By Rabbi Shimon Posner
I hate homework; I always did, and never more so than when I became a parent of schoolchildren. So when my 15-year-old came home for Shabbos a few weeks ago with an assignment to interview a shliach – and she chose me, for her convenience – I wasn’t excited. The lead interview question was, what makes you, Rabbi Shliach, mekusher? Why do you think it is important?
Besides for my homework aversion, there were other issues.
Firstly, hiskashrus is a hard topic. It lends itself to unfocused, unbridled passion: lots of heat but lacking tangibles for the heat to convert to nourishment like when you turn flour into bread. So while the interviewee can wax poetic, strident, tearful, remorseful, triumphant and more, the interviewer, and the reader, remain spectators. They may well be impressed, even inspired, but without something to bring home when the party is over.
Secondly, the timing of the assignment was way off. My father (Rabbi Zalman Posner OBM) had just passed and neither I nor my family was ready for DMD: deep meaningful discussion. My youngest was still bursting into tears without any discernible warning, “I miss Zaidie!” and the rest of us were not far from his mark.
But homework must be done…
And then it came back to me. My father’s levaya had been in New York; I sat shiva there for a few days, then went to Nashville for a day to sit with his community of over five decades and came home to Rancho Mirage, CA to end shiva. While in Nashville, among the dozens of unforgettable stories and vignettes of a life well-lived by a man well-loved, one memory came back to my homework-burdened dinette table.
A lady shared how when my parents came in 1949, her uncle and her aunt bet a dollar: the Rabbi’s beard would be off within a year. I don’t know if it was the uncle or the aunt that lost that dollar.
My father had shared with me what his coming to Nashville was like. The community was divided, those who insisted that in America we will NOT be having a rabbi with a beard, and those conceding that a man of religious conviction, while not first choice, may well be just what was needed. The European-born immigrant vs. the American-born generation. Only it was the shtetl transplants who were negating the beard and the Americans who ultimately embraced it.
This wagering uncle and aunt reflected the Brooklyn my parents had come from. This was a time when there was not yet a term for the undertaking of my parents: shlichus. It’s not just that virtually no one else was doing it, there was no IT!
So by default, my parents were viewed as just another yeshiva bochur and his wife looking to earn a dollar and remain Jewish in the process. Following this reasoning, since he couldn’t find a parnossa in New York or someplace nearby/similar, he was going to the boondocks. They would either be back in six months, was the reasoning in New York, or they would never return. Of this, Nashville and Brooklyn concurred.
Never mind that the Frierdiker Rebbe had called them into yechidus to tell them m’darf gein vu s’is calt un finster un dort machen lichtig un varm” (not sure if I have the Loshon Harav precisely: you must go where it is cold and dark, and there make it glowing and warm). Never mind that my mother (Mrs. Risya Posner OBM) had a promising career in the advertising firm Benton & Bowles which she traded in to teach Alef Bais to kindergartners.
A friend of mine passed away about 18 years ago, way too young, about 40. He had gone to Tulane and in his office hung a proclamation of honorary Citizenship of the City of New Orleans and after he died, his tombstone read Laissez les Bontemps Rouler. At his funeral a friend eulogized him: Some people come to New Orleans and don’t stay. Some people come to New Orleans and don’t leave. Alan took New Orleans with him.
All the above came back to me in the course of a few seconds: I did the interview. Hiskashrus is about taking the Rebbe with you, wherever you go. In the most unlikely places. In Nashville. In Brooklyn.
A venerated Satmer chossid had been sent by the HIAS refugee agency to Pittsburgh when he arrived from Europe after the War. He quickly moved to Williamsburg, but when he moved to Williamsburg, he wanted very much to meet the Frierdiker Rebbe. Why did you leave Pittsburgh, the Frierdiker Rebbe wanted to know. I needed a sviva, a Jewish environment, he responded. And the Frierdiker Rebbe answered in a loud, clear voice, “Mach a sviva!” Not only in Pittsburgh, but in Brooklyn: you are not meant to be a product of the environment, you produce the environment.
So the wagering uncle and aunt, and frum New York missed what was going on with the first Shluchim. My parents may have changed locales from New York to Nashville but they took the Rebbe with them.
If I take the Rebbe with me then my reading and surfing material is informed by that. The clothes I wear reflect that, the words I choose are determined by that. It’s my own private reality that no one really knows but me. But everyone benefits from the result.
Mekushar? Mekusher is not simply changing your environment; it is making the Rebbe your environment, making your environment the Rebbe. And in such an environment a beard is a given, a shaitel is a destiny, words reflect the Rebbe’s sensitivity and dress reflects the Rebbe’s sensitivities.
When mekushar? When you least think it is relevant. When you least expect it. When you most need it. It may not be convenient, but thankfully, gratefully, it’s our homework.