Friday, April 21, 2006

The last piece of work before Shabbos

Three rabbis marching with thier torahs
It is funny how time can descend on you sometimes. This last week’s having been Passover made for an interesting day today. Passover is a holiday of rest as much as anything and so during four of the eight days, work of any kind is absolutely prohibited. Also on of the other day’s was a Shabbos day so there were only two days available for even light work so you can see how this might get in the way of getting things done. For me, this meant cramming in the whole of my six day schedule into three days and eventually, trying to cram all of all of the work that hadn’t been finished into today. And because of this, I am rushing to get this last thought out before my 8:00pm sundown deadline.

Ok, I know this is a self imposed deadline, no one is demanding that I write this blog, but I still am trying to adhere to my sense of discipline and order and get this last page out before Saturday. However, before I could do so I needed to get another piece of work done for the temple and so this afternoon had be scurrying around like a rat trying to get that done so that I might be able to sit and reel off a few words for here.

My search for the proper words led me over to the synagogue at about 4:00 this afternoon. I had hoped to get to talk to R’ Yohanon Berman about this week’s torah portion of Tazria-Metzora. When I got there though, R’ Berman was on the phone to America so I talked a bit with an American girl who is visiting us for the holidays. I was sprinting through the conversation trying to explain to her how we deal with the weekly portions. Normally I would go to R’ Fhima to work out this issue earlier in the week, but because of the holiday we never got to it and today he was also overburdened with having to finish whatever was on his desk before the same sundown cutoff (“I can’t deal with this right now, I have too many other things to think of.”). So this led me to scrambling over to the Synagogue in the hopes of getting some words of wisdom from R’ Berman, who by the way is the official Rabbi of Pinsk. Connie, this is the girl’s name, is studying and working at a Jewish University in New York and is here in Pinsk helping watch R’ Berman’s five kids while he is in town for the holidays. Connie was not very impressed by my feelings of urgency and suggested that I simply don’t worry about it and let it pass.

Hah! Sorry. Would you let the kids stray too far out on a window ledge without doing anything? Of course not. Ok, ok, we are not talking about protecting children but rather a 1500 word essay on a 3000 year old torah portion. So the point is well made as to its relative importance. But still in the end I would think that it would have to be about professionalism. Though there is no guarantee that it will help, doing the job you say you were going to do, on time and well, simply must be better than sitting around waiting for the pension check. At least I think so.

Unfortunately though the point was moot because R’ Berman was also drowning in last minute catch-up, his cell phone glued to his ear talking business with New York while marching up and down the synagogue stairs entertaining those fantastic five kids of his. “I can’t think of anything right now, I am too busy- and besides, I have to watch what I say or I might end up on your blog.” True enough.

Ok, so what now? My only chance would be if R’ Dovid Altman was at home and not at the boy’s or girl’s school. I tried to phonme from the sybagogue but for some reason the phone would not connect. So I ran home and calledf from there. Yes he was home, yes he was free and yes, I could come over and talk. The great R’ Altman, my Sunday Tanya teacher and friend comes through.

R’ Dovid takes pride in how little business he has I think. I mean, I know he would like to have more money than he does, so would we all, but he is for sure not in it for the bucks, but rather for G-d. He is the spiritual one to be sure and certainly the one who takes the time to make the time. Ok, ok, there is also that he is from Azerbaijan and the others are from the west, so maybe he simply has a bit more of a “svoix” attitude. This is a Russian word which means your own, or belonging to. It is used to describe those who are a part of the culture here in the former USSR. If you are svoix, you are our boy, or some such rhyme. In any case he was indeed there when I needed him and so I jumped on the old and still trusty Red Schwinn and peddled over to his flat to sit with him and talk Torah.

As usual his wife offered food, but I had already eaten. He always feeds me or at least has tea and fruit or cookies; he is always as hip to being a good and gentle host as he is about keeping things kosher. I sat in an armchair and asked about this week’s Parshah selection Tazria-Metzora; Leviticus 12:1-15:33. And sure enough, he had the answer to my questions right away. He started by asking a few questions about the portion that seemed to be challenging whether nor not I had read the section myself. Once satisfied that I had, he then thumbed through the portion quickly, humming quietly as he did and thenm nodded and came up with a really interesting story in seconds.

The basic premise of his lesson concerned the word that is used in the portion to describe a rather horrible lesion on the skin called tzara'ath. Tzara'ath is often translated as leprosy, but according to Mishna Torah, this disease is in fact a sign from G-d that you have been speaking deceitfully of others. He told me that it can come on three levels, attacking a man’s house, his clothing and then his skin or his body. The point of it is that each time the blemish appeared, it had been a warning sign of improper living by virtue of failing to respect others and that when it advances to the next level, it means you have failed to heed G-d’s will that you be a better person.

He added in at the end a rather whimsical story about a man who wanted to learn the language of the birds so that he might be in better touch with his world, all in all, a great lesson. And also, just as how it goes with all my visits with Reb Dovid at the end the conversation left me with the sort of satisfied feeling one gets when one’s mind (spirit?) has expanded some microscopic amount further than before you came. I have written here several times that I am not at all sure of how deeply spiritual my new found Judaism is, but nevertheless, the participation has its benefits, and moments like these are among the best of those.

So, I stuffed my notes down the back of my belt and peddled homeward to write up the notes. And once having done that, I then finally was free to do my last work of the week, which was writing the blog you have been reading these last ten minutes or so.

I was actually going to write about something different from the synagogue, and I will try to get to that next week, but I had so little time, that I thought I had better write about what was actually on my mind as of this minute and hope that there was something edifying in there. I hope there was. So that other story about the synagogue will have to wait right along with the story of the gas stove, Ms. Molochko of the housing authority’s latest episode, some deals about teaching English, the hardships of trying to get a tractor to actually come and do his work, and perhaps five or six other stories. Let’s just see how all of this turns out, ok?

End note: One more thing about Passover.

Taking Passover seriously here in Pinsk meant going to temple every day for eight days and doing your best to be observant as to what is known as being “kosher for Passover”. I know to a lot of you this might seem really quite burdensome or even perhaps unnecessary, but the effect of even trying to play it straight has its pluses as well. The exclusion of grains and bread from your diet is actually not a bad weight loss technique for one, the enforced time off from work is really awfully nice on your body and finally, there is this amazing feeling of nostalgia when one actually makes it to the finish line. I really enjoyed that last Passover torah reading yesterday morning. Probably this was simply like coming to the end of any project and getting the chance of experiencing the relief from the burden. It is an emotional relies and a good one. But also, that last day’s reading is connected to the saying of a yortzite,a memorial prayer for the dead, for a family member so I had a chance to say a prayer for my mother who died a little over a year ago. You know it is funny but when I actually got the news I didn’t have any sort of difficult reaction. I mean, it hurt, but I didn’t cry. But in temple on the eight day of Passover, I really could not hold back the tears during my reading. And when 90-year-old Chaim read the brucha for all of us, his voice so full of pain, I couldn’t help losing it all over again. Even as I write these words I am re-experiencing this moment.

We are so short with each other and ourselves and there is no time to really live your life all the way up, as Hemingway was want to speak of it. So I really can’t say in any way that I minded the extra work and obligations. It all in fact really does have great spiritual value and in the end, just like achieving a solid and unbroken ride up a tall hill on your bike, there is the down to enjoy and the feeling of release and freedom that comes with it. No matter how hard core you want to be about it, that’s what Passover and the story of the Jews becoming free from Egypt is all about. I guess you really are just supposed to take it for what it is worth- And to remember to listen to the birds and read the writing on the wall.

I had about 45 minutes to proof read this, and finished at...13 minutes to sundown. And that folks, is the end of my work week. Believe me, it feels really good to have gotten this all done on time. Now I get to rest.

Good Shabbos to all.

More soon…


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