Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 187

December 1, 2023 (18 Kislev 5784)

Parasha Vayishlach - Am Echad B'Lev Echad

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health. We have an incredibly exciting Shabbat service this Saturday morning, which will take place in the sanctuary from 10:00am to noon. Our special program is entitled Music and Media and will feature two guests, Cantor Joseph Flaxman, who will lead our davening, and Danya Wasser, a social media influencer with over 10,000 followers. While Joe will grace us with his beautiful voice, Danya will expound upon her pro-Israel Instagram platform and share the importance of advocating for Israel and raising our voices against anti-Semitic sentiments.

In advance, we thank Gary & Annelle Miller, who are sponsoring our festive Kiddush after services. This Shabbat, Gary remembers his stepfather, Harry Gips, and his grandfather, John Miller, both of blessed memory (Zichronam Livracha).

Speaking of guests, this past week we had a special visitor at The Leffell School. Reb Nachum is a tall and imposing figure, who entered the campus dressed in a traditional black suit, white shirt, and dark fedora hat. His beard flowed towards his chest, and his Tzitzit (fringes) swung back and forth while he strolled his way confidently down the hall towards the school’s boardroom. At first glance, in comparison to the “modern” attire preferred by young teens (don’t ask!), Reb Nachum stood out like a sore thumb.

Shortly after his arrival, Reb Nachum, a Zeyde (grandfather) of one of our students, began a Shiur (lesson on the origins of Hassidism). The handful of students present were clearly engaged by his words and passionate presentation. In a quick overview of 300 years of Hassidic history, Reb Nachum shared details of the lives of the Baal Shem Tov, his disciple Dov Bear of Mezerich, and the famous figure of Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder, and first Rebbe, of Chabad.

Nachum explained that the Alter Rebbe, as Schner Zalman is referred to by his followers, was at one point imprisoned for 53 days (which unfortunately sounds eerily familiar) yet used his time productively to write down the mystical fundamentals of his spiritual practice. During this incarceration, he was said to have authored sections of the primary text of Chabad, called the Tanya. The Tanya contains 53 chapters corresponding to the 53 weekly readings in the Torah.

The major theme of the Tanya is humanity’s ubiquitous identity crisis. There are days when one indeed feels inspired by Judaism and spirituality (that’s when you come to us on Shabbat), and there are days when they are a real bore. There are times when nothing seems more important than studying Torah or praying, and there are times when nothing seems greater than a steak and a good hockey game. There are moments when one is disgusted by the world’s immorality, and there are moments when one is tempted by it. There are moments when we allow ourselves to be passively inspired by the world about us, and there are occasions when we actively seek the divine. In this dichotomous explanation of humanity’s inner turmoil, the Tanya foreshadows the writings of Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his well-known work, The Lonely Man of Faith.

While our guest looked different than the students and his mix of English and Yiddish (referred to as Yinglish) certainly sounded different than our students, it was clear that an immediate bond and affinity developed between these Jews of diverse ages and backgrounds. Of course, it did help that he brought beverages and rugelach!

Having witnessed this immediate connection, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a beautiful passage in a 16th Century Mussar text called Tomer Devorah. Therein, the author, Moshe Codovera argues that just as all of humankind has a deep connection with their Creator, so too, all Jews have an innate link, one with the other.

אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמוֹת כְּלוּלוֹת יַחַד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵם שְׁאֵר בָּשָׂר

All Israel are relations of flesh, these with those. Since all of their souls are bound together, this one has a share in that, and that one has a share in this.

As I escorted Reb Nachum back to the parking lot, he and I said L’hitraot (see you later) to a student of Asian descent, a student of Indian descent, and students whose family backgrounds were from Iraq, Iran, Canada, and Israel.

On a cold afternoon in Westchester County, Reb Nachum’s visit highlighted for us the inherent connection that we Jews share with each other. Regardless of ethnicity, background, denomination, or learning, we are intrinsically Am Echad B’Lev Echad, One People with One Heart.

No doubt, these tumultuous days have all too painfully emphasized the impervious connections between our Jewish brothers and sisters, regardless of whether they are in Israel, on a college campus, or living down the block.

My prayer for Shabbat is that this overwhelming sense of Am Echad B’Lev Echad will not only carry us through these trying times but bring us, as a united people, to a place of joy, light, celebration, and Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM

Tel: 201-562-5277

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