My student Efraim asked me if I would meet with his buddy and try to get him interested in his Jewish heritage.
“I’m just letting you know that he’s a really big hippie and a Jew by birth and nothing else,” Efraim warned me. “I’d be happy to sit down with him,” I told Efraim.
It was around a week later when I met up with Efraim and his hippie friend in the beis midrash (study hall) of DATA. We spent an interesting hour or so talking together about the roots and nature of Judaism and its relevance for modern man and, shortly afterward, Efraim and his beatnik buddy left.
“Can you meet with my friend’s brother?” Ephraim asked me a short while later. “Sure,” I answered. “I have to warn you though,” Ephraim continued. “This guy is a real punk from the UK. OK?”
“It’s no problem,” I assured him. This was turning out to be quite the counterculture family! Either way, the date was set, and we were to all meet at a Starbucks shortly after his brother got in town from England.
A rabbi, a hippie and a punk walk into a Starbucks. It sounds like the beginning of a corny joke, but this was real life and we certainly made for an eclectic entourage walking into the coffee shop that day.
“I know this might sound crazy to you,” I told the brother, “with me in my strict-looking garb and you in your ‘I-don’t-care-what-you-think’ punk-wear, but I’m the free one here and you, my dear friend, are enslaved!”
“What are you talking about?” he asked with an incredulous look matted on his face.
“You see … the Ten Commandments that were given to the Jewish people at Sinai were engraved in stone. The word for ‘engraved’ in Hebrew is charut, but the Talmud says that the same letters make up another word — cheirut, which means ‘freedom.’ In other words, the Talmud is teaching us that it is the strict adherence to the Ten Commandments, the representation of the entirety of the Torah, which ultimately sets a person free! I know it sounds counterintuitive to suggest that binding oneself to a set of God-given laws would grant you true freedom but that is in fact the case.
“You see … as human beings we are susceptible to myriad addictions, vices and negative behaviors when left to our own devices and unfettered free will. It is only when we submit ourselves to a higher power and a set of laws given to us for our own good that we are able to overcome our natural instincts and ironically find ourselves in a place of unique, true human freedom.”
He admitted that I was onto something and his interest was certainly piqued. We exchanged email addresses and departed.
I had to pick my jaw up from the floor as I read an email I received from the punk around a year later. He had become an observant Jew and even his non-Jewish punk girlfriend had undergone a halachic conversion before their wedding!
His external transformation (from piercings to peyos and black leather jacket to black hat) had not begun immediately following our talk at Starbucks, but I do hope that the internal stirrings of positive change might have been birthed then.
I can’t help but think about this story as the holiday of Purim approaches. It is the holiday and the miracle that most keenly resembles our modern lives — no open miracles in sight, but hidden miracles to be found in abundance for those wearing spiritual lenses.
The miracle of Jewish continuity is highlighted in the Megillah, and Mordechai is so sure of the coming deliverance of the Jewish people that he declares to his niece Esther that even if she were to refrain from playing her potentially instrumental role in Jewish history the Jews would be saved nevertheless: “For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source.” (4:14)
The miracle of Jewish continuity would happen with or without Esther’s assistance. In our times as well, the Jewish people are under attack, but more than any external threat to our existence it is the internal threat of intermarriage, ignorance and apathy that is most quickly decimating our ranks.
As to the question of who will remain a part of our eternal people and who will depart from its holy confines, only history will tell. What I can tell you, though, is that it is up to us to decide if we want to be a part of this ongoing miracle that is the preservation of the Jewish people.
We can take a stand and play roles of great importance like Mordechai and Esther or we can sit on the sidelines and watch the miracles happen without our input. The only thing I know I AM sure of is that I want to be a part of this miracle.
I want to step into the batter’s box of Jewish history just like our Jewish heroes of old, swing for the fences just as they did and let God work His ever-present wonders, returning one Jewish soul home at a time.