A stormy soul in my Sukkah

Friday, 11 October, 2019 - 7:41 am

It was about ten years ago. A man about 50 years old, dressed in an expensive suit, with a full head of hair and a pipe in hand, walked into the Chabad House in Basel. He had come to purchase the arba minim. I didn’t know him – didn’t know whether he was Jewish or not. I did know that he lived in a village on top of a Swiss mountain; I also knew that his name was Serge.

I welcomed him and together we went to the room where the lulavim and etrogim were kept, so that he would get a chance to examine them, and so that I would get a chance to examine whether he was Jewish or not, and in general try to understand why a person living on top of a mountain needs arba minim?

Our Sukkah was already standing in the yard. “Come see the Sukkah,” I said, and went into it. He followed me but then stopped suddenly. The moment his feet touched the floor there, he jumped out of it, backwards. Quietly, he asked: “Am I allowed in the Sukkah?” and then added in English: “I am a sinner. Am I allowed to enter it?” As surprised as I was from his words, I was alarmed at his face. He looked very disturbed.

There’s no such thing in Judaism as a “sinner.” In Judaism one may have sinned in the past, or perhaps will, G-d forbid, sin in the future. Defining a person as a sinner, so far as I know, comes from Christianity. We sat down opposite each other and he began to talk: “I grew up in Paris. My mother was Jewish and my father was not. My mother’s name was Mazal and she grew up in a very religious home, but hated religion. She made sure to prevent us from having any contact with Judaism. I – I have a stormy spiritual soul that gave me no rest.

When I was 12 years old I knew there was something called a bar mitzvah, and I began to search for Jews. I entered a synagogue on Rue Pavée, and asked for help. Rabbi Chaim Rotenberg greeted me very nicely, heard my story, and immediately arranged that I should learn together with his son Mordechai, who was about my age. Twice a week I would come quietly to the synagogue and learn Torah; my soul expanded and was satisfied. These were indeed hours of pleasure.

A few weeks before the bar mitzvah my mother discovered that I had been going to the synagogue and announced that I had a choice: the synagogue or my home. “If you continue to go to the synagogue you will have to leave home. Make your decision!” I was a 12-year-old boy. What could I do? I gave up the synagogue, and didn’t go there anymore. I also relinquished my soul. But my soul gave me no rest.

Several years went by and one day I saw a parade of Jews holding the Israeli flag and singing “Hava Nagila”. I was entranced – and followed them, joined them and became part of them, without knowing that they were Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus. I continued from there to study religion and now I am serving as a Protestant pastor in that village on the mountain. At least I’m a Protestant and not a Catholic…”

“And why do you need the arba minim?” I asked him.

“Two years ago I went on an organized tour for religious personnel to the Holy Land. We were supposed to tour the country, visiting mainly in historical places and places that are held to be sacred by all religions. We were staying in a hotel in the Christian Quarter in the Old City. Towards evening, when everyone went to rest, because the next day we were to go on an intensive week-long trip throughout the country, I tossed my suitcase into my room, and went quickly to the Western Wall. You understand? I’m not like them. I’m called Yitzchak ben Mazal! I reached the Kotel and suddenly burst into tears and asked again and again, “Master of the World, will you take me back?” I don’t know how long I cried – perhaps an hour or two.”

As Serge was telling me all this, he was crying. So was I, as I listened to this sweet but suffering soul.

“When I returned to Switzerland I began to search for Judaism. I found a website of Chabad named “Ask Moshe”, where one could get answers to questions immediately from a human being, all the time. I asked and asked endlessly. As time went on I bought tefillin and a siddur, and every morning I shut myself up in my office in the church, put on tefillin and pray. This year I bought myself a folding Sukkah. I want to observe the mitzvah of Succah, and the mitzvah of arba minim as well.”

Serge left, and I once again understood what Rabbi Shalom Ber Schneersohn said to R. Monye Moneszon a wealthy person, who wondered why the Rebbe was so full of praises for the simple people. “Why are you making such an issue of them?” He asked. The Rebbe answered: “They have advantages!” Said R. Monye, “I don’t see them.” He himself was a great diamond trader. The Rebbe asked him if he had brought a package of diamonds with him. “Yes, I brought it with me,” answered R. Monye, “except that when the sun is shining one cannot look at diamonds.” Afterwards R. Monye took the package of diamonds and spread them out in a different room, pointing at one stone that was beyond marvel. The Rebbe said to him: “I don’t see anything special about this stone,” to which R. Monye replied: “You have to a mavin.” The Rebbe nodded. “A Jew is a marvel, but one has to be a mavin.” (Sefer Hasichot 5705)


Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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