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 anything."
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 Shabbos?"
"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 something.
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.