"Will the Shabbat Queen really come all the way to India?" asks six-year-old Miriam, pausing in mid-flight like a startled butterfly, her deep, joyful eyes full of questions.
"If we make everything ready for her, she will surely come," I answer hopefully. We start to make challah, kneading the dough on the wood-topped table. Miriam wants to make the plaits, and she is the one who remembers to set aside a portion for G‑d. She rolls it into a tiny doll's challah and tells me G‑d will take all the pieces of challah and make
The experience of being satisfied after a filling meal never fails to produce a feeling of guilt
them into one big loaf for the angels' Shabbat meal. We carry the plaited loaves outside to rise beneath the scorching sun of our South Indian prolonged summer - waiting for the monsoon to break, praying that it will come this year and ward off famine. Everyone is anxious.
After dinner I feel a strong need to say the Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals). Birkat HaMazon had always struck me as very cumbersome until I came to India. Since then, the experience of being satisfied after a filling meal never fails to produce a feeling of guilt, conscious as I am of the millions who live here and are never filled. It seemed to require some act of will on my part to expiate this guilt, and the idea of raising each meal to a sacrament naturally suggested Birkat HaMazon, which took on a new and urgent significance in the context of my life here.
Still, it was not satisfactory, opening as it does with praise to the "One Who sustains and nourishes all His creations" with the gift of food, and leading to a plea for special care for the House of Israel. As I pray, I know that all are not sustained and nourished here, where I furtively eat behind closed doors. I know that G‑d's rich abundance remains tightly clutched in the fists of the few, while the meek quietly suffer and dare ask no questions.
I long for the "House of my People" to reach out and enfold in their prayer the brave, silent children of India who live in perpetual misery and despair from birth till death and are never satisfied with enough to eat. Still, I know that G‑d is not to blame, and there is no reason to refrain from praising Him. So I expiate my guilt by prayer, and this leads to a new kind of haunting uneasiness.
I have recently begun to give my last day's few pieces of leftover bread to beggars, meticulously wrapping it in plastic and depositing it with some uncertainty in one of the scores of continually outstretched hands which follow me everywhere each day. The chosen beggar is always puzzled and peers through the plastic with some doubt. I move off quickly and then look back and watch him break off a piece and chew it, first with hesitation and then with obvious relish. The joy which fills me as I watch a ragged, hungry man or woman eat my bread is an indescribable gift, and I receive infinitely more than I give. So, in a sense, I am the beggar and he the giver of grace...
After breakfast we search for the portion of the week in my big Torah and in Miriam's brightly colored Children's Bible. Today it is Beshalach, and I tell Miriam of the miracle of the manna. She is delighted but slightly puzzled that G‑d has not sent some manna here for the hungry children of India. I go on reading, and the problem of hunger and bread follows me even here. It torments me wherever I turn. We are taught that at the crossing of the Red Sea even the most humble serving-maid saw the Divine Presence more clearly than the greatest of the later prophets. Yet, we find that a few days of thirst and hunger almost make the people forget what they had witnessed. "Better to be slaves in Egypt than to perish here in the wilderness for lack of food," the chosen ones cry out in their hunger. What hope is there for us? I wonder, and there is no one to help me through this labyrinth of dark thoughts.
The joy which fills me as I watch a ragged, hungry man or woman eat my bread is an indescribable gift
That night, when Miriam came inside to announce that she had found the first three stars, I performed Havdalah for the children and myself. As I haltingly chanted the ancient words of the blessing which separates the seventh day from the rest of the days,
our Shabbat came quietly to an end. The sweet, precious herbs from Modiin, hastily yet firmly stuffed into my overflowing and overweight suitcases by my friend Emunah, linked us with other Jews who were so far away.
The promise of the Messiah was all around us. It rose up with particular urgency like the sandalwood incense which cast its strong, deep fragrance all through our little house and out through the open windows until it merged with the joyous profusion of jasmine and the poignant air of sadness, which settled like a tattered, starry blanket over our turbulent little South Indian town, carrying us into another week of struggle and hope.
The imminence of the Messiah's coming has become very real to me since coming to India. What had once seemed a poetic adornment to a symbol-laden religious concept has become transformed into a simple and actual waiting in perfect faith for an impending event. It seemed quite natural and inevitable that the redemption would somehow someday come here where it was so greatly needed.
I was filled with wonder and admiration for the quietly suffering, uncomplaining masses of India who carried on their febrile lives without the thought of any hope, any vindication. The alarm and dismay at what I saw here had grown in me until it became an urgent, painful cry of longing for the Messiah to appear and transform the endless darkness and misery into light and joy.
More and more frequently now the words of Maimonides rose to my lips, "I believe with the wholeness of faith in the coming of the Messiah," and more strongly, "and though he tarry" (and perhaps even because of that) "I will continue to wait for him each day."