In Parshas Tetzaveh we read about the clothing and vestments of the Kohain Gadol, the Jewish High Priest, back in Temple & Tabernacle days. One of the distinctive features was a series of bells jingling from the hem of his robe. He couldn’t tiptoe in anywhere! One of the lessons we learn is that sometimes Jewish noise is important. We often are afraid to be too vocal, to be to noticeable, but the bells teach us to be proud of our identity and heritage and not be afraid to make some (positive) noise.
This week my brother Rabbi Abba of Saratoga Chabad went to Skidmore College’s Tang Museum of Art to hear cartoonist Ben Katcher speak. He was amazed to find that one of the cartoon pieces on display was the story of the Lubavitcher Rebbe overcoming obstacles on a walk to Tashlich (waterside ceremony on Rosh Hashanah afternoon) in the 1950’s. That’s its own story that we can tell another time.
But that Tashlich story reminded me of a different Tashlich story told by Rabbi Zalman Posner about the Rebbe’s first Tashlich in America in 1941 when Zalman was 13 years old. It connects to the message of the noisy bells.
Here’s the story from the MyEncounter Blog:
At that time, it was the custom on Rosh Hashana for those praying at 770 to walk up to the Botanical Gardens off Eastern Parkway to do tashlich – a special High Holiday prayer – at the pond there. Everybody – the whole community – walked down the street. How many people that was I cannot tell you, because when you’re thirteen you can’t estimate crowds. But it was a lot of people.
The Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchok, was Rebbe at the time. The Rebbe was not yet the Rebbe – he was better known then as the Rebbe’s younger son-in-law, Ramash.
So that year, when we started going outside, Ramash stopped us and said, “Wait, that’s not the right way to walk. You should march down the street two-by-two and you should sing.” It was unheard of – singing in the street. Nobody sings in the street!
I was very shy and self-effacing, and walking down the street and drawing attention to myself seemed awful to me – I just withered at the thought. All the people in the apartment houses we passed were watching us from their windows. I felt that they were staring directly at me and grinning. I felt terrible, and I was praying to G-d – the way a thirteen-year-old prays to G-d – to get me out of there.
G-d didn’t answer my prayer that year, but the next year, as everybody lined up for the walk, Reb Shmuel Levitin, an elder chosid, said to me, “Zalman, I can’t keep up with these people, they walk too fast for me. But I don’t want to walk alone – will you walk with me?”
And I said to G-d: “You heard my prayer; You answered me!” I didn’t have to walk and sing with people looking at me.
I walked with Reb Shmuel and a few other stragglers, and we arrived at the pond and did tashlich there. The large crowd was already finished, and were walking back on Union Street still singing. We followed them at a distance. As we were walking, a fellow approached us. He was dressed very nicely in holiday attire – a black suit and white shirt – but he did not have a yarmulke or a hat on, so he was obviously not a very religious person. This fellow grabbed my arm and asked me, “Why are they singing? Why are they singing?” I mumbled a reply, and then he said to me, “You know something – I have a spark in my soul, and when I heard those people walking down the street and singing because they are proud to be Jews, that spark just burst into a flame.” And with that he turned and walked away.
I was old enough to realize that this guy was really touched by the singing crowd. It inspired him. Whatever his rabbi preached on Rosh Hashana didn’t touch him – the spark within him wasn’t affected. But when he heard people singing, as if to say, “Hurray, I’m a Jew,” – that aroused him.
And later on I realized that the Rebbe’s younger son-in-law – who later became the Rebbe – knew what he was doing when he said, “March and sing.” He was able to see something that the rest of us weren’t able to see on our own – that when Jews go out singing in the street, people who are sensitive will respond, perhaps even without realizing it.
Only then could I see that it was worth it – to do all that singing and marching in two rows so that somebody’s heart would burst open, and somebody would be able to say, “Hooray, I’m a Jew.”
Here’s the link where you can see Rabbi Zalman Posner tell the story himself: http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/livingtorah/player_cdo/aid/424362/jewish/Deep-Down-A-Spark.htm