Friday, August 8, 2014
Week 45 (Book 4a): Appreciating True Beauty
Week 45 is the week of Tu B’Av, The verse from the story of Channah speaks of how the sons of Eli would despise the sacrificial offerings to Hashem in the Tabernacle. The Hebrew word used is Niatzu, often used in Tanach in the context of not appreciating the beauty of the Mitzvot. Tu B’Av is the happiest day in the Jewish calendar (along with Yom Kippur) and the most romantic day. The Talmud describes it as a day particularly fit for appreciating the beauty of others, particularly one’s future spouse. Real beauty, however, is not only physical.The Mishnah states that on this day,
The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, "Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on [good] family." As it says, "Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the lord, she shall be praised." (Ta'anit 26b)
Chapter 6 of Pirkei Avot lists eight qualities that are becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world. The first one mentioned is in fact beauty (No’i). The message here appears to be exactly this. Outer beauty that reflects the inner beauty of the righteous is becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world. Outer body that is not accompanied by fear of G-d is deceitful and vain.
Chapter 1 of the Song of Songs contains a similar theme. One of the main focuses of this chapter is beauty. However, it would do a tremendous injustice to this holy writing to think that King Solomon was speaking primarily about physical beauty.
1. The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.
2. "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine.
3. Because of the fragrance of your goodly oils, your name is 'oil poured forth.' Therefore, the maidens loved you.
4. Draw me, we will run after you; the king brought me to his chambers. We will rejoice and be glad in you. We will recall your love more fragrant than wine; they have loved you sincerely.
5. I am black but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem! Like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. (...)
10. Your cheeks are comely with rows, your neck with necklaces (...)
15. "Behold, you are comely, my beloved; behold, you are comely; your eyes are like doves."
16. "Behold, you are comely, my beloved, yea pleasant; also our couch is leafy.
Rashi explains the use of the word “comely” (Na’avah), in relevant part:
The allegory is that the congregation of Israel says to the nations: I am black in my deeds, but I am comely in the deeds of my ancestors, and even some of my deeds are comely. If I am guilty of the iniquity of the [Golden] Calf, I can counter it with the merit of the acceptance of the Torah (Song Rabbah).
Regarding verses 15 and 16, Rashi explains that G-d says to Israel that she is fair, “fair with the deeds of your forefathers and fair with your own deeds, because.. there are righteous among you who clung to Me like a dove, which, as soon as it recognizes its mate, does not abandon it to mate with another… ” Israel responds by saying that The beauty is not mine, but yours; you are the comely one… for You overlooked my transgression and caused Your Divine Presence to rest in our midst.”
This week contains the yahrzeits of two very prominent Sephardic philanthropists, statesmen, and advisors to European kings: Don Isaac Abravanel (10th of Av) and Sir Moses Montefiori (16th of Av). Both were able to join outward physical wealth, luxury and beauty with inward G-dly pursuits and integrity.
Don Isaac Abravanel
Don Isaac Abravanel was one of the greatest Jewish statesmen who played an important part in European history. At the same time he was not merely a loyal and strictly religious Jew, but a great scholar, Bible commentator and philosopher. He was the last of the long line of great Jewish leaders and heroes of the Spanish Golden Age.
Isaac was born into a wealthy and learned family in Portugal. His father Judah was state treasurer of Portugal, and a great favorite of Alfonso V, king of Portugal. Isaac received a thorough Jewish education, and took a keen interest in languages and philosophy. Later he succeeded his father in the service of the king.
In his greatness, Isaac never forgot his humble brethren. He used his vast wealth to support the needy. Thus, when Alfonso captured the town of Arzilla in Morocco, and there were two hundred and fifty Jews among the prisoners, Isaac Abravanel appointed twelve representatives to gather funds to redeem them, and he himself was the greatest donor. When they were redeemed, he supported them from his own means for about two years, until they learnt the language and could earn their own livelihood. Abravanel also used his great influence to better the position of his brethren in other lands.
When Alfonso V died and Don Joao II succeeded to the throne of Portugal, Abravanel's fortune changed. In the year 5243, Don Joao II began a policy that aimed at getting rid of the nobility, and particularly the ministers of state that served his father. Abravanel learned just in time that the king beheaded several of the highest ranking officers, and that he was slated -to share a similar fate. He was on the way to answer the king's call, but on learning what awaited him, Abravanel fled to Toledo in Spain, where his family had once lived. Accompanied by his wife and two children, Abravanel arrived in Toledo almost penniless, as the ungrateful. John had confiscated all his wealth.
Abravanel quietly obtained a position with a Jewish banking firm, and was glad to have time to pursue his studies and literary work. He continued his commentaries on the Bible which he had been forced to interrupt because of the pressure of state affairs. He wrote his commentaries on Joshua, Judges and Samuel, but when he began his commentaries on the book of Kings, the king of Spain summoned him to take over the state treasury. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain knew that they could find no greater financial genius, and in the very same year when the notorious Torquemada became head of the Inquisition in Spain, Abarvanel officially became treasurer to the king and queen (two years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain).
When that terrible decree of the expulsion of all Jews from Spain except those who would give up their faith, became known, Abravanel tried hard to avert the catastrophe. He begged of the king and queen to reconsider their cruel decree, and he offered a huge sum to the king's treasury. The king and queen turned a deaf ear to all his personal pleas and declined his gifts of money.
On the 9th of Av, 5252 (July 30, 1492), Abravanel and his family were on the march with the rest of their co-religionists He gave up his exalted position and joined his beloved brethren in exile and suffering. The unfortunate refugees finally reached Naples in Italy. When Ferdinand learned that the Jews found a haven in Naples, he requested the king of Naples (also called Ferdinand) that he should not permit the refugees to. remain in his land. The young king of Naples, however, ignored the protest and demands of the cruel rulers of Spain. Moreover, he invited Abravanel to the royal house and appointed him as his adviser. Abravanel served both him and his son Alfonso II who succeeded to the throne in 1494. Unfortunately Naples was captured by King Charles of France in the following year, and King Alfonso II fled to Sicily. Abravanel accompanied his Majesty in exile, and continued to serve him with a fatherly devotion, until the exiled king died. Then Abravanel left for the island of Corfu in the Mediterranean.
Having lost all his wealth to the French conquerors, Abravanel suffered poverty and hardship. He moved to Monopoli, a town in the Kingdom of Naples, and 8 years later finally settled in Venice. Here it was not long before the rulers of Venice invited him to the council of state, and Abravanel became one of the leading statesmen of that Venetian Republic. Here in Venice Abravanel died in the year 5269, at the age of 71, deeply mourned by the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Venice. The leading rulers of Venice attended his funeral, and he was laid to rest in Padua.
Sir Moses Montefiore
Moses Montefiore was a devoted worker for the public welfare, a mediator and intercessor in behalf of his brethren, a statesman and a diplomat. Everywhere Kings and Princes received him cordially, and he always defended the Jewish position with pride and vigor, doing his utmost for his coreligionists in various European countries.
Moses Montefiore was born on the 13th of Cheshvan, 5545 (1784) in the Italian city of Livorno. His grandfather, Moses Chaim Montefiore was a Sephardic Jew from that city, who later settled in London. He had 17 sons, one of whom, Joseph Elijah, was the father of Moses. When Joseph Elijah, together with his wife, traveled on business to Livorno, Moses was born there.
Moses Montefiore was raised in England in an atmosphere of Torah and Mitzvoth, and he remained a staunch, devout Jew throughout his entire life. In London he developed a big business, together with his brother Abraham. They did business with the Rothschilds: dealt in finance, and large industrial and commercial establishments. They formed an Insurance Company; a Gas Company, that introduced gas-lighting into many of the important cities of Europe. They also had a hand in the building of railroads, and in many other industrial and financial enterprises.
Moses Montefiore accumulated great wealth and became famous. In 1837 he was appointed "Sheriff" of London. He was the second Jew to occupy that important position. In the same year, Queen Victoria, who had just ascended the British throne, gave him the honorary title of "Knighthood," with the title "Sir" and in 1846 he was elevated to the rank of Baron. He occupied a number of important positions, both in Jewish and social circles.
Moses Montefiore differed from certain other Jews who, upon accumulating wealth and honor, sad to say, turn away from their religion. Moses Montefiore, as already mentioned, remained a religious Jew his entire life. At an early age, he started to interest himself in the lot of his fellow Jews. Later on, he used his great influence to obtain equal rights for the Jews in England. He was Gabbai (trustee) of the Sephardic Congregations of London, and was six times elected as Community Leader (Rosh HaKahal). For a period of 3 6 years, he was the head of the "Jewish Board of Deputies" - the organization of the United Congregations, and of elected Jewish officials, who represented British Jewry. When, at the age of 90, he gave up his position, the United Congregations of England gave him a farewell gift -12,000 pounds sterling. He donated the entire sum to build houses for the poor in Jerusalem. Being an orthodox Jew, he naturally loved the Holy Land, and he supported the worthy institutions most generously. He visited Eretz Yisroel seven times -the last time being in 1875, at the age of 91. If we take into consideration that a journey in those days entailed great difficulties, we can then realize what it meant for a person of such an advanced age to undertake such a trip. He distributed a vast amount of money in Eretz Yisroel; he built Synagogues, supported Yeshivos, and founded various types of important institutions. He had previously built a tomb over Mother Rachel's grave, in 1866, the magnificent tomb which is so well known. The Jews in Eretz Yisroel regarded him as a G-d sent messenger, sent to help them in their great need.
When the terrible blood-libel broke out in Damascus in 1840, Sir Moses Montefiore went there personally to defend the falsely accused Jews. The outrageously false blood-libel (that Jews use Christian blood in the Matzah for Pesach) that had cost so many Jewish lives in the dark times of the Middle Ages, and was then renewed in Damascus, not only threatened the lives of the accused, but also those of the entire community, and of Jews everywhere. Sir Moses Montefiore (with the help of other prominent Jewish and non-Jewish leaders) managed to persuade the Sultan to issue a "firman" (decree) in which he declared the blood-libel to be false and prohibited its renewal.
In 1846 the Russian government officially invited Sir Moses Montefiore to visit Russia in connection with the Jewish situation in Russia. The Czarist government, aided by some leaders of the "Haskalah" ("Enlightenment") movement, tried to Russify, i.e., assimilate, the broad masses of Russian Jewry. The government hoped that with the support of such an important Jewish personality as Sir Moses Montefiore, it would certainly win its fight against the religious Jewish leaders in Russia, who refused to cooperate with the government in this matter, and who hindered every effort to force assimilation on Russian Jewry. The then Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, was especially opposed to all efforts that would lead to assimilation, and he worked with body and soul to prevent their succeeding.
Sir Moses Montefiore accepted the invitation, but not with the intention of becoming a tool in the hands of the assimilationists, but in order to become personally acquainted with the Jewish position in Russia, where the majority of world Jewry lived. Moreover, he wanted to see what he could do about the persecutions and pogroms which so often plagued the Jews there.
When Sir Moses Montefiore arrived in Petersburg (now called Leningrad), the Czarist minister, Count Kissilev, the Minister of the Interior, and Uvarov, the Minister of Education, greeted him with a long list of "accusations" against Russian Jewry and their religious leaders.
Sir Moses Montefiore did not rely on the testimony of these anti-Semitic ministers, and the misguided and misleading Maskilim. He undertook a trip through the towns and villages where the Jews lived, and upon returning to London, he compiled two memoranda from the material he gathered during his trip. One memorandum he sent to the Russian Interior Minister, and the other one to the Minister of Education. Sir Moses Montefiore wrote to them in a polite but firm manner, so as not to incite them, that the Jewish problem in Russia had nothing to do with the Jews' education, which happened to be on a high level. He denied the false accusations made against the Jews, and in turn, accused the government of dealing falsely with the Jews; he described the terrible economic position of the Jews because of government decrees, expulsions, pogroms, and economic sanctions. He demanded equal rights for the Jews, and stressed that it would also be a blessing for the country.
Thanks to the great self-sacrifice of the Russian Jews, who were strengthened and encouraged by Sir Moses Montefiore's efforts on their behalf, the government finally gave up many of its plans to force conversion and assimilation of the Russian Jews. Their economic position also took a turn for the better because of Sir Moses Montefiore's recommendations.
In 1872 Montefiore visited Russia once more, and was received by Czar Alexander the Second. Montefiore was pleased to notice the growth of a new class of Jewish business men and professionals since his first visit, but he did not notice the assimilation that had taken hold of these "upper" classes.
Sir Moses Montefiore was also received in audience by the Pope in Rome (in 18 5 8 ) when he went there to intercede on behalf of an Italian Jewish boy who was forcibly converted as a small child lying ill in bed. The gentile maid "sprinkled him with water," and the church declared him to be a Christian. The boy was forcibly taken away from his parents and brought up as a Christian. The case of the child Murtara caused a great storm of indignation, but no intercession helped to return the child to his Jewish parents.
When in Rumania, on a visit to help his Jewish brothers there, Sir Moses Montefiore once found himself in grave danger when a wild mob wanted to attack him. He narrowly escaped with his life. Nothing deterred him, however, when it was a question of helping his poor, persecuted brothers.
Sir Moses Montefiore died on the 13th of Av 5645 (1885) at the ripe old age of over 100 years.
The Montefiore Museum contains a great collection of gold and silver artistry that Sir Moses Montefiore received as gifts from kings and rulers, as well as documents of great historical importance. His Yahrzeit (anniversary) is observed yearly by the institutions which are maintained even today from the funds that he left for this purpose.
Other yahrzeits this week include Rav Hillel Paritcher (13th of Av), Rabbi Yaakov Leiner (2nd Ishbitzer Rebbe, author of Beis Yaakov and Sefer HaZemanim, 15th of Av) and Rabbi Meir Noson Halberstam (son of the Divrei Chaim and father of the first Bobover Rebbe, 15th of Av).
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