Thursday, August 30, 2007
Heavenly Rabbi fufills her Human Rights Obligations
From Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman on September 23rd, 2005
Parashat Ki Tavo includes a dramatic description of how the half Israelites were to proclaim curses from Mt. Ebal and the other half proclaim blessings from Mt. Gerizim. We receive the blessings or the curses according to our deeds. In our day at this time of year there are also colorful customs for the month of Elul. Worshipers arrive at the synagogue early in the morning for Slikhot (penitential) prayers (Sephardic Jews at 3:00 am or so for the entire month. Ashkenazi Jews blow the shofar for the entire month, but Slikhot are recited beginning with midnight prayers either on the Motzei Shabbat before Rosh HaShana or the Motzei Shabbat before that. This year they begin tomorrow night.)
The Yiddish writer, Y. L. Peretz, wrote about slikhot in his well known story, “If not Higher.” The story reminds us that tefillah and teshuva can not avert the stern decree with out making amends via tzedakah, which in Hebrew is derived from the word for “Justice,” not “Charity. (U’teshuva U’tefiklah U’Tzedakah Ma’avirin et Roah Ha’Gzeirah)
The following is an updated version of Peretz’s story:
Somewhere in Israel there was a small and modest synagogue. They made up for whatever they lacked in terms of means by their religious fervor and kavana. They especially loved their rabbi, and told many stories about the miracles and wonders which she would perform. However, there was just one odd thing. During the month of Elul, most of the congregants would come especially early to the synagogue in order to add the slikhot prayers. The rabbi, who was usually the first to arrive each morning, did not show up at all. However, this did not bother the community because they knew that during the month of Elul the rabbi went to the heavenly court each morning in order plead their case.
One year a new person joined the congregation, a professor of Jewish studies who could not stand the talk of miracles and wonders. “Next thing you know,” he would say, “we are going to be handing out charms and conducting kabbalistic ceremonies.” He especially was bothered by the belief that the rabbi ascended to heaven each morning during Elul. One year he decided that he was going to finally discover the real explanation for the rabbis’ disappearance during Elul.
One evening the professor hid outside the rabbi’s house. Early in the morning, way before it was possible to distinguish the color t’khelet (According do the Talmud, one recites Shema from the time there is enough light to distinguish between t’khelet and other colors.), the rabbi emerged dressed in simple work cloths with a hat hiding her face. The rabbi got in her car and the professor carefully tried to follow her with out being detected. She left the town and arrived at a nearby Moshav. After exchanging a few words with a farm owner, she began working in the fields. The professor’s surprise only increased when, after a few hours she took what she had picked instead of payment. He said to himself, “I knew that we don’t pay her a large salary, but I didn’t think that she was lacking for food!”
The rabbi returned to town. However, instead of heading home she headed to the less well off part of town. Just as the other congregants were arriving at the synagogue, the rabbi parked in front of a tenement building. At each landing she would pause and recite verses of slikhot. When she arrived at the 5th floor, she knocked on the door. A weak voice called out, “Who is there?” In a gruff disguised voice the rabbi answered, “A friend with food.” “But I have been declared someone who refuses to work and my benefits have been cut off,” she answered. “I can’t pay you.” “Have faith,” the rabbi replied, and entered. She put the food away and prepared breakfast for the weak and ill woman. Just as her congregants were concluding their slikhot prayers, the rabbi closed the door behind her and concluded her prayers.
And so it continued morning after morning. One morning the rabbi went to rebuild a demolished home, reciting a verse of slikhot with each cinderblock which she laid. One morning she returned to the tenement to help the woman prepare an appeal regarding her benefits. There were also entire nights which she spent with the homeless or street youth. One night she slept over in a home designated for demolition the next day.
On the last day of Elul the rabbi joined a Palestinian family that was setting out to harvest their olives near a violent settlement. On the way the family told her of past violence and intimidation. With each olive picked she said a word of prayer.
If you visit this synagogue today nothing much has changed. The congregants still love their rabbi and still tell their magical tales. The only difference is that the professor no longer objects or protests when the congregants say that the rabbi ascends to heaven every morning during the Elul. He simply adds quietly to himself, “If not higher.”
If I have any criticism of this story it is that the rabbi doesn’t invite others to join her and that her actions perhaps “let off the hook” those responsible these evils instead of demanding the those responsible fulfill their obligations.
A Jewish Doll? (Barbie's inventor was Jewish). Rivkah Rosenfeld is a renowned doll artist. Above is her SaRRAF- Faerie Mother of Elderly Beauty. SaRRAF has her own story.