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The Power of Pickled Tomatoes

May 9, 2009 | by

A great sage and leader of American Jewry teaches a lesson about small acts of caring.

It is impossible to say enough about Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, who died two years ago on the 17th of Tammuz. He was a gifted scholar and mentor for many. He answered questions day and night, comforted those in need, and invoked the name of God at gatherings all over the world.

At his funeral, one speaker after another praised his unselfish service. I
agreed with every word I heard that somber day on the campus of Ner
Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Then one of his students said
something that confused me.

"He never asked anything of us," he said, "because he didn't need

What about the pickled tomatoes, I thought.

Seven years ago, Rabbi Weinberg was visiting his family for a simcha in
Atlanta. On Friday afternoon, I came to the house where he was staying
and asked his daughter, my dear friend, "Do you need anything for

"No, thank you," she replied. "We have everything."

Then I asked another family member.

She also shook her head. "Thanks anyway."

I started walking toward the door when I heard a low, deep voice that
stopped me. "You can get me something."

I turned around and realized that Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the Rosh
Yeshiva of Ner Israel, was asking me to buy him something for Shabbos. I
could hardly believe it.

"Of course!" I said, trembling with excitement. "What would the Rosh
Yeshiva like?"

"You can get me pickled tomatoes."

"Pickled tomatoes?" I repeated. "Anything else?"

"Just pickled tomatoes," the rabbi said and smiled.

Hurriedly, I left the house, got in my car, and floated to the supermarket. I
was on an errand for Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, a man who was respected
not only in Baltimore and Atlanta but all over the world. And I was going to
help make his Shabbos special by providing the pickled tomatoes.

After I picked out the most expensive kosher pickled tomatoes I could find,
I rushed back to the house to fulfill the rabbi's request. For a rabbi like
this, I bought not one, but two jars of pickled tomatoes and left them at the
door. During the next few years, each time Rabbi Weinberg was in Atlanta,
or I was in Baltimore, I tried to deliver two jars of what I thought must be his
favorite food.

Once when I was out of town, I sent my oldest son. When Rabbi Weinberg
opened the door and saw my son standing there clutching two jars of pickled tomatoes, he laughed loudly.

Laughter and joy were a big part of the Rabbi Weinberg's demeanor,
especially at the end of a serious conversation. He'd always lift his voice
and practically sing out a blessing over the phone. I had many serious
phone conversations over the years, as Rabbi Weinberg and I developed a
relationship, partly due to the pickled tomatoes.

Then Rabbi Weinberg got sick. I bought several get well cards, but every
time I read them at home, I decided not to mail them. Finally, I realized
that an ordinary get well card wasn't appropriate for a beyond-ordinary
rabbi. But I wanted him to know that I cared. So I called a good friend in
Baltimore who delivered two jars of pickled tomatoes from me to my rabbi --
for the very last time.

Last year, as his first yartzeit was approaching, I thought about his funeral
and the student's comment that Rabbi Weinberg never asked for anything.
Why had he asked me for the pickled tomatoes?

I recreated the scene in my mind from years before: visiting my friend,
Rabbi Weinberg's daughter, on Friday afternoon, hoping that she might
need some help for Shabbos. But she didn't; neither did anyone else.
Rabbi Weinberg asked for pickled tomatoes.

In the middle of a family gathering, he reached out to help a fellow Jew.

Now I understood. He didn't need them. I was the one who needed

Rabbi Weinberg, in his wisdom, sensed that I needed to be needed. So in
the middle of a family gathering, he reached out to help a fellow Jew.

Did Rabbi Weinberg really enjoy pickled tomatoes on Shabbos? I'll never
know. What I do know is that this rabbi was more special than I realized.
As the student said at the funeral, he never wanted anything for himself,
only for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, answered our questions, strengthened our belief
in God, and made us feel needed. May his memory be for a blessing.

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