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Ki Savo

"You shall observe the words of this covenant, so that you will succeed in all that you do" (Devarim 29:8).

Moshe Rabbeinu taught us that by observing the Torah, we will be successful. A pre-requisite for observing the Torah is, of course, learning it. But learning the Torah, besides being a conduit to knowing and keeping its commandments, is really an end in itself. As a matter of fact, learning Torah is the greatest of all of the mitzvahs. It brings a person many blessings in this world and in the World-to-Come.

The Skulener Rebbe, Rabbi Eliezer Zyshe Portugal ztvk"l (1886-1982), was a very special person. He served Hashem with all of his strength and never stopped as long as he felt physically able to continue. His assistant told me that the Rebbe would never go to sleep as long as he felt that he still had some energy left and was not totally exhausted. Indeed, sometimes after the Rebbe had recited the Shema and the other prayers before one goes to bed, he felt that he could still function a bit more, and so he would take a Tehillim and recite some psalms until he fell asleep from fatigue.

In Romania, as in Sedom and Amora, the Communist regime forbade giving charity to orphans. "Feed your own children," they said, "and leave these kids to their parents to take care of." The fact that they had no parents to take care of them, didn't seem to faze the authorities. In an effort to outsmart the cruel government, the Rebbe legally adopted dozens of orphans and took them into his family. Then he was legally able to support them. Although this could have been considered a fa?ade, merely intended to outmaneuver the wicked government officials, the Rebbe took it very seriously. All of his life he considered these boys and girls his children. He supported them, married them off and treated their children as his own grandchildren.

Eventually, though, he and his son, the present Rebbe, were arrested and submitted to terrible tortures. Although they immediately confessed their own "sins," the prison officials wanted them to give them names of other "revolutionists" who disobeyed the government decrees. This they would not do, and so they were tortured mercilessly.

Upon arriving in the United States, after being ransomed by the Americans, he organized Chesed L'Avraham, an organization through which he collected funds to ransom other prisoners whom he had left behind. I remember him once reporting that he had spent fifty thousand dollars to free one prisoner. Sensing the audience's surprise, he explained, "The Gemora teaches that saving one Jewish life is equivalent to causing the entire world to exist. "Isn't the whole world's existence worth fifty thousand dollars?" the Rebbe asked rhetorically.

Towards the end of his long and productive life, the Rebbe began losing his eyesight. Medicines and surgery were unsuccessful and eventually, during one summer, he became blind. I visited him on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and found the great tzaddik sad and depressed. I asked him why he was subdued and he replied: "Today begins the month of Elul, in which we are supposed to do teshuvah (repent) for our sins, in preparation for the Judgment Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, we say in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, 'Our Father, return us by means of Your Torah.' In other words, we need the Torah in order to do a proper teshuvah. But since I cannot see, I cannot learn Torah. So how can I do teshuvah properly? That's why I am so sad!"

Actually, the Rebbe's definition was novel. The traditional translation of the prayer he referred to is, "Our Father, return us to Your Torah." However, the Rebbe interpreted it to mean, "by means of Your Torah." We can understand his insight more deeply by means of a story which was once related to me by the Maggid of Jerusalem, Reb Shalom Shvadron z"l.

Most people spend their lives thirsting for honor. No matter how much you give them, they are never satisfied. Other people, with loftier ideals, run away from honor. The Sages taught that one who pursues honor, honor runs away from him; but one who runs away from honor, honor pursues him. Some ask, if he is always running away from honor, when does the honor finally catch up with him. The answer, they say, is at his funeral. When he can no longer run, the honor he avoided all of his life finally catches up with him and the eulogizers extol his praises for all to hear and be impressed with.

However, some saintly people found a solution to this "problem" too. Before they died, their final request was that no one eulogize them! Usually it is a mitzvah to obey the wishes of one who has died, but in this case, there is always a dispute among the Rabbis. Should they forego the eulogies, as he requested, or not, since relating the virtues of the tzaddik would surely inspire the assembly to better their own ways and follow in his path.

When Reb Itzil Peterburger zt"l, one of the prime students of Reb Yisroel Salanter ztvk"l, died in Jerusalem, the Rabbis were faced with this dilemma. He had left instructions that he not be eulogized, yet it was a shame to miss such an opportunity to inspire the masses. Reb Chaim Berlin, zt"l, came up with a unique solution. He would not actually eulogize Reb Itzil; he would not praise him personally. Instead, he would give a warm and fiery sermon, quoting the deceased and his teachings, which would inspire people towards repentance. In Heaven, this would surely be reckoned to the merit of Reb Itzil who, after all, was the cause of it all.

On Shabbos during the week of mourning, Reb Itzil visited Reb Chaim in a dream and thanked him twofold: first, for not eulogizing him and second for his beautiful sermon which he had benefited from.

The Rabbi took the opportunity to ask Reb Itzil what things are like in the Other World. Reb Itzil replied that the judgment is very strict and that they pay attention even to minor details which we usually overlook (not exactly like "Love without End, Amen", sorry). They are especially strict, he said, concerning sins which one performs with his speech (which is the essence of Man) such as lashon hara (slander) and profanity.

However, Reb Itzil added, those who learn Torah, are given preferential treatment and are not treated as strictly as others!

With this we can understand what the Rebbe said, that the way to teshuvah is by means of the Torah. One who learns Torah has a much better chance of being acquitted on the Judgment Day.

Let us all strengthen ourselves in our Torah learning so that on Rosh Hashanah we will be granted a good year; a year of health, happiness, prosperity, and, most of all, peace and redemption, among all our brothers and sisters around the world, amen.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel