Monday, September 5, 2011

Teshuva, Tefilah, Zedakah and Zechut Avot

Teshuva, Tefilah, Zedakah and Zechut Avot
(Repentance, Prayer, Charity and Ancestral Merit)

Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

This is a true story written with the permission and blessing of those involved.

The phone rang during the nine days leading up to Tisha Bav. This is normally a time of sadness and mourning, a poignant reminder that the Temple remains unbuilt and the world unredeemed. The present climate in Israel makes matters even worse: ringing phones cause unease. With this combination of the political quagmire and the calendric situation, the last thing I expected was good news.

The voice at the other end of the phone was an old friend of my wife's family, calling from America to tell us that she was engaged to be married. This was wonderful news; this woman had passed her 35th birthday, and she had begun to doubt whether she would ever marry.

After the requisite "mazel tov" came the more important questions: "Who?" "Where?"
"When? It was here that the intrigue began:

"Well, the wedding will be as soon as possible."
"Basically we want to elope, and we want to get married in Israel."
"Well, he is not really religious..."

While the first two answers had a certain logic to them, in view of the age and circumstances of the couple, the third seemed most confounding. This woman was raised in what is known as a "modern orthodox" home. At some point in her early adulthood, she had strayed somewhat from some of the beliefs of her youth, only to return subsequently with even greater dedication. The most difficult challenge she endured was the sudden death of her father when she was 15.

As an adult she became very active in the Jewish community and outreach, bringing a great many estranged Jews to Shabbat meals and other communal activities that introduced them to Judaism. By this point, she had been learning Torah regularly for quite some time, and had grown to be a leader in her community, known for her charitable activities, but more importantly for encouraging others to become similarly involved.

She was now exploring the possibility of my performing her wedding in Israel in less than two weeks, to a man who did not seem to share the same ideals. Was this simply the case of a woman whose biological clock was ticking so loudly that she could no longer think clearly?

The groom would be flying to Israel the following day, she said, and I would have the opportunity to meet him and speak to him. Only then would we continue our conversation. In the meantime, there were so many wedding arrangements to be organized; fortunately, countless friends materialized, all willing to help put together a wedding in less than two weeks.

A special ketubah was commissioned from a local artist; I needed to make sure that the names were written correctly, and it was only then that I asked his name. She said, "It is Landau and he is a Levi"

I said "Landau - a Levi? Could he be a descendant of Rav Yechezkel Landau"?

She asked "Who is that?" I answered, "One of the great Rabbis of the 18th century. His surname was Landau and he, too, was a Levi."

"I don't think there are any rabbis in his family, but he is a Levi."

With that the conversation came to an end.

I met him a few days later. He was everything she wasn't: She is a New Yorker, brought up on Long Island, he is a southern gentleman with a thick twang, developed over years in Memphis and Texas. Standing in front of me was a former United States Marine, who now teaches high school history, along with being a football and wrestling coach. He was polite, dignified, and he had passion. He had a deep understanding that Israel is "the Lord's Land" and that the Jews are "the Lord's People". These basic Jewish beliefs were engraved deep in his heart.

As a former Marine, he offered a number of suggestions for quickly and permanently solving the Middle East crisis; diplomacy was not among them. I found him engaging and interesting, yet I still was not convinced that this union was made in heaven.

We headed over to the offices of the Religious Council, where the marriage would need to be registered. We arrived at 12:06; the office apparently closed at 12:00. I went over to the gentleman in the booth, and explained that we needed to open a file for a wedding. "Impossible. The office is closed." "But the wedding is in less than 10 days," I said. He looked at me incredulously and said "Impossible. It takes at least two weeks for a file to be processed". After a minute of negotiations he sent me to Rabbi Ralbag, the man in charge, so that he could tell me officially that this was impossible. As far as I was concerned, we were on our way out.

We entered the office of the Rabbi, who recognized me, and I introduced my new friend. When Rabbi Ralbag heard the name Landau - he, too, said: "You could be from the family of the Noda B'Yehuda". I informed the Rabbi that Mr. Landau is a Levi, strengthening his assumption. Meanwhile, we opened up the envelope the groom had brought with him from the U.S.;  I had instructed them earlier to bring signed affidavits establishing their marital status and Jewishness in order to expedite the registration process. The groom produced a letter written by Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt of Memphis, a well- known author and sage who was raised in Jerusalem, but traveled to America years ago to learn with Rav Moshe Feinstein and was sent to Memphis to lead the Jewish community there.

Rabbi Greenblatt wrote that he knew the family and in fact had attended the brit mila (circumcision) of the groom forty-one years ago. He then added that the reader should be aware that Mr. Landau is indeed a descendant of the Noda B'Yehuda - seven generations removed. Rabbi Ralbag and I looked at one another, appreciating the significance of his lineage, while the groom was somewhat nonchalant, not really appreciating the importance of his own lineage.

The file was quickly opened, and we were on our way. I suspected that I might have just witnessed a little intercession from above which helped open closed doors and, more impressively, subdue Israeli Bureaucracy.

I called the bride and I reported the progress we had made. I questioned her again, more closely, to make sure that she had really thought this decision through. She told me that he loves her, that he will care for her, that he is ready to make a commitment. So may of the men she met in NY who were her age had their eyes open only for younger women. So many had "commitment issues", or in their words, "enjoyed their 'freedom' ". She felt on a core level, on a soul level, that this was right. She felt that together they could build something great. She felt God had sent him her way. She felt that once in a Jewish environment, he would grow: He is interested and committed to growth, and he was sure from the day they met that they would marry - to him it was "fate".  She convinced me that this was "meant to be".

Who was I to argue? He was a man of sterling character, consistent, decent; he was a good man. What he lacked was merely a bit of outward religious trappings and some ritual behavior.  Our sages tell us that character is far more difficult to change than practice, yet I remained unsettled.

Before we hung up, I recalled the letter written by Rabbi Greenblatt, and informed her that indeed her soon-to-be-husband comes from a leading rabbinic family and that he is the seventh generation from the Noda B'Yehuda.

Again, she asked "Who is that?"
I responded "He was a leading Rabbi a little more than 200 years ago. While the Vilna Gaon sat and studied in Vilna this man was considered to be the greatest decider of Halacha of his time. He lived in Prague, and questions poured in from all over the world for his opinion. His full name was Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehudah Landau (1713 -1793).
She said "wow".

A day later I get another call from the bride; this time she was far more excited. "You won't believe this," she gushed. She mentioned the Noda B'Yehuda connection to one of her closest friends, who responded by saying "Don't move". Her friend quickly went into the next room and brought back a photo album. There was a picture taken one year earlier. These two friends, both single, had decided to accompany Rebbitzen Esther Jungreiss to Prague, to pray at the graves of righteous Jews. The bride's friend held up one picture:  There was the bride, praying by the grave of Rav Yechezkal Landau, the famed Noda B'Yehuda, asking him to open some gates in heaven and help her find her "soul mate".

As she told me this, things finally became clear: She had traveled to the grave of the Noda B'Yehuda and asked to meet her soul mate. The Noda B'Yehuda apparently offered a "deal" - I will introduce you to my own great-great-great grandson on condition that you bring him a bit closer to our heritage.

The wedding was on the porch of the Aish HaTorah building overlooking the Kotel. The day was Tu B'av. Despite trying to "elope," a crowd of people would not let this wedding happen quietly. They boarded a plane and came to Israel, despite "the situation", in order to rejoice with bride and groom. As we were preparing the ketubah for signing, an elderly, distinguished-looking rabbi appeared; I looked up and introduced myself, and he identified himself as Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt. He was in Israel for a visit, and he felt he should attend the wedding. Soon other leading rabbis appeared: a Kabbalist appeared, soon a leading Chabad Rabbi, Simon Jacobson joined. We marched and danced both bride and groom to the chupah. The bride's father, as I mentioned earlier, passed away years ago, and her mother was unable to fly. The groom's parents were unable to make the wedding, but the bride and groom each had a brother accompany them, together with close friends.

There was a power to that wedding the likes of which I had never felt; perhaps the location helped, but there was something more. There was electricity in the air, the music was intense, people sang and sang as we prepared for the actual ceremony. The Shechinah could be felt. This wasn't just my subjective feeling; every person present I spoke to later told me "they felt something".

I know that her father was smiling down, watching his only daughter get married. He was a kind man, a charitable man. In fact, when Rebbetzen Jungreiss first started her "mission" 27 years ago, he was the first to hold a "parlor meeting" for her in order to raise much-needed funds.

But I am sure that there was another presence there: the spirit of the Noda B'Yehuda, Rabbi Yechezkal ben Yehudah Landau, looking down, enjoying this marriage - which was certainly arranged in heaven.

As Yom Kippur approaches I think back to that wedding. Our sages tell us that the happiest days in the calendar were Yom Kippur and Tu Bav: Yom Kippur was day of forgiveness and Tu Bav was a day of marriages. On both of these days people would dance in the streets.

This Yom Kippur we should all remember that we, too, have connections in heaven. Perhaps some of us have more famous ancestors than others, but we should remind ourselves that we are all descendants of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and Yaakov and Leah and Rachel. These are our ancestors. But more importantly, every time we say "Avinu Malkenu" we should remember that we have a Father in heaven who is capable of "pulling strings".

We all need to do some Teshuva, to improve at least one area of our lives. We need to give Tzdaka (and encourage others to do the same!) and we all need to call out to our Father in Heaven, who is capable of changing and liberating the entire world "in the blink of an eye", and of intervening in even the most intimate details of each individual's life.

He can even help two people find one another, and happiness.
Gmar Chatima Tova.

(c) Rabbi Ari D. Kahn