Nefesh B'Nefesh, Swing and a Miss...

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So, we had our first meeting with our friendly Nefesh B'Nefesh representative. When we got to the shul where the meetings were being held, we had to call a number in order to gain entrance, and finally found the room in which the interviews were being held.

But before I go any further, I have a story for you in order to properly set the stage for our experience:

In the mid-16th century, a Marrano Jew from Portugal moved to the holy city of Sefad. Deprived of the opportunity to do so in his youth, he was overjoyed to finally be able to practice the religion of his ancestors openly.

Years later, he heard a talk by the rabbi of the synagogue he attended about lechem hapanim, the "show-bread" which was offered in the Holy Temple each Friday before Shabbat (see Leviticus 24:5-9). After discussing the various laws and procedures governing the preparation of this offering and touching on its mystical significance, the rabbi bemoaned the fact that, because of our sins, we no longer had this ready means to propitiate G-d.

The Jew took these words to heart. When he arrived home, he asked his wife to prepare two special challahs on Friday. He related to her all the details he remembered from the lecture on show-bread. She should sift the flour thirteen times, knead it while she was in a state of ritual purity, and bake the dough very well in their oven. He told her that he wished to present these loaves as an offering to G-d; hopefully He would consider them an acceptable sacrifice, and eat them.

His wife loyally fulfilled his request, and early that Friday afternoon, when no one was likely to be in the shul, the man brought the loaves there under his cloak. He prayed and cried that G-d should look upon his offering with favor, and eat and enjoy the lovely, freshly baked bread. He went on and on, like an errant son begging his father for forgiveness. Then he placed the loaves, wrapped, in the Holy Ark, beneath the Torah scrolls, and quickly left for home.

The shammash (caretaker) of the shul arrived later that day to complete the preparations of the shul for the holy Shabbat. One of his duties was to check that the Torah scroll was rolled to the proper place for the reading the next morning. When he opened the Ark, he was surprised to see that a package had been neatly placed inside. He opened it, and there were two fine-looking challah loaves! He had no idea where they had come from, but he didn't think too much about it; he simply decided to take them home and eat them -- after all, they looked and smelled delicious!

And they were delicious. The caretaker was delighted with this unexpected fringe benefit of his job.

That evening, the Marrano waited impatiently for the end of the prayers. When everyone had left the shul, he approached the Ark in great trepidation, and swung open its doors. The loaves were not there! He was so happy. He hurried home to share his joy with his wife. He innocently proclaimed that G-d had not disdained the poor efforts of such insignificant people as themselves. Indeed, He had accepted their two loaves, and eaten them while they were still warm!

Therefore, he exhorted her, let us not be lazy, for we have no other way to honor Him, and we see that He loves our bread. Every week we must try to give Him this pleasure, with the same care and devotion that we did this first time.

His wife was swayed by his wholehearted excitement, and gladly cooperated. Every Friday morning she faithfully prepared two beautiful loaves, paying careful attention to every detail, great and small, and every Friday afternoon he delivered them to the shul, and earnestly prayed and pleaded with G-d for their acceptance.

And every Friday the caretaker would come along and happily eat the delicious challahs, and every Friday night the Jew from Portugal ecstatically informed his wife that once again their meager offering had been accepted.

So it went, for many weeks and months.

One Friday, the rabbi of the shul stayed much later than usual, until the afternoon. It was the same rabbi who had given the speech about "show-bread" that had so inspired the Marrano from Portugal. He was standing on the bimah (reading platform), reviewing the sermon he planned to give the next day, when, to his surprise, he saw one of his congregants enter carrying two loaves of bread, walk up to the Ark, and deposit them inside. He realized that the man was unaware of his presence, and he heard him utter fervent prayers for G-d to accept his offering and enjoy the challahs.

The rabbi listened in astonishment. At first he was silent, but as he began to understand what was going on, his anger rose. Finally he was unable to restrain himself any longer, and burst out in fury: "Stop! You fool! How can you think that our G-d eats and drinks? It is a terrible sin to ascribe human or any physical qualities to G-d Almighty. You actually believe it is the L-rd who takes your measly loaves? Why, it is probably the shammash who eats them."

At that moment the caretaker entered the shul, blithely expecting to pick up his challahs, as usual. He was a bit startled to see the rabbi and another man standing there. The Rabbi immediately confronted him. "Tell this man why you came here now, and who has been taking the two challahs he has been bringing each week."

The caretaker freely admitted it. He wasn't embarrassed at all. He couldn't understand why the rabbi was so agitated, and why he was yelling at the other man who looked so unhappy, whom he knew to be an unlearned but sincere Jew.

As the rabbi continued his rebuke, the man burst into tears. He was crushed. Not only had he not done a mitzvah as he had thought, it seemed he was guilty of a great sin. He apologized to the rabbi for having misunderstood his lesson about the show-bread, and begged him to forgive him. He left the shul in shame and despair. How could he have been so wrong? What was he to do now?

Shortly thereafter, a messenger from the "Holy Ari" Rabbi Isaac Luria strode into the shul and approached the rabbi. In the name of his master, he told the Rabbi to go home, say goodbye to his family, and prepare himself; because by the designated time for his sermon the next morning, his soul will have already departed to its eternal rest. Thus it had been announced from Heaven.

The rabbi couldn't believe what he had just heard, nor could the disciple explain it to him. So the rabbi went directly to the Ari, who confirmed the message and added, as gently as possible: "I heard that it is because you halted G-d's pleasure, the likes of which He hasn't enjoyed since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed. That is what He felt when this innocent Marrano would bring his two precious loaves to your shul each week, faithfully offering them to G-d from the depths of his heart with joy and awe, and believing that G-d had taken them, until you irrevocably destroyed his innocence. For this the degree was sealed against you, and there is no possibility to change it."

The rabbi went home and told his family all that had transpired. By the time of the sermon the next morning, his soul had already departed to hear Torah in the Heavenly academy, exactly as the Ari had said.

My english name has always been a source of contention because it is so "goyish". I have a difficult time getting rabbis to call me back. Jewish organizations tend to ignore me. Let me correct that. If I am trying to make a fiduciary donation, I have no issue getting a response. If I want further discussion on halacha or help with observance, forget it.

As I mentioned, I consider myself a chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I have not, however, been able to get a chabad shliach on the phone. Ever. They ask my name, I give my name, and the conversation's over.

When I wanted to negotiate for tefillin in 2006 to become more observant, no call back. But I received a nice letter thanking me for my donation to that same center. So much for the Mitzvah Tank.

Chabad at 770, totally different matter. They do not hesitate to take my letters to the Rebbe. They have checked to see how we were doing, everything I would expect from the Rebbe himself. But by then, Hashem had already provided for the tefillin, and I wear them for Shacharit.

So the representative we met first seemed annoyed that we were not leaving this year, and then proceeded to try to find every way to discount my wife's Judaism. She appeared to want to deny mine as well, and seemed a bit miffed that I had a document signed by a Beit Din. She also was visibly irritated that we consider ourselves chabadniks.

I explained that we are unaffiliated. That didn't go over well, either.

My wife is Jewish, by blood. She tried explaining that her distant maternal line came from Jever, Germany, and had to change their name. The actual quote was, "Any anti-Semite can prove they have Jewish blood."

It was supposed to be 45 minutes of information on planning our Aliyah. What we got was 35 minutes (yes, she was actually watching the clock to get rid of us) of an inquisition on why we aren't Jewish, and allusions to why we would not be able to make aliyah.

We told her it was not a matter of "if", but a matter of "when". Our enthusiasm was not shared, and we are still uncertain why.

Very surprised, to say the least.

Can someone please explain to me why we are so intent as a people to cut the legs out from under each other?

Perfect example follows. We leave the synagogue confused as to what just happened, when an older gentleman pulls up. He is visibly crying, and he has asked the shul for someone that speaks Russian. I speak a little Russian, but the synagogue basically blew him off without even attempting to help.

He needs a rabbi or a synagogue where someone speaks Russian, so I call chabad. Anyone who knows anything about Lubavitcher history understands why I would call Chabad. I get a lady on the phone. She says nobody is there to speak with him and tries to shoo me off. (Like they did when I inquired about mezuzot for our home). She says a rabbi will call. She wants my last name, but I know if I give them that, he'll never call back.

I still don't know what is up with the old man, but I think, "What would the Rebbe do? How would he handle this?" Then I remember that right down the street from where we are is a judaica shop that has Eastern Europeans in it. So I lead the old man there, and I go inside and let them know that the old fellow is looking for someone that speaks Russian, he's upset, and do they know anyone?

Finally, a little ahavat Yisroel. The proprietor takes him two doors down to a Russian lady, and I am on my way.

Why is it that two synagogues gave less of a crap about the state and welfare of a fellow Jew than a few individuals? I'm really, genuinely asking this, not trying slam anyone. Is it an American Judaism thing? The theme appears to be that of a cultural club. If you don't fit the mold they want you to fit, then off with you. I don't seem to have this issue anytime my Hebrew name is used.

I have heard this complaint in areas with poor Jews, or those disenfranchised by distance. We have not located a synagogue to attend because we complied with no driving on Shabbat, and we have trouble getting responses out of synagogues in the "big city".

Non-Jews have zero difficulty identifying me or my wife as Orthodox Jews on sight.  Only other Jews want to argue about it. And I'm not counting my Israeli friends in this, it truly appears to be the Borsht Belt thing.

However, we located a new synagogue that seems to fit our bill. I know that when I was looking for a shul to attend a few months ago, this one was not listed. It's new. It is based around ahavat Yisroel. It believes, as I do, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. It does appear that we will now have to drive on Shabbat, but since we have a few years until Aliyah, it should be the kind of place that we have wanted to attend.

Except we aren't going to ask anymore. We're just going to go there. And they will have to put up with my kids.

Bottom line, I forgive the representative for her treatment, her misguided assumptions, her refusal to take us seriously in any way.

We got a few things from this, and I suspect our trip might not have been to meet her at all, but to help some elderly Russian Jew and find a new congregation.

I anticipate a very different reaction the next time we deal with Nefesh B'Nefesh. There will be nothing for them to doubt. Until then, some folks need to realize that some Jews have goy names, and might not enjoy that fact. To dismiss them and treat them as substandard falls under the negative commandment "do not oppress the stranger (Ger)".

Even with the minuses, I think today will end up in the plus column. And we got some direction, even if indirectly.
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1 comment:

  1. Yoni,
    I am embarrassed twice (once for you and your wife and once for the Russian gentleman) on behalf of all of us who work in synagogues. No one should be met with that level of bushah.

    As for your name, I have two comments. The first is that it is beoming more common for someone in our leadership to ask "How do you know someone in our shul is Jewish? Their name ends in a vowel." The number of Italian men who who have married into our community is becoming so large that it is beginning to go unnoticed. And I am referring to those who have joined us and are raising Jewish families, not those who marry out and are lost. So there is not much in a name, and any Jewish leader - professional or lay - who makes a judgment from the other end of a phone call based on a name is a fool.

    The other comment comes from one of my congregants from over a decade ago. His family lives in an area that is not what you might call ethnically diverse. At a parent night at the public school, he told me, he realized that his third grader only encountered ethnic diversity at Hebrew school. In his class that year were Asian, black, Hispanic and Russian children, all as Jewish as you or I.

    Many years ago there was a Yiddish song that included the phrase "Shicker is a goy" - the drunk is a non-Jew. It was a stereotype of both Jews and non-Jews. They are alcoholics, we are not.

    As we now know, Jews excel beyond their percentage of the population (another gross generalization, I know)not only in the arts, sciences or whatever field of endeavor, but we have MOTs who are alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, spouse abusers, pederasts - you name the thing we would like to believe Jews aren't and you can find one or more who are.

    So while I am saddened by the inexcusable lack of derekh eretz you encountered in of all places a synagogue, I am not completely surprised. Ordination or a job with a communal institution does not make any of us superhuman or better people than we are. That comes from encountering people who show us the way, as you and your wife did when you helped the man who needed help.

    I love the story of the challot. I have told a version of it for years. I have altered the ending to make it both more child friendly and to teach another lesson. I have the rabbi who observes the entire exchange explain to the two men that what they are doing is exactly what they thought they were doing - fulfilling God's will. It will be harder, now that they know about one another, to continue to fulfill their mitzvah AND accept that they are delighting God who is indeed both accepting the offering and feeding the family of the Shammas. But they must continue. In my version they continue, and their families become great friends.

    It is my hope and prayer that as your family continues on its journey, you are able to change the ending in a similar manner.

    Marbim Sameach,

    Ira Wise