Yesterday, for my last Shabbat in Pittsburgh until I get back, I gave the speech at Young People's Synagogue and sponsored kiddush. That so many of my friends came, plus my parents, plus the regulars of the shul made it a truly amazing, unforgettable day. Here is the speech I gave:
Shabbat Shalom. So, after much anticipation, the Israelites finally stand on the precipice of the Promised Land as Moses reminds them of the laws they will need to know when living in the land, such as the laws of agriculture, kashrut, tzedaka, and festivals. This generation, save 2 people, has known nothing but wilderness life under the direct and obvious love and protection of their Parent in Heaven and now they are about to begin something totally unprecedented, something totally different from anything they have ever known before. What, I wonder, must have gone through their minds at this moment, as they stood so close to entering the new reality of independent life in their own country awaiting them that until right now must have seemed more like a dream or some asymptotic ideal like world peace than an actual place where they would someday actually live and work and learn?
It was probably something like, “This is real, and I am completely unprepared.”
If you remember, this is very close to the title of a book by the late Rabbi Alan Lew I spoke about two years ago this Shabbat, during my first d'var Torah and it feels especially relevant now for a different reason. I think Moses sensed the anxiety of his people at this pivotal moment and spoke these opening words of the parsha in response: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: That you obey the words of the Lord, your God that I command you today. And the curse: That you not obey...” In other words, he seems to be saying that if you trust in God and remember that this land, this promise, is only a means to the greater end of holiness, all will be well with you. If you do not, what should have been a blessing will become a curse. To this end, Jerusalem is mentioned 26 times in this parsha, but only as “the place that God will choose” and never by name, Jerusalem couldn't be identified by name because it was not yet Jerusalem. Jerusalem is only Jerusalem, the city of peace, that holy, special chosen city of the special chosen people once Jews enter in it to make it so. On its own, Jerusalem is nothing but a hilltop. Only when we are worthy of it, only after we've worked hard to make it so, does that piece of earth become Jerusalem. In other words, Jerusalem is not holy because God chose it, it is holy because we chose it. And so I have chosen it too, and while over there, I'm going to try my hardest not to ruin it for us.
Aside from giving me a mission, Moses' words comfort and empower me in another way: by teaching me that this experience – the experience of this summer and this moment right now as much as anything the future may bring – will only be a blessing if I choose to make it one.
This summer has been a weird era of my life, spending my days as I have working, worrying, and preparing for that Wednesday that until now always seemed like it would never really arrive (which has not always been a bad thing). Yet, for all the hassle of this summer and its seemingly daily crises of finances, housing, phones, transportation, visas, kesef, luggage, health insurance, dinero, banking, life insurance, parnassa, ulpan, power converters, maybe/maybe not getting to see friends and family one last time, livelihood, making appointments, deferring loans, making printouts, shekels, the Pirates falling below .500 again, writing speeches, greenbacks, picking out food for Kiddush, getting a rabbi to sign a document certifying my Jewishness, and of course money, there has been, thank God, so much blessing, and as hard as it is, I must try to focus on that because worrying really is its own curse. Besides, when I stop to think about it for five seconds, I realize my list of blessings in this process, which really began over four years ago when I first started living on my own, is way longer. When I started college, I was embarrassed by anything Jewish. I deeply wanted to be more involved in the community, but something – and I'm still not sure what – was holding me back. My first day living in Pittsburgh, I took a bus into Squirrel Hill, but had to circle the block a few times before I could muster the courage to be seen entering Murray Avenue Kosher. Similarly, the first month or so of school, I circled the block around Hillel in Oakland on Friday nights until I saw someone else go in so I would not be the only one there, nor would I have to enter alone. But now, over four years later, after experiencing the indescribable wonderfulness of this Jewish community that I don't think you can ever fully appreciate unless you've known what it's like to live without it; plus the awesomeness of Hillel and Chabad House, much of which is here now; plus Birthright and D.C. on inaugural weekend with the vice-president of Hillel International; plus YPS; plus working at the Chronicle; plus D.C. and the Catskills last summer; plus “meeting” Eleanor Fax; plus countless other people and things; plus today, right now, standing here giving this speech on this occasion before all of you, I am left speechless to describe just what a blessing, what an experience, what a journey these last few years have been.
I may be speechless, but thankfully, as usually happens, someone else put it perfectly. About a month-and-a-half ago I was a guest for Shabbat lunch at the house of Lubavitch friends of mine. We were playing a game where their oldest son was going around the table trying to stump everyone with his Jewish study questions. If a child got a question right, he got a chocolate chip; if an adult got one right, he or she got a shot of liquor. When he got to me, his mother told him to give me a hard one. He asked something like, “Who does Hillel say we should be disciples of?”
Instantly, I answered, “We should be disciples of Aaron the Kohen, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all our fellow creatures and bringing them all near to God,” then downed a shot of vodka to celebrate my victory. The game ended and the conversation moved on, when it hit me: My answer was wrong. Hillel does not say, “We should be disciples of Aaron the Kohen, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all our fellow creatures and bringing them all near to God,” he says, “We should be disciples of Aaron the Kohen, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all our fellow creatures and bringing them all near to the Torah.” I admitted my mistake and said I guess I didn't deserve my shot. But the host's brother-in-law, sitting across from me, disagreed, saying, “We don't deserve half the things HaShem gives to us, but He gives them to us anyway because He loves us so much. L'Chaim!” then taking a shot of vodka.
He was right, and I am thinking of his words as I stand before you now. To everyone here, my family and my family of friends – even for how good I supposedly am with words, I honestly can't even begin to say what an honor it's been to know you all, to be the recipient of so much kindness and love over the past few years, or, in the case of my parents, the past 23. Since I could never repay you or fully express my deep gratitude and humility before you, the best I can do is ask that you please come to my kiddush downstairs, enjoy the food and each other, and make a L'Chaim on this Shabbat Re'eh in honor of opening our eyes to seeing and appreciating all God's blessings in life, deserved or otherwise. I know I will be.
So like the Israelites, here I stand, on perhaps the most bittersweet day of my life, on the threshold of entering the Land, doing the necessary final emotional, physical and spiritual preparations, all while trying to remind myself that this is indeed real. And yet, even with the housing, visa, phone, loan deferrals, luggage, printouts, tickets, power converters, ulpan, sponsoring kiddish, and seeing family and friends all more-or-less taken care of thank God, I know I am still completely unprepared.... L'Chaim!
Hebrew word of the week: זכרון ("zikron") - Memory