscanini, led concerts all over the world. One of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th and 20th centuries, he was renowned for his intensity and his ear for orchestral detail and sonority. A biographer interviewed him periodically over the years as part of a book he was writing on his life. Once, when he asked if he could interview him the following evening, Toscanini refused, saying he would be busy with something special that would require his absolute concentration.

"Maestro," the biographer said, "may I ask what it is?"

"There is a concert overseas. I used to conduct that symphony orchestra, but I could not be there this year, so I will listen on a shortwave radio. I don't want any interruptions whatsoever."

"It would be my greatest pleasure to watch you listen to a concert played by an orchestra you used to lead. "

"You promise to be perfectly quiet?" Toscanini asked.


The next night, the biographer sat quietly while Toscanini listened to the concert. When it finally ended, the biographer remarked, "Wow, wasn't that magnificent?"

Toscanini said, "Not really."

"Why not?"

"There were supposed to be 120 musicians, including 15 violinists. Only 14 of them played."

The biographer thought he was joking. How could he know from 6,000 miles away, over shortwave radio, that one of the violinists was missing? The biographer did not want to voice his doubts, so he went home.

The next morning, though, he had to know. He called the concert hall overseas, asked for the music director, and inquired how many musicians were supposed to have been playing the night before and how many had actually shown up. The concert hall director told him that there were supposed to have been 120 musicians, including 15 violinists, but only 14 had shown up.

The biographer was amazed! He went to Toscanini and said, "Sir, I owe you an apology. The other night, I thought you were making things up. Tell me, please, how could you know that one violinist was missing?"

"This is the difference between you and me," Toscanini replied." You are part of the audience, and to them everything sounds wonderful. But I am the conductor, and so I know every note of music that has to be played. When I realized that certain notes were missing, I knew without a doubt that one of the violists was not there."

The Rabbi turned to the teenager and said:

Judaism teaches that we are all musicians in the grand cosmic symphony of history. Maybe to the average observer, how you live, what you do every day, and how you work on your moral and spiritual life doesn't make a difference... but know that to the Conductor of the World Symphony, who knows every note of music that is supposed to be played, who appreciates the unique note that only you can produce through your life—to Him it makes a grand difference! Every moment of your life is an indispensable note in the Divine symphony.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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