Grapevine: Judaism in the abstract and the concrete

The parable of the burning bush was used for the weekly Torah portion to illustrate how even the most assimilated Jews have that tiny spark of Judaism left in their hearts.

Chabad Rehavia sign (photo credit: WWW.JERUSALEMCHABAD.ORG)
Chabad Rehavia sign
THERE WERE only two children present at the Shabbat service of Chabad of Rehavia last Saturday. Nonetheless, despite the absence of baby carriages and very junior congregants, the men’s section was packed and the women’s section was almost full. Part of the reason that so many people braved the snow and the cold was to listen to guest speaker Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, who heads Chabad in Toronto and was a member of the entourage of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper when the latter paid an official visit to Israel in January of last year.
Kaplan was introduced by Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, the director of Chabad Rehavia, who hails from Canada and is familiar with Kaplan not only for that reason but also because prior to becoming a Chabad emissary himself, he had spent three months working alongside Kaplan. Goldberg said that his great wish was to emulate Kaplan.
The more experienced rabbi returned the compliment by telling an anecdote about a rabbi who was normally very well disposed to children but who got very angry when he saw a group of children from his congregation writing their names in wet cement. A female member of the congregation, shocked at his outburst, reminded him that he had always been so fond of children and said she simply could not understand the change in his attitude. To which he replied: “I like children in the abstract but not in the concrete.”
The story led up to Kaplan’s praising Goldberg’s achievements both in the abstract and the concrete. Then turning to the sermon, Kaplan used the parable of the burning bush from the weekly Torah portion to illustrate how even the most assimilated Jews have that tiny spark of Judaism left in their hearts.
He recounted that he had received a phone call from a colleague in New York who told him that his cousin had married out and had committed suicide, and that his Afro- Canadian widow wanted to have his body cremated. The colleague asked Kaplan to speak to the wife and try to prevent the cremation, since it is against Jewish law. Kaplan told him to come to Canada and speak to her himself. The colleague was doubtful that she would listen but agreed to come. There was another problem. If the wife agreed to change her mind, the colleague couldn’t officiate at the funeral because he is a kohen.
He asked whether Kaplan would do it, and Kaplan reluctantly agreed. The wife was persuaded.
Kaplan knew nothing about the deceased when he arrived at the funeral. He and the deceased’s mother and brother, who had flown in from England and Thailand respectively, were the only Jews in a large crowd of people, several of whom delivered eulogies with no mention of the deceased’s religion. That was left to Kaplan.
After the funeral, the brother of the deceased, who was married to a Thai woman, told him that he knew the Chabad rabbi in Thailand, who had put up a mezuza in the brother’s office. As it happens, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, who is the chief rabbi of Thailand and the director of Chabad, is Kaplan’s cousin. Kaplan telephoned him and learned that the only thing Jewish about the brother was that he had been circumcised.
The two cousins decided that while the brother was in Toronto, Kaplan would make him a bar mitzva. He showed him how to put on tefillin, he provided food for the event, and there was a congregation that sang and danced. The brother was almost in ecstasy. He said he couldn’t explain the feeling. He had come to the funeral of his only sibling who had committed suicide, and yet he was on high because he was celebrating his bar mitzva.
His mother was weeping tears of joy. It transpired that she too had married out and that her sons had been circumcised only at the urging of her father.
“Promise me that they will be bar mitzvaed,” he had said to her. She had promised but had not kept her word.
“My Papa would be so happy,” she said. “My other son died without a bar mitzva, but now, with my remaining son, I’ve been able to keep my promise.”