a Cup like a jet airplane

Thursday, 20 August, 2015 - 3:50 pm

We get a Mazel Tov! Our son Moshe is becoming bar mitzvah, having turned thirteen. During the past year we got used to listening to him practicing the Torah reading and the Haftara; we also heard him learning by heart the Chassidic Ma’amar (discourse) that is customary to say on the day of the bar mitzvah. This Shabbat it will happen: he will be called up to the Torah and read the Parasha and the Haftara, and we pray to Hashem that he will be successful.

That’s the way it is: a boy becomes a man, starts putting on Tefillin, gets called up to the Torah and is counted for a Minyan.

But there is something else that Moshe experienced, something that not everyone goes through, and I assume it’s something that happens only to Chabadniks.

It was two weeks ago, the Shabbat of Parashat Ekev, which was the Shabbat when he actually turned thirteen years old – he was born on the 23rd of Av.

On Friday night, at the home of my brother Shlomo in Kfar Chabad, Moshe was joined by about ten of his cousins – from Russia and from Tatarstan, from the Ukraine and of course from Israel. There were also the grandfathers and grandmothers, and I was with him as well. It was not a big party, but merely a Shabbat meal that was combined with a traditional bar mitzvah celebration – without cameras and without a special program.

Moshe made Kiddush first and cut the Challah first. His Sabba (grandfather) sat on his left, his Zeide on his right. One grandmother on the left, the other on the right; and there was also one proud and excited father sitting opposite him. Nothing special – just a bar mitzvah, like in the old days.

Just before the fish was brought in, Moshe’s Sabba poured out a small cup of vodka for everyone, because one cannot really begin a Shabbat meal without saying “L’chaim”, especially when there’s a bar mitzvah. But Moshe was not ready for that. He had prepared the Torah reading and learned the Chassidic discourse, but he had not prepared himself to drink a cup of vodka.

“I can’t even taste it,” he said. “And besides, I just drank a cup of wine for Kiddush. I’ll be happy to say L’chaim, and it can be on a small cup like this one, but the cup should have cola or water in it, not vodka.”

“Meishe,” said the grandfather on his left lovingly, “L’chaim is said on vodka.” “You are bar mitzvah already, not a little boy. You’re Chassid, and Chassidim say L’chaim,’ seconded the grandfather on the right. And when Moshe looked at me and realized that even his father couldn’t help him here, he simply took the cup, said “L’chaim” and tasted the bitter drink that contains 60% water. “L’chaim Velivracha (to life and to blessings)” responded everyone, and I, sitting there, understood that this was a significant event, a kind of Chassidic rite of passage for this cute Swiss boy.

If he had only known that “vodka” is only the official name of this bitter drink, and that it’s really known as “Mashkeh” (drink)… No one drinks vodka; people just “say a L’chaim”. It’s not drinking, it’s a saying.

When reading the Pesach Haggadah it is customary to lift up the wine cup when saying “Vehi She’amda Lavoteinu Velanu (And it is this that has been the support of our forefathers and of us).” Chassidim would point at the cup and say “Vehi She’amda” – the source of support is the cup! The L’chaim cup is what has supported us and our forefathers in moments of pain, as well as in moments of joy. This L’chaim cup has served as the glue holding us together in the secret gatherings (Hitva’aduyot) in Soviet Russia.

We said words of Torah, we encouraged each other and sang soulful, Devekut-filled tunes. At the end of the evening we would know that we were going off to yet another day of fighting for our Jewishness, and that in the merit of this cup the war would end in victory. It is thanks to that cup that we managed to maintain the Jews of Silence.

This cup knew how to overcome the Russian border guards who patrolled the Iron Curtain zealously, because thanks to that L’chaim cup the Chassidim would glide straight from their clandestine gathering in Samarkand to the Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.

Both Moshe’s Sabba and Zeide were children of fathers who had been sent to Siberia for the sin of being stubborn Chassidim, and when they offer him a cup and say, “Say L’chaim” they know the power of that cup very well – oy, do they know.

This coming Shabbat, dear friends, take a cup and say L’chaim with us. Wish us that we should get much Chassidische Nachas from Moshe, that he should grow up to be a learned and G-d fearing Chassid. Because this cup, as you know already, is like a jet airplane – it has no geographic limitations.


Mazel Tov and Shabbat Shalom,


Zalmen Wishedski

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