Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Genius of Hospitality: In Memory of Shmully Moskowitz, A"H

The following speech in memory of Shmully Moskowitz was delivered at SBH, Shabbat, Parashat Matot-Masei, 5777.
I am so honored to have been asked to speak in memory of my dear friend Shmully, a”h. My earliest memories of Shmully go back more than twenty years ago, when I was still studying in yeshiva. Though he was no longer “officially” studying in the yeshiva, he would frequently come to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chait’s shiur. No matter what the topic, or how complex the discussion, Shmully was “holding,” as we say in yeshivish. Most of the shiur would be a dialogue between Shmully and Rabbi Chait that very few people were able to follow. We would simply watch and behold the wonder of Shmully’s agile and profound mind.
Though he was undoubtedly a genius, what was so unique about Shmully was his gift with people. He possessed a kind of openness and ease of relating that anyone who was blessed to know him could tell you countless stories about. There was no one he would not receive with סבר פנים יפות—with a welcoming and embracing smile. If each of us could emulate even a fraction of Shmully’s openness and receptivity to others the world would certainly be a better place.
I hope that my remarks will be an honor to his memory.
We are now in the middle of the three weeks period—Bein haMeitzarim, between the straits—leading up to Tisha B’av on which we commemorate the destruction of, principally, the first and second Temples. Close to 40 years before the destruction of the first Temple, Yoshiyahu haMelekh led a massive campaign to purge the Land of idolatry and return the people to the service of Hashem. Sadly, his son, Yehoyakim, did not continue in his footsteps and through his wicked deeds sealed the decree for destruction. The following two deeply connected, yet diametrically opposed stories are about the seminal events of these two men’s lives.
Story #1: (Melakhim II, 22)
In the eighteenth year of Yoshiyahu’s rule, while undergoing repairs to the Temple, Shafan the Sofer/scribe came to the king with some interesting news…
            “Chilikiya the Kohen has given me a Sefer/scroll,” he announced.
Chilkiya read the scroll before the king—it was the Torah. What part of the Torah he read him, we do not know. (Rashi tells us he read from the curses listed in Sefer Devarim—specifically the verse (28:36) which says, “G-d shall cast out you and the king you place over you to a nation you and your fathers never knew—and there you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone.”) Whatever he read to him, Yoshiyahu was shaken. Awakened from a spiritual slumber he was horrified to see how low he and the people had descended—how steeped in pagan worship and immoral behavior. Mortified, he tore his garments. He commanded a contingent including Chilkiya the Kohen Gadol, Shafan the Sofer and Shafan’s son Achikam to, and I quote, “seek out Hashem for me, the people, and all of Yehuda, concerning the ספר הנמצא הזה, the sefer that has been found, for great is the wrath of Hashem against us for our forefathers have not paid heed to the words of this sefer to do everything that is written concerning us.” (22:13)
What followed was a religious reformation like no other. Yoshiyahu haMelekh was utterly transformed. He gathered all the people and read the Torah in a massive gathering in which he and the people rededicated themselves to the covenant. He removed the pagan icons and paraphernalia that had been placed in the Temple and idolatry and all form of pagan practice were purged from the land.

Story #2: (Yirmiyahu 36)
Now we must fast forward roughly 17 years to the fourth year of Yoshiyahu’s son Yehoyakim’s reign—now less than 30 years before the destruction.
Yirmiyahu was instructed by Hashem to take a מגילת ספר/a scroll and have Barukh, the Sofer, write all of his prophecies concerning Yisrael, Yehuda and the other nations…perhaps the people would, as a result, repent.
Radak, the pashtan, suggests this marked the beginning of Yirmiyahu’s literary output—he was instructed to write most of what we now call Sefer Yirmiyahu. The Chakhamim suggest that he was bidden to compose Megillat Eicha—the Book of Lamentations. Either way, same message: the end was neigh.
A short time later a public fast day was called. This was the opportunity they’d been waiting for. Barukh brought the sefer to Yerushalayim and, in the chamber of Gemaryahu the son of Shafan (the Sofer from the previous story), by the entrance to the Temple, he began to publically read the words of Yirmiyahu.
Word got out. The king’s men heard about Barukh’s provocations.  They called upon him to bring the scroll. They were deeply frightened and informed him that they would bring a report back to the king. After verifying the authenticity of the scroll with Barukh they put it away for safekeeping and sent Barukh away to safety.
They brought the report to the king and he bid them to bring it so he could hear for himself.
It was Kislev—the middle of the winter—and the king was sitting in his winter-house, a fire burning in the fireplace. As he warmed himself by the flame Yehudi (that’s the name of one of his men) arrived with the scroll.             
After Yehudi read a few verses, the king took a scribe's knife and tore out the offending words and threw them onto the fire. He read a few more verses and repeated the same horrific act over and over until the entire roll was nothing more than ash.
No one, we are told, tore their garments in response.
The king commanded his men to arrest Baruch the scribe and Yirmiyahu the prophet, but Hashem had hidden them.
Yoshiyahu tore his garments upon hearing the words of the Sefer haTorah. Yehoyakim tore the scroll of Yirimiyahu, one paragraph at a time. Yoshiyahu sought out Hashem. Yehoyakim tried to take Yirmiyahu and Barukh prisoner. Yoshiyahu was moved by the Word of Hashem to transform his kingdom. Yehoyakim set Hashem’s Word to flame.[1]
As I mentioned before, the Chakhamim said that the scroll was, in fact, the book of Eicha/Lamentations—Yirmiyahu’s heartbreaking dirge on the destruction of the Temple and the kingdom of Judah. The Chakhamim tell the following elaboration of our story in the Gemara, Mo’ed Katan, 26a:
They said to Yehoyakim: Yirmiyahu has written a book of Lamentations!
He said to them: What is written in it? 
They read the first verse: “Oh, How the city sits solitary” (Lamentations 1:1). 
He said: I am king. 
They read the second verse: “Weeps, she weeps in the night” (Lamentations 1:2).
He said: I am king.
They read the third verse: “Judah is gone into exile due to affliction” (Lamentations 1:3).
He said: I am king. 
They read the fourth verse: “The ways of Zion do mourn” (Lamentations 1:4).
He said: I am king. 
They read the next verse: “Her adversaries have become the chief”(Lamentations 1:5), (meaning, the king will be removed from power)
Once he heard this, he said to them: Who said this?
They said to him (from the next pasuk): “For Hashem has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lamentations 1:5). 
Immediately, he cut out all the names of Hashem from the book and burned them in fire.[2]  
Yehoyakim could not stand to have his power challenged—he was the king! He could not bear the imposition of the Word of Hashem. He could not let it upset the illusion of his impeachable power.
In contrast, Yoshiyahu was open to critique—he did not suffer from a delusion of grandeur. He humbled himself before the Word of Hashem and utterly abandoned his old lifestyle and fully embraced the unsettling truth that all of his decisions up until that point had been a horrible mistake.
I believe there is a deep connection between one’s receptivity to the Word of Hashem and one’s receptivity to others. The Prophetic Word disrupts and shatters one’s previously held conceptions. The one who thinks he is king cannot accept any disruption to his comfort—neither from Hashem nor from another man. One must discomfort oneself to accommodate the other—to be hospitable, to place another’s needs and wants before your own. And this is the key: to be hospitable to another human is the ultimate sign of the readiness of one’s heart to be hospitable/to welcome the Word of Hashem—and, vice-versa: to welcome the Word of Hashem is to welcome the other.
This should not come as a surprise—this is Avraham, the man whose absolute devotion to G-d came in tandem with his devotion to his fellow man. As Hashem says before revealing his plan to destroy Sedom: “I know him—such that he will command his children after him to keep the way of Hashem—to do tzedaka/righteousness and mishpat/justice.” As Yishayahu said, “צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה”—“Zion shall be redeemed with justice—and they that shall return with righteousness.” (Yishayahu 1:27)
This was also Shmully. He had an unparalleled receptivity to the Word of Hashem and to people. His genius was in his hospitality—his ability to welcome in the other and the ultimate Other. He was a true student of Avraham. May his memory be a blessing to us all.

[1] The first place I encountered the comparison of these two stories is a brief paragraph in Lau, Binyamin. Jeremiah: the Fate of a Prophet. Maggid Books, 2013. p. 113.
[2] Translation adapted from the The William Davidson digital edition of the Koren Noé Talmud, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Even-Israel.