The 15-passenger van bounces down Broadway. I’m up front with our driver, and directly in back of me sits a trio of South Africans. We’re done with the chocolate-chip cookies left over from a luncheon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan and have swung by Ground Zero. Twice. Talk turns to home. Johannesburg is beset with an electricity crisis.
I’m somewhat familiar with the blackouts that have become increasingly common. Now Limor, Ronit and Yehudis fill me in. The situation’s worsening daily, they report. The juice for Jo’burg is drying up. In fact, the power woes have spread to the point of being declared a national emergency. These spot blackouts (“load sharing,” the government dubs them) have shut the nation’s lucrative gold mines. And they’re affecting businesses large and small. Limor tells me matter-of-factly that her customers are not committing to buying winter goods for their boutiques. “One guy told my agent, ‘If I can get through this month, I’ll think about winter stock!’ Another store owner bought himself a generator—but it didn’t help, ’cause people don’t even step into the mall. The place is pitch black!”
The juice for Jo’burg is drying up“You should see what it’s like just before Shabbat,” says Ronit. “Two weeks ago on Friday afternoon, I got home from work and began preparing a dish for a bar mitzvah celebration. In the middle of whipping the cream, the power shut off. Next thing, there’s a bunch of ladies on the street checking if this is another outage or just their personal fuse box. I carried the mixer to my mom’s because on her block the electricity was still on.”
Yehudis is wearing a purple coat and a mustard scarf. Both pop her blond hair and piercing eyes into focus. She never fails to crack me up. “It’s nuts!” she effuses. “You know, years ago, when South Africa rejected apartheid, people asked me what I was going to do. I told them straight out, ‘I’m staying ’til the lights go out.’” Her accent is thick. (She pauses dramatically.) “Well, guess what! My daughter just wrote to me. She said, ‘Ma? Remember what you said? [Pause] Ma, the lights have gone out! What are we gonna do now?!”
I laugh out loud! There is such a finality and simple starkness in her words. In the back of my mind, I think of the millions of people living in Soweto, Alexandra and other slums. The outages are not new to them. For many residents, any electricity at all is a boon to a life lived by candlelight and fires, whenever there was fuel to burn. What is new is that now no one’s immune. A whole city draped in black. Driving at night means dealing with the darkness; the commute to work entails navigating the morning rush without traffic lights. Meat and fresh produce rot quickly. Bakers’ ovens dump dough that rises—and falls. And in the southern hemisphere, winter’s still a way off ...
These pictures drive home in a visual, visceral way just how vital light and warmth are to our survival. In the words of Goolam Ballim, chief economist of the Standard Bank Group, “Power is like oxygen; it’s essential for any half-modern economy.”
A woman’s mitzvot cover the gamut of people’s most basic needsAs we bounce over the Brooklyn Bridge, I think of a teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Women are gifted with three potent commands. We light candles prior to Shabbat; we separate an offering of dough from the breads we bake; and, in preparation for marital intimacy, we immerse in the living waters of the mikvah at the conclusion of our monthly cycle. All these acts touch on the most basic needs of a person. We all need fuel for light and warmth; we can’t survive without food; and sexuality, essential to the continuation of the human race, is one of the most powerful forces that drive us. A woman’s mitzvot, then, cover the gamut of people’s most basic needs. They are to the body as power lines to a city, as oxygen to the human pulse.
Why did G‑d choose these three acts above, say, prayer or charity, for example? Why the emphasis on things so material? In singling them out, G‑d is telling us that living Jewishly means engaging with, but simultaneously elevating, our material existence. Torah does not support asceticism, the closed walls of a monastery and a life apart from the bones of the body. We are asked to eat the cookie—or kasha—but to ever remain the master of that act. Doing so means that all our physical endeavors are to be directed to a higher purpose. It’s a more challenging path than one that eschews the body’s needs. But it touches on G‑d’s ultimate intention, that our physical world should become a space that manifests His essence.
This idea is alluded to throughout the Torah. The portion of Mishpatim deals with civil laws. It comes on the tail of the dramatic recounting of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. That was a thunder-and-lightning affair, packed with the drama of divine revelation. And yet, hot on its heels, we’re dealing with murder, manslaughter, goring oxen, tumbling cattle and open pits. The two seem worlds apart. Yet Rashi, a foremost commentator on the Bible, tells us that they’re intimately connected. The two portions, he explains, are linked by the words “and these are the laws that you must set before [the people of Israel].” With the word “and,” G‑d implies a continuation of what was just said. His message is that just as the Ten Commandments are Divine in origin, so, too, are these civil laws. At the most basic level, this teaches us that our civil laws are not to be adjusted to the current politically correct fad. They are G‑d’s will just as potently as the Ten Commandments. At another level, we learn that even our (mere) physical lives must be imbued with the sanctity of Sinai.
This vision—that our physical universe is the means through which G‑d Himself can manifest—is central to Parshat Terumah, too. It is the “second movement” of the previous week’s portion, which details G‑d’s instructions to Moses on how to build a mobile sanctuary to house His presence. G‑d, Creator of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, poppy seeds and cashew nuts, dark matter in the outer galaxy, and my human heart—this same G‑d tells Moses that He can be contained in a most sophisticated tent of wood and cloth (with some gold and silver and precious stones thrown in for good measure)! G‑d, who has neither beginning nor end, is to fit into a space roughly 50x16 feet small.
G‑d has to find a home even in our wallets and bank accountsBut lo and behold! By virtue of G‑d’s willing it, the vision is a possibility. Each of us has ever since been empowered to use our physical possessions in the service of our creator. Until two of my kids entered Pre-1A, they called money tzedakah, charity. I was deeply gratified. They were getting it. G‑d has to find a home even in our wallets and bank accounts. My dough and ceramic mixing bowl with blue filigree leaves become a means with which to serve Him; my body and passions; and my Friday-night fire—eight candles in total. As a Jewish woman, I am asked to make these into a place where G‑d can settle.
This is the concept lucidly communicated in the address the Rebbe spoke on the first yahrtzeit of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka.
G‑d’s instructions on how to build the Sanctuary, and the description of the actual construction, span five Torah portions. At various points, we find a seemingly strange combination of concepts: the mandate to build the Sanctuary is interspersed with reminders to observe Shabbat. From this juxtaposition, our sages learn that the “rest” we are meant to observe on Shabbat is the abstention from any physical labor that was performed in creating the Sanctuary. And the corollary is that from what is forbidden on Shabbat, we learn what we are meant to accomplish the rest of the week. Shabbat and the week function as two inverse seals that make up the totality of life and our purpose here. Just as it is a mitzvah to rest on Shabbat, so, too, is it a mitzvah to work during the week.
On that first anniversary of the Rebbetzin’s passing, the Rebbe analyzed one such law, the prohibition to light a fire. Interestingly, the prohibition applies even when the purpose of lighting a fire is not for the sake of the warmth or light, but rather because one needs the ash that will result from the flames. How does that translate into Monday morning’s “To Do” list? Let thanks to G‑d be my first conscious thought, if for nothing other than the gift of life. Follow that with mindful washing of the hands, a dime in the charity box before saying the morning blessings ... small acts that ignite the fire of our souls and allow the light of G‑d to radiate through our being. We must illuminate our existence.
And at the same time, the “fire” is for “ash.” We must bring all that revelation back down to earth, into the “ash” dimension of our beings. Retain that spiritual mindfulness while mixing the morning oats and waking the kids. Say hello to the crossing guard, smile—and mean it.
In describing the Rebbetzin, the Rebbe states that, remarkably, each day of her life, day in and day out, she lit fires, rising beyond the limitations of matter. Concurrently, she made sure to bring all that spirituality back to “ashes,” imbuing the lowest dimensions with the G‑dly light she had touched.
Such are my thoughts as we cross the bridge. Once over, our van bumps along Flatbush Avenue. By now, the talk has cut to shopping and Atlantic Mall, Burlington Coat Factory and what time we must light candles. There’s no time to stop and shop. The sun is too low. Its light is moving west, daubing another peel of the planet with warmth and brightness. Darkness lies ahead. But down the road, my candlesticks wait for my match. The lights must not go out.