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Déjà Vu For Little Michele

A Faith Journey

On any journey, it is just as important to know where we have come from as it is knowing where we are going. So let me tell you a bit about my beginnings.

My name is Michèle Sankar, and I was born into a religious family… a religious Roman Catholic family. My mother is of Irish-Canadian background, and was raised with a love of the church, Catholic education, and a strong sense of morality. My father was born in Hungary, and although he left with his family when he was a young teen during the revolution of 1956, he, too, attended Catholic schools all his life.

The usual Catholic milestones filled my childhood – baptism as an infant in a Hungarian church in Toronto, First Communion, Saturday morning religion classes, weekly Mass, and so on. Catholicism was a source of pride for me, and I was a devoted and happy Roman Catholic!

When I was two, my family moved to a small village about an hour-and-a-half from Toronto. At that time, the population was 1,200 people – with at least 5 different churches in the village. Not a Catholic one, mind you. You see, the community was very Protestant, so our little, old Catholic church was out on the country side roads, and that's where I went to church, along with a few Italian, Polish, Dutch and Irish families.

Despite being in the minority – and the fact that, as Catholics, we were occasionally subjected to some negative comments – I was incredibly proud of my Catholicism. As a nine-year-old, I marched confidently into to my classroom with a cross of ashes on my forehead after having been to pre-Easter services at church that morning. I loved it all! I even "knew" that I would only marry a Catholic, and would bemoan the fact that there were only two or three boys in my class who would be eligible husbands.

As I grew up in a very Christian community, I knew virtually nothing about Jews. One part of our Sunday church service referred to "our brothers and sisters, the Jews." I asked my Irish mother about Jews at one time, and she smiled and told me that the Jews were very special people with a special connection to G‑d. That stayed with me, and at the age of eight, a Jewish seed was planted. Not once did I hear anything anti-Semitic from my parents, or from any of the churches or Catholic institutions I attended. So the Jewish spark was kindled, but I was Catholic… I was going to marry a Catholic. I had even picked out good Catholic names like Anthony and Maria for my future children. But somehow, something was pulling me towards Judaism.

I have always been an avid reader so I started looking for Jewish-themed books. While our little library wasn't great, it did have some children's books and novels with connections to the Holocaust. I read them all.

My parents became friends with a Jewish couple that lived out in the country with their two children. This was my first time to meet "real" Jews! We visited them once when the lady's older father was also visiting. He reached for something, which caused his shirtsleeve to pull up slightly. And there on his forearm, I saw them. Numbers written in bluish-green ink on his arm. It took a moment for me to realize what they were. This was my first real connection with the Holocaust – a man who looked like a regular grandfather, but had clearly lived through a horrific period.

When I was about nine or ten years old, our family was invited to a Passover seder by that same Jewish couple. There were no Jews for 60 miles, so they decided that the next best thing would be to invite their nice Catholic friends. Ours was a family who would understand and appreciate a seder!

For many of you, each time you sit at the seder, you're reminded of previous years. You know what the bitter herbs and matzah taste like… you are familiar with the sights, the smells, the story, the songs. And yet, there was little Catholic Michèle sitting for the first time at a seder table, and it was like déjà-vu for me. I knew and "remembered" those tastes – the crunchy, the bitter, the salty. How could something be so surreal and yet so natural and familiar? I was home.

So my Catholic plan for life took a little twist. Catholicism was still good, but I needed Jewish stuff. It was part of me now, and I couldn't dismiss it. Everytime I watched TV or a movie, I scanned all the names in the credits, trying to identify which ones were Jewish. I expanded my reading from Holocaust books to Jewish-kid-growing-up-in-Brooklyn books, including Chaim Potok's novels such as The Chosen. I learned that keeping kosher meant more than not eating pork.

When I was eleven, I had the wonderful opportunity to fly to Hungary for the summer, and spent two months in a town with my grandfather's sister. She was a devout Catholic and we went to church every day. Nusi had never married and had no children or grandchildren of her own, but she loved and indulged me the way a grandmother would. Money was scarce in Communist Hungary, but she gave me a gift of a pad of paper and some coloured pencil crayons. I can still remember her shock when she looked through my art pad, expecting to see pictures of kittens and flowers, and found instead a series of concentration camp scenes. The figures I drew were all faceless, but in Hungary I felt compelled to create these pieces nonetheless. We took trips to various cities, yet I just wanted to pass synagogues, to see them from the outside. It was around this time that I started having Holocaust nightmares where I frequently awoke in a cold sweat, having dreamed of running through alleys and forests, hiding when I could. Naturally, I attributed this to reading so many books about this tragic period in history.

I was about twelve, and my parents knew that I was strong in my faith and they were happy with my reading and learning. My dad then told me about another family whose wife was Jewish. Wow! I knew of two Jews near our community! Imagine my delight when The Jewish Wife lent me a book called The Jewish Catalogue, a comprehensive guide to all things Jewish. Very happily, I began reading about Shabbat, the holidays, koshering meat, and other concepts that were new to me.

As I was nearing the end of grade 8, it was time to face a new chapter in my life. Until this time, I had been in public school, the only option in our town. My parents had both attended Catholic boarding schools, and so this option was presented to me. I was thrilled! There was also a part of me that was interested in becoming a nun, although that meant not marrying my yet-to-be-discovered Catholic husband or having my already-named Catholic children.

And so I spent my four years of high school in a convent boarding school in London, Ontario. They were wonderful years. I went to Catholic Mass twice a week and was part of the religious committee, studying, singing and taking an active role in the community. And yet, I continued to entertain Jewish thoughts. In every textbook, I would scan the index for Jews, Judaism, or Israel, and try to soak up what I could. The only troubling aspect was the occasional nightmare of running through old alleyways, between stone buildings, down secret passageways, until I got to a forest where I kept running. Looking back now, perhaps I wasn't running away, but beginning to run towards something…

At 17, I started my studies at the University of Toronto, which is where I started moving more purposefully toward Judaism. For the first time, I met Jews my age. My dreams of meeting a nice Catholic boy were starting to be replaced by dreams of meeting a nice Jewish boy. I went to church less often. I registered for a Biblical Hebrew course at the university, where we learned the Hebrew alphabet and began reading Genesis in Hebrew.

Finally, in my third year, I realized I needed to make a decision. I had no anger toward the church, and it hadn't disappointed me; my experiences had all been positive. But as great as it was, I felt G‑d was tugging me toward Judaism. There had been signs and clues in my growing years, and I needed to listen.

It was time to make my first call. I telephoned a synagogue in Toronto, and asked to speak to the rabbi. This was the first time I spoke these words aloud: "I want to be a Jew." Silence on the other end of the phone. Then the rabbi's voice:

"Are you engaged to a Jew?"

"No."

"Dating a Jew?"

"No."

"Well, that's usually why people want to convert."

"But I want to convert because I want to be a Jew."

He asked about my age and background, and then started to dissuade me. It's really too hard…There's a lot involved…….. Being Catholic is good too, and so on. But I persisted. To discourage me further, he listed many books that I should buy.

I bought them, I read them, I called him back. The rabbi agreed to meet and learn with me. It was clear that I had to tell my family. It was one of the most awkward and difficult conversations I have ever had. Oh, there was no screaming or crying… nothing like that. But how do you explain to your parents that you no longer believe in the divinity of the one they think is divine? How do you tell them that you can't eat food the way they prepare it? How do you let them know that December 25 and Easter are meaningless holidays to you, ones which you will no longer be celebrating? And how do you convey to them that this Jewish religion, with its rules and stringencies, is the faith you love and feel so much a part of?

My mother did what any Irish Catholic mother would do in this situation. She went to her parish priest. While she was pouring out this story, he said to her, "Don't worry about Michèle. So many young people drop away altogether from religion. Your daughter went on a faith journey that brought her to Judaism. She still believes in G‑d, and He takes care of the Jews. You don't need to worry about Michèle." Imagine that, coming from a priest. And I have to credit my mother, the most religious Catholic I know, for also being the most understanding and supportive.

Well, word got out. And do you know what was interesting? My non-practicing family and friends, the ones who didn't do much church-going, were generally the most judgmental and critical of my decision. My own father, whom I dearly love, could not understand how someone would choose to join such a "restrictive religion." His mother, my Hungarian grandmother, was very upset. She was grateful that her husband did not live to see this day. I couldn't understand why it bothered her – or my dad – so much, when neither of them had been heavy church-goers anyway.

During this time, I began dating a friend from university – a nice Jewish boy, David – and he joined the learning train with me.

I gave up pork, and did not eat dairy and meat together. But shellfish stayed on my menu. One evening, my mother made delicately breaded scallops – very unkosher. After sitting down to dinner, I put a scallop in my mouth and began to chew. Ugh! Dreadfully bitter. I immediately spat it out, thinking it was a bad scallop. I tried another… same story. Could it have been the oil that was rancid? My mum and stepdad said that theirs were fine. I insisted on trying half of one from my mother's plate. Her half was delicious, she said, yet mine was acrid. At this point, my lips and tongue were starting to feel numb, as if there were a thick coating of Vaseline jelly inside my mouth. That, of course, is one sign of a serious food allergy. For years I could eat the stuff, and now that I had committed to Judaism, G‑d gave me a way to make sure I would never touch shellfish again.

Eventually, I bought my own little meat pan and a dairy pot, plus simple plates and cutlery to use in my parents' home. By this time, David and I were enrolled in weekly conversion classes which were to last almost 18 months. Soon I was buying kosher meat for myself, and I quickly came to love the island in time that is Shabbat.

Was it difficult? In some ways, yes. But by moving along at a reasonable pace, I was able to make each observance my own, and I saw how it made my life increasingly better.

A few months before the end of the conversion course, David asked me to marry him. I was going to be a bride!

Eventually the day for me to go before the Beth Din – to convert – arrived. I answered the rabbi's questions, and finally went for my immersion in the mikvah waters. I tell you, the experience was unsurpassable in its beauty and meaning. The Hebrew date was the 5th of Iyar, and the parshah that week was Tazria/Metzora, which deals with the laws of mikvah. How appropriate!


Now, I'll change the direction of this story a bit. I was always interested in my family history. My Irish grandparents had lovely stories of their ancestors. My Hungarian grandfather also talked about the difficult years growing up in southern Hungary. My Hungarian grandmother did not like to discuss the past at all, saying that the wars and Communism were painful to discuss. Fortunately, my father's sister had an excellent memory and was able to help me put together my family tree shortly after I got married. My grandmother's name was Eva, and her mother was Elly. Elly's father was a doctor. Really? A doctor? And what was his name? Simon. Simon? But no typical Hungarian man has the name Simon unless…. I decided to take a chance, and I wrote to the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery in the town where Simon once lived. Did they have a burial record for a Dr. Simon Winter, who died in 1943? Yes.

Things unfolded, leading me to more documents and discoveries that are another story altogether. Suffice to say, I discovered that my paternal grandmother was a Jew, born to two fully Jewish parents in 1914. In 1923, things were not good for Jews in Hungary, so my great-grandfather had the family baptized to improve their political and social situation. They did not maintain connections to most other family members, and lived thereafter as Catholics.

But my grandmother was a Jew, which means that my father is a Jew. The two people who were the most distraught by my conversion were Jewish according to Torah law. My grandmother was devastated when I discovered her "shameful" secret and did not acknowledge or discuss it with me. I respected how painful it was for her, so I didn't probe – but my heart was aching. She passed away just before Passover three years ago.

My research led me to discover that some of my Jewish ancestors and their families were killed during the Holocaust. Some tried to take refuge in the Portuguese safe-houses of Budapest, only to be forced out by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and murdered. Another survived and left the country, childless. My great-grandparents had to wear the yellow star, yet somehow survived in Budapest during the Holocaust. I do not know more because the one remaining relative from this time period refuses to discuss any of it with me. Even that person's own children do not know that their parent is Jewish.

My Catholic grandfather must have known about his wife's Jewishness, but if he did, he never mentioned it. My father and sisters were certainly surprised by the news. We learned, however, that during the war, my grandfather hid a Jewish colleague in their apartment. I also have old letters attesting that he looked after some belongings for Jewish neighbours when they were sent to the ghetto – and that he returned all of it.

More than ever, I felt responsible for bringing back the Judaism that was lost to my family through murder and assimilation. My children and I are the only living Jewish descendants of my great-great-grandparents. G‑d had a reason for bringing me back to Him. I needed to be the voice – and the soul – for those who could no longer speak.

So what was I going to do about it? It was a tremendous responsibility that G‑d entrusted to me. The truth is that during the first few years of married life, we had become somewhat lax in our observance. While I didn't write or go shopping or watch TV on Shabbat, we drove to synagogue, reheated food in the microwave, and flipped lights. I was blessed with three children. They all went to Jewish babysitters, and on to Jewish Day School.

Kosher? We had a separate meat and dairy section in our kitchen, and only food products with a kosher symbol were allowed. Despite the stringency at home, however, we still ate out, ordering "vegetarian" or fish.

One day, my husband came home and said, "Did you know that there is a synagogue here in Richmond Hill?"

"You're kidding!" I replied. "Where is it? What's it called?"

"It's Chabad Lubavitch, and it's actually in the basement of the rabbi's house."

I looked at him. "Lubavitch? Are you kidding me? That's really Orthodox. Aren't they all black hat and beards? No way!"

The truth is, I was worried. Such a small group in a personal space… I wouldn't be able to slip in anonymously or check out the lay of the land. I assumed they would know that I "didn't belong," that I was "just" a convert. I thought that I would be judged by stern and solemn people. No, thank you.

A few weeks later, David convinced me to give it a try. On one lovely Shabbat, we reached the home of Rabbi Mendel Bernstein and his family. In we went, and a nice young brunette named Toby sat near me and smiled. She was friendly, made nice small talk, and didn't ask any uncomfortable questions. After an hour, it occurred to me that she was the rebbetzin.

We became regulars. My oldest son, about 8 years old, began bugging me about covering my hair. For the sake of peace, I started to put a kerchief over my head. Over the period of a couple of years, the kippahs and tzitzit stayed on my boys even when they were out of school. My pants remained unworn in my closet, and I began wearing more modest clothing.

It was a new critical point in my life. Through increased learning, I knew that our growth had to continue. I decided that instead of announcing what I was going to observe, I needed to ask myself when I was going to embrace other aspects of Jewish life. These observances weren't burdens; they were gifts – gifts that had been taken away from so many Jews in the past, and I was grateful for them. Just as the instruction manual for our new appliances is written to ensure the best results – even when it tells us what not to do – so too G‑d wants what's in our best interests, and gave us an eternal manual called the Torah.

We quickly learned that when a person wants to increase in observance, obstacles soon disappear and life becomes easier and happier. Being Jewish according to Torah law is truly a joy for me, but there were difficult times too. Unlike my friends, I couldn't refer to my bubby's kreplach recipe, or my zaidy's traditions. Everything we did we had to borrow and personalize, secretly watching the rabbi, for example, to make sure we were doing a mitzvah right. And that scared me. I had a fresh Jewish soul and I didn't want to soil it. But I also know that, as humans, G‑d always gives us another chance. Mistakes don't undo the good that has been done, and it doesn't tarnish the good we will do in the future. We need to live in the present, to make this moment count.

I used to feel sad that I had nothing Jewish to offer my children… no traditions, no stories, no heritage. Now I know that every woman, no matter what her history or status, influences the dynamics in her home. Like most Jewish mothers, I fret over my menus for the High Holy Days, I grumble about the cleaning we need to do for Passover, I go into panic mode in the half-hour before Shabbat starts. But deep down, I am intensely grateful.

And that "stern Orthodox community" I was so worried about? How wrong I was! We quickly became a part of the Chabad family in Richmond Hill, sharing services, classes, celebrations, and friendship. This is a home where we have never been judged – only embraced.

I am a Jew. I never get tired of saying it, thinking it, believing it, loving it. Every day, there is that a thrill in me that exclaims: "Yay! I'm a Jew!" G‑d made me work for my Jewishness, and because of that, I appreciate it every moment. I don't believe that any event in our lives is just coincidence. Every one of us has a wonderful ability to renew our commitment to Torah and good deeds, to learning, praying, and making a difference to others – every single day.

My wish for you is that every day you get hit with that thrilling realization, "Yay! I'm a Jew!" and that you do something with it. When someone gives you a designer jacket or an expensive purse, you don't leave them in the closet. You take them out, use them, and enjoy them. It's the same for your Jewish life.

Don't keep your Jewish flame hidden in the closet. Take it out, utilize it, and go gently if you must. Flames can be shared without the giver losing any light; the more we share, the brighter it becomes. I pray that each of us treat every day as our first day as a Jew.

The Best Merchandise

0nkelos was the son of Emperor Hadrian's sister. Being a clever, handsome, well mannered young man, he had grown up to be one of the most promising future leaders of the mighty Roman Empire. His uncle looked forward to the time when Onkelos would be ready to make his formal debut on the stage of public Roman life.

By chance, Onkelos had become acquainted with some of the noble Jewish families who had settled in Rome. Through them, he was introduced to the Jewish religion, and was very much attracted to it.

Onkelos had to remember, however, that he was the noble son of the most eminent family of the Roman Empire. It was unwise for him to be observed associating with Jews. Still more dangerous would it have been, had he openly stated his intention of changing to the Jewish religion. It would have been sheer suicide. On the other hand, Onkelos felt increasingly drawn to the Jewish faith.

After long deliberation, he worked out a solution to his problem. He visited his uncle, Emperor Hadrian. During their conversation he casually mentioned that he had become interested in the world of commerce, and that he would like to dedicate some time and effort to becoming fully acquainted with the principles and workings of this most important field of public endeavor.

Hadrian, who was very fond of his nephew, was highly pleased at this show of interest in such complicated mat­ters as the theory and practice of economics. He gave Onkelos this advice: "The basic approach to commerce is the discovery of merchandise of a highly marketable product which has yet to come before the public. This type of merchandise is the most profitable kind of business."

This is exactly what Onkelos wanted to hear. Now he was given a free hand to travel about and to associate with mer­chants, many of whom were Jews, without attracting unwanted attention and giving cause for suspicion. In the course of extensive trips he visited the Holy Land, and remained there to study Torah. 

Gifted with an extraordinary and keen mind, he easily overcame the difficulties of the Hebrew language, law and lore. After a while he was ready to adopt the Jewish religion and to abide by the commands of the Torah. Secretly, he became a ger, a convert to Judaism.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people in those days. Onkelos visited them and begged them to accept him as their disciple. 

The Sages saw the deep change that had taken place in the attitude of the young, noble Roman. Instead of haughtiness, he now showed humility and a readiness to study, like all other students of Torah. 

They finally agreed to the urgent request of the young ger, and spent much time and effort on his Jewish education.

The time came when Onkelos could no longer delay his return to Rome. Confident in G‑d's help, he parted from the Sages who had become his revered teachers, and embarked on his trip home. 

After his arrival in Rome, he paid his due visit to the Emperor Hadrian, who quickly noticed the deep change that had come over his nephew during his long absence. It was a more humble, yet wiser Onkelos, who now stood before him, than the one who had left to study commerce.

"What has happened to you, my dear nephew? Did you meet failure in your business ventures, or did any one dare to harm you?" the emperor asked him. 

"Who would harm the nephew of the mightiest man in the world?" replied Onkelos with a smile.

"Why then do I see such humility in your countenance, my nephew?

Onkelos decided to be straightforward. "I cannot but tell you the full truth, my dear uncle. The reason for the change in me is the fact that I spent much time and effort in the study of Torah, the Law of the Jewish people. What is more, I even went so far as to adopt the Jewish religion as my own." 

Emperor Hadrian's face grew red with fury over his nephew's confession. This spelled the end of Onkelos's political career and deprived him, his uncle, of the one on whom he had counted heavily in his future political plans.

 When his fury abated, Hadrian felt that he should give his nephew a fair chance to explain his behavior before doing anything to punish him. "You have thoroughly disappointed my high hopes and expectations of you. Yet I am curious to know what caused such unbelievable foolishness on the part of such a clever young fellow as you. Perhaps there was some young woman who trapped you against your will?"

"My dear uncle and friend, to be frank, I must state that no such reason was at the root of my change of religion. What prompted me to take such a weighty step was none other than your sound advice before I parted from you."

Angrily, Hadrian retorted: "I would be the last man to advise you so stupidly."

"Yet remember, dear uncle, before I left, you advised me to search for merchandise that had the promise of being a best selling article. On my extensive trips and thorough study of many countries and conditions, I did not discover any merchandise that, at the present time, is considered lowlier or cheaper than the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.

Yet, there is also no doubt in my mind that it will become the most valuable merchandise of all in the future. As the Prophet Isaiah said: `Thus said G‑d, the Redeemer of Israel, the Holy One, to him who is despised by men, to him who is abhorred by nations, to the servants of rulers; kings shall see it and rise up; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves.' I should think no reasonable businessman would miss the chance of such great profit."

Hadrian recognized his nephew's conviction, and despite his regret and sorrow, he let him go. He did nothing to interfere with Onkelos's open conversion to the Jewish faith, and his life as a pious and observant Jew.

 

The Man Who Celebrated Tikkun-Night

Many years ago there lived in Tunis a worthy Jew named Matzliach. He was a great lover of Torah, though not an outstanding Torah scholar. He was not very rich, but generous in his charity contributions, and he was a G‑d fearing man.

Matzliach the Antique Dealer, as he was known, for he was a dealer in old wares and antiques, was well respected in the community. He was particularly praised for his special custom in connection with Shavuot, the Festival of Mattan Torah. Every year he would invite ten Torah scholars to his home on the first night of Shavuos, for whom he prepared a fine feast. After the feast they would all recite Tikkun and study Torah all night, in honor of the great festival of Receiving the Torah.

It all started many years before, when Matzliach learned for the first time about the origin of the Jewish custom to stay awake on the first night of Shavuot. He was greatly surprised to learn that on the night before that great day when G‑d was to give the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, they did not stay awake.

Indeed, they slept soundly, so that when G‑d descended on the mountain early in the morning to give the Torah to His chosen people, they were not there! 

So G‑d let loose thunder and lightning which woke them up and sent them hurrying to the Mountain. Not that the people were not eager to receive the Torah. On the contrary, they had been counting the days -forty nine days, seven full weeks -from the day after they departed from Egypt, eagerly awaiting the great day of Mattan Torah. 

Yet the night before that great event, when one would have expected them to be too excited even to think of sleep, they slept more soundly than ever! Did they want to be well rested, refreshed and wide-awake for the great moment of the Divine Revelation? 

Be it as it may, it was a letdown. And so it became the custom of Jews everywhere to make up for it and stay awake the night of Shavuot, and in this way "correct" the wrong impression. This is what Tikkun means -"correction."

Well, Matzliach and his guests certainly observed this custom in a fine way, and it impressed and inspired the whole community. There was not a Jew in Tunisia who did not stay up that night. Old and young gathered in the synagogues to recite Tikkun and learn Torah all night, and special refreshments were served to help keep them awake.

There came a time, however, when Shavuot approached and Matzliach found himself in a difficult situation. Business had not been good, and Matzliach simply had no money, not only for his usual feast, but not even for the needs of his own family in the way of food and wine for Yom Tov. Sadly he told his wife Mazal about his predicament, and she was greatly distressed.

"It is not so much our own need that distresses me," the good woman explained, "but the fact that you cannot keep your fine custom. It is sad to think about it."

"But what can we do?"

"Well, I still have my precious earrings," Mazal said, taking them off from her ears. "Here, take them to the pawnbroker and get a loan till things will improve. You should be able to get enough for Yom Tov and for your usual feast.

"G‑d bless you," Matzliach said gratefully. He took the earrings to the pawnbroker and obtained a tidy sum of money against them.

As he was walking home cheerfully, Matzliach met the venerable Rabbi Hai Tayeb, Chief Rabbi of Tunisia. Matzliach greeted the Rabbi respectfully, and the Rabbi returned the greeting, obviously pleased to have met him in the street.

"You saved me a trip," the Rabbi said. "I'm going around collecting for our poor, so they, too, can celebrate the Festival of Mattan Torah with joy. "

Without hesitation, Matzliach put his hand in his pocket and gave the Rabbi the money he had just received from the pawnbroker. The smile with which Matzliach gave the money pleased the Rabbi no less than the donation itself.

"G‑d bless you to do many Mitzvot and good deeds," the saintly Rabbi said, as they parted.

Slowly Matzliach continued his way homeward. "What am I going to tell my wife?" he wondered.

Suddenly he heard his name called. "Ya, Matzliach! You're just the man I want!"

The caller was one of the royal servants of the Bey of Tunis.

"His Majesty sent me out to buy a set of antique coffee-cups. I have no idea where to get them. But you are an antique dealer. Get them for me, and you will be amply rewarded," the courtier said.

"I will try my best," Matzliach promised. If there were such cups, Matzliach knew where to find them, and find them he did. The dealer Matzliach went to was pleased to get rid of them; he had had them too long and despaired of ever selling them. Now he was pleased to sell them to Matzliach on credit, for he knew the Jewish antique dealer as a trustworthy man.

Walking through the market place, Matzliach met the courtier again, for he was shopping for other things. "Did you manage to find the right cups for me?" the courtier asked eagerly.

"Thanks to the One Above, I did." The courtier took Matzliach with the cups to the Royal court and introduced him to the Bey.

The king was very pleased with the cups. " Just what I wanted," he said. "I know that the Jews are now busy with preparations for their festival. I am pleased that you took time out to find me these lovely cups. By the way, how are you doing with your preparations for the Festival?"

"The truth to tell, your Majesty, I have not yet bought a thing for Yom Tov."

The king immediately ordered one of his servants to send to Matzliach's house two sacks of fine flour, a jug of olive oil, and two choice live lambs. Then he asked Matzliach what he owed him for the cups.

Matzliach told the king what he paid for them and his usual commission.

"What? That's all you paid for these precious cups?" the king said, much surprised. "Well, the ruler of Tunisia is not looking for bargains. You shall be paid their full value!"

Matzliach left the king's palace with a very large sum of money. Walking briskly home, whom should he meet if not the Chief Rabbi, again.

"I can now afford to double my donation," Matzliach said happily, as he handed the Rabbi an amount equal to his first generous donation.

"Rabbi, your blessing was fulfilled," Matlizach said, and told him how G‑d was kind to him.

"Thank G‑d, we both did very well today," the Rabbi said. "Have a happy Yom Tov."

And a happy Yom Tov it was indeed for Matzliach and his good wife Mazal. And what made them happiest of all was that this year, too, they were able to observe their custom of celebrating Tikkun-night as ever before.

 

The Story of Shavuos

Dawn of the sixth day of Sivan, in the year 2448 after the creation of the world.

Thunder and lightning rent the air, and the sound of the shofar was heard growing strangely louder and louder. All the people in the camp of Israel trembled.

Then all was quiet again. The air was very still. Not a sound was to be heard. No bird twittered, no donkey brayed, no ox lowed. Every living thing held its breath. Even the angels interrupted their heavenly praises. Everybody and everything kept silent . . . waiting.

Suddenly G‑d's mighty words were heard from one corner of the earth to the other:

"I AM G-D, YOUR G-D!"

One after another, G‑d proclaimed the Ten Commandments.

During the next forty days and nights, Moses was G‑d's disciple, learning all the Commandments, along with the proper meaning of the Torah which was to be handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Afterwards Moses wrote down on parchment all the five books of the Torah, word for word, from the "Bet" of Bereshit to the "Lamed" of Yisrael (the last word of the Pentateuch), as it was dictated to him by G‑d Himself.

Millions of Witnesses

G‑d gave the Torah in the presence of all Israel - six hundred thousand male adults, aged 20 to 60, many more older men, and, of course, women and children, together with a multitude of other peoples (erev rav). In all there were several million living witnesses who saw the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai!

Present also were all the Jewish souls who were ever to come down to live upon this earth. Every one of us then solemnly proclaimed naaseh v'nishma - we shall do and learn. Each one of us was made a party to that sacred covenant between G‑d and His people Israel.

The Midrash tells us:

Said Rabbi Yitzchak: The children of Israel should have received the Torah immediately upon their departure from Egypt, but G‑d said, "My children have had no convalescence after their bondage in Egypt from which they have just been freed, and cannot receive the Torah so soon." It is like a king whose son had just recovered from a serious illness, and his tutor said,

"Send your son to school." To which the king retorted, "My son has not convalesced at all, and you want him to immediately return to school? No, let him be on a healthy and plentiful diet for two or three months, recover his color and strength, and then he will return to school." 

So said the Holy One, blessed be He: "My children have not recovered yet their color and strength from their bondage. Let them convalesce for a few weeks with the manna, the well and the quails, And then I shall give them the Torah."

Here is a beautiful parable telling us of the tender mercies of our Father our G‑d who cared for us tenderly as a king cares for his only son recuperating from an illness.

But there is something more than that in this beautiful parable. It wasn't so much our physical condition that had to be considered as our spiritual state. Hundreds of years of Egyptian bondage, enslaved to a people that, despite their architectural prowess and military might, had no feelings, no consideration for human beings, no true ethical teachings or morals - such slavery must have made a deep scar upon our ancestors' moral standards. They had to be cleansed from the "bricks and mortar" of Egypt before they could receive the holy Torah.

The children of Israel understood their situation. They had been told that fifty days after their departure from Egypt they would receive the holy Torah and they knew they had to become worthy of that Divine gift -the most wonderful thing in the world. So they impatiently counted each day, trying to better themselves every day, to improve their conduct and moral standards, to rise higher and higher as the time of the giving of the Torah drew closer.

And G‑d Himself helped them to better themselves, as He always does. G‑d gave them a wonderful diet that was both a physical and spiritual diet. He rained bread from Heaven in the form of manna. He opened a fountain in the hard rock. He rained meat from the skies - the quails, and He showed them many other miracles any wonders. The children of Israel learned to recognize G‑d they saw that He can alter the course of nature for their sake; they realized that they were the chosen people to receive that wonderful gift - the Torah.

For forty nine days, or seven weeks, the children of Israel eagerly prepared themselves for that great event But the last three days before the giving of the Torah were days of the most careful self-examination and preparation. When the great moment of the giving of the Torah finally came, they were clean, pure and holy is body and soul, and ready to receive the Torah. Unanimously they proclaimed: "naaseh v'nishma! - We shall do and we shall hear!"

So must we be pure and clean, in body and soul, if we are to be worthy of the Torah, if we are to appreciate it's sacredness and live up to our name - "a kingdom of priests (G‑d's servants) and a holy nation."

The Engraved Soul of a Jew
 

In the 1940's, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, sent emissaries to visit various Jewish communities.

Their purpose was not to collect funds for the Rebbe's sacred institutions; in fact, these emissaries would refuse even unsolicited donations.

Fund-raising was not the function of these special emissaries; these emissaries had a purely spiritual assignment: to bring Chasidic warmth, with new inspiration and vitality, to the communities they visited.

When I lived in Chicago, I was privileged to join in the hearty welcome of the distinguished emissary whom the late Rebbe had sent to Chicago.

In the midst of his crowded schedule, the emissary inquired after a certain individual, a Mr. L. He told us that the Rebbe had specifically instructed him to pay a visit to this Mr. L., who happened to come from a long line of distinguished Lubavitcher Chasidim.

However, having arrived in this country when he was a young boy, he gradually became "Americanized" and drifted somewhat from Judaism. The Rebbe, therefore, sent his emissary to give him a spiritual "shot in the arm."

It turned out that Mr. L. was a prominent businessman, with whom some of us had a nodding acquaintance. This information seemed encouraging to the Rebbe's emissary.

We put through a call to Mr. L.'s office and an appointment was arranged. Several local rabbis, including the rabbi of the Lubavitcher shul where Mr. L. was a dues-paying member, accompanied the emissary to Mr. L.'s house. I was also one of the visiting party.

Mr. L. received his visitors with sincere warmth.

An intimate and animated conversation followed, in the course of which the emissary reminisced about his acquaintance with Mr. L.'s grandfather.

Mr. L. warmed up, and he too, spoke nostalgically about his parents' and grandparents' homes, where the Chasidic customs were a daily experience, and where Shabbat and Yom Tov were truly joyous occasions of lasting inspiration.

The mission accomplished, the venerable emissary rose to take leave, whereupon Mr. L. brought out his checkbook, and asked to whom he should make his check payable.

"My dear friend," the emissary told him, "I did not come to solicit financial contributions, and I trust you will not be offended if I absolutely decline to take any money from you."

This obviously puzzled Mr. L. "Surely you did not come all the way from New York in order to pay me a social visit," Mr. L. said.

"Let me explain it to you," the Rabbi of Mr. L.'s shul replied.

"You know that a Torah scroll is written in a special way, by a scribe, with a quill and special black ink on special parchment.

"It sometimes happens, especially when the Sefer Torah is not used for a length of time, that a letter fades, and according to Jewish law, if a letter is missing in the Torah it is no longer 'kosher.' It therefore must be repaired by a scribe.

"The Rebbe has taught us that every Jew is a Sefer Torah.

"There are letters and words, which the Jew spells out in his daily conduct — Shabbat, keeping kosher, Jewish Marriage Laws, raising children to a life of Torah and mitzvot — all these are the `letters' which make up the living Sefer Torah, namely, the Jew.

Sometimes it happens that one of these letters becomes faded.

So the Rebbe sends us, the `scribes,' from time to time, to freshen up some of the faded letters, and make each one of us a perfect Sefer Torah."

Moved and grateful, Mr. L. bade us farewell, and we left him to digest the food for thought which was so aptly provided for him.

When the emissary returned to New York, he reported to the Rebbe on his activities and included a detailed description of what had transpired at Mr. L's home.

The Rebbe said, "It was indeed a very interesting explanation that was given to Mr. L, but the analogy was not true in all respects. It is true that a Jew is a Sefer Torah, but with a difference."

The Rebbe went on to explain:

 

"There are two ways of making an inscription. One can write with a quill or pen and ink, or one can engrave like the Ten Commandments which were engraved in stone.

"What is the difference between these two methods? Writing with a pen, or quill, means applying ink to paper or parchment.

"The ink and the parchment are separate entities, but they are skillfully joined by the writers. But because they are separate entities, it is possible for the ink to fade, or be erased.

"On the other hand, engraving means forming letters and words within the very stone itself; nothing is superimposed upon the material — the material and the letter are one. Such letters cannot be erased, nor can they fade.

"So long as the material exists, the letters are there. However, while no actual fading or erasure is possible in this case, there is a possibility of dust and grime gathering and covering up the engraved letters. If this happens, one must only clear away the dust and grime, and the letters will again be revealed in their original freshness."

 

The Rebbe concluded:

 

"A Jew is a Sefer Torah, but not a written one. He is rather like the Ten Commandments — engraved.

"The Torah and mitzvot are an integral part of the Jewish soul; they are engraved in his mind and heart. You do not have to `rewrite' a Jew; all you have to do is help him brush away the dust and grime of environmental influences which have temporary covered up his true self - the 'pintele Yid'. This is why a Jewish heart is always awake and responsive."

The Power of Writing a Torah
 
Alex Beim
by Tzvi Jacobs

About 250 years ago, a Jewish community in Russia was suffering from a devastating epidemic. The Baal Shem Tov advised the people to write a Sefer Torah (a handwritten scroll). They wrote the Torah and the plague stopped.

Salek and Chaya Beim of Morristown, New Jersey, commissioned a sofer, a Jewish scribe, to write a Sefer Torah in the merit that their two daughters, who suffered from a severe Lupus condition, should each have a complete recovery.

On September 11, 1992, six months after the sofer started this year-long project, the Beim's son, Danny, became the proud father of a six-pound, twelve-ounce baby boy.

As an obstetrician, Danny had seen many newborns, and his bright- faced, blonde-haired baby boy looked quite healthy. Danny's wife, Pam, needed a couple of days to rest up, but she looked forward to going home with her baby and taking an extended break from her work as a dentist.

Two days after the birth, a nurse went to get the Beim baby from the hospital nursery and noticed that he was barely breathing.

She rushed him into the intensive care unit. The doctors could not find the cause. After two days of testing, they believed that the faulty breathing stemmed from a congenital metabolic disorder which, in turn, was affecting the heart.

The doctors did an EEG on the baby. "Neurologically, it doesn't look good," the neurologist told Danny and his parents. He explained that the heart apparently was not pumping enough oxygen-rich blood, resulting in a lack of oxygen to the baby's brain.

"The EEG indicated extensive brain damage. He will never walk, talk..." the neurologist said.

Later, the neonatologist advised Danny and Pam to forget about surgery and let nature take its course. "If we fix the heart, your baby may survive, but he will be institutionalized for the rest of his life," the doctor said.

That evening Danny's sister Betty called and asked to speak to Pam. Betty worked for El Al.

"I'm going to get you a bracha," Betty said. "What does that mean?" asked Pam.

"A bracha? A blessing. There's a rabbi who works in the El Al terminal at Kennedy Airport who knows a rabbi who can pray for your baby. His name is Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe." Betty had recently met Rabbi Yekutiel 'Kuti' Rapp, the Lubavitch emissary in Kennedy Airport.

Rabbi Rapp called to report, "The Rebbe's answer is that the baby's brain will be okay; just fix his heart."

With this needed encouragement, the parents transferred their baby to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, famous for its advanced work in neonatology. The doctors there discovered that the trunks of the two main arteries leaving the baby's heart, the pulmonary and the aorta, were fused together.

The "old" and the "new" blood were mixing together, resulting in a severe lack of oxygen reaching the brain. Many risky operations had to be performed to fix this rare defect, termed persistent trunchus arteriosus, before the baby would be able to use his own heart.

In the meantime, Danny and Pam became co-sponsors in the writing of the Sefer Torah, in the merit that their son would live and be healthy.

So with the baby also in mind, the sofer continued inscribing letters in the Torah Scroll.

The baby had been in Columbia-Presbyterian for three weeks while the doctors evaluated his condition. "This is the worst case I have seen in 22 years of practice," said the neonatologist. "You have a very sick baby. I am very sorry, but you will never be able to take him home."

"I guess I just want a miracle for my son," Pam cried.

Hanging onto the Rebbe's blessing, Danny and Pam decided to transfer their baby to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. There, a team of doctors, headed by a Dr. Norwood, specialized in operating on babies with truncus.

The doctors at CHOP scheduled surgery on the baby's tiny heart. The delicate surgery involved dividing the arterial trunk: taking tissue from the baby's lung, and creating a wall between the divided trunks of the two arteries. This procedure had been developed only four years earlier and there were only 25 doctors in the world who were skilled at doing this type of heart surgery.

The Beim's baby was not strong—he weighed less than 10 pounds— so the surgery was doubly risky, but the Beim's gave the go ahead with it.

The sofer dipped his quill in the black bottle of ink, day after day, month after month. Then, on July 4, 1993, under an open tent on the lawn of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel in Morristown, New Jersey, the final 250 letters of the Torah Scroll were filled in by many friends of the Beim family.

Salek Beim filled in the last letter of the Torah, and exuberant singing erupted. The Torah was rolled up and covered with a velvet mantle, and everyone danced the Torah down Sussex Avenue to the Rabbinical College of America campus.

A robust, ten-month old boy, held in the arms of his smiling father, leaned over and gave the Torah a kiss. This healthy, bright boy was Avrohom Chaim "Alex" Beim.

"What can I say? You saw my baby today," said Danny, at the dinner following the Torah dedication ceremony. "I attribute Alex's miraculous recovery to the Rebbe's blessings and guidance. The Rebbe is proof that there is a G‑d in this world."