These past weeks we have been afforded the opportunity to read about the ascension of Moshe Rabbeinu as the seminal figure in Jewish History. One would be hard pressed to identify the precise singular moment which defined Moshe Rabbeinu’s career in leadership and that placed him on his well known trajectory, but for me his greatness turned on the pasuk in Shmos that reads וַיְהִ֣י בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם - Moshe became older, went out to his people and ‘saw’ their suffering. Rashi commenting on this pasuk says very simply but very profoundly - וירא בסבלתם. נָתַן עֵינָיו וְלִבּוֹ לִהְיוֹת מֵצֵר עֲלֵיהֶם - Moshe placed his eyes and his heart in order to share in their distress. I have always loved that formulation - נָתַן עֵינָיו וְלִבּוֹ לִהְיוֹת מֵצֵר עֲלֵיהֶם. Sometimes that’s all that it takes - focusing on the world and it’s inhabitants to share in their distress.
Please allow me to share a story that happened to me yesterday. Ilana works with a Jewish lady here in Monsey who employs a Hispanic cleaning lady. Unfortunately the cleaning lady’s mother in law passed away earlier this week and as it turns out the mother in law and her two sons are Jewish. When Ilana’s friend enquired about the burial she was told that it was the mothers wish to be cremated, the sons have no connection with faith, don’t believe in the concept of the soul or the afterlife, see no reason to spend money they don’t have on a Jewish funeral and just want to fulfill their mother’s wish.
This woman sprung into action, contacted R’ Pessin and Misaskim, and through all of their efforts, the family decided to have a tahara and a funeral, a plot was procured and all of the money was raised. What was left was finding a Rabbi who could meet with the family and conduct the levaya, and Ilana mentioned to her friend that her husband could probably lend a hand. So with that as the backdrop I went last night to the robust Jewish metropolis of Sloatsburg to meet with the two brothers. While the whole family was lovely and completely respectful, it was clear that, for at least one of the brothers, there was very little belief in the whole thing and that both my presence and the ceremony as a whole was something of a waste of time. I tried, to the best of my abilities, to explain the value of a traditional burial and we parted with (I think) a warm feeling, mutual respect and a commitment to see eachother again tomorrow afternoon for the burial.
I got in my car struck by two incredibly strong feelings. One feeling of course was that as lovely as these people are, and how noble it is that they are in fact going through with a ceremony that is not meaningful to them, that there a profound underlying sadness. This is a Jewish family in which only the two sons are in fact Jewish. None of the grandkids are Jewish, neither the deceased or the kids had ever been in a shul, and if their mother had had a Jewish name they were not aware of it. How many people from Am Yisroel travel through life’s pathways in exactly the same way? No awareness of their roots, no concern for our history and with no knowledge to speak of. It’s a slow march the result of which has wiped out and will continue to wipe out an overwhelming percentage of our nation. I don’t say this with criticism or condescension but just as an observation of a reality that we often don’t contemplate in our circles.
On the flip side, these people warmly welcomed an orthodox Rabbi into their homes and seemed desirous of some connection. Furthermore, the fact that Ilana’s friend was so passionate about this, the fact that our community can boast of people like R’ Pessin who give everything of themselves with nothing asked in return, and the fact that organizations like Misaskim abound that are just interested in helping - all of these facts continue to be an incredible source of inspiration to myself and I’m sure to any sensitive member of the broader Jewish community. Ashreichem Yisroel - how unabashedly joyous and privileged we should feel to be a meaningful part of vibrant Am.
I guess the only question is where are the corners of the world to which we can ‘lift a candle’ and hope to spread the timeless values and traditions to which we have been entrusted. We don’t need a bunch of in- your -face proselytizers or Bible thumpers. What we do constantly need, for both internally within our own nuclear families and communities, and externally to the broader Jewish world are people who can respectfully, thoughtfully and passionately convey the beauty of what we strive to be and of the meaning that can be found in this life.
Let us collectively embody the spirit of Moshe Rabbeinu in being people who focus our eyes and hearts on the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of klal Yisroel and of the world around us.
With warmth and respect
by Rabbi Joshua Blass