Friday, August 05, 2005

Remembering Rashi - 29 Tammuz


Chevra -

Today - 29 Tammuz / 5 August - marks the 900th anniversary of Rashi's passing: his Jahrzeit. Unlike other cultures, who mark the day of a person's birth, we commemorate the day of a person's passing. Birth is beyond our control. What counts is not the fact that we come into the world, a process over which we have no influence, but the state in which we leave the world.

There is a tale told of a man who rushed into a burning building and rescued a young boy, at great peril to his own life and safety. Once outside, the boy embraced the stranger and said, "Thank you for saving my life. How can I ever repay you?" The man looked into the lad's eyes and said, "Just make sure it was worth saving."

In Kohelet we read: "A Name is better than pleasant oil, and the day of death rather than the day of birth." The day and manner of our birth is like an olive: it springs from the bud in its own time. If not tended, it will ripen, then rot, dry and shrivel to nothing.

A pleasant oil is the result of intense care, careful tending, and a complex process. The olive must be properly shaded, tested daily to determine the precise moment to be harvested. It must be pressed and the oil extracted at just the right rate to cull only the finest first pressing. The oil must be mixed with spices in the right proportions, mixed neither too quickly nor too slowly, and stored at the right temperature and for the right period to ensure full development of the bouquet. The Gemara in Berashot tells of a particular spiced oil that was so highly prized it warranted a special Beracha.

What is the message? Why does the text compare fine oil to the day of a person's death?

Just as it takes extraordinary care - from cultivating the tree all the way through to the exact timing and temperature of the storage process - to ensure the oil reaches its optimal state of fragrance and pleasantness, so does the life each of us leads require constant tending: first, from our parents and teachers. Then, if we are fortunate and wise, we take on ourselves the responsibility to continue to perfect ourselves throughout our days.

Good is the day of a person's death. Good is the world Rashi left behind him 900 years ago on this day. Blessed is Rashi, who merited leaving the world on the eve of the Nine Days - immediately before the saddest period in our calendar.

David HaMelech died on Shabbat. And so, when Shabbat left the world, the sadness of saying farewell to Shabbat for the week was greatly augmented by the sadness of saying farewell to the King of Israel.

The Gemara relates that, when King David died, his son Shlomo was instructed to leave the body where it lay, that he could not move the corpse until Shabbat was over. The only way he could move it was to place a loaf of bread upon it, then, using the corpse of the King of Israel as a tray, carry the bread indoors. Clearly, we do not worship death, nor to we honor the earthly remains. Once we die, the greatness - or the pettiness - of the life we have lived becomes our memorial, our legacy and our shrine. King David's legacy was the greatness of the life he lived, both spiritually - as a man who struggled constantly and with great internal self-honesty, to perfect himself in the ways of Torah, as well as politically, as a man who strove to maintain the unity of Klal Israel. His son Shglomo, so relates the Gemara, says after his death: I see it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion.

Rashi died on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Av. And so the sadness of this period of mourning for our Nation is augmented by the sadness of losing one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual guides of Klal Israel. Yet, both the memory of King David and the memory of Rashi are a sweetness and a blessing for all our generations.

Light a Jahrzeit candle today. Light an extra candle for Shabbat tonight. Learn a little extra Torah this Shabbat and share in the blessing of Rashi's memory. Find a fascinating Rashi on the Parasha, or on Eicha - the Book of Lamentations, that we will read BS"D next week at Tisha Be'Av - and dwell on his insights.

Better than pleasant oil is the blessing of a Good Name. It is within our power - each and every one of us, BS"D - to ensure that, at the day of our passing ['ad me'ah ve'esrim] we leave this world a better place than when we entered. We have even been given a step-by-step How-To. A User's Manual. It is Torah, and Rashi is as good a guide as we will ever find.

Kids, please - please! - try this at home!

Shabbat Shalom.

Yours for a better world.


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