It wasn’t just kids playing. There were teens, parents and the occasional grandparent, and we played until we saw the people walking back to the Synagogue for Mincha. With that signal we ran up to change and ran to Kenis or Shul. Inevitably though, at some point during the game, a group of young boys walking to Mirrer Yeshiva would stop and watch us, obviously puzzled at the sight of some boys with yarmulkes on their heads playing ball on Shabbat. I can still hear them chanting aloud, “goyim, goyim, goyim” as they passed by. But to us, they were akin to aliens from outer space. We knew we were observant Jews and paid no heed.
Keep in mind that those days preceded the days of whether you held by the eruv or not, or whether ball playing on Shabbat was permitted or not. In those days there was no eruv to argue about. And today few if any of those who joined us would even think of playing in front of their own homes. No eruv means no carrying. But we thought we were religious…
The rabbis at the time didn’t come out and tell us that we would burn in hell for playing ball. They didn’t chastise us in public. What they did do was work their magic by drawing us in. Rabbi Mevorach got us to cut the games short by bribing us to class with bats, balls and tickets. We were taught that if we were going to play, we might as well play basketball in the yard within an eruv.
My Rabbi, Asher Abittan z’sl always taught me, it’s not where a person is on his ladder of spirituality that counts as much as which way a person is heading. Had we been ridiculed as sinners by our own, I shudder to think how many would have fallen off the ladder never to return.
This week we begin the book of Devarim which the world named the Book of Numbers, as we begin this week by counting the people. But the census is not a simple count. Moses is asked “Naso et rosh beney Yisrael,” to lift up the heads of the children of Israel. The Midrash tells us that G-d was asking Moses himself to personally go out and have each person come before him to raise them up and show them how important they were, each as an individual, unique and worthy of an entire world. There is no better gift one can give than the gift of self-confidence.
I often wonder how so many other communities of Jews who came to America when we as a community came to America disappeared, while we held strong and have grown, ken yirbu, in numbers, observance and strength. We had holy grandparents and they had holy grandparents. Yet at some point our paths diverged. One group ascended the spiritual ladder while the other descended and at some point jumped off, intermarrying and cutting themselves off from the Jewish people forever.
The Rabbis would say that the mistake of some in that generation was in giving over to their children the idea that religion was a burden. They would bemoan the fact that Shabbat observance forced them to lose a job or that Kashrut was too expensive. The children of those complainers did what any normal person would do. They removed the yoke of that burden.
In our community religion was treated as a gift, a delight and something that we could enjoy together. Nobody complained that it was a burden. We didn’t do everything we should have and we did things we shouldn’t have, but the focus was on the victories and successes. A child beginning to walk is praised for each step and not criticized for failing to run a marathon.
While in Florida last month for Passover, I heard many stories from people about their connections. I would like to tell you two of them.
In both cases, the men telling me the story are today leaders of the community, observant with observant children and grandchildren and bound to Torah.
Like so many of us, they too grew up playing ball in the streets, taking their cheese to Vic’s Pizzeria in Bradley Beach, eating fried knishes at the sandbar, pancakes at Perkins and thinking that a tuna salad sandwich at the Blue Swan Diner was fine. They went to nightclubs and did whatever boys being boys do. At the same time, they put on Tefilin every morning, came to Synagogue every Shabbat, did not work, drive or turn on lights on Shabbat, never ate pork or shellfish, said a blessing every time they ate and thought they were religious. To protect their identities, I have changed a couple of unimportant facts.
“I was just getting married. My father was as poor as they come with no business for me to go into. Nor did he have connections to get me a job. I got my real estate license and began working as a salesperson renting out apartments. It wasn’t easy. After two years I was making $10,000 a year which in 1970 when median income was $7000 looked pretty good. My future father-in-law sat me down and told me he had an opportunity for me. He owned two stores in Old Orchard, Maine. My future brother- in-law was running one of the stores and would return home after 14 straight weeks of work from Memorial Day through Labor Day and pour $70,000 in cash on his bed. I remember thinking that I was earning $200 a week while he was earning 25 times as much. My father-in-law suggested that I take the second store. It might not earn as much but I could expect at least $50,000 over the season and I could still work in real estate for the other nine months. I was so appreciative of the offer. He then turned to me and said, “You realize, you’ll need to work on Saturday?” I said that I would have a manager on Saturday and be there the other 6 days, every hour of the day. He told me that it didn’t work like that. Managers couldn’t be trusted and Saturday was the busiest day and I would need to be there. He told me that I wouldn’t need to touch money or write. I just would need to be there. ‘And what’s the big deal,’ he continued. ‘Even Rabbis work on Shabbat and get paid. If they can do it, why can’t you? It’s 14 weeks and you can have your Shabbat the rest of the year.’ I thanked him for the opportunity and told him I couldn’t accept. And I wonder still today where did I have the strength to refuse?”
Another told me about his girlfriend. “She was Jewish and grew up in a completely secular home. She had no concept of Halacha and over dinner one night in some Manhattan restaurant we discussed our future. I explained that if she could accept Shabbat and Kashrut, we could get married. She promised she would try and we decided to see if she could simply avoid opening and closing the television and lights and driving on Shabbat. If she could do that for 6 weeks, then we would move in together. For two weeks she managed. On the third Saturday night when I called her, I heard hesitancy in her voice. She admitted she opened the TV and started asking what the point was in restricting electricity. I was in love and thought I would spend the rest of my life with this girl. She was everything I thought I wanted, but when I heard the tone in the question, I realized then and there that she could never be the mother of my children and we had no future. In my mind, I was a “religious” Jew and couldn’t imagine the possibility of giving that up. It would be treason.”
Some might call it hypocrisy. We as a community were eating in non-kosher restaurants, going to clubs and thinking about “moving in with her.” Yet we called ourselves observant or religious.
But therein lays the success. We were observant. We were religious. Within the community no one called us sinners. With title comes responsibility and because we kept out title, we kept our responsibilities. We had lines in the sand we couldn’t or wouldn’t cross.
Had we lost that title, then all the responsibilities would have disappeared with them. As ridiculous as it might sound to some of us today, if instead of being lauded for bringing our cheese to Vic’s, we were ridiculed for eating there, most would have stopped bringing the cheese, and instead of ascending the ladder we would have dropped off of it.
Many will point to the commandment hocheyach tochiyach et amitecha – to rebuke our friends. But my Rabbi would caution us that it takes a great expert to offer rebuke. Rebuke given the wrong way can more likely turn a person away rather than bring them back.
We talk about tolerance. This great Rabbi who we remember tolerated this and that great Rabbi who we remember tolerated that. But it’s much more than what we refer to as tolerating. It’s looking at a glass half full rather than a class half empty. It’s respecting people for what they are doing rather than demeaning them for what they are not. It’s about drawing close rather than pushing away.
We cannot forget Jacob’s ladder. It is a spiritual ladder which ascends to heaven itself. Some of us by virtue of birth were born on one rung and some on another. It’s easy for those above to look down upon those below. But who are we to judge. Instead we should offer everyone on that ladder encouragement. “Hold on tight,” we should say. “You’re doing great,” we should remind them. “Reach up for the next level,” we should cheer.
It’s too easy for the one above to step on the hands of the one below forcing him to fall and be lost forever. Just as one can save a world by saving a person, one can destroy a world by kicking one off that ladder. And none of us wants to be guilty of that.
So the next time you see someone doing something wrong, think twice before you criticize. And teach your kids the same. The goal is for each of us to climb higher without losing anyone in the process.
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