Kindling the lamps

Friday, 17 June, 2022 - 4:06 am

This is an episode I heard from my father; I wonder what you will think of it.

It was when they were still behind the Iron Curtain, in Czernowitz. My grandfather, R. Moshe Wishedski z”l, and his good friend, R. Mendel Futerfas z”l, had already returned from the camps, and life had developed some sort of routine. 

On Shabbat they would get up early, learn chassidut together, with the older ones teaching the younger ones: my father, his brother, and two other teenagers verging on adulthood, with R. Mendel and R. Moshe, who were in their late thirties. After studying, R. Mendel and my grandfather would go, each to his own corner, to pray. They would pray for a long time – pouring out their hearts, as in “My soul thirsts for the living G-d”; or tefillah be’avoda (putting effort into prayers), as it is known among chassidim.

One Shabbat, when the older men went to pray, the younger people knew it would be a long time before kiddush, so they decided to “check out” the cholent – just a little mouthful before prayers – the cholent didn’t even have anything requiring the blessing of mezonot (wheat-based foods that one should not eat before davening). They didn’t know it, but R. Mendel realized they were doing this somewhat extensive sampling of the food.

At the hitva’adut after the long davening, R. Mendel had a drink, a L’chaim, and began to berate them at length: How could this be? Is this proper? Fine young Jewish men are sitting and eating cholent before prayers? Is that what Shabbat is supposed to look like? Is this how one prepares for davening?

They were silent, of course. But after he concluded his rebuke, one of them asked: “What didn’t you stop us? You saw us eating – all you had to do was to say one word and we would have stopped.”

Now, listen to what R. Mendel said in response:

“A Jew is eating, enjoying himself – how can I disturb him?”

This story is for me a lifesaver. 

I probably heard it some thirty years ago (and it is possible that it is not one hundred percent accurate), but it doesn’t leave me. I would not be exaggerating if I said that almost every time I was about to scold my children or berate them, this story came to mind and apparently saved us – both my children and myself. On one hand, one should let a Jew enjoy cholent; on the other hand, one should find the moment to berate him, as necessary. 

And why am I being reminded of this story today, of all days?

Because in the diaspora this week we learned parashat Beha’alotcha, the parasha we will read tomorrow. The Rebbe translated the lamps in the menorah into men, women and children who need someone to light the lamp for them, or, more accurately, to prepare the lamps for them so that they can illuminate the world with their own special light. How should one do this, practically speaking? How did Aharon really “love the people and draw them closer to Torah”? The answer is in this story about the cholent and R. Mendel.

Wishing everyone success,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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