Stepping Up to Bat (Ideas #5)

An aquaintance of mine recently described our generation as one of movie going, basketball playing (and I would add) pizza eating in need of growing up. In his family as well as mine we are forced to measure ourselves up to the previous generation as it bids us farewell and allows us to set the tone.

My father z"l was a paradigm of the previous generation. His family needed him to go to work when he was 17, at which point one responsibility after another would be taken on. These were shouldered without question as what life is all about - taking care of those who need us. It is with this attitude that he married and started a family of his own, leading his bride across the Atlantic to a home he had established with his mother and two of his siblings only five years before. When it came to what he saw to be his responsibility, difficulty was not an issue. What had to be done, had to be done.


I remember more than one day that he meant to spend with his nuclear family, whereupon he would respond to a phone call to go help my grandmother or settle a family quarrel or help my cousin sell a car. As far as his family was concerned, he never asked the question, what would I most enjoy or prefer to do, but rather what is the most urgent thing that is in my power to do. Our somewhat gruff-looking working class neighbors neither intimidated nor put him off. He offered them guidance, as well as finding them work in our garden that "needed" to be done so as to encourage them in a work ethic that he had so well internalized. He often talked about encouraging people to do the right thing - which meant to be responsible human beings. The challenge to traditional values so prevalent in the 60's and 70's was anathema to him. The return by many to traditional Judaism was something that struck a more resonant chord. He felt bad when people wasted their potential and did everything he knew to get me, my brother and our cousins get ahead in the world. A hard act for pizza-eaters to follow. Upon sitting shiva in Los Angeles, I was impressed to see that the selfless commitment that my father embodied still survives in some isolated quarters. While my father was not a member of any particular shul, he would occasionally go to the local Chabad shul - he would walk about a mile and a half to get there and leave the car there the previous night so he could drive home after the holiday. While he had been attending there for almost 20 years, he would hardly be considered a central figure in the life of this thriving shul. His yearly contribution, though important to him, was more symbolic than anything else. At most shuls he would have been considered an inactive part of the mailing list and his funeral arrangements viewed as a burden by the rabbi. After all, the rabbi probably never exchanged more than a few words with my father - no serious relationship existed.

The efforts, however, that this Lubavitch emissary made were what one of us would normally reserve for our closest friends or relatives. Not only did the rabbi bring four other hassidim with him to a Friday afternoon funeral to ensure a minyan, praying that the traffic would allow everyone to get home before Shabbat, he made sure that I would be with a minyan for every other tefila at my home. At this time of year several LA shuls don't have mincha because the early time makes it too difficult to get a minyan. Rabbi Levitansky made sure that whatever had to be done would be done to get a minyan to our house way off the beaten track. On the rare day I wouldn't see him, he made sure to call, ask if everything was ok and offer us food the likes of which his wife had abundantly prepared for us for Shabbat.


Rabbi Levitansky also seems to ask himself what the most urgent thing that is in his power to do. Want has very little to do with it, just a sense of responsibility that extends to the whole Jewish people - I was told that he once took charge of the burial needs for an indigent Jew of whom he had never even heard, whose body was about to be unceremoniously disposed by the local authorities. I also know the wide variety of people that drop in or call him, and Chabad in general, for help. There are very few requirements when it comes to Chabad. One doesn't have to agree with the messianism to see that there is something very authentically Jewish about Chabad, something that is is sorely missing in more halachically and haskafically mainstream circles.


Finally, a local young lady served as a reminder of where the rest of us stand. A former student of my wife's, she had only been to our house in Jerusalem on two occasions. She went out of her way to help us at the shiva house in every way of which she could think. She contacted anyone that came to her mind, to help us with the minyanim at our house - and could not understand the hesitation she heard from some fellow Jews. "They act as if I am asking them for some incredibly difficult favor." In other words, it was inconvenient. What had to be done could be done by someone else for whom it might be more convenient.


I am not sure what I would have done. Convenience and preference dictate much of what we do. It is true that as religious Jews, we are committed to keeping mitzvot that others would view as inconvenient. That is precisely why we seem to be ready to pay such a premium to bring convenience into this area as well. Whereas I still remember my mother salting her own meat, we not only hire people (preferably non-Jews) to do this, but we also hire them to get rid of our chametz, pick out our lulavim, build our sukkot, pray for us, learn for us.... Spending Pesach at a hotel will soon become the norm.


For a variety of socio-economic and historical reasons, we are weaker and softer than the previous generation. We may well need our pizza and basketball. But we also MUST do what needs to be done and we also MUST take care of those who need us. Torah is about obligation and that has really nothing to do with convenience.