Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Real Heroes

This year I actually went to hear a Shabbos Shuva drosha. The z’chus, merit, goes to my husband, for prodding me, but my own z’chus lies in the fact that I managed to stay awake. No offense or disrespect to the Rabbi, who is an excellent speaker with a lot of substance, but all that sitting still, after a good Shabbos meal – you know what I am talking about.

What the Rabbi was talking about, was a Midrash (cited as such both by the Maharal in Netivos Olam, and by HaKosev in his commentary on Ayin Yaakov; both of whom also profess to having been unable to trace it), where three Rabbis are having a debate about quite an interesting topic: Which pasuk, which singular verse, in the Chumash could be said, beyond all others, to encapsulate the entire message of the Torah.

Ben Zoma says: “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokenu, Hashem echad!” (Hear Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is one. Devarim 6:4). Often referred to as the Jewish “declaration of faith”, this suggestion would make sense to most of us – what could be more fundamental than our relationship to G-d?

Nanas says that it is: “V’ahavta lere’acha kamocha” (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Vayikra 19:18) Again, this pivotal pasuk brings us a message of love and charity that has brought ethics and conscience to all of the civilized world – certainly this is a paramount digest of the entire Torah!

However, Shimon ben Pazi brings up a pasuk that is much less known, at least among the general public: “Et-hakeves echad ta’aseh vaboker, v’et hakeves hasheni ta’aseh bein ha’arbayim” (The one lamb shall you offer in the morning; and the other lamb shall you offer at evening. Bamidbar 28:4) And the text of the Midrash - somewhat surprisingly - concludes that, basically, the Academy Award goes to Shimon ben Pazi.

The reason is that what makes Jews survive as Jews is the daily, constant, unremitting performance of mitzvos – morning and evening, rain or shine, inspired or uninspired. Ultimately, this is what will pass the Torah on to the next generation – not lofty theology; nor ethical societies, however noble. Sadly, very few Reform or Conservative Jews manage to convincingly pass on to their heirs any real commitment to remaining Jewish on any level – and they are the ones who most proudly reiterate the Jewish tenets of faith and ethics.

During one of our journeys to Eretz Yisrael, a number of years ago, my husband and I went on a Hoffman tour of the holy places in the north. It came time for mincha, and a few more men were needed for a minyan. The search began, while the mincha time window was rapidly closing. In the nick of time some men were found – young Sefardi workers, in their worker’s gear, a few tzitzis here and there; they put a “Be Back Soon” sign on their shop doors, and came running to join the quorum. One or two had already prayed the afternoon service, but – look, mincha must be attended to, a minyan is needed, a Jew has to help.

Once we were back on the bus again, my husband turned to me and said, “those young workers are the real, live heroes!”. And he has been saying so ever since. The real heroes are the ones who quietly, faithfully, unpretentiously, unremittingly go on doing mitzvos, and go on helping their neighbor do mitzvos; keeping the wheels turning, upholding the Kingdom of Heaven through a myriad of small actions and punctilious observances. You may be a simple laborer, with or without education, but you know what needs to be done – so you do it. Doesn’t matter if you “feel” it, if you are in the mood – you just keep doing it, putting one foot in front of the other, “one sheep in the morning, and the other sheep in the evening”.

These everyday heroes above were male, and indeed many are, but I can’t help feeling that this type of simple, dogged, persevering avodas Hashem, Divine service, is a particular domain of women. It is so often the women who pay attention to the little things, who have that extra measure of patience – and stubbornness – that enables one to “soldier on” with mitzvos on a daily, regular, unassuming basis, without looking for recognition or reward. Mothers, particularly, come to mind…

In his Shabbos Shuva drosha, the Rabbi also recounted an anecdote from the aftermath of the Holocaust, which we have heard many times before, but which never fails to move me deeply. A Rabbi is traveling through war-ravaged Europe, searching for orphaned Jewish children who have been hidden and rescued to physical survival by non-Jews, in order to now rescue them back to spiritual life. In a certain convent, the staff is unwilling to admit the Rabbi, since they want to keep charge of the little souls who are unaware of their Jewish identity, by now have been baptized, and are being raised as Christians. In spite of their insistence that no Jewish children have ever been sheltered there, the Rabbi cajoles the priest into giving him two minutes to take a quick look. The request is granted – after all, what can you achieve in two minutes? The Rabbi steps into the crowded dormitory and says in a loud voice: “Sh’ma Yisroel, Hashem Elokenu, Hashem echad!” Immediately, numerous little voices respond from around the room: “Boruch shem k’vod Malchuso l’olam va’ed!” (In another, similar situation, small children responded by automatically, reflexively, covering their eyes, according to the established practice of doing so when reciting the Sh’ma.)

Surely the mothers of these little ones, who, night after night, had put their children to bed with the Sh’ma on their lips weren’t always so inspired; surely the fatigue of mounds of laundry and potatoes to be peeled and floors to be scrubbed, must have tempted them occasionally to forgo the evening prayers with their children, but they kept doing it nonetheless, faithfully, unremittingly, because this is what the Torah tells us – “one sheep in the morning and the other sheep in the evening”. These were the real heroines! And this practice was what succeeded in transmitting the Torah to these little boys and girls, thereby safeguarding their spiritual future. Nothing else – no theology or ethics in the world – could have achieved the same triumphant result.

Not a day of my life goes by that I do not brood about the many mistakes I made as a young mother, trying to raise my children. Obviously, like most mothers, I tried to do the best I could with what I had, but what I had was so inadequate. Among my many mistakes was not to put my children to bed with the Sh’ma on their lips and mine. Had I realized the importance of it – had I been familiar then with the above anecdote – I would have. I don’t mean this in a simplistic way – because I know so well that G-d is no Santa Claus, and we are not rewarded as an automatic consequence of having “pushed the right button” – but I can’t help wondering: if I had, would their lives have looked different today?

As we were walking home from the Shabbos Shuva drosha, my husband turned to me and asked, “Who are the real heroes?”. I have been coached well over the years, so I knew what to answer: “the Sefardi workers at mincha time in Tz’fat!”

Shalom Uv'racha!

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