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What is the most important day in a person’s life? 

01/07/2018 09:26:07 AM

Jan7

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

What is the most important day in a person’s life? The day she is born? The day he graduates? Gets her first job? Falls in love with his future spouse? What is the most important day in a person’s life?

I’d like to argue that the most important day in a person’s life is a day that, by its nature, is sometimes only recognized in retrospect. It is the day on which he or she summons the will to not break.

There are a lot of things that can break us. Health struggles. Bad financial turns. Family crises. The loss of loved ones. And when we’re going through those, there is invariably a day on which we face the choice to surrender and to concede defeat, or to summon up the determination to fight on, and to not allow ourselves to be broken. This is life’s hardest stuff, and none of us succeeds each time. But when we do succeed, that day on which we stared down our circumstances and refused to be broken by them, forever stands as one of the most important of our lives.

Miriam could have broken on that day – that day in the bulrushes on the bank of the river. For it was she who had persuaded her parents to defy the sentence that hung over male Israelite children, and to conceive again, to conceive the child whom she was certain would be the redeemer. It was she whom her father had kissed on the head on the day this male child was born and the house filled with light   בִּתִּי נִתְקַיְּמָה נְבוּאָתֵך , he had said to her. But on this day, as her mother cast the “redeemer” upon the water, with bitterness and grief

טָפְחָה לָהּ עַל רֹאשָׁהּ, אָמְרָה לָהּ בִּתִּי וְהֵיכָן נְבוּאָתֵךְ

Imagine the feelings of guilt and regret. The powerful, rejectionary sting of that slap. It could have been the day on which Miriam staggered in the face of the ruthless and methodical effort that had been undertaken to prevent a redeemer from ever arising in Israel, the day on which, with shoulders stooped and head down, she trudged home, defeated.  But it was not.

וַתֵּתַצַּ֥ב אֲחֹת֖וֹ מֵרָחֹ֑ק לְדֵעָ֕ה מַה־יֵּעָשֶׂ֖ה לֽוֹ׃

She stood her ground, and waited to see what would happen next. With all her might she held to the conviction that this story was not over. Indeed, that the story was just now beginning. It was the day that Miriam didn’t break. 

And at the other end of the parsha, the day on which Moshe could have broken. To begin with, he was deeply skeptical of his fitness to do the job for which God had elected him. And then, the first confrontation with Pharaoh produces nothing but a huge step backward. But the deepest cut was yet to come:

וַֽיִּפְגְּעוּ֙ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן נִצָּבִ֖ים לִקְרָאתָ֑ם בְּצֵאתָ֖ם מֵאֵ֥ת פַּרְעֹֽה׃

וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם יֵ֧רֶא יה' עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם וְיִשְׁפֹּ֑ט אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִבְאַשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־רֵיחֵ֗נוּ בְּעֵינֵ֤י פַרְעֹה֙ וּבְעֵינֵ֣י עֲבָדָ֔יו לָֽתֶת־חֶ֥רֶב בְּיָדָ֖ם לְהָרְגֵֽנוּ׃

“May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”

And Moshe staggered backwards, and harshly questioned God on that day. But ultimately he came out for round two. For it was the day on which Moshe didn’t break.

And their stories of course are microcosms of the larger story.

וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃

What does “b’farech” mean? Rashbam cites the Talmud’s use of the word: it means crushing, as in “One is permitted to crush legumes on Yom Tov”. The Egyptians worked us with intention to break us, so that we would relinquish our tribal identity, our unique historical memory, and the sense of national destiny that came with it.  The greatest miracle of the Exodus story was not the frogs or the darkness, nor even the splitting of the sea. It was the gritty determination of an embattled people to not allow itself to collapse. Their collective decision to bend, but not to break.

The most important prayer we will ever utter, is that we be granted the strength, on our day or tribulation, to not break.  And the most profound mitzvah will we ever perform, will be that of being the unshakable moral support for a friend who is in the midst of that day.

Next Monday night will be a busy and festive night, as we thank Nikki and Andres and Rae and Shep for their stalwart and enduring support, patience, love, and passion. Because the night will be so very full, I’m stealing a moment this morning to appreciate our most senior honorees, Emil and Lola Sassover. People who if they had wound up broken by life, no one could have blamed them. But who are to us, what Miriam and Moshe were to our ancestors. Themselves refusing to be broken, and giving of their strength and faith to a people that was on the edge.

In June of 1941, a lifetime before Emil Sassover took on his role as our beloved chief of all things in the Beit Midrash, he left his family in Tarnopol, Poland and joined the Russian army to resist Nazi Germany. When granted a furlough in 1944, he returned to Tarnopol to discover that virtually his entire family was dead, shot as they stood on the edge of pit just outside of town. Mr. Sassover stood at the edge of that pit in 1944 and swore that the Jewish people would establish a state of their own. A year later, he made his way to West Germany, where the Hagganah enlisted him to train soldiers. “The ones I trained were young people”, he would later say, “holocaust survivors, boys between 15 and 25. Over 3000 boys. We trained them well. And I told them: They survived the gas chambers; I survived the battle of Stalingrad.  So we may as well, if to die, to die for our land.”

Lola and her family made their way to the Degendorf DP camp after the war, and in July of 1948 she joined a group of young Jews who were setting out for the newly-born State. Emil was the organizer of the group, and on the boat a friendship was born between them, a friendship that endured the trying early years of the State. “It was already 1950”, Lola loves to recall, “and I had to get very direct with him. I told him he had to decide if we were going to get married. I told him, “tachlis, yes or no?” and on Oct. 26, 1950, a Polish-born Russian and now Israeli soldier who had lost everyone, and a survivor of labor camps and death marches got married under a simple tallis, in Lola’s parents’ backyard in Yaffo. And their favorite topic of discussion is their 14 grandchildren, eleven grandchildren-in law, and their 37 great-grandchildren. Keyn yirbu.

We chose to celebrate Emil and Lola Sassover this year in particular, on the occasion of the publication of their memoir, which is a story – a human story and a Jewish story – of triumph, of courage, of faith, of never breaking. It will be our honor next Monday evening, to rise in their honor.

Thu, January 17 2019 11 Shevat 5779