Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



This morning, I want to tell you about 3 lovers—each a very different sort of love. The 1st story is a famous Chassidic story about a Jew named Yitzchak who came to the Seer of Lublin (d. 1815). Let me read it to you: Yitzchak cried, “Rebbe, help me! I’ve been married for 18 years. My wife and I still don’t have any children.”

          The Rebbe looked deeply into Yitzchak’s eyes and said, “Before you married your wife, do you remember that you were engaged to Rivkele and you abruptly broke off the engagement? Rivkele suffered greatly and you won’t be able to have children until you have obtained her forgiveness.”

          “But Rebbe! That was 18 years ago! I don’t even know where she is!”

          The Rebbe gave him a sharp look. “Take 10,000 rubles and go to the city fair in Leipzig. There you will find her.”

 For 3 months, Yitzchak searched the streets of Leipzig, looking at the face of every woman in every booth and in every arcade. But he couldn’t find her. Exhausted and miserable, Yitzchak walked the streets on the last afternoon of the fair. People were packing up and taking down their tents. Suddenly, a thunderstorm sent everyone scurrying for cover. Yitzchak took shelter under an awning, and a very beautiful young woman came under the canopy as well.

The girl looked at him with dark, penetrating eyes, “Yitzchak, why is it that whenever I come close to you, you move away?”

          “Gevalt,” cried Yitzchak, “Rivkele!”

          “Ah, you recognize me after all these years. That’s good. But you’re married now! Do you have any children?”

          Yitzchak fell to the ground and cried, “Rivkele, please forgive me for breaking my betrothal to you. I know it was wrong. Won’t you forgive me? It was so long ago . . .”

          “Yes,” said Rivkele, “18 years is a very long time. For some of us, it’s a lifetime. Oh, Yitzchak, how I loved you with a passion, and I still do. That is why I will forgive you, but I want you to do something for me in return. My brother, Nachum, is marrying off his daughter. He lives in a small village in Lithuania. He hasn’t a single penny for the wedding. The moment that you hand him 7,000 rubles to dower my niece, things will be right for you.”

          “I’ll do it, Rivkele.” Rivkele started to walk away into the night air. “Wait!” cried Yitzchak. “It’s getting dark and it’s raining. Can’t I accompany you somewhere?”

          Rivkele laughed a strange laugh and shook her head. “No,” she said, “Where I go, you can’t follow.”

 A few days later, Yitzchak arrived in the small Lithuanian village where Nachum lived. “I’ve brought you the money you need for your daughter’s wedding!” said Yitzchak.

          “Please! I don’t have the strength for crazy people today.  Go away!” 

          “But Rivkele, your sister, sent me to you!” Yitzchak shouted. “Why won’t you listen to me?

          “Now I know that you’re crazy!” cried Nachum. “My sister, Rivkele, died 18 years ago!”

          Yitzchak crumpled to the floor. “That can’t be true!”

          “Sure it’s true. My daughter is named after her! You don’t believe me? Go, look for yourself in the cemetery!”

          “Nachum! Nachum! Don’t you recognize me? I am Yitzchak, I was your sister’s fiancé 18 years ago.”

          “Of course, I remember you. After you broke off your engagement with my sister, she got very sick. She was so in love with you that she wouldn’t eat. The night of your marriage she died!”

 Yitzchak now understood the magnitude of his sin; the generosity of her forgiveness and the strength of Rivkele’s love for him; a love powerful enough to defy the laws of nature. Not even death could separate them. So Yitzchak gave Rivkele’s brother the 7,000 rubles. Shortly thereafter, he returned home to Lublin and his wife conceived their 1st child.

This story is about the hurt and the pain that love can bring 2 people. It’s about dying without saying the words that need to be said—without oing the deeds that need to be done. The story is about a love that is so strong that it can reach beyond the grave to set things right.

We are here today to remember our loved ones who have passed. For some of us there are things that we wanted to say to them before they died that went unsaid…or things we should have done that went undone. But that person is not beyond our reach. 

Like Yitzchak and Rivkele, perhaps today at Yizkor—when we believe the souls of our loved ones are with us in this sanctuary—perhaps words may be said and promises made that can set things right. Their love for us, and ours for them, can reach across the grave, for love is the strongest force in the world. Not even death can separate us from those whom we have loved in life. As Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs we read earlier tells us: Ki aza kamavet ahavah (Love is stronger than death)…Mayim rabim lo yuchlu l’chabot et haahava (Vast floods cannot quench love nor rivers drown it).

The 2nd love story is about Father Jacob—perhaps the 1st lover in the Torah. When he saw Rachel it was love at 1st sight. The Torah (Gen. 29:11) tells us, “When Jacob saw Rachel...he kissed her and broke into tears.” It was a kiss of passion, and the tears were tears of happiness. From that moment he longed only to be with Rachel forever—in life and in death. But as Rashi comments, these tears were also tears of sadness because he prophetically foresaw that they would not be buried together.

Rashi later further elaborates in comment on a conversation Jacob had with his son Joseph (Gen. 48:7): “I buried her on the road to Efrat because as much as we loved each other, and as much as I wanted to be buried next to her, she loved you, my son, even more. Rachel always wanted children. You and your brother, Binyamin, were the answer to her prayers. I buried her there on the road, because someday in the future, Nebuchadnezzar will take the Jewish people into exile, they will pass Rachel’s grave. They will be alone. They will be wounded and dying, and she will come up from her grave and cry and ask mercy for her children.”

Some of us have come here today to remember a mother and a father who loved us in the way that Rachel loved her children. We are here today to recite Yizkor because we know that this love did not die with our parent. That this love reaches out across the barriers of time and space and warms us and comforts us, just like Rachel’s love for her children.  Their souls cry when we’re in pain. They rejoice when life is good to us—even from their heavenly abode—Ki aza kamavet ahava (For love is stronger than death).

There is one more type of love that reaches beyond our world. It is not romantic love, nor even the love of a parent for a child. It is a deep love, maybe the deepest. Let me read you the 3rd and final story:

The Maggid of Koshnitz witnessed the mass murder of his people by the Nazis. He walked with pride and dignity to the town square at the command of the Nazis. He walked in a lilting rhythm, and his people imitated him. He walked with a smile on his face and they tried to smile. They were brave. They knew what fate awaited them. One student could not conform. He shuffled along the line of people, despondent, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. The sound of the Nazi soldiers' whips crackled through the still air, forcing the doomed people forward. The student could not control himself any longer. Finally, he screamed, “Rebbe, why are you smiling as we are being led to our death?”

          The Maggid of Koshnitz turned to his anguished student and answered gently, “Today is a beautiful day. I saw the sun rise. I recited the Modeh Ani and thanked the Almighty for restoring my soul, for creating me a Jew, for allowing me to pray one last time in Tallis and Tefillin. I know that we are being led to our death, but do you think that this is really the end of the Jewish people? I know that the Jewish people will survive and that our ashes will purify this world. I love Hashem, and now like Rabbi Akiva, I will fulfill the Mitzvah of V’ahavta eyt Hashem Elokecha (You shall love the Lrd your Gd with all heart, with all your soul and with all your might). Isn’t that reason to smile?”

          This, however, is only half the story. There was another exceptional Jew in Koshnitz—the mayor who had converted to Christianity when he saw the Nazis rise to power. The Jewish community rejected him as a traitor. The Nazis, on the other hand, considered him a Jew. He was commanded to order every Jew in Koshnitz to come to the synagogue. The huddled mass of Jews stood in the synagogue while the Stormtroopers stood outside with their whips and guns. 

A Nazi general goose-stepped over to the mayor. “Jew,” he shouted, “say that the word of Moses is not true, and I will let you live. Otherwise, you will join your people inside the synagogue.”

          The mayor shook his head. “No,” he said, “I will not!”       

          The Nazi general could not understand why the mayor would not do his bidding to save his life. “Push him in with his companions,” the general screamed. “He is one of them.”

          2 soldiers grabbed the mayor and shoved him into the synagogue. Then they bolted the door and set the shul ablaze. Slowly, the flames crept up the sides of the synagogue. The Jews understood that the mayor was not a traitor. They wondered if there would ever be another Jew like him again, a Jew who was willing to die with his people when he could have saved his own life.

  Mayim rabim lo yuchlu l’chabot et haahava (Vast floods cannot quench love nor rivers drown it).

My friends, nothing can stop us from loving Gd—not persecution, not execution, not even a Holocaust. Our love for Gd, for the Jewish people and our traditions is stronger than death—even than our own death.      

Yizkor beckons. We’ve come to remember; to touch that love which comes to us from beyond the grave. It’s a love that knows no boundaries or time. It’s the love of a soul mate, a parent’s love for a child. It’s our love of Gd. Let this love give us strength and courage. May this love enable us to live our own lives deeper state of love. And let us always remember the words of Shir Hashirim: Ki aza kamavet ahava (that love is stronger than death). Amen!

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