Sunday, November 20, 2011

Judge Every Person Favorably, II

On the way home from beit knesset two weeks ago, I walked by a notice that said Yosef Mutzari had passed away. After reading his distinguished background (A Rabbi of a beit knesset in Katamon, a teacher at Porat Yosef for over two decades, wrote a book and various other accolades), I asked a neighbor who he was as I thought I knew him. My hunch was right. I used to see Mutzari z'l read Torah at the Katamon Shtiblach when I prayed shacharit there a few years ago, and always saw him walking on my street.

A few days later, I saw another notice to a meal to honor Mutzari after the shiva, with Rabbis such as R' Ovadia Yosef and R' Shlomo Amar speaking. Now I was curious - who exactly was this humble, quiet man? He was part of R' Ovadia's chavruta! I guess every man could possibly be a Chacham, eh?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Taxi Driver

My latest article in Kaminando y Avlando, the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication:


When I first started praying at the Kurdi Beit Knesset near my home, a co-worker asked me, "Isn't that the Beit Knesset where the taxi drivers pray?" This happened four years ago, and I felt that this innocent comment was rather insulting to the Beit Knesset’s members. Why would a house of worship be defined by the occupation of those who pray there? “I don’t know,” I responded to the co-worker and continued on my way.

One of the people who prays with me at another Beit Knesset near my place is a taxi driver. Granted, I think he’s doing it for some extra money as I think he’s retired but he’s still a taxi driver. Abroad, one would scoff at that line of work – here too apparently. A taxi driver? Peasants. Probably a high school dropout, or a lazy person who couldn’t make it in the corporate world. However, this taxi driver (and many others too) is special. He’s a phenomenal shat"z (shaliach tzibbur, the person who leads the prayers) and ba'al koreh (the person who reads the Torah). What’s even more impressive is that his four boys (I've never met his two girls) are all excellent when they're called to be the shat"z or ba'al koreh, from the youngest (14) to the oldest (25). Yup, a taxi driver ... A phenomenal man.

The above reminds me of the story of the Rabbi who entered the classroom every morning to find new insights on the Talmud on his chalkboard. Every day, without fail, the chalkboard contained pearls of wisdom that were mostly new to him. One evening, the Rabbi stayed in the corner of the classroom and waited for the protégé to reveal himself. At midnight, the yeshiva's elderly janitor walked into the room. To the Rabbi’s amazement, he sat down at a desk, begun reading the Talmud and started to scribble on the chalkboard. His genius was the janitor.

Of course not every janitor proves to be an Einstein, nor every taxi driver a scholar, but the point is that profession alone does not define a man (or woman), and if you write someone off, or judge them negatively, simply because of what they do, you're navigating by stereotype and closing yourself off to unexpected learning and human connection. I guess both stories are rather nicely summed up by Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Judge every person favorably.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Judge Every Person Favorably, I

The story is told of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the famed tzaddik of Jerusalem, who once spotted a young soldier on a short furlough from the army.

The Rabbi knew the young man from the neighborhood in Geula, and so he crossed the street in order to extend his hand in greeting. “Shalom Aleichem,” said the venerable sage, “Please come to my home. I would very much like to drink tea with you and hear about your activities.”

The young soldier seemed uncomfortable, “I don’t think it’s right for me to come visit you,” he said. “I don’t wear a kippa anymore.”

Rabbi Levin, in his black hat and black kaftan, smiled warmly at the young man and took his hand in his own. “Don’t you see?,” he said, “I’m a very short man. I see you, but I cannot look up so high as to notice as to whether you are wearing a kippa. But I can see your heart – and your heart is big and kind, and that’s what counts. You are also a soldier placing your life at risk for all of us in Israel. Please drink tea with me; your kippa is probably bigger than mine."

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Riskin on Jewishness

A great passage from R' Shlomo Riskin's latest book, Listening to God. I've written about this numerous times, and I just hope most of Israel will realize how the lack of attachment to our Jewish identity and history is destroying the country far more than any other Arab country could

'I believed in peace based on compromise with Israel when I thought Israel would win. I changed my mind; I now believe that we will win in an armed battle. I changed my mind shortly before the prisoner exchange. I was exercising in the prison courtyard when I saw the Israeli guard eating pita and falafel. 'How can you eat what you're eating?' I asked him. 'I'll eat whatever I want,' he responded. 'I am still the guard and you are still the prisoner! I tell you what to eat. You don't tell me what to eat.' 'But today is the third day of Passover,' I told him. 'Your Bible forbids you eating pita bread on Passover.' 'I couldn't give a damn what a book written four thousand years ago hast o say about anything,' said the guard. At that moment, I felt I had experienced an epiphany. 'If the Israels don't care what the Bible says about Passover, they won't care about the Land of Israel either. If they are not connected to the Bible, they are not connected to the land They will not be willing to sacrifice for the land. This is a bad neighborhood for you Israelis.'
Salah Ta'amri