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The Systems of the Jewish Year

When Jews Show Passion

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Dedicated by the Sitzer family in memory of their grandmother and my great aunt, Chaya Rachel bas Menashe Sitzer a"h (nee Haber) who left this world in 5735 (1975). She arrived in the United States from Europe in 1921 with 3 children (the fourth child was born in America) and a niece. Together with her husband Yehuda Leib she maintained a proper Jewish household and instilled a sense of Judaism in her children & grandchildren. She understood English but responded in Yiddish. Her favorite blessing to the grandchildren in Yiddish was that “mazal (luck) should always pursue us”. She insisted that we respond to the blessing by answering “Amein”

The Eastern gates to the Courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash in Jerusalem were called “Shaarei Nikoner” or the gates of Nikoner. They were beautiful bronzed structures that greeted the guests as they arrived from all over the land.

Why are they called “Gates of Nikoner”? Nikoner was a Greek general during the Hashmonean era. When Antiochus’s nephew decided to remodel the Beis HaMikdash, he used his resources to import artifacts from the best craftsmen in the known world. He commissioned his general Nikoner to travel to Alexandria of Egypt to have these bronze gates custom-made. Nikoner decided to transport the cumbersome gates by ship, and while out on his Mediterranean voyage they encountered a life-threatening storm.

The general, seeing that the weight of the ship was too much to survive the storm, ordered one of the doors be thrown overboard. The storm, however, continued and the boat rocked even more. The crew got ready to throw the next gate into the sea. Nikoner watched as the group hoisted the heavy bronze door into the air and something happened. Nikoner ran to the gate and began to hug it. “If this gate goes into the sea, so do I.” The storm immediately subsided. Realizing what had just taken place, Nikoner began to cry over the first door that he had thrown overboard. When they finally reached the port of Ako and docked their ship, they found the missing door, under the ship and promptly hung both doors in the holy Temple. To remember this miracle the gates were called “Shaarei Nikoner”. (Talmud Yoma 38)

What stopped the storm? The fact that the future gates to holiness were on board was not enough to ward off the storm. The doors wanted to be hugged! Yerushalayim wants to be hugged. Every gate, every passageway, every stone in Yerushalayim wants to be hugged.

The initial reaction was to throw the doors to Yerushalayim overboard. Lives are at stake - don’t rock the boat! But that didn’t help, Yerushalayim works on a different level - if we love the doors, if we express our passion for them they remain with us, even if it takes a miracle.

“It was then that Moshe and the children of Israel sang out their song to Hashem”. They had already seen miracles; Moshe had already had prophecies. They knew G-d, but there was never an outpouring of emotion until now. There was no passion. Finally they sang, finally Moshe sang. G-d traveled from their minds to their hearts and all the angels in Heaven sang along. When we read the Torah we read the shira in the same tune as we read the Ten Commandments. The commandments were an outpouring from G-d; this song was an outpouring from Israel. “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.”

I have often quoted the words of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik describing the way he grew up. “The emotions that overtook me as a child (particularly around the High Holidays) stimulate me still today, and my whole Weltanschauung, my whole religious philosophy, is a result of this experience. Contemporary Orthodoxy is well grounded intellectually. In spite of this, however, its followers lack passion.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik in the “Days of Awe” pg. 60).

We are living in an at-risk time. Kids at risk, Jerusalem at risk, marriage at risk, personal missions at risk. The truth is Judaism itself will be at risk if we don’t all demonstrate some passion!

My Rebbe, Rav Scheinberg, would often quote the words of King David, “I have given Your Torah as an inheritance to my children because they are the joy of my heart.” Torah does not usually go down as an inheritance. I can be a great Torah scholar but that says nothing for my children. There is only one way that we can bequeath Torah to our children, “when it is the joy of my heart.” When we can take it from our minds to our hearts, when we can sing about it and when we can hug it; then it remains ours.

Also dedicated to our children Eliyahu and Chava Haber, who are so passionate about their Yiddishkeit, on the occasion of the birth of a baby boy in Yerushalayim. What nachas! 

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