I might not get as much media attention as the Pope, but let’s give credit where credit is due. I think I said it before he did.
“Who am I to judge?”
That’s not only my line,it’s what I truly believe. Whenever I see a Jew standing before me, no matter if they are observant, non-observant or somewhere in between, Judaism is the great equalizer.
We are all Jews, no more, no less. Who am I to say that a Jew whose connection to Judaism is perfecting his grandmother’s recipes from the old country is not somehow deep and holy? Who am I to say that a Jew whose emotional connection to Judaism is caught up with politics, social Justice and what is going on in the Middle East is not somehow…religious?
Or maybe you connect through your Jewish summer camp or by visiting Israel. And…what if you have that friend that consistently sends you Jewish jokes, and delights in Jewish humor?
Who am I to say that on some level, that is not an acceptable way to connect to Judaism and your Jewish neshama. The way you feel it in your kishkes. I, for one, think that’s pretty powerful. I love that! I love how each one of you expresses your Judaism whether it is inside the sanctuary or in your kitchen, or arguing politics and even sending me jokes.
Because when all is said and done, and you strip away the hundreds of midrashim that I have studied, and take away the political or cultural emotions, let’s say of another, we are just two Jews, standing there.
We are both equal in the eyes of God and the Jewish community. And yet the thing that we most have in common is that the potential exists for both of us —–to do more, to learn more. And to feel more…
When people see me, they often feel the need to explain why they might not have been in shul for last few weeks, months…years! or ever! And I always say the same thing. I don’t take attendance! It’s none of my business, and you know what? I say…There’s lots of ways to connect to your Judaism outside of these walls. That is the true beauty of Judaism. It just needs to be uncovered.
And that mystery…. that deep connection for me, begins in an unlikely place with just three small lines. Have you ever seen those crowns coming off the top of Hebrew letters? I learned once, from a sofer, a scribe, that these crowns, these flourishes, called Tagin, in Hebrew, those strokes bursting from the tops of just seven special letters shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimel and tzadi, represent something truly mystical.
Over thousands of years, the meaning of the tagin, the crowns, over the special letters, has been lost. But that hasn’t stopped the soferim, or the Jewish mystics and rabbis from trying to divine their hidden power.
Kabbalah places great stress on the mystical meanings of the tagin. Together with the letters and words of the Torah, every additional stroke or sign is a symbol revealing extraordinary secrets of the universe and creation. And the sofer, the scribe, represents that unbroken chain of mystery from Mt. Sinai until today.
A little over ten years ago, I met such a scribe, a link in that chain. Rabbi Moshe Druin. You might have even met him, for he fixes a lot of Torah scrolls in this area. You would recognize him by his easy going manner.
His enthusiasm for the work that he does. But mostly you would remember him if you ever witnessed him teach. Such a vibrant man. The adults listen, as fascinated as the kids, when he explains the significance of the letters, or, even more fascinating, the crowns on the letters,
You feel as though you have just been given the keys to understanding the great secrets of the heavens. And at the end of one of his teaching sessions, after he has repaired your Torah Scrolls, he might have given you a piece of real Torah parchment, about this long and this wide, with your Hebrew name written on it.
Just think of it. Jewish tradition teaches us that nothing is to be wasted, in terms of interpretation. Even the flourishes on top of the letters in the Torah, the tagin, are said to contain the greatest secrets of all. And I…….believe it.
I’ve always kept Rabbi Druin’s contact info. Not just because I thought it might be a good idea to be able to call a sofer to repair a Torah scroll if I ever needed that. I kept his information–truthfully? Because I value his mystical teachings. Somewhere down the line, I knew I would be connecting with him again.
So…The story I am about to tell you, is a story that led me to uncover that unbroken power of ancient Jewish customs, that are still used to today. And it is a story that once again, led me to Rabbi Moshe Druin. Connections…..
This past summer,I reached into my mailbox and took out the obvious mail. I didn’t see anything else in the mailbox but I decided I would give it one last swoosh and dig down a bit deeper, grazing the bottom for any small letters that I didn’t see.
When I reached my hand in and swiped toward the bottom, I felt a small piece of paper, not an envelope of any kind. I took it out. It was a bit bigger than a book mark, and I wasn’t sure how long it might have been sitting there, weeks maybe.
It was from the American Red Cross. What caught my attention was the name and the picture on the bottom of the paper. It was our neighbor’s son, Cameron Hurwitz. They live down at the end of the street from us and we had met them on a few occasions. They are a Jewish family, and they knew the family we had bought our house from.
The piece of paper that Cameron’s picture was on, was an announcement to let us know that there would be a blood drive for Cameron in order that he could continue to have blood transfusions, since he had developed aplastic anemia this past February.
Aplastic Anemia occurs when your body stops producing enough new blood cells. Cameron doesn’t produce any.
I had seen Cameron’s mom, Caryn, numerous times since then, mostly waving at each other as she drove down the block. I had no idea that the family was dealing with this kind of shock and illness.
The blood drive had already occurred, and because I hadn’t seen the slip of paper lost at the bottom of my mailbox until then, I felt terrible. Just so utterly terrible!!! I called Caryn to see if there was anything, anything at all that we could do.
I was about to offer bringing dinners over, or going grocery shopping for her, any little thing that might help them out, as Cameron was not able to be around people and had been out of school for months.
They were not optimistic that he would be able to return for the 8th grade in the fall. But…..much to my own surprise, instead of offering the dinners and groceries, I said,
Hey, Caryn.. I know this might sound a little odd, but I was wondering if you think Cameron would be into a special and ancient Jewish ceremony?
Traditionally, when a Jew gets very sick, it is customary to change your name. I have done a lot of naming ceremonies, but I think it would be great if Cameron could get a new Hebrew name which will symbolize a new life.
I didn’t want to tell her right then and there, that the purpose of the name change was to confuse the Angel of Death, so that Cameron would be spared. So I stuck with my story of hope and resilience.
She said she would ask Cameron about the name changing ceremony. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how they would react. I wasn’t sure what their level of religious observance was. But then again, I don’t judge stuff like that. To me, they are simply…Jews. Living on my street. No more, no less than me.
A few minutes later my phone rang. It was Caryn, telling me that Cameron was really excited about getting a new Hebrew name!
I told Caryn about the possibility of giving him the name Yisrael… Israel. I briefly told her about the story in Genesis about how Jacob prevailed against the night angel–and won the struggle….and how the night angel changed his name from Jacob to Israel. Israel meaning: One who prevails with God.
After we hung up the phone, I was truly…..incredulous, for a 12 year old to be so open and willing to participate in a relatively unknown ancient Hebrew ceremony was extraordinary. But I was just beginning to learn how extraordinary Cameron truly is.
But not only did Cameron agree to it, he immediately set about searching for his own new…Hebrew name. When we talked again, to set up a time and place for the ceremony, Cameron had already chosen his Hebrew name. I was moved to hear that he would be named after his grandfather who passed away,Yerachmiel haLevi, meaning…God will have Compassion.
The night of the ceremony, I brought flowers into our back house where we would be doing the ceremony. I brought out a copper washing basin that was given to us as a gift on our wedding. And I had just come from witnessing a conversion at the mikvah, where I filled a tupperware container full of mikvah water in order to use it for Cameron’s naming ceremony.
The Hurwitz family walked over to our home. Scott, Cameron’s father, brought his special kiddush cup, and his own tallit and that of his father. The boys, Cameron, and his brother Reese, were wearing kippot. We were ready to do this!
Cameron sat on a chair with his feet in the basin. The Tallitot were draped behind him. The mikvah water waiting still to be poured over his feet. Ancient blessings filled the air with song as Cameron received his new name:
He would now be known among his people as Yerachmiel HaLevi Yisrael. His mother, father and brother each took turns pouring the water over his feet, blessing him with words of hope and resilience. His father most of all, connecting his new identity to his own father, and our forefather Jacob, whose name became Israel when he prevailed over the night angel and strove with God.
Blessings were poured over him:
- that he will begin to produce his own blood cells
- Blessings that he will soon return to school and good health
- Blessings that no matter what, his family is there for them, that they love him
And while Cameron’s father got down on his knees and poured the last bit of mikvah water over his feet, he became a link in that unbroken chain, saying, “the Hurwitzes prevail…… we always prevail!”
Sometimes I get caught in the trap when I think Judaism doesn’t matter in people’s lives anymore. Yet, I am certain I have never in my life witnessed anything so moving, so meaningful than that special night.
The Living Judaism unfolding before my very eyes. A family praying, literally… praying for their child’s life surrounded by ancient customs, ancient ritual objects, calling upon his grandfather, Yerachmiel’s presence to be a witness. And adding the name Israel.
The only name out of Cameron’s new Hebrew names that contains a letter with Tagin, with the mystical flourishes, is the shin. I wanted Cameron to have those tagin, those mystical flourishes that contain the secrets of creation attached to his new name.
After the ceremony, I emailed Rabbi Moshe Druin, the sofer. I told him about Cameron and asked him if he could send me Cameron’s new Hebrew name in Torah script…on parchment so that Cameron could carry it with him.
A few days later, I received an envelope. I was expecting a thin envelope but this one had something in it. Rabbi Druin had not only written out his name in black ink on parchment, but he encased it in a small sealed plastic case with a key ring protecting it.
I rushed over to their home across the street, eager to give this amulet to Cameron. Cameron’s father, Scott, showed me the new Chai necklace he had bought for Cameron. Scott made an attachment for the key ring so that Cameron could affix his new name to his belt loop every day. With the chai around his neck and parchment, I know with certainty that Cameron feels the force of his Judaism…embraced.
Now…on one side of my brain, I’m a superstitious person, and I do believe in the power of ancient rituals. But on the other, I know that our prayers are not always answered.
And I know also, that although we want to confuse the Angel of Death by giving ourselves new names, I realize that the power of the ritual was the connection we created, between us and with God. It is bound up in the fact that we carved out a special and holy time in order to look Cameron in the face and tell him that they.. that we are there for him, and that he will prevail. In many, many ways, he already has.
Cameron and his family’s willingness to open themselves up to Jewish customs and Jewish teachings they did not know existed is a dugma, an example to all of us.
Just a few days ago, Cameron and his family found out that the transfusions would no longer work and they would need to start the search for a bone marrow donor. And even with this news, they are still hopeful that Cameron will prevail.
To meet Cameron and his family, you get the feeling that you have come face to face with determination, courage and love. Perhaps these three things are what the three tagin on the seven special Hebrew Letters stand for. Determination, courage and love..
On this Yom Kippur, we all stand here together…we are all equal, no more… no less Jewish than the person sitting next to you. Together, let’s try, at least try, to begin to uncover the mysteries of the Torah and the richness of our history. For we have all truly been given a gift and there is so… much…. more…to learn.