Next week’s parsha begins with the words, vayeitzei Yaakov miBe’er Sheva, vayeilech Charana, and Yaakov left Be’er Sheva, and he went to Charan.
Rashi famously asks, why does the Torah mention where Yaakov was leaving from? If he went to Charan, he most certainly left Be’er Sheva? Why does the Torah emphasize that Yaakov left?
And Rashi answers,
אֶלָּא מַגִּיד שֶׁיְּצִיאַת צַדִּיק מִן הַמָּקוֹם עוֹשָׂה רֹשֶׁם
To teach us that when a tzaddik leaves a place, it makes an impact
, שֶׁבִּזְמַן שֶׁהַצַּדִּיק בָּעִיר, הוּא הוֹדָהּ הוּא זִיוָהּ הוּא הֲדָרָהּ;
When the tzadik is in that place, he is its glory, its splendor, its beauty
יָצָא מִשָּׁם, פָּנָה הוֹדָהּ פָּנָה זִיוָהּ פָּנָה הֲדָרָהּ.
When he departs from there, there depart also its glory, its splendor, and its beauty.
The Belzer Rebbe once said, that every Holocaust survivor is a tzaddik, a righteous one. And if that’s the case, then there are no words that can properly convey and capture the essence of this Holocaust survivor, Max Jacob. With the passing of Max Jacob, the world has lost its glory, its splendor, and its beauty and so much more. Allow me to mention just a few of the many things we lost.
We lost a mentor – The amount of people who would turn to Max for advice would make you think he was a rebbe in his own right. And if you wouldn’t ask, he would still give you advice. Not because he wanted to be heard, but because he truly cared.
We lost a friend – Watching Max make his way into shul every Shabbos was a sight to behold. Stopping to say hello to every person along the way. He knew them by name, he knew their life story, and he had just the right word to say to them; encouragement, a joke, or just a nod. And it wasn’t limited to ages, he was friends with everyone, from the old-timers to the young adults and even to the children.
I know my children and so many others will miss Max putting his hand deep into that never-ending pocket of his and pulling out a treat and wishing them a Good Shabbos.
We lost a father figure – Elliot, you were his only son, but we are all orphans today. Max was our rock.
There is an apocryphal story told about Max – and the fact that there are apocryphal stories about him speaks volumes to his legendary status – the story is told that someone once came running frantically over to Max telling him that the shul had a huge crisis. And Max, slowly and deliberately, rolled up his sleeve, showed this man the numbers tattooed on his arm, and looked him in the eye, and said, “This is a problem. Now what do you want to talk about?” (It’s apocryphal because Max, despite having survived numerous camps, did not have a number on his arm.)
We lost a connection to our past – Max told me this week that for his 95th birthday he would go to New York to watch Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish and that he would dance to the song, Tradition. Max was the bearer of tradition, not just for the shul, but for the broader community. He was a link to Europe and he was a link to Sinai. He knew what was pass nisht, what was appropriate and what was inappropriate, not because of any specific text, but because he lived and breathed the Yiddishkeit of the alte heim, the Judaism of old. It was in his kishkes, it was who he was.
He took such great pride in the fact that he was shomer Shabbos, that he kept kosher, that he would dedicate time to learn Torah whenever he could, and that he attended minyan up until this last week.
We lost a gentleman – There was a disagreement once at a board meeting, and Max shared a view that was outvoted. Some time later, it became clear that Max was right, and I told him so. I told him that everyone who voted against him realized that they were wrong, and they were sorry. I’ll never forget this – Max gave me this incredulous look, and said, “Who cares who’s right and who’s wrong?! We made a decision, as a shul, and now we’ll do our best to deal with it.”
We lost a leader – For decades, he served as president of Ner Tamid, for decades, he served as the shul’s executive director. But none of those titles do justice to what he really was. He was our prince. Naflah ateres rosheinu, we have lost our leader. He lived and he breathed Ner Tamid. The words indebted fall pathetically short in describing what Ner Tamid owes Max Jacob. Elliot jokingly said that if he’d have to guess what his father is doing right now, he’s probably fundraising and recruiting new members to Ner Tamid up in heaven.
There is now a void that is simply unfillable. It is not humanly possible to do all that he did, certainly not the way that Max Jacob did it.
And somehow, despite his all-consuming passion for his beloved shul, we also lost a true exemplar of what it means to be a family man –
The pride that he had for his son, Elliot, was second to none. I don’t know how often he said it to you, but I could tell you that every time he mentioned your name, Elliot, he would beam with such pride.
The absolute adoration he had for his daughter-in-law, Harriet, and for his granddaughters… the way his face lit up when he saw his great-grandchildren… there are no words to describe it.
But most of all, the love, the dedication, the exquisite sensitivity that he demonstrated to his beloved wife, Irene was unmatchable. Refusing to allow her to live away from home, despite all the difficulties, and it was hard for him, it was so very hard for him. But in his matter-of-fact, Max Jacob way, he would just say, “this is what we do.” And that’s what he did. Watching him care for Irene was the most humbling marriage lesson I have ever received.
But in thinking about all the adjectives and accolades that we could attribute to Max, I think, I know, that Max would have most preferred to be recalled as ‘a survivor’. And that’s one more thing that the world has lost; we lost another survivor.
But not just any survivor.
A survivor of six camps, a survivor of typhoid, a survivor of Communist rule in Romania, a survivor of starting from scratch in a new country, a survivor of losing a larger-than-life older brother, a survivor of losing his beloved wife, and a survivor of cancer.
Each time Max had a setback, he would tell me, not only tell me but reassure me, “Rabbi, I am a survivor. I survived six camps, I could survive this.” And he did.
And that’s exactly what he told me last week in the hospital. “Rabbi, I will survive this.”
And yesterday as I thought about those words, I realized that he was wrong this time. He did not survive…
And then I realized that no, Max was right, and I was wrong – as usual.
Because I remembered a Purim night a few years ago, in my home, how we were sitting together singing Jewish songs. There were tens of men, women and children, laughing and celebrating this great Jewish holiday together. And at one point, Max, who was visibly moved, got up, and he proclaimed, “Hitler, where are you? Where are you??”
“I know where you are,” Max said. “You are six feet under. And I am here.”
And I realized, Max wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about his family. He was talking about Ner Tamid. He was talking about the Jewish People. Max did survive!
Because yes, with Max’s passing, the world’s glory, the world’s splendor, the world’s beauty, has all been diminished, but Max Jacob wasn’t just a person – Max was an icon, he represented to all of us what it means to be a Jew, what it means to live a committed and dedicated life, what it means to care for family no matter what, what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a mench, what it means to be a mentor, and what it means to be a friend. And those lessons are forever ours to cherish and to be inspired from.
The institutions that Max led and assisted with, the Council of Orthodox Presidents, the Montessori school which he helped establish, Etz Chaim, Rabbi Shlanger’s Yeshiva, and Derech Chaim, which he graciously housed in their early years, and of course, his beloved shul to which he dedicated his entire being – those institutions, they are all still here.
The family, the amazing family that he brought into this world; a family that is living by the ideals that he committed his life to, sitting right here.
Max was and IS a survivor because his legacy, his life work, will live on.
His soul is no doubt, right now, in the highest echelons of Heaven, a place reserved for true tzadikim. He is reunited with the many in his family who did not survive and to whom he dedicated his life, he is reunited with his wife, with his brother, and he is looking out at all of us, asking us to maintain the ideals and the values to which he lived his life, ensuring that Max Jacob, the survivor, survives yet again.
T’hei nishmoso tz’rura biTzror haChaim. May his soul be bound in the Eternal Bond of life.