On a recent trip to New York, I scored hard-to-get tickets to The Late Show with David Letterman, thanks to my talent-agent nephew, bless his soul (references upon request!).
The Letterman show has been a mainstay of the late-night TV scene for many years, and Letterman’s retirement leaves a major void in the entertainment world. His droll but snappy sense of humor has been a refuge for many an insomniac for more than two decades, and he will be greatly missed.
Letterman is perhaps best-known for his Top 10 lists, covering virtually every subject known to man. And since we are well into Elul and headed straight towards the Days of Atonement – which call for serious introspection into our past – it occurred to me that this is a fine time to make a list of the Top 10 Jewish, or spiritual, experiences I have had over the years.
I herewith list them, in no particular order:
1. From time to time, I have the opportunity to lead kosher cruises to various points on the planet (and to think that my mother-in-law cringed at the thought of her daughter marrying a rabbi!). On this particular cruise, we were spending Hanukka in, of all places, Vietnam. This was definitely not a place I had envisioned visiting; after all, I – along with lots of other future clergymen – had clung to my 4-D deferment like a gambler holds onto four aces. But here I was nonetheless, leading a small group of fellow Jews on the water. On the first night of Hanukka, we placed a notice in the ship’s bulletin that we would be lighting the first candle, in the event that a few fellow passengers might be on board and like to attend. To my shock, more than 150 co-religionists showed up, causing the captain himself to run to our hall, fearful that a fullfledged bonfire was in progress on his ship! What began as a 15-minute ceremony became a two-hour song-and-latke- fest, the sounds of “Maoz Tzur” echoing across Halong Bay. It was then I saw, in living color, that the flame of Jewish interest burns within every Jew; it only needs a spark to burst forth.
2. On a trip to Rome, I led a group tour that visited the infamous Arch of Titus. The Roman general had erected this monument in commemoration of his conquest of Jerusalem and the sacking of the Temple, sending our people into the long night of exile. It had been a long-held tradition that Jews should not walk under the arch, a tradition broken only when a group of IDF soldiers finally decided they would stand there as an act of defiance. As we prepared to leave the arch, I asked our group to sing “Hatikva.” Almost immediately, people began running towards us. There were several Israeli tour groups in the area, and they flocked to the site to add their voices to the chorus. Before long, hundreds of us were singing, adding “Am Yisrael Hai,” “Hava Nagila” and any other Hebrew tune we could think of to the repertoire. At that moment I knew for certain, as the song goes, that the glory that was Rome was of another day, and that our day – Israel’s day – had come.
3. The occasion of my ordination as a rabbi was the culmination of many years of study, and the first step upon a long road that would take me to many diverse places, both geographically and religiously. Our class received the charge as spiritual leaders from Rabbi Norman Lamm, then head of Yeshiva University, and Simon Wiesenthal, the celebrated Nazi-hunter. Rabbi Lamm assured us that we would now “sleep like babies – sleep an hour, cry an hour, sleep an hour, cry an hour!” And Wiesenthal reminded us that our central task as rabbis must be to fight for justice, in every arena of human endeavor. Four decades later, their words still ring in my ears.
4. The birth of a child is one of life’s most emotional and satisfying moments.
What else compares to the blossoming of new life, to becoming a partner with the Creator Himself? Our daughter was born on Purim day, smack in the middle of the reading of the megila. Less than an hour after she was born, our cantor rushed to the hospital straight from the synagogue, accompanied by his three young daughters – one dressed as bride, one as a hassid, the other as a giant hamentash. As you might imagine, the scene in the recovery room created quite a stir in the hospital, particularly in a place like Fort Worth, Texas, where such spectacles are, well, somewhat out of the ordinary.
Talk about your mishloah manot!
5. If there was one cause, one crusade – besides Israel – which galvanized and united American Jewry, it was the Soviet Jewry issue. Hundreds of thousands of dedicated people worked for decades to free our brothers and sisters behind the Iron Curtain. The defining moment of this struggle was the great gathering in Washington, when a multitude of protesters from around the country gathered to demand, in one gigantic voice, “Let my people go!” It was a plea too deafening to be ignored, too powerful to be dismissed, and it finally succeeded in breaking the will of Russian repression.
As I stood in that sea of humanity, I felt what it must have been like at Mount Sinai, when we were One People, with one heart. It was a moment in history that would rarely be duplicated, a phenomenon that we need all too much today.
6. A moment we had waited for all our lives came to pass on the day we made aliya. You never really finish “making” aliya. It’s a lifelong process that starts even before you deplane; it begins in your mind, when you make the determination to be a part of this great and historic adventure; and it does not end until your family is firmly rooted in the soil of the Holy Land for generations to come.
But perhaps an even greater event than our own aliya was participating in the Nefesh B’Nefesh celebration four years ago heralding the arrival of a planeload of new olim. The oldest of the new immigrants on that flight was my mother-in-law, who had endured the fires of Auschwitz, lived in Europe and America, but decided that life begins again at 80 – in our own country of Israel. That is Zionism in a nutshell.
7. Speaking of the “old country,” I have led a number of trips to Poland, to reconnect our generation with its roots and to see firsthand the horrors that can happen when Jews live in the exile, at the mercy of demonic and despotic regimes. I have always said that every Jew should visit Poland once, to appreciate what a blessing from God it is to have our own country. On one of these visits, I had the merit to teach Torah from the stage of the once-great Yeshiva of Lublin, the place where the Daf Yomi movement began, once one of Europe’s most celebrated centers of Jewish scholarship. Two of my great-uncles had been teachers there, before they and their families were wiped out by the Germans. As I gave that class in their sacred memory, I felt I had fulfilled their unspoken wish: that the eternity of the Torah and the chain of Jewish continuity never be broken.
8. We are both a wondering and a wandering people; we have crossed the globe for centuries in search of ourselves and our destiny. And we still love to travel more than any people on earth; at any given moment, 20 percent of our population is out and about somewhere, in some distant land. Well, no place is more distant than Kathmandu, Nepal, often dubbed “the top of the world.” I found myself there one Shabbat, in the shadow of the majestic Himalayas. I participated in Shabbat dinner courtesy of Chabad Nepal, along with more than 300 other backpackers and tourists, almost all of whom were from Israel. I fondly remember the greeting the local Chabad rabbi gave his young guests before kiddush: “In truth,” he said, “we should never really leave Israel, because it is the most beautiful place on earth, even more beautiful than Nepal. But it is allowed to leave the confines of Israel to find a spouse. And being able to tell your prospective husband or wife, “I was in Nepal for Shabbat!” may be just impressive enough to get them to marry you – so that alone is reason enough to be here!”
9. There are people whose first visit to the Western Wall is rather uneventful and uninspiring; a big wall, a lot of people praying – or asking for donations – and lots of tourists leaving notes in a dozen languages. For others, it is a moment of rapture; they may even black out, so overwhelmed are they with anticipation and emotion. On my first visit, I tried to pray, but I was speechless. I tried to cry, but I was paralyzed. I was caught between two conflicting impulses. On the one hand, I felt privileged beyond belief to be standing at this spiritual touchstone, to have finally “come home.” On the other hand, I was focusing on all my many relatives who had never lived to experience this great moment – including my own parents, who had never set foot in Israel. I guess I must have appeared lost – and I was – because a young hassid came over to me and said, “I will help you pray; cover your eyes.” As I did, he told me to repeat, Shema yisrael, Hashem Elokenu, Hashem ehad. God is One – and so is the Jewish people.
10. For centuries, we Jews lived incomplete lives. We had our faith to support us, and we sometimes enjoyed great freedom in our Diasporas, but we always felt strangely on edge, as if our next crisis was just around the corner.
The missing piece of the puzzle was the ability to control our own fate, by virtue of our magnificent Israeli army.
The khaki uniforms of our courageous men and women in military service are no less holy than the High Priest’s clothes worn in the Temple. And so, the day our eldest son, Ari, was sworn in to the IDF at the Kotel was among the highest points in our lives. As he grasped the rifle in one hand and the Tanach in the other, he was reaching across the generations to fulfill the dream that we carried into the gas chambers, that animated our prayers for 2,000 years. And though he was to fall in battle, the image of him – and all our soldiers – proudly defending our state is the embodiment of Jewish pride, and the reason why our enemies can never, ever overcome us.
Am Yisrael Hai.
I have shared some of my greatest Jewish experiences with you. Now, will you share some of yours with me?
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; jocmtv@ netvision.net.il