Saturday, September 15, 2007

Part 1: Rosh HaShanah

(NOTE: I know this is long, so if you don’t want to read it all, I do recommend reading the stories starting at “In an attempt at brevity…”)

That was a long 3 days. Wednesday night started Rosh HaShanah, which ended on Friday night. Friday night was the start, as always, of the Sabbath (Shabbat). That ends on Saturday night. What does this mean? These days, yomim tovim (lit. good days), are filled with all manner of restrictions that are the backbone of Jewish law. No electricity, generally no washing (cold showers are permitted on Rosh HaShanah), and all manner of other things that take years to learn and countless checked actions. If you actually want to keep these days in this traditional way, you have to really know your stuff, and keep your mind sharp on the task.

These restrictions are supposed to separate the mundane from the holy, the week from the holidays. They certainly do their job. If you are wondering where they come from, I could give you a long explanation. Let me know. I’ll say for the sake of the blog, however, that they come from the Bible. In a sentence: when the Jews were commanded by G-d to construct the Tabernacle (Mishkan), which housed the Ark of the Covenant (Aron), they had to do about 39 different types of activities (malachot), such as winnowing, writing, building, erasing, and so on. These are the things we cannot do on these special days (including every Shabbat), because G-d said to rest on the 7th day, and in that passage it is directly preceded by a discussion of the ‘work’ done to construct the Mishkan. Ok, two sentences. If it doesn’t make sense, I can explain it better – I don’t want this to be too pedantic or preachy.

So, during these holidays, Jews being Jews, we have about 3 HUGE meals every 24 hours. That is, we have a big meal at night, a big meal at the afternoon, and then another big meal at night. These things aren’t just meals, they’re religious events. Since this was the new year, we had all manner of symbolic things to eat, with special prayers on everything. Counting them up, we ate 7 or 8 four course meals, in the last 3 days. Each one of these takes about two hours, replete with boisterous singing, liquor, and many speeches.

In an attempt at brevity, I’ll just tell you one of the stories I heard, and a brief recount of another. Because I don’t remember the guys’ names that told them, I’ll make up names. They told these well, because they were personal – I recognize my lack of ability in retelling them. Anyway…

It was a Shabbat morning, and Jacob wanted to get to the Beit Midrash, the study hall, early so he could get in some studying before it became too loud. He arrived at about 6:30am or so, grabbed a cup of steaming tea, a book, and took a seat in the corner. He sat in an isolated spot, next to the large oval windows that looked out at the Western Wall, and started reading.

Next thing he knew, not 10 minutes later, a crazy looking young guy ran in. Crazy people tend to find their way to Jerusalem; some type of religious syndrome (maybe the Jerusalem Syndrome, where they think they are the messiah, something I have witnessed numerous times). So, the guy RUNS into the study hall, a sacred and holy place, wearing shorts, tzitzit hanging out, a bloody tank top, and an expression as if he is running for his life. Jacob has seen this before, as we all have, and he turned as much as he could into the wall and his book, hiding his face. He was relieved when the crazy guy went to the only other person in the hall.

Crazy man was flailing his arms wildly, telling whatever his story was, saying whatever crazy stuff he could. These guys usually are so nuts you cannot even follow their stories, and from Jacob’s view this guy was no different. He looked like a total bum.

Surely enough, after the guy told his story to the other guy in the hall, they both got up and came over to Jacob. His one thought: CRAP. These things never tend to take 2 minutes. Well, they come over, and the crazy guy begins to tell his story.

“HEY, YOU GOTTA HELP ME,” he nearly screamed, out of breath, a real mess.
“Ok, tell me what’s wrong.”
“Last night my friend locked himself in his room, he was trying to commit suicide. The whole yeshiva was trying to help him, to get him to open the door. After a few hours he opened it, but he bolted past us, and he ran.”
“Where did you guys come from?”
“Har Nof,” said the crazy guy. Har Nof is about an hour from the Western Wall.
“What? When did this happen?”
“Last night, like around 11pm! He’s been running through all the city, the Old City, through all the alleys, EVERYWHERE! We’ve been running after him since last night! He’s a Chinese runner!”
“Seriously? Where is he now?,” asks Jacob, in obvious disbelief, or shock.
“He’s at the Wall.”
“What is he doing there?”
“Praying. We gotta go down there and get him!”

Jacob proceeds to really elucidate this situation. Where else in the world would someone who wants to commit suicide run for 7 hours away from a whole group of guys looking to help him, and then run to presumably the holiest place in the entire world? This guy, though he is a crazy Chinese runnerman, is now a true Jew! So, as Jacob says, they decide that they have to go down to the Wall to talk to this guy.

So the scene is a guy with a blood and sweat soaked wife-beater tanktop, looking thoroughly mad, and two proper looking Orthodox Jews wearing their best suits and 100% rabbit fedora hats. They walk down to the Wall, see the Chinese kid really praying hard, finish his prayer, look behind him – as only someone would do who has been chased for hours would do – and he BOLTS. He runs past everyone, past tons of Orthodox Jews preparing for a holy day, and the group resumes its chase through the Old city. This time, with Jacob in hot pursuit as well. He can barely keep up, but after about 20 minutes they make it to an exit to the new city, and the guys, still running full speed in pursuit, turn around and shout, “IT”S OK, HE’S HEADING BACK HOME! THANKS!”

I know, right? So, these stories always have a good point to them. Jacob asks us, “how many bad looks do you think we got at the Wall?” This was not only a holy day, but a revered spot, the very spot that Muslims and Jews have fought over for the past 100 years in some of the most famous struggles known to modern man! And here comes a blood soaked bum, running after some crazy looking Chinese kid. How many bad looks did the blood soaked shirt ‘crazy guy’ get?

Tons. And Jacob surely gave him bad looks too, when he first saw him. But, he learned from this experience that you can never judge anyone based on their current actions or their appearance. How many people in this world would go so far out of their way to help their fellow man, to chase him for his own good for an entire night? And then someone is going to shoot him looks of death, of desecration? We can never guess at what someone is going through, what he is doing for another man. As the old saying goes, ‘you can never judge a book by its cover.’


A guy stands up, one of the guys that has just joined the yeshiva, a previously very-unreligious person. These moments to speak to the entire yeshiva are reserved for guys that really know their stuff. This guy is brand new to the religious world. He literally knows just about nothing: no laws, no Torah, no philosophy. To speak to the yeshiva, including the head of the yeshiva (a venerated individual), our guests, head rabbis, and so on, is a real privilege. This is what he said, in near verbatim:

“Last summer I was in the war in Lebanon. I’ve lived here for six years, and so they called me up in my artillery unit, and we were up there, actually in war. Long story made short, I found myself in the proverbial foxhole, pinned down under heavy fire. We were losing our battle, we started to retreat, got inside a tank, and were running for our lives. Tanks typically hold about three people, but we had crammed about eight guys in there, with ammunition all around us, guns, artillery shells, everything you could think of.

“Hezbollah was shooting at us, we weren’t even able to close the top door to the tank, and there were flames all around us. Sparks from the fires around us were dropping down into the tank, threatening to set the shells and ammunition off. In truth, the ammunition really should have exploded. But anyway, it didn’t for whatever reason, and we were running for our lives. We were dead. This was a lose-lose situation, and it is a true miracle that I am still breathing today, unscathed.

“So the driver of this tank was a real religious guy, a Hassidic Jew, as religious as you could imagine. The rest of us were secular, Tel Aviv types, guys that didn’t know or care a thing about religion. But you know what they say about guys in a foxhole, that there is no atheist, so we were all whimpering to ourselves whatever we could think of. We were terrified, we knew we would never see our families again, our parents would be so sad, we would never see our girlfriends, never drink beer again, never see the ocean. It was by far the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.

“But, this religious guy, the driver! He was singing! He was singing so loud, songs of praise and joy! He was beyond happy, it seemed, and I just could not understand how he was singing as bullets were ricocheting off the tank, flames coming inside, and certain death awaiting us! You don’t understand! He was in ecstasy!

“I don’t think I really understand how he could have been so happy, under the circumstances. But, at that point I decided that I really needed to learn, if I lived, how someone could sing joyously to G-d as he dies. And here I am.”

Needless to say, we were all spellbound. This guy had a way of telling his story, as I’m sure he’s told it 100 times over the past year. I can, however, fill in his missing blank at the end, in other words why this Hassid was singing. Unlike really anyone else in the world, Hassidic Jews find joy in everything. No matter their fate, they see it as G-d’s hand in their life.

Moreover, religious Jews await with great anticipation their death. As Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav said on his deathbed, “I am quite ready to be rid of this tiresome garment,” referring to his flesh. They wait to stand in G-d’s presence, the Shechinah, an experience that the Sages say one second of is better than the most glorious lifetime in this mortal world. Don’t think that religious Jews are like religious Muslims, seeking to die as soon as possible in order to get to Heaven. Rather, they relish this world, and when it is time to leave, they sing with great joy for the next. I’m not so certain, but I know that it is with great respect I look towards anyone that can take the end of his life and turn it into a festive expression of love for G-d.

I’ll post the rest of my entry tomorrow.

No comments: