Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Shabbat at Home (Ki Tisa 03/14/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Shabbat at Home
What a difference a week makes! On Sunday, we all had a great evening together at the Murder Mystery Dinner, on Monday we joyously celebrated Purim with ludicrous Shpiels, and now our synagogue will be silent for a while. We were actually planning on having Shabbat services with greater seating spacing, but we decided not to chance things given the current situation.
Tonight, I was going to share this story from Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal’s wonderful book, “Small Miracles for Families” (pp. 176-180). I believe it has two valuable lessons for our time:
Myriam Fuchs of Brooklyn, New York, traveled to Jerusalem in December 2001 to visit her married daughter Ruchama, who was expecting her first child and experiencing some discomfort during her pregnancy. The presence of her mother would soothe her greatly, Ruchama confessed over the telephone in a small, scared voice, and Myriam made flight arrangements posthaste. She knew that the State Department had issued a travel advisory warning American tourists to say away from Israel while the “Rosh Hashanah Intifada” raged on, but she dismissed the slight fears that prickled at her. Besides, if Israel was safe enough for her married daughter to live in – and her youngest daughter Rochel to study in – it was certainly safe enough for her to visit. So Myriam packed her bags, squelched her apprehension, and took off for the Holy Land to bring succor and motherly love to two children far away from home.
After about a week of ministering to her pregnant daughter’s needs, Myriam decided she was due for a night out on the town. Myriam and her younger daughter Rochel (who was studying at a women’s institute in Israel) opted for Café Rimon, a kosher restaurant located in the heart of Ben Yehuda, a bustling outdoor pedestrian mall.
Four months after the tragic Sbarro Pizza bombing in Jerusalem, pedestrians had finally returned to the streets, and business on Ben Yehuda was brisk. The pedestrian mall was filled with foreign students, Israeli citizens, and a few stray tourists. Café Rimon overflowed with patrons and hummed with laughter, excited chatter, and music. Israelis are such resilient people, Myriam thought, as she and her daughter hunted for a vacant table. Myriam welcomed the noise, the throngs, and the congestion. It actually felt good to wade through the crush and have to worry about securing a table. This was much better than the empty streets that had stretched before the store-keepers’ stricken eyes for so many endless weeks.
“I’m starving!” Myriam announced to Rochel as they grabbed the last remaining table. “Sorry,” she apologized to the disappointed couple who had also made a beeline for the same table, just a beat too late. She turned to Rochel, “I haven’t eaten since Sabbath lunch – what about you? Have you ever tried their French onion soup? Deelish!” She waved to a nearby waiter and beckoned him close. The waiter took their order promptly but warned that there was a backlog in the kitchen. “We had to let a lot of our staff go in recent months,” he explained, “and we weren’t prepared for the crowd tonight. I’ll try to bring your order as soon as possible,” he promised.
“Please!” Myriam urged, “I’m starving!”
The waiter had warned them, but they were not quite prepared for such an interminable wait. “How long does it take to ladle soup into a bowl?” Myriam grumbled. “It’s been more than a half-hour since the waiter took our order!”
Just as the waiter finally emerged from the kitchen, heading in their direction and bearing aloft the ceramic crocks of fragrant soup for which Café Rimon was so renowned, Myriam’s cell phone rang. It was her pregnant daughter, Ruchama.
“Ma!” she wailed. “I don’t feel so well. Please come home.”
Myriam longingly eyed the bed of cheese and miniature croutons floating in the sea of steaming soup and told Ruchama: “Sweetheart, we’re sitting at Café Rimon and just got our order. I’ll come as soon as we finish, OK?”
“Ma, you don’t understand. I really don’t feel well.”
“We’ll eat real fast and we won’t order anything else, OK?” Myriam begged. “Be there soon.”
But Ruchama wasn’t placated. Instead, her voice became a shrill with alarm and impatience. “Ma. I can’t wait. I need you. Now!”
Myriam stole one last yearning glance at the soup, threw some bills down on the table, motioned to the waiting couple still hovering nearby that they were leaving, and rushed with Rochel down the mall toward the nearest taxi stop. The two had not yet left the area when they heard a terrifying explosion accompanied by a cacophony of sounds: screams, cries, and sirens. The faces of pedestrians that just moments before had been so carefree and cheerful now blanched in shock and horror as they sobbed into one another’s arms: “It’s a pegua – a terrorist attack. Near a restaurant. Café’ Rimon.” As the words registered with Myriam and her daughter, they regarded each other with stunned disbelief and fled into the night.
The next morning, Myriam made a pilgrimage back to Café’Rimon, where the cleanup had already begun. The damage was extensive and sobering. The bomb had exploded directly in front of the restaurant and several patrons had been killed and injured. Myriam anticipated finding a boarded-up storefront; the rubble that only last night had been tables and chairs; the bleak, despairing faces of the staff as they milled around helplessly. But with typical Israeli resilience that was so inbred in the national character, the chaos of the night before had been swept away, and the restaurant was open for business.
Myriam sought out the waiter who had served her table the night before and was relieved to learn that he was unhurt. After ascertaining that he had escaped injury, she pressed on with the second question that had tormented her all night. What, she wanted to know, had happened to the young couple that had seized her table just as she left?
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Madam, “the waiter said, averting his eyes. “This was a catastrophe. The young man who took your seat…he died instantly. I don’t know who or what made you get up from your table so suddenly, but whatever it was, it was a blessing for you. Your life was spared as a result.”
When Myriam told Ruchama that her phone call had saved her life, Myriam’s daughter said: “See, Ma? I’m your angel.”
“That you are, “Myriam replied with a shiver. “That you surely are.”
While the story is tragic for the man who died, there are still some valuable lessons for all of us.
One thing I garner from this story is our ability to recover. The threat of rampant illness, school closings and widespread unemployment all seems overwhelming right now. Yet Israel must have felt the same way during the second Intifada, when more than 1000 Israelis were killed, and many more maimed and injured. Yet just four months after the most heinous of attacks, Israelis rebounded, and life started to be lived fully again. Even the next day after the singular attack, Israelis understood that they couldn’t live their lives in constant fear.
Resiliency though is not just a Jewish trait; in 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Anthrax packages arriving in the mail, we were all greatly dispirited, yet life gradually returned to normal.
We don’t know the time frame for our confinement, but life will return to normal once again.
Secondly, while it’s impossible for us to know why certain people survive and others do not, we are sometimes worthy of seeing the fruits of sacrifice. Myriam survived because she negated her desires for the needs of her daughter.
On Tuesday of this week, one of our long-term members, Howard Mann, passed from his bout with liver cancer. Before that, though, he had been granted 18+ (Chai) additional years. In 2001, Howard worked on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center building #1. Yet that morning, his son and wife were not feeling well, so he took the morning off to attend to their needs. Because of his devotion to family, he was worthy to spend eighteen more years with them.
Likewise, last night at a committee meeting, we heard a story from another member, Rich Brachman, who also stayed home that day for similar reasons and his life was spared as well.
While we mourn for those who did not survive that tragic day and grieve for those who have contracted Coronavirus, love for family should give us hope. While we are cooped up with our children, perhaps sacrificing our work, we should know there are myriads of benefits, possibly even life-saving ones.
As we say in our evening prayers, וּשְׁמוֹר צֵאתֵֽנוּ וּבוֹאֵֽנוּ, לְחַיִּים וּלְשָׁלוֹם, מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, may God protect our going and coming, for us and our country and world, now aWhile we are canceling services, classes, meetings and Hebrew School for the upcoming week, please know that we will endeavor to do whatever we can through videoconferencing and other virtual means, please stay tuned.
Wishing you all the best and a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Neil

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
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