A Visit From Angels (Kol Nidrei Night)
In the mid-1990s, Rabbi Berkowitz–a Chabad Rabbi–and a friend traveled to some of the very remote parts of Alaska in search of Jews. Like all Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Berkowitz was inspired by the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message: to bring Judaism to all Jews, no matter where they live. Through a pilot friend, Rabbi Berkowitz and his friend secured a five day “buddy pass” on Alaskan Airlines and traveled to Nome, KotZebue, Bethel and Fairbanks. Everywhere they went, they checked the local newspapers, went to the town halls, and spoke with the locals in an effort to find other Jews. One day they arrived in a small town in Northwestern Alaska. The mayor told them that there were no Jews in the town, but invited them to give a talk at the local elementary school about Judaism and Jewish customs. The two men went and addressed the fourth through eighth grade students and shared some basic Jewish teachings. The students performed a few Eskimo dances for them, and the Chabadniks performed a Chasidic dance. Choshen Mishpat deals with torts, commercial and property law. Keeping Shabbos when your family and your friends aren’t is an act of heroism. Whenever we do something which stretches us, which pushes us out of our comfort zone we demonstrate our ability to go beyond our background and culture, whatever everyone else is saying and doing and in doing so we become heroes. “Eizeho gibor?” “Who is a strong person?” ask the Sages in the Ethics of our Fathers. “Hakovesh es yitzro”: he who conquers his inclinations. That’s a hero and it dosen’t have to be extreme: You want to be a hero for Israel? You don’t have to join the IDF (although it’d be great if you did) but you can be a hero just by going to Israel. By deciding to spend your hard-earned money on a trip to Israel or by getting involved w/ AIPAC, Camera or other groups that strengthen Israel’s standing in the world.
But before they left the hall, figuring he had nothing to lose, Rabbi Berkowitz asked the students one final question: “Did any of you ever meet a Jew?” One little girl raised her hand.
“Who did you meet?” asked the rabbi.
“My mother,” the girl answered. “She’s right there,” and she pointed to the school’s fifth grade teacher. After the assembly, the mother, who was visibly moved by the presentation, came over to thank the rabbi for coming. She explained how she loved nature, and so she moved to Alaska many years before, where she was fortunate to fall in love with a Native American, with whom she had a little girl. She said to Rabbi Berkowitz, “I must tell you that, living here, I don’t know if my daughter will ever meet another Jew, let alone a rabbi, again. Can you give my daughter a message so that she will always be proud of her Jewish identity?”
The rabbi began to speak to the girl about the holiness of Shabbat. He told her that it is the Jewish mothers and daughters who usher in the Shabbat every week by lighting the candles. “They are the ones to bring peace and light into the world.” he said. And then the rabbi asked the girl: “Do you know the first place in the world where the sun sets?” Knowing her geography, she answered, “Probably New Zealand or Australia.” “That’s right”, said the Rabbi. “Jewish mothers in New Zealand and Australia are the first ones to usher in Shabbat every week. And then Shabbat is ushered in with candles in Asia, then in Israel, in Europe, and then New York, Chicago, Seattle, Anchorage. And even then, there is still one part of the world where the sun has not yet set. Right here in the Yupik territory of Alaska where you live. And so when mothers and daughters around the globe have welcomed the Shabbat, God and the Jewish people are still waiting for you, the last Jewish girl in the world, to light the Shabbat candles.” And he encouraged her to light the Shabbat candles every Friday before the sun sets.
Shabbat is a gift. Tonight is Yom Kippur, but it’s also Shabbat. We won’t be sitting down to a meal, making Kiddush, or having Challah but it’s still Shabbat and so I thought it appropriate to share a passage in the Talmud about the most famous song we sing on Shabbat: Shalom Aleichem.
The Talmud tells us: Two ministering angels accompany one home from synagogue on Friday night, one who is good and one who is evil. And when they come to his home and find the candle is lit, the table is set and his bed is made, the good angel says: ‘may it be the will of God that that it should be this way next Shabbat’ and the good angel, against his will, is forced to answer Amen. But if the angel comes home and doesn’t find the home looking like this then the evil angel says: ‘may it be the will of God that it should be this way next Shabbat and the good angel, against his will, is forced to answer Amen. (Shabbat 119b)
A number of questions present themselves: First, why are the angels looking for these particular items as a sign of our readiness for Shabbat? There are other ways to tell if Shabbat is ready; for example, are people dressed in their nice Shabbat clothes? Is there food prepared? And what does the Talmud mean when it says that the evil angel is forced to second the blessing of the good one, and the good one to second the blessing of the bad?
My friend and colleague Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky suggests an approach that can teach us something powerful, not only about Shabbat, but for today: Yom Kippur. Each of the items the angels looks for is critical for our introspection.
1. The first item the angel looks for is a ner daluk, a lit candle. In Torah thought, a candle represents the soul. “Ki Ner Elokim nishmat ha’adam;” for the candle of the Almighty is the soul of man, it says in the book of Proverbs. Why is a candle or a flame the symbol for the soul, and why are the angels looking to see that our candles are lit?
Because the angels representing Hashem want to know if our ner, our soul, is on fire. They want to know whether our passion for Judaism has been ignited in some way. Rabbi Berkowitz was trying to kindle this littles girl’s excitement for a mitzvah about which she never heard to make her feel a part of the Jewish cosmic role in bringing light to the world.
What is something we’re passionate about in Judaism? What is something new that we can become more passionate about in the coming year? Last year, our very own Heather Conn decided to champion the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the ill). She regularly visits those in the hospital or in people’s homes and helps us at MJE in organizing people to go every Shabbat afternoon.
Maybe it’s being more careful or honest in our financial dealings. Maybe it’s Shabbat. If you’re new to it, start with candles or Kiddush on Friday night. If those are part of your routine already, then maybe move on to being cognizant of the melachot, the 39 labors from which we refrain on the Sabbath. Take advantage of what MJE offers every Shabbat: the incredible community, the Shabbat Dinners, inspirational services, our awesome Kiddush and the wonderful families who open their homes to host Shabbat meals. And so that’s one thing the angels are looking for: that our souls are ignited and alive with Judaism.
2. The second item the angel looks for is a set table. Lighting candles may help get us started on the weekends, but we also need a set table. We need the right tools to instill meaning and purpose in our daily existence. It’s no accident that the great Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Code of Jewish law, called his work the “Shulchan Aruch” (the “set table”). He wrote this four volume treatise in the 1500’s so we could know the relevant laws and practices for all aspects of our existence.
Yoreh Deah deals with our diet and all laws of Kashrut.
Even Ha’ezer deals with marriage and laws of sexual intimacy.
Ohr Hachayim deals with laws of Shabbat, Prayer, and the Holidays
As the noted author and philosopher Dayan Grunfeld pointed out, three out of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch deal with the three basic cravings or instincts we have in life: Food, Sex, and Power. Only one of the four sections deals with what we’d consider the “religious” component to Judaism, because Torah exists to infuse meaning and inspiration into every aspect of who we are and what we do.
How knowledgeable are we in these areas? Has our Judaism been reduced to a mere collection of ceremonies and rituals incapable of educating or informing us when it comes to real life issues? Is it because we don’t really know what Judaism has to say about things like sexuality, or ethics in the workplace, about the best way to date, or how to stay in a committed relationship? Maybe we didn’t even know the Torah had anything to say about these real life issues. (It does. Come on Monday or Wednesday nights and study with us.)
3. Finally, the angels look for a made bed. In the language of our sages, the bed is often a metaphor for a person’s death, and more specifically, for a person’s legacy. Our forefather Jacob was the only one of the Patriarchs who is described as having a Mitaso sheleimah, a complete bed, because all of his children followed in his way after he passed. Will our children follow our ways after we are gone? Will we have left the next generation with anything powerful enough that they’d continue it on their own? Will they value Judaism and come to synagogue on the High Holidays services? Will they light Shabbat candles or support the State of Israel? Will our children and grandchildren remain Jewish at all? Much depends on what we do and the kind of decisions we make.
My teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said that when he became a rabbi, at his Ordination Dinner, his teacher, the late and great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick spoke of the concept of smicha: ordination. He said the word smicha literally means “laying of the hands” – it’s when the rabbi places his hands on the head or the shoulders of his student like the first rabbi, Moses, did to his disciple Joshua, in this way conferring upon his student the authority to give rabbinic direction and halachic guidance to others. The word “lismoch” means to lean but the question is: who really leans on whom? You’d think the student who is receiving ordination is leaning on his teacher, on past generations of teachers whose tradition is being passed down to him all the way from Sinai but the Rav said: “if you ever see an older man with his hands [upon] a younger man, who is leaning on whom? Generally it’s the older man leaning on the younger man!” The Rav looked at his students and he said: “you’re not leaning on me; I am the one who is leaning on you. Whatever I’ve learned and expounded, whatever new approach, insight or interpretation I have formulated, will die with me unless it lives through you”.
You hold the key to the future of the Jewish people. The power of Jewish continuity does not lay with us rabbis. It will die with us, or it will live through you. I can talk about how beautiful and compelling a life of Torah is, but ultimately you must decide what you want to do with it. You must decide whether your home will be lit with Shabbat candles and whether your soul will be excited about something Jewish. You must decide whether you’ll have a set table- whether you will study and apply Jewish philosophy to your everyday life. It’s for you to decide. And if you do, I can assure you will create a mitaso sheleimah – a complete bed, a legacy and a way of life that will live beyond you; a spiritual path and a perspective on life that you can bequeath to your children and they to theirs. Tonight, as we begin the greatest day of soul searching, as we pray for a good year to come, let us embrace our Judaism and ensure that the light of Torah burns brightly for many years to come. In that merit, may we all be blessed with a year of good health, sweetness, meaning and peace.