Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Adam rotzeh kav shelo..."

The following is a short piece from Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman, of Ahavas Israel in Passaic, NJ. The piece also appeared in the Succos edition of Mishpacha Magazine, and I found it very moving. I think what resonated so deeply was the effort and the pleasure the people involved took in putting something meaningful together, something that we don't very often have these days with the ubiquity of "convenient" methods to perform mitzvot.

We have the pleasure of being in the Holy Land for the chag, and due to our arrival shortly before the beginning of the chag, I had to rely on someone else to purchase my dalid minim (Four Species). The fact that I wasn't personally involved in the process of buying and setting it up rubbed me the wrong way, in terms of quality as well; I simply wasn't happy with the way my lulav was prepared. But I think that it stems more from the fact that I had virtually no part in it more than anything else...

A Succah Grows in Brooklyn

It was 1971 the young man was looking forward to Succos. Although he lived in Brooklyn and attended yeshiva, nevertheless his family was not unique in not having a Succah of their own.

Although nowadays one walks the streets of Borough Park and Flatbush and there is hardly a house without a Succah, in the early 1970s there were many Frum Jews who did not ‘yet’ have their own Succah. Many people made due with the Shul’s Succah or shared with a neighbor and did not have their own private Succah. The young man and his family were one of those families.

Our friend was disappointed that his family had no Succah to call their own and he asked his parents if this year they could have their own Succah. After discussing the matter and looking into various options, his parents told him that they could not afford a Succah this year; maybe next year, but not this year.

Yom Kippur had passed and so had the Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Succos. Sunday night would be Succos and once again the family would eat a quick meal in the Shul Succah and come home to go to sleep. His parents could feel his disappointment however; financially they were strapped and could not afford a Succah. As he sat at home silently eating his Melave Malka with less than 24 hours before Yom Tov he was sad.

When his parents excitedly called before he headed off to sleep that Motzei Shabbos, he was not sure if he was already dreaming. “We are at friends and they just told us that they have the frame of their old Succah in their garage. They are away for Yom Tov and they said you could have it.”

 The young man could hardly sleep that night.

Immediately after Shacharis he jumped in his parent’s 63 Oldsmobile Cutlass and headed to his parent’s friend’s garage to retrieve ‘two by fours’ in various lengths.

When he came home he realized that all he had was ‘at best’ the potential for a wall-less frame of a Succah and there was less than 10 hours to go to Yom Tov.

However, the dream was too wonderful to give up on so he took his two ‘left-hands’ and began to clumsily bang a nail here and cut a piece of wood there as he Davened to Hashem for his Succah.

 At about 11 in the morning as the young man was ‘hocking away’ his Israeli neighbor Yossi who was ‘not-yet-frum’ (he is actually very frum now and is a Rebbe living in Israel after learning in Kollel for many years) walked by and said, “What are you doing?” “I am building a Succah”, our friend replied. Yossi quickly ran to his home and returned in a flash with a proper hammer and a working saw and announced, “At the rate you are going, you will finish by Pesach. Move over and let me give you a hand.”

 For the first time in the history of East 82 Street in Canarsie, Brooklyn, the sounds of Succah building was heard in the air.

Lenny Waldman a ‘never-to-be-frum-Jew’ walked by and said, “What you guys doing?” Once again our friend said, “We are building a Succah.” Lenny looked at them and asked, “What is going to be the roof for your little Succah?”

Our friend realized that in his rush to build the Succah he had forgotten about the most important part, “The Schach!”

 The young man looked at Lenny and said, “I don’t know, however, we will think of something. We need something which grows which won’t wither during the eight day holiday.”

 Lenny, who was a quiet man, said nothing but disappeared into his house.  A few moments later he re-appeared complete with ladder and a large pair of electric shears and methodically he began to cut large swathes from the huge evergreen tree which grew in his front yard. “I always wondered why I let it grow so large”, Lenny said aloud as he continued to ‘buzz’ the tree.

Henry Gordon who lived with his 92 year old mother and drove a cab in the city was parking his cab as he heard Lenny cutting his large evergreen tree. “Lenny, what you doing?” he inquired. Lenny said, “The young guy next door is building a Succah and I am helping him out with the covering.”

 “Well, the frame looks okay, however, what are they using for walls?” Mr. Gordon asked. “Beats me” said Lenny; “Ask the kid.”

Henry came over and inquired, “What about the walls? Where are they?” Our friend simply answered, “I don’t know; however, I guess I’ll grab some old sheets and tack them to the frame.” Henry looked at ‘Yossi the Israeli builder’; he glanced at ‘Lenny the tree-trimmer’ and said “I have an idea, I’ll be back soon.”

Ten minutes later he reappeared pushing a wheel-barrel full of doors. “When I drive around the city, anytime I see an old door, I stop the cab and throw it in the trunk. I don’t know why, however, I have been doing it for years. Let me ‘donate’ them as walls for your Succah”.

 Slowly Yossi, Henry and our friend began to attach the door to the frame and as the sun began its westward descent, the Succah looked more like a reality than a dream.

Murray Cohen who would always refer to himself as a ‘non-practicing Kohen’ was the last neighbor to meander across the street. “Hey, what you all doing?” he asked as he answered his own question by saying, “Looks like you are building a Succah. Wow, I have never seen one of those around Canarsie.”

He looked at the mishmash of doors turned into walls; of evergreen branches becoming Schach and of Yossi the secular Israel becoming a Succah builder.

“You know what, wait one minute I have something for you.” Murray ran across the street to his house and returned with a large sheet of green felt. “You know I fix pool tables for a living and when they redo the old tables they give me the old green felt. I have no use for it however; it seems that if we staple the felt to the doors it will give the Succah a real homey feeling.” Soon Murray was stapling felt across the doors to create green walls as Lenny was putting the finishing touches on the evergreen Schach and as Yossi the builder hammered in the final nail.

It was 6 P.M. candle lighting was just minutes away; our friend looked at Lenny, Yossi, Henry and Murray and then set his eyes on his Succah as he realized that sometimes dreams do come true.

That night as our friend entered his Succah and was about to make Kiddush there was a knock on the Succah door. In walked Lenny who said, “Hey looks pretty cozy in here.” Soon Henry appeared explaining that he was simply admiring his handiwork, followed by Yossi and Murray who both said, “Let’s see how this Succah actually ‘works’.”

 As our friend recited Kiddush he felt no need to ‘invite’ the Ushpizin. As he glanced at his Succah and saw the proud faces of Yossi, Lenny, Murray and Henry he had no doubt that all of the Ushpizin were already proudly standing right next to him in his ‘dream’ Succah.

Many years have passed since the Succos of 1971. Our friend now has a large and roomy Succah connected to his kitchen with panels coordinated by number and layers of ‘Glatt-kosher’ Schach.

His Succah is full of family and friends and has florescent light fixtures as opposed to the one hanging incandescent bulb of his Succah of 1971.

However, every year as I recite Kiddush in my Succah surrounded by family and friends I still pine for my Succah of 1971 which although was ad-hoc and small and flimsy was no doubt the most beautiful and precious Succah I was ever privileged to enter.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The piece below was a focal point of a group therapy session that I co-ran; my senior colleague provided the handout, and after reading it I realized that it is so appropriate for this time of the year for those of us who feel like we just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over...

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

By Portia Nelson
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place
but, it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Breaking through

אין כח לקלוט את ההמון הרב של הצבעים הרבים אשר לשמש הגדולה הזאת המאירה לעולמים כולם, שמש התשובה

Someone who is unprepared to do teshuvah may be compared to a person who cannot see the light of the sun because he is wearing impenetrable lenses.
Alternatively, such a person may be compared to a shoot buried beneath the soil. While the rest of the world basks in the warmth and light of the sun, this shoot cries out "There is no sun. My entire life is enveloped in dirt!" 
But this bitter perception is wrong. 
Teshuvah is always present; however, a person must go forth to receive it. When a person does make the decision to change, he can receive the ever-present sunlight of teshuvah. - Rav Moshe Weinberger, Song of Teshuvah
This particular excerpt from Orot HaTeshuvah and the accompanying commentary by Rav Weinberger really hit home. More so than other years, I feel less "ready" for the upcoming Days of Awe. I know why, and I know what I have to do, but sometimes the lethargy and inertia is stifling, to the point of having this eerie sensation of being buried by my own issues. This can lead to despair, but knowing that I can bask in the warmth of the sun's glow if I just give even the tiniest push makes all the difference...

Begging for Change

Somehow, he has this knack for showing up exactly at supper time - no matter when we actually sit down to eat. As has become our weekly ritual on Monday nights, the pounding on the door starts as the kids are finally settling down and eating their food. I'm vaguely aware of my eyes rolling as I stand up and head downstairs to open the door for this fellow who has become a fixture in our community, making the rounds every week with a new story that conveys his terrible financial situation. He starts talking even before the door is fully open to reveal his diminutive stature, his broken English barely audible or intelligible as he waves the latest letter of approbation in my face.

His pitch barely registers; two weeks ago it was paying for his son's bar-mitzvah - a few weeks prior to that it was his lack of air conditioning in the insufferable heat. His overall problems stem from the prostate cancer and their treatment, but I never really scrutinize the countless hamlatzot. My policy is that if the fellow is asking for help, I'll try to help him. But even that has limits.

This weekly visit didn't always happen. Originally we would see him every few months - gradually it became every few weeks, until he started coming every week, without fail, on Monday night. Initially we would give him from our ma'aser account, writing out modest checks each time, but as his visits became more frequent we became more uncertain whether we could continue giving him from our ma'aser, certainly not the same amount consistently each time. And so we began giving him out of pocket - not a set amount per se, but rather what we had to give. This didn't sit well with him as our contributions dried up to a trickle. Still, we try not to give less than five dollars at a shot.

This last time, as I hand him a ten, he shakes his head and waves it off. Can't I give him more? Maybe fifty dollars? I apologize and tell him that  this is what we are able to give at this time. He presses me for more. Maybe if he comes back later? Maybe I can write him a check? I'm torn. I want to help him, I can see his pain, but I explain to him that we want to be able to help him each time he comes but that means for us in our situation that we can only give so much at a time...

He's upset, and he makes sure that I know it. Internally I take a breath and count to to ten; I knwo I shouldn't lose my patience. I apologize again but I maintain my position. I offer him a drink but he's not interested. He gives a frustrated grunt and stalks off with my ten dollar bill in his balled up fist. I close the door behind him, feeling dissonant. On the one hand I feel more justified in this, but maybe I'm wrong...?

Later, I'm grocery shopping and he shows up in the store, looking for food from the take out. He asks for the manager who has just disappeared into the back, but it seems as if he's a regular visitor there, because the lady manning the counter recognizes him and tells him that the manager is "gone for the day" (?). I pretend at first as if I don't realize what's happening but as I finish my shopping I see him just skulking around the counter, waiting to see if the manager is going to reappear. He looks hungry. It must take a lot of energy to go around all day, and maybe I'm feeling guilty about our earlier encounter so I buy him some supper.

Later still, I'm at the last mincha of the day; I get there early, hoping to use the time to catch up on the daf. Guess who's making the rounds in shul? Nobody pays him any mind as he walks up and down the aisles waving his laminated approbation in every face. There's a bearded fellow in the back who flips him a quarter, and by virtue of his being the only interaction so far, the collector vents his anger, frustration, and probably embarrassment on the guy. "You are the only one in this whole shul who gave me anything today!" he explodes, unable to control himself any longer. He waves at the whole shul in a sweeping arc, a gesture that is as much as an indictment as it is a complaint. The bearded one, however, won't hear of it: "Listen friend," he says loud enough for me to hear him from several tables away, "what do you expect? You come here every week. You hand around here all day, and you want every single person to give you fifty dollars. It's not going to happen! And another thing: you're not the only one who needs! I need too!" This conversation continued until the Rabbi walked in and we began mincha, but I couldn't concentrate.

Why did I have these three run-ins with this guy today?

What is HaShem trying to tell me?

The whole week and throughout Shabbos I couldn't get it out of my mind, and then it was time for selichos late motzei Shabbos. And then I saw these words:

...כדלים וכרשים דפקנו דלתיך

How many times are we inhabiting this fellow's role regarding our relationship with God? How often do we come back asking for more, asking Him to give and give again? And we're lucky; we are dealing with the Infinitely Patient One, Who will continue doling out blessings and health even when we're malingering, even when we really don't deserve it. So not only do we have to emulate that benevolence, we also have to understand that it's not all about taking; we have to give, and part of that means taking on the cause of those who don't have to give...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Words cannot suffice

There is no barrier when it comes to the language of joy.

Have a "conversation" with any small child who speaks a different language and you will know this.