Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Lesson in How to Cook Soup

A Tribute to Rabbi Akiva Greenberg and Rabbi Ben Zion Apter

By Dovid Sears 

Last Shabbos (Parshas Emor) the world lost a beautiful Jew—Rabbi Akiva Greenberg, teacher, spiritual advisor and friend to people from all walks of life, especially American baaley teshuvah. During his 79 years, Reb Akiva served as the Rav of Modi’in for Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s community, taught baaley teshuvah at the Hadar HaTorah Yeshivah in Crown Heights, and also was a highly-regarded professor of sociology for many years at Brooklyn’s Touro College.  But one of his most memorable (and favorite) roles was sitting at the Melaveh Malkah table with a group of friends, young and old, singing zemiros and telling stories of tzaddikim with his inimitable joy and enthusiasm.  

One of the autobiographical stories he liked to tell recalled the days when he was a yeshivah bochur in Eretz Yisrael and had the zekhus to attend the legendary Polish Breslover chassid and baal menagen, Rabbi Ben Zion Apter. After having lost his family in the Holocaust, Reb Ben Zion had somehow made his way to Yerushalayim, where he was a favorite guest at many Chassidic courts. His refusal to give in to despair, his hischazkus (encouragement) of others who shared personal tragedies like his own, his witty Torah discussions and especially his treasure trove of Chassidisheh niggunim and lore were precious commodities in those difficult days.  

In the evenings Reb Ben Zion would often make his rounds to the local wedding halls, where he would entertain the guests and collect tzedakah for needy families. Totally removed from “olam hazeh,” he lived alone in a tiny room with little more than a bed, a table, kerosene heater and a hot plate.  

As Reb Akiva told the story, once he came to look in on the elderly chassid and found him in lying in bed due to some malady. For some reason that either Reb Akiva didn’t specify or which I have forgotten, he was a bit down in the dumps that day, but tried to conceal it from his mentor.  

“Can I make you something to eat or drink?” he offered.  

“Yes,” said Reb Ben Zion, “please boil some water for soup.” 

So Akiva put a small pan of water on the hot plate and added a bullion cube as the water came to a boil. Then he served Reb Ben Zion the hot soup.  

After reciting a brochah and taking a first taste, however, he spat out the hot broth—here Reb Akiva grimaced for dramatic effect and made an exclamation of disgust—“This is awful! What are you trying to do to me, Akiva, poison me? This is MORAH SHECHORAH SOUP, depression soup!” 

Aghast, the bochur didn’t know what to say.  

“Akiva,” the elder chassid turned interrogator, “Akiva –you’re depressed, which is the biggest ‘chassidisheh aveirah (sin).’ Come clean. Tell me what’s bothering you.” 

Somehow, he wheedled the story out of him. Then he stood up from his sickbed and announced, “It’s time for a rikkud (dance)!”  

Taking Akiva by the hands, he began to sing and dance around the room, adding some of his wedding antics, such as pretending to play the violin with his beard and then kicking up his heels. Soon Akiva was laughing so hard he couldn’t dance anymore. 

“Now,” Reb Ben Zion concluded, “you can make me a proper cup of soup!” 

May both of the master and student dance together again, with the tzaddikim in Gan Eden, amen. 

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