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T'rumah 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor lived in the 19th century in Lithuania. By all accounts, he was a great rabbi and a great human being. He was a child prodigy who became versed in Talmud at a young age, married at 13, and received rabbinic ordination in his teens. As a rabbi, he was poor and served tiny congregations. Eventually, his brilliant mind became known to the rabbinic leaders in Russia, and he moved to larger and more lucrative congregations until he finally was appointed the Chief Rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania, a post he held until his death.

He was a renowned figure in the Orthodox world. The rabbinical college at Yeshiva University in New York, known as RIETS, was named for him; its non-acronym name is the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Other institutions around the world bear his name as well.

As a Talmudic sage and leader of his community, Rav Isaac Elchanan was known for his very progressive application of halakhah, or Jewish law. He was called “the rabbi of the people,” and some of the examples of his rulings are so telling.

Once, during a terrible drought that fell during Pesach, the people had little to eat. He ruled that they could eat peas and beans, foods that are forbidden to be eaten by Ashkenazi Jews over Passover. Why such an exception? First, the prohibition on eating legumes during Pesach was a rabbinic rule, not in the Torah. But more importantly, the people had to eat. Which took priority – the strict application of Jewish law or compassion on people who would otherwise starve? The latter, of course.

A second example has to do with agunot, or chained wives whose husbands would not give them divorce decrees. He was known to lean toward the women and grant the divorce, even when the husband was uncooperative. He did not want women to be abandoned and also unable to remarry.

A third example comes from the holiday of Sukkot. One of the items a person needs to celebrate Sukkot is an etrog, a citron that looks like a giant lemon. Unlike a lemon, however, an etrog has a stem on both ends. One is what attached to the tree branch. The other is at the other end and is called a pitom. This pitom is a unique feature of the etrog.

According to halakhah, the pitom must be attached to the etrog for it to be kosher, that is, fit for use. If the pitom has broken off, one is supposed to get another etrog.

Etrogim are grown in Israel. How expensive do you think they were in Lithuania in the 19thcentury? The answer is “very.” And Rabbi Isaac Elchanan knew that if the people in his community had to have a pitom on the end of their etrogs, the poor people would never be able to afford them. And so he ruled that an etrog was able to be used even if the pitom had broken off.

Once he celebrated an evening of Sukkot at the home of some poor people in his community. He came with a few of his disciples. The poor family’s etrog did not have a pitom, and he still made the appropriate blessings in the sukkah. After he and his disciples left, the students chastised him – how could you make a blessing over a non-kosher etrog, they asked him. And he retorted – how could you shame a poor family who are doing the best they can with what they have?

Rav Israel Elchanan taught about one of the verses in this week’s Torah portion, T’rumah.T’rumah means “gifts,” and this is the portion in which the Israelites are told to bring gifts for the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that will accompany them when they wander in the wilderness. After they bring the gifts, God instructs the community in how to build this mishkan. In two verses they are told, “Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end. …The cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark cover with their wings, with their faces one to another. ...

Said Rav Israel Elchanan about this verse, spread your wings upward, dream, and reach for the heavens. But as you do, be sure to look one another in the face and be able to see the face of a person in need.

The notion of seeing someone face to face – panim el panim in Hebrew – originates with the Torah. In Genesis, after Jacob wrestles with the angel all night (or perhaps with his own conscience), the angel blesses him and Jacob names the place Peniel, meaning “the face of God,” saying, “I have seen God panim el panim, face to face and I have come out of it with my soul intact.” A little bit later in Genesis, Jacob reunites with his brother Esau. When they each other, they hug, cry, and fall on each other. And Esau says, “To look in your face, is to see the face of God.”

Jacob is not the only one to see God face to face. In fact, that remarkable status is really reserved for Moses. After Moses dies, Torah tells us, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Adonai singled out, panim el panim, face to face.” In another passage in the Torah, God describes God’s relationship with Moses, saying “to others, I speak in riddles; but to Moses, I speak panim el panim, face to face.”

To look at someone panim el panim, face to face, is to see their essence, their soul. It’s to connect deeply to another, to celebrate their humanity. And it’s to say to the other, “you are my equal.” When we look up to someone – literally or figuratively – we lower ourselves. When we look down to someone – again, literally or figuratively – we lower them. It’s when we look directly in their face that we say and see them as we see ourselves.

There’s a general rule that applies when making a bikkur cholim call; that is, when we visit someone who is sick. Usually, that person will be seated, or often, laying down. The rule is this: Sit down. Bring yourself to the level of the patient. Do not stand above the person. Look the person panim el panim, face to face. If we can do that with someone who is ill, how much more so we are to do that everyone we encounter.

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan knew this. Perhaps the bikkur cholim example is the genesis for his teaching from our portion to reach upward while looking one another in the face. The cherubim, the physical representations of God’s angels, look at each other panim el panim. They are in that position permanently. Can we be, too?

Shabbat shalom.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784