Taking note of a helping hand

By: Rabbi Dr David Fox

The sun was still rising when we began our walk to the tiny house of worship. It was, literally, in a little house, where a select group of men gathered very early every Shabbos morning for worship and prayer. I could see and could feel the frosty mist which still covered the air around me with its soft breezy touch. We were not the only ones out at that hour. The alleyways and paths through the labyrinth of stone structures found young boys, young men, and older black-robed rabbis scurrying along at a clipped pace, waiting to greet the dawning Shabbos morning with prayer and song.

I was still a young man myself, just beginning my twenties, and I breathed in the scene and its sights with awe and wonder. This was so different than the streets of Los Angeles, where Shabbos observers were a small minority of the foot traffic on a Saturday morning, and hardly a synagogue opened its doors while the city still slept. Back in those days, not too long after the war was just beginning to feel like history, Orthodox Jews still ventured out cautiously, even in Western America, most remaining clean-shaven with “modern” attire rather than the regal adornment of these Chassidim. One seldom saw a fur hat shtreimel or a long caftan robe and now here I was in the growing throng of pious-looking men in their traditional garb.

I felt almost teleported back to an earlier era in history, my family history, where relatives whom I had never met populated the villages of the Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. If anyone stood out now, it was me as a clean-shaven American yeshiva student. There was a holy feeling about being here now, and I yearned to blend in and to become a part of this living history.

Our pace slowed, because on the walkway ahead of us was a rabbinic sage with two young sons at his side. They reached a corner and the father held out his hands, one for each child, and they carefully crossed the intersection.

As we followed behind the quaint threesome, I sighed with a taste of nostalgia for something I had read about, and imagined, yet had never seen before in my lifetime. There was something both majestic and mystical about that scene. I walked on with my elderly host, a European rabbi and war survivor, known for his depth and grasp of both kabbalistic and general knowledge of Torah and Judaism. I noticed that he was quiet and pensive, and that he, just as I, was studying the scene before us.

He was no stranger to this milieu, a long-time resident of its hallowed streets and Jewish presence. In fact, as we had passed other men en route to their respective houses of worship, many had greeted my host, nodding their heads with recognition and with reverence. I had developed an interesting relationship with him, a monthly guest in his home each Shabbos when the forthcoming Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, was announced.

We discussed many topics during each visit, and after Shabbos, we would smoke cigars together and listen to classical music, which he would interpret for me according to the kabbalistic principles for understanding the spiritual messages which can be embedded within orchestral presentations. Ours was a special and uncommon relationship, and the rabbi’s perspectives gave breadth and context for my understanding of those elements of higher reality which lurk latently beneath the overt trappings of the mundane.

As we watched the threesome up ahead cross another intersection, he finally commented to me. “This is Torah Judaism!”

I replied, “Yes, and it is so different for me, coming from Los Angeles, to see a father in a fur shtreimel and silken bekesha robe, a sight that I would never see out West. This is indeed Torah Judaism.”

To my surprise, my host chuckled, looking at me, correcting me. “The Torah Judaism is how the father extended each hand to his little sons, clutching their hands in his, and guiding them as they crossed the street. THAT is what the Torah is all about. Each one reaching out and helping others. That is Torah Judaism.”

As I processed his perspective, I had to agree. The attire and garb were a surface sign of Jewish affiliation. The love and the kindness, the caring and the guidance, the warmth and the protective grasp…those are what a life of Torah Judaism is really about.

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