Weekly Chasidic Story #809 (s5773-38 / 20 Sivan 5773)
The Chief Rabbi of Israel and Napoleon’s Throne
When Rabbi Mordechi Eliyahu was shown the throne of Napoleon at the French National Museum, he asked if it was for sale!
Connection: Seasonal – the 3rd yahrzeit of Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu.
In the early 2000’s, Rabbi Mordechi Eliahu, the Rishon L’Tzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel), received an official invitation from the President of France, Jacques Chirac, to visit his country.
Mr. Chirac, before ascending to the office of President in 1995, had previously served two terms as Prime Minister and nearly 20 years as the Mayor of Paris. Throughout his career he was known as a hard line, pro-Arab leader who constantly pushed Israel to cede territories to the Palestinians, thus bringing French-Israeli relations to an all time low.
Rabbi Eliahu, on the other hand, was a very outspoken individual with little patience for the formalities that are the essence of French culture. So the members of the Israeli embassy there were understandably very tense and apprehensive that the Rabbi might say or do something that would make things even worse than they were.
However, when the Rabbi arrived they soon calmed down. His outgoing and friendly demeanor put everyone at ease, and it seemed obvious to the embassy staff that the meeting would be nothing other than formalities and smiles.
But they were wrong. For instance, at the first leg of the official tour when they visited the French National Museum, the Rabbi demonstrated what seemed to be a shameful ignorance and insensitivity to French heritage.
When he was shown the throne of Napoleon he asked if it was for sale; and if so, for how much; and how long ago did Napoleon live! Then when shown one of the rooms of King Louis the Fourteenth he asked if this King was a moral person, which caused everyone to blush and even laugh behind the Rabbi’s back.
The tour guide explained that the chair of Napoleon was of great historical and national importance and was certainly not for sale and regarding King Louis; although he was not known to be a particularly moral person, nevertheless France is proud of him as part of their heritage.
Afterwards they returned to the office of the president for an official ceremony where, after many introductions and formalities, Rabbi Eliahu was invited to say a few words that would be simultaneously translated into French.
Rabbi Eliahu began by describing in detail his tour of the museum and his questions that caused everyone to laugh.
At this point Rabbinit Tzivia realized that the translator was not paying attention to every word her husband was saying and, realizing that her husband was making some sort of point, requested that the chief Rabbi of France, who was also present, should take over the task.
Rabbi Eliahu continued, “In my visit to the Museum I learned that the chair of Napoleon was not for sale because of its historical importance and that King Louis, although not a man of pure character is nevertheless revered and honored as a French hero.
“I noticed that you expected me to honor these men also and were surprised when I did not do so, even though I am not French and do not even live in France.
“If so, my dear friends, I ask the same thing from you: We Jews also have our founders: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob but not of two or three hundred years ago and of questionable character like yours but of three and four thousand years ago and of impeccable integrity and selflessness.
“Is it too much to ask that just as you expect us to respect your founders and kings, so you should in turn respect ours?
“For instance, over three thousand years ago Moses brought us to the Promised Land and some four hundred years afterwards our King David and King Solomon secured the city of Jerusalem.
“That is our history.
“Does it not make simple sense that just as you expect us to honor your heritage so you should honor ours? If the chair of Napoleon is not for sale then how can you expect us to sell parts of Israel and Jerusalem?”
The members of the Israeli embassy were in panic: this was exactly what they were afraid of! In the moment of silence that followed they were certain that Chirac would simply storm out of the room in a fury.
But they were in for a big surprise. All of the French officials present, including the President himself, stood and applauded!
Then Chirac warmly shook the Rabbi’s hand, and immediately called one of his assistants and whispered something in his ear. The man left the room hurriedly and returned in just seconds with a small, velvet box.
Chirac asked for silence and then announced, “This medallion is usually reserved for visiting heads of state, but I have never heard anyone speak such clever words like these. They so impressed me that I am presenting this to you.” And when he finished speaking the crowd gave the rabbi another standing ovation.
Source: Adapted and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition of Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on //ohrtmimim.org/torah (based onSichat HaShavua #1331).
Rabbi Mordechai-Tzemach (ben Suliman & Mazal) Eliyahu (1929-25 Sivan 2010), the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, was born in Iraq. A noted sage in all areas of Torah study, as well as a significant kabbalist, he was considered to be one of the leading authorities on Jewish law in Israel. His son, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, is currently the Chief Rabbi of Tsfat.
Connection: Seasonal – the 3rd yahrzeit of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.