Pondering Jew

A Place I Never Saw Changed My Life

November 23, 2014

It may sound like an exaggeration, but I really do divide my life into "before" and "after" the terror attacks in Mumbai. The event struck me as a cosmic moment of truth. For reasons known only to G‑d, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivky were murdered in their Chabad House on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, November 28th, 2008. Along with four of their guests, they were killed because they were Jews, which means that they died in sanctification of G‑d's name. The Holtzbergs' Chabad House provided a haven for Mumbai's Jewish residents and travelers, hardly worth targeting as a bastion of the city's infrastructure. Why were they singled out?

Why were they singled out?

From the Chassidic perspective, everything happens for a reason, providing a springboard for Divine service. Some things that happen provide the opportunity for a leap...

The Holtzbergs were not just extraordinary people, not just extraordinary Jews—they were extraordinary emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They exemplified goodness and kindness in stunning contrast to the terrorists' evil and hatred. I took this irony as a clear personal message. While I'd been observant for a long time, the time had finally arrived to take my commitment to a whole new level. The world was in need of radical transformation and I needed to get with the program. I don't mean to sound like a super hero, but the forces of evil had way too much power for way too long. The day the Holtzbergs died, the only goal worth pursuing was doing everything possible to bring Moshiach.

It had been many years since the Rebbe had passed away in 1994. Like most of his followers, I genuinely expected Moshiach's revelation in the Rebbe's lifetime, but it became harder with every passing year to sustain that fever pitch without the Rebbe to inspire and encourage me. With every year that didn't bring the Redemption, my yearning for Moshiach began nudging its way down my daily wish list. Near the top of it, for sure, but life somehow started to go on.

After Mumbai, life suddenly became a battleground of good versus evil. And the place where I began was within myself.

Recreational shopping had been my beloved pastime for as long as I could remember; in light of Mumbai, it suddenly looked like an ugly addiction that I needed to quit once and for all. It seemed so clear that I needed to care more about life's inner dimension and less about the outer dimension. Why had I never realized that I had enough "stuff" to last into my next lifetime? Who was I trying to impress?

I didn't walk into a store for months. (Full disclosure: now that I've kicked the habit, I have bought a few things over the last six years—but how much could I need when my closet is a treasure trove of "vintage" clothes?)

In the weeks following the attack, Mumbai became a verb, as in "let's Mumbai." It was our family's way of saying, "Let's do a mitzvah in a way that's above and beyond what we would normally do." I made meals for people without being asked. I gave away things I really liked to family and friends. I wrote several articles describing my efforts.

I hoped I would stay inspired forever, but, of course, I didn't. After exactly eight weeks, I got annoyed over something trivial and was never quite the same soldier ever again.

I hoped I would stay inspired forever

But that's okay. I have learned over the years not to become disheartened that intense inspiration doesn't last forever because it always leaves me somehow changed, so that I never quite go back to being the "old" me.

The Mumbai inspiration was like that. Since then, I've realized that if I really want to bring Moshiach, the best place to start is within myself— by sincerely asking for G‑d's help and making a serious effort to correct the negative as well as increase the positive.

Because now more than ever, bringing Moshiach feels like the only goal worth pursuing.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.

Yes, I'm the Lady Who Stops Strangers Outside the Supermarket

November 7, 2014 12:05 PM

"Excuse me, are you Jewish?" the young woman asked.

"That’s none of your business," I snarled as I kept walking.

I have a vague memory of this exchange while I was at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. I know the school’s Chabad House existed then, so it’s entirely possible that someone actually approached me with this exact question. And my answer surely would have been an abrupt one.

I was definitely looking for G‑d in college, but I was also very sure that the answer was not in Torah Judaism. As far as I could see, religion separated people; I wanted to learn how people were all the same.

Excuse me, are you Jewish?

A lot has changed in 40 years. Now I’m the one stopping Jewish women on the street to ask if they want a brochure with Shabbat candle-lighting times. But it’s really my partner, Mrs. Miriam Rosenblum, who motivates me to take her every Tuesday to sit in front of Pittsburgh's Giant Eagle supermarket. I figure, if she can go out on mivtzoim (mitzvah campaigns) six days a week, I can at least take her on one of those days, which I’ve been doing for over 10 years.

“Mivtzoim” literally means "campaigns," and in Chabad parlance, mivtzoim are the Rebbe’s campaigns to encourage Jews to do mitzvahs.

When my kids were little, I offered to buy them treats, whatever they wanted, if they would come on mivtzoim with me. I didn’t care what they bought—those awful drinks that make your teeth turn blue—as long as they helped Mrs. Rosenblum get her paraphernalia in the car and handed out a brochure or two on the street. Now that my sons are over thirteen, they bring their tefillin along so they can offer that mitzvah to Jewish men. Going on mivtzoim is fun for the whole family—sometimes I even bring along a grandchild.

Why does the Rebbe want us to take to the streets to encourage a Jew to do a mitzvah?

Chassidut teaches that the soul of every Jew is inextricably connected to G‑d, and when a Jew does a mitzvah, G‑d’s Infinite light is revealed to all physicality involved in that mitzvah, especially that Jew.

Of course, we can’t actually see what a mitzvah accomplishes in this world—yet.

Whether or not we "see" it, this is pretty much the whole purpose of Creation: to reveal the G‑dliness in our physical world by doing mitzvahs.

And because the Rebbe could appreciate that Moshiach’s arrival is imminent, due to the G‑dly light accumulated through the performance ofmitzvahs throughout the generations, he instituted many mivtzoim, because each mivtzah strengthens a different mitzvah. (The words sound similar, but “mitzvah” and “mivtza” are actually two different concepts.)

Whether we see it or not, one mitzvah has the power to "tip the scales" of light over darkness within an individual Jew and, potentially, within all of Creation.

The power to reconcile this imperfect physical world and the perfect spiritual world is in the hands of every single Jew. Every mitzvah unlocks G‑d’s infinite light, and somebody’s mitzvah is going to unlock the ultimate treasure chest.

I don’t know whose it will be or how soon, but I know it can’t be soon enough.

Which is why I push myself to go out every Tuesday—which wasn't always easy.

It wasn't just that the weather wasn't always conducive or I had other things to do. Because I live in the city where I was raised, the hardest part of mivtzoim was approaching people I knew from my childhood, especially my mother's friends.

Let's face it, most people who hand things out on the street are people to be avoided. And everyone knows that "Jews don't proselytize." Yet there I was, newly observant, with my blue-toothed kids and my Shabbat brochures and Mrs. Rosenblum.

Sometimes I let women "get away," as my daughter Mushkie used to say, but I forced myself not to be intimidated. I knew I had nothing to be embarrassed about, but I still remember the looks I got when certain women said no to me. They were also wondering what happened to me.

Even when I myself was wondering what happened to me, on mivtzoim, I had to "act" like I was sure of myself. Because I knew I wanted to be sure. Sure that I believed everything the Shabbat brochures said. Sure that I believed that the "before" part of my life and the "after" part of my life were not just "meant to be," but meant to be synthesized into a G‑dly life.

I knew I didn't want to turn back

It took many years of spiritual struggle (along with a few personal miracles) to close my "synapse of disbelief," the tiny doubt that preceded every Jewish gesture, the voice that said that none of this mattered, or that it didn't matter so much.

But I pushed myself through the uncertainty because I knew I didn't want to turn back. And going on mivtzoim helped me convince myself; I used to force myself to approach the very people I wanted to avoid.

It's hard to remember that challenge now, because when I go on mivtzoim these days, seeing old, familiar faces is one of the aspects I enjoy most. Especially when I'm with my grandchildren—the best testimony that, whatever it was that happened to me, it must have been a good thing.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes about Jewish spirituality.
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