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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

Yitro - The Real Tzaddikim Hidden in plain Sight

There is a story that there was once a successful businessman who was part of and a large contributor to the community of the Baal Shem Tov. He decided that he wanted to spend more time studying and praying with the holy Rabbi, and so began coming to services every morning, afternoon, and evening. After a few months of this he came to the Baal Shem Tov. “Master”, he said. “I don’t know what to do. I feel I should come to services each day and daven, but my business is radically suffering as a result. If I keep this up my business may fail, and I would no longer be able to give tzedakah. I think that I should come to services and pray with the community, but I also want to continue to support it financially, and I am unable to do both. What should I do?” The holy Baal Shem, as he often did, replied with a teaching through an analogy. “You know”, he said, “in an army there are many important components: the cavalry, the infantry, artillery. And as long as everyone does their job, the army succeeds. But great problems arise when an infantryman decides to go try to shoot a cannon; or when a man trained in artillery tries to ride a horse. Each member of the army has their particular job, and only chaos arises when the people try to do a job that is not theirs.” He continued with the teaching, “We are all part of God’s army, and we all have our own jobs in that holy army. There are rabbis and cantors; teachers and students; daveners; and financial supporters. Each group, each individual, is needed to do their particular job…and all are equally important for the success of the community just like infantry, cavalry, and artillery are equally important for the success of an earthly army.” The Rabbi looked deeply at the man. “For years you have helped this community succeed because of your financial contributions. You have been like a cavalry rider supporting all the infantry in front of you…the students and daveners. Now, you suddenly decide to become an infantryman? God has a holy purpose for you my friend. Many can daven, but few can support them so that they can. And if you leave your post, then the entire army may fall apart. We don’t need you to daven. This holy army needs you to do the holy work you are meant to do and get back on your horse! Your work is sacred, so be true to your purpose, go back to your business, and let the infantry do their work.” The man understood, went back to only coming to services occasionally, and was a tzaddik in his giving to the poor and the community.

This not an appeal for funds, but an important teaching that we must all do our own soul’s purpose. And it is a teaching in honor of two very special tzaddikim that are no longer physically with us, but whose lives and teachings we need to remember, honor, and emulate.

For seven decades and more, American Judaism has been supported by righteous businessmen who were committed to their faith. In the last month we have lost two of these great men on January 11 and February 3: Sheldon Adelson and Judah Hertz, may their memories be a blessing.

(I feel it is important to add here that neither of these great men were donors to our community, and that there is no “agenda” here other than to teach, learn, and grow as Jews through the examples of these men.)

In some ways, both men had similar humble beginnings. Mr. Adelson was the son of poor immigrants, and was working by the age of 12 selling newspapers. He went on to own the Sands Hotel, ultimately creating a huge corporation that includes the Venetian and Palazzo in Vegas as well as multiple hotel casinos in Asia. A self made billionaire, he gave back to the Jewish world generously, having been taught by his father the importance of giving charity, even if you nothing. Mr. Adelson sponsored schools, hospitals, and more. He personally gave over 140 million dollars to support Birthright and send Jewish youths to Israel, and in 2006 donated 25 million dollars to Yad Vashem. I don’t know his personal davening habits, but his philanthropy affected the entire Jewish world for generations to come.

Judah Hertz z”l just died on February 3, and although not as many people may have known his name, he too is an example of the righteous tzaddik. Similarly born in humble circumstances to Holocaust survivors, Mr. Hertz ultimately created a real estate empire through his Hertz Investment Group, founded in 1979. Through diligence, integrity, and hard work he acquired multiple properties, including the Hyatt Hotel in New Orleans, the California Mart in downtown Los Angeles, and by 2000 was the owner of about 3 million square feet in downtown Los Angeles. Like Mr. Adelson, he gave millions of dollars to multiple Jewish charities including Aleh (Israel’s largest residential area for children with severe physical and rehab care needs); Ohr Samayach, an Israeli yeshiva; the Simon Weisenthal Center in Jerusalem, and dozens more of Jewish schools and centers, as well as over two million dollars for the Ahmanson/UCLA Adult Congenital Heart Disease Center. His generosity was both great and intimate, serving on the World Chairman’s Council of the Jewish National Fund (a minimum donation of 1 million dollars), but also constantly giving to individuals in intimate, meaningful ways. A beautiful example of his personal giving is how he donated the Park Plaza Hotel for the use of the weddings of some of the children of Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz z”l. A small but meaningful gift for a great Rabbi’s family.

Both of these men epitomized the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov discussed above. They were in the cavalry, and powerfully supported the infantry of God’s army through their acts of charity and kindness towards Jewish causes. And they are the essence of some of the deeper teachings of this week’s Torah portion of Yitro.

Yitro (Jethro) was Moses’ father-in-law, and a priest of Midian…not a Hebrew. This week’s Torah portion, which contains the monumental act of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai, is named after him. It would seem at first glance that this portion should be named after Moses, who received the commandments; and yet it is named after a non-Hebrew!

Part of the reason we give such an honor to Yitro is found in this reading prior to the giving of the commandments. When Yitro sees how overwhelmed Moses is with all his duties, it is he who instructs Moses to delegate obligations to others (Ex. 18:13-27) so that the Hebrews become a true community rather than just a cult of the personality. In Yitro’s great wisdom he teaches Moses the importance of every individual being responsible for their place in God’s spiritual army, and how each person is obligated and blessed to do their part…not the part of anyone else. Yitro’s wisdom was great, but there is another reason we give him such honor as well

When Moses was wandering after leaving Egypt (and before his transcendent experience at the burning bush), it was Yitro’s kindness that allowed Moses to develop into who he was meant to be. For 40 years Moses lived in Yitro’s camp, serving as a shepherd for Yitro’s flocks. Yitro’s support of Moses in this physical world through his righteous actions created the opportunity for Moses to become the greatest leader of our people.

Yitro’s righteous giving to Moses allowed Moses to become the man who would directly receive the 10 commandments. And so, we name this great portion after him rather than after Moses, who was there at Sinai because of Yitro’s support earlier on.

In the same way, how many tens of thousands of people have directly benefited over the last decades because of the righteous actions of Messrs. Adelson and Hertz? How many people’s physical lives were saved through their charity? How many scholars, schools, centers, and organizations exist because of their kindness? Like Yitro, they are to be remembered, respected and emulated.

Yitro, Judah Hertz, and Sheldon Adelson all had the wisdom, courage, and passion to give generously of their wisdom and finances in order to support the Jewish world. They are the models of being in the cavalry of God’s spiritual army; and they each created blessings for the Jewish world that will be felt for decades if not longer.

May we all have the wisdom to see where we truly belong in the Jewish community world; and may we all have the courage to give passionately of our gifts. In so doing, may we all see a time when every Jewish community is strong and stable; where every Jew does exactly what is needed of him; and where each of us work in harmony to create light, harmony, and peace in the world.

B’shalom, and in memory of Judah Hertz and Sheldon Adelson, May Their Memories be a Blessing

Rabbi Michael Barclay February 4, 2021 22nd of Shvat, 5781

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