24 Kislev B’SD
In memory of our dear friend,
Shimon ben Yehoshua Askanazi, zecher tzadik livracha.
Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
Were the world of parchment made,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love
Of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor would the scroll
Contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Akdamut Prayer – David de Sola Pool’s translation
The great Talmudist, Rabbi Shimon, states that the final eight verses of the Torah discussing the death of Moshe were written with his tears. Today, my words too will have a well of tears intermingled with ink. As I reflect on our own Shimon Hatzadik, Shimon the righteous Askanazi, who sadly left this world eight days before Chanukah, I can think only of the miracle of his life. His luminance gained in intensity and his lights kept burning brightly for eight decades after the Holocaust. He lived through the “gehinom,” the hell of Auschwitz and the torment of the Nazis, and not only survived, but thrived.
The Maharal of Prague writes that the number seven symbolizes nature as in seven days of the week, seven years of the sabbatical cycle, and the average span of life is seventy years. Eight, however, represents that which suspends nature or what we would term miraculous. Hence, the cruse of oil that burned for eight days instead of one and the victory of the Maccabees are both considered miraculous events that are celebrated through the number eight. Shimon was an enigma; a man laden with heinous scars of torture, humiliation, and the death of his family, but he never succumbed to the depravity of revenge. If seventy is natural and eighty is miraculous, then Shimon transcended them both. He was clad in human garb but certainly attained angelic heights. He was the miracle that kept on giving.
The Prophet Samuel wrote: Eich naflu giborim, vayovdu klei milchamah, “How the mighty have fallen and the weapons of war have been lost.” Yet for Shimon, even this was untrue. His life was a dichotomy. He loved life and living but could never forget what happened. He chose to recite the mourners Kaddish for the past seventy years, but had a smile that radiated with warmth and friendship. Logically, we all would have understood had he been morose and disillusioned with God, but that was not Shimon. No one would have criticized him had he abandoned faith in humanity and God, but miraculously he chose the opposite path. The Psalmist wrote: Kol haneshama tehallel Kah – with all our soul we should praise God. The Talmud teaches that Hebrew word neshama – soul can also be translated as breath and may be understood, as with every breath a human takes he should praise God. Shimon was the embodiment of kol haneshama – he praised God with every fiber of his body. His davening was unlike anyone else and his devotion and passion to the shul was second to none. At 98 years of age he still attended daily services at 6:45am (an hour and fifteen minutes before services). He would quote verbatim the words of Pirkei Avot and steadfastly protected and maintained the customs of Salonika. Even at his funeral he requested that the customs of Salonika be followed. He may have been legally blind but his perception and comprehension was 20/20. He would sing the Hebrew prayers of his youth and dance (while seated) with the Torah on Simchat Torah. He was willing to share his world and open his heart in passionate plea for the next generation to keep the memories alive.
The Midrash says that Joseph gained the strength to overcome his desire for Potiphar’s wife by visualizing in his mind an image of his father. I have no doubt that the presence of Shimon ben Yehoshua Askanazi will also always be present, hovering over his shul and continuing his mission of being a guiding light to all who knew him. The Talmud describes the relationship between the earlier and latter day sages by stating: im hem k’malachim, anu k’bnei adam – if they are angelic then we may be human. Indeed, all who knew Shimon realized his uniqueness and angelic nature.
May his memory be a blessing to all who knew him and may his legacy be carried forth for the generations to come.
Rabbi Jack Engel