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The Elements of Jewish Living

Shattered Vessels

By Rabbi Sender Haber

She reminded me of Savta Simcha, the Mary Poppins of Jewish children’s literature. She was an eccentric type of figure with floppy hats and bags full of mysterious objects. She was always full of wisdom and you never knew where she was going or where she would show up next.

She did not like to accept help from anybody. Nobody knew where she lived. We would meet her in the most random places and would often see her taking long treks across Norfolk in all sorts of weather. She loved to speak in Hebrew and always had something to say about an upcoming Yom Tov or event. We didn’t really know who she was.

Last month, Simcha passed away. I attended her Shloshim and learned that Simcha had so much more history and depth than any of us had ever imagined. Her children and grandchildren had loved her dearly and they looked just like me and my children. A slideshow showed photographs of her childhood and young adult life in Istanbul which were both fascinating and typical. Her Turkish grandfather wore a fez that looked just like the fez worn by my Turkish ancestors. Her family gatherings looked just like ours do. Simcha was not just an eccentric woman. She was a very special woman with a family who worked valiantly to care of her and ancestors who made her the determined person she was.

Simcha led a colorful life. As a teenager during World War II, Simcha risked the streets to find food for her hidden family. As a teacher, Simcha helped found a Jewish school in Istanbul. As an Israeli soldier, she found dangerous weapons concealed under the clothes of a terrorist masquerading as a pregnant woman. Later, Simcha served as a translator for important Turkish officials. She knew eight languages and had plenty to say. Even the Lubavitcher Rebbe knew that he was in for a long conversation when she came to see him.

At the Pesach Seder, we have the custom of pouring some wine out of our cups with the mention of each of the ten plagues. It is our small ode to the humanity of the Egyptians and the indignities that they suffered. Kabbalistically, the drops of wine are poured into a broken vessel to signify that what took place in Egypt was nothing less than utter destruction of humanity. In Istanbul the custom was to turn away as the wine was poured into the broken vessel, and every year Simcha would admonish those at her seder around her not to look at the broken vessel. It was too scary, too powerful and too awful to deal with.

Simcha herself was a shattered vessel. She was a brilliant and heroic woman with an illustrious history and accomplished children who loved her. Unfortunately, we were unable to see that in the woman that we knew.

The Kabbalists teach us that shattered vessels have the greatest potential for holiness. Our natural inclination is to turn away in fear and discomfort, but perhaps the time has come to turn back toward the next shattered vessel that we see and give him or her a closer look.

I wish I had.

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