Parshat Mishpatim 5770 (from Ireland)

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Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you must rest – Exodus 23:12

This week saw the sad passing of a very special and much beloved rabbi – Rabbi Chaskel Besser zt”l at the age of 87.

This unassuming rabbi, teacher and scholar was world renowned for his wisdom, his humility and his kindness. His success in rebuilding Jewish life in Poland (his birthplace) in recent years is well documented. His life story is told in a fascinating and inspiring book, “The Rabbi of 84th Street” by Warren Kozak.

Although I did not know him personally, I would like to share with you a story about Rabbi Besser (with an Irish connection), which illustrates the lengths this man would go to in order to keep the mitzvot. In this particular case it is the mitzva of keeping Shabbat, as per the verse in this week’s parshaSix days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you must rest.

In 1946, living in Palestine, Besser was suffering terrible headaches as a result of an earlier bout of meningitis and encephalitis, when he heard about an outstanding doctor in New York who might be able to help. He decided to make the trip, despite the fact that air travel was logistically quite difficult at that time. He first flew from Tel Aviv to Cairo, and then transferred onto the prop plane to New York, a twenty hour long flight. Mann tracht un G-tt lacht as the saying goes, and the plane was forced by bad weather to land in Shannon, on our Emerald Isle.

Hour after hour passed, drawing closer and closer to Shabbat, a day when air travel is forbidden. Finally on Friday morning the weather cleared enough to fly, but passengers were informed they would arrive in New York late on Friday evening, well after sundown. The good rabbi approached the ticket desk and informed them that he could not fly on the Sabbath for religious reasons – to their amazement. Their response was blunt, “miss this flight and we won’t have space for months!” But his response was equally clear, “I’ll just have to take that chance,” he replied and left to find a local hotel for Shabbat. En route he stopped to find some kosher food – not very easy in Shannon in 1946, and he found two items (made in Palestine):  a can of fruit and some condensed milk.

However, bashert is bashert, and the ending to the story is a positive one. Amazingly he found in his hotel room a bag of kosher food left by a previous Jewish occupant containing kosher food and wine, but more importantly was what happened after Shabbat.  At 11pm, after the havdala ceremony, the hotel phone rang, asking for a Mr Besser. It was the airline on the phone – the flight was leaving in a couple of hours, they had found a seat and were sending a chauffeur to pay for the hotel room and bring him to the airport!

When he asked them why they were being so accommodating, the reply was illuminating;  “Your determination for your religion so impressed us,” they replied, “that we wanted to do something for you.”

We can take two messages from this story: One is the lengths we must go to in order to observe the commandments. Of course not all of us would withstand such a difficult test, but each of us on our own level can try to do just that bit more – a little more care with Shabbat, a little more care with eating kosher, a few more minutes at a Torah class etc.

The second message is about our mission of being Ohr La’Goyim – a light to the Nations.

When we, as Jews, stop keeping the mitzvot because others think of them as anachronistic or irrelevant, we are only carried further and further away from the completion of this vital mission. If, however, we stick strongly to our principles and to what we believe in, that creates a tremendous Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the name of G-d, and brings us ever closer to the achievement of our goals. Let’s be proud of our precious heritage.

Shabbat Shalom  – Rabbi Zalman Lent

(more about Rabbi Haskel Besser zt”l)

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