Of Travels and a Traveler Travels. They weary the spirit and wear down the wanderer. And, yet, travels, they bring one to new destinations and horizons, not just in locale, but also in temperament, opportunity and greatness.
There are travels one elects to undergo, the jaunt to the mountains, the tour of the ancient ruins, and even the self-afflicted exile travels taken on by many of the Chassidic masters. Then there are those travels which Heaven thrusts upon a person, like those forced upon Father Avraham, where the sages teach us that G-d moved Avraham from place to place, just as someone might move an open vial of perfume to waft its scent far and wide.
One such traveler was Rabbi Eliezer ben Eliyahu Ashkenazi.
His father was a doctor in Italy who imparted to his son the arts of healing. His father imparted to him his first Torah thoughts and foundation. From there, he went to learn in Salonica where he got his learning style and rabbinic guidance that set him on the course of being a Talmudic master, one of the greats of his generation whose Halachic responses were requested from everyone far and wide.
Ordained as a rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer ended up next in Egypt. He became a Rav there, and subsequently minister to the Sultan (from 1538-1560). You might question how that happened, but Rav Eliezer was unique. He refused to take monies from the rabbinate in accordance with the Mishna that says Torah should not be used to enrich oneself. Rabbi Eliezer got himself trained to be able to do quite a few occupations, including that of a goldsmith and master jeweler. Multi-lingual, accomplished and brilliant, it was no wonder that he became close to the Sultan. The anti-Semites in Egypt could not swallow this…and under cover of night, after 22 years of living in Egypt, Rav Ashkenazi had to flee quickly.
‘Tis wearying even to tell the tale, friends. From Egypt, Rav Ashkenazi ended up in Turkey, dependent on a poor widow for a space to sleep and meager food to eat. He eventually became the chess companion to the ruler of Turkey. However, here, once again, he fled quickly, this time to Famagusta, Cypress. Venice was next, then to Bohemia, then to Italy and then finally, finally to Poland.
In his commentary to the Hagadda, Rav Ashkenazi says that when we say the “Ve’hee She’amda” we are saying that the fact that Hashem allowed our nation to survive is what gives us hope and is our mainstay, for our continued being is nothing short of a miracle. He could have also been talking about his life.
But let us focus on only one of his many journeys, the one that happened from Egypt to Turkey. Rav Ashkenazi had been given a secret to his life by his rebbe in Italy. The Rav had instructed his student that pride comes before fall, and that any time he felt he had reached a pinnacle of heights, he ought to retreat before being knocked off his perch. It saved the Rav’s life time and time again, with him moving just in the nick of time, right before anti-Semites tried killing him.
Rav Ashkenazi had been doing well in Egypt. 22 years of tranquility and success. It was at that time that he had a really close relationship with the king who had given, as a token of the friendship, an intricate precious ring to Rav Ashkenazi. One day, the king threw a banquet for all his ministers, but singled out Rav Ashkenazi to sit on his right side. The Rav felt the daggers of hate from all sides from all the other ministers.
He experienced one of them trying to “accidentally” destroy his ring. He knew it was a matter of time until they plotted his death. As soon as Rav Ashkenazi left that dazzling banquet where he had been so honored, he went straight home, packed a suitcase with monies and jewels and got on the first ship out of Egypt. Just in the right time, for by the next morning, the King’s henchmen came calling, on a mission to execute Rav Ashkenazi.
The ship set sail. Suitcase beside him, his entry to business secure, Rav Ashkenazi was looking forward to an easy relocation. But Hashem had other plans. A huge wind blew in a monster storm, and soon, there was no ship left to talk about. Just a shipwrecked Rav Ashkenazi on a lone plank of wood, the only survivor of the entire ship. Miraculously, Rav Ashkenazi ended up in Turkey, but with no suitcase of jewels to pave his entrance. That suitcase was on the bottom of the sea floor, a curiosity for the fish.
Like Eliyahu before him, Rabbi Ashkenazi ended up sustained through the graciousness of a widow. (Every wonder, like I do, why the poorest and most alone are the most hospitable and giving?!)
Eventually, after some time, Rav Ashkenazi heard an announcement that the ruler of Turkey was looking for a chess champion to play against. The Rav presented himself at the royal palaces, and soon got that job, which again allowed the rabbi to be supported with honor and dignity.
Yup, we are talking about travels and journeys, since we discussed that this week in the weekly Torah portion. But we are also discussing the fact that one should never come to depend upon the plans and monies we have set in store. For with one crashing wave, with one gale wind, all that we set up for ourselves can drown in the depths of G-d’s plans. It is the Torah learning, the knowledge we accumulate, and the faith that all we are undergoing has a Master Plan, that can enable, even a shipwrecked survivor to find solid ground again.
May all of us find meaning in our travels, hope in our storms, and solid ground to rebuild on when needed.