The Latest from BZBI

Water and Wine

Ki Tissa 5779 / 23 February 2019

February 27, 2019

Once upon a time a messenger rode swiftly into the town of Chelm with urgent news: the honorable mayor of Lublin would be visiting the town the following week. The town immediately launched into a frenzy of activity. Yankl the melamed, the schoolteacher, began teaching the students the berakhah to be recited when you see an important civic leader. Ruchl the baker started scrubbing his oven to ensure that the bread for their celebration would taste fresh and clean. Mendel, the shammes of the shule, took out the white Torah covers, usually reserved for the High Holy Days, and put them on the scrolls.

In every corner of town, people were getting ready for the mayor’s visit; but one problem remained: what gift could they give the mayor to thank him for coming? Chelm was a poor town, full of people who worked hard but struggled to make ends meet. The mayor of Lublin was a wealthy, prominent man. No matter what gift ideas they thought of, it always seemed insufficient. Finally, on Shabbat afternoon – just one day before the mayor’s visit – the people of Chelm went to see the rabbi, who was known for his deep wisdom.

“Rabbi,” they asked, “We are so happy that the honorable mayor of Lublin is coming to visit Chelm, but we can’t think of a proper gift to offer him. Please help us, Rabbi – what could we give the mayor of Lublin as a gift?”

The rabbi closed his eyes and stroked his chin thoughtfully for a few minutes. Finally he sat forward and said, “I have it! We will give the mayor of Lublin a barrel filled with wine.”

“But rabbi!” the townspeople cried, “We couldn’t possibly afford a barrel of wine. What are we to do?”

“After shabbes, I will put a barrel in the courtyard of the shule,” the rabbi said. “Tonight, each family should bring a jar of wine from home and pour it into the barrel. Each of us need only put in a small amount of wine, but together we will fill the barrel for the mayor.”

The townspeople were filled with happiness: once again the rabbi had solved their problem! As the rabbi and the shammes rolled an empty barrel into the courtyard, the people all went home to prepare their wine.

Once havdallah was over, the people of Chelm began to bring their wine. However, people didn’t follow the rabbi’s instructions exactly. There will be so much wine in that barrel, thought Shloime, a notorious miser, that I could pour in a jar of water instead, and no one will ever notice. Dovid the ganef, the thief, went and stole an especially fine bottle from the town store – but then he reconsidered: this wine would be wasted mixed with so much other wine; no one will notice if I pour water into the barrel instead, and then I can keep this wine for myself. And so it went throughout the night.

Late the next morning the mayor of Lublin arrived with his entourage in a six-horse carriage. He smiled with delight as the children recited their berakhah. When they went to the shule for lunch, he looked appreciatively at the beautiful sifrei Torah in their white garb. After hamotzi, he praised the light texture, warm aroma, and rich taste of the bread.

As the mayor of Lublin prepared to return home, the rabbi approached and asked him to wait.

“We have a gift, your excellency, in deep gratitude for your coming to spend the day with us.” A few of the men wheeled a small cart out from the shule courtyard, and everyone could see the large barrel on top. “Please accept this barrel of wine in appreciation of your kindness to us today.”

“My good man, I am so grateful to you,” the mayor said, clapping the rabbi on the shoulder. “Open it up now, and let’s toast l’chaim before I set off!”

The shammes ran back to the shule for a silver goblet. The barrel was opened, and the shammes dipped the goblet down into the liquid. He passed the goblet to the mayor, who lifted it up and called out, “L’chaim!

He took a big drink and immediately spat it back out. “This is plain, ordinary water!” he said, laughing heartily. “My oh my, you Chelmers have a wicked sense of humor!” With that parting remark, he climbed into his carriage and set off, leaving behind a barrel full of water and dozens of bewildered townspeople.

Accusations began to fly. You put in water instead of wine! one person would shout at another. I know I wasn’t the only one! another would scream back. Fed up, the rabbi brought out a shofar and blew one long, deafening blast.

“It is quite clear to me,” he said when everyone had quieted down, “That all of you brought water instead of the wine you agreed to provide. Perhaps you thought that, among all the other wine, your water would go unnoticed; and indeed, that would have been true – had you been the only person to substitute. But when each of you ignored your responsibility while assuming that everyone else would do their part, in the end we had nothing but water to offer the honorable mayor.”

Tomorrow will be my last day saying kaddish for my father ע״ה, and I have learned a lot over the past eleven months. In addition to our daily minyanim, I have visited minyanim as far away as New Orleans and Berkeley, and as close as Penn Hillel. I have known the challenge of needing to assemble an ad-hoc minyan on vacation in places without an established synagogue; and I have felt the warm embrace of communities like ours that keep their doors open every day for anyone in need of a minyan.

BZBI’s daily minyanim are strong – but not quite strong enough. Every week, there is at least one day where we get to ten for the final kaddish by bringing in Phyllis from the office and one of our preschool teachers from downstairs. While I am immeasurably grateful for their presence and willingness to help us get to the magic number, it’s not the right way to build a minyan. There are times – holidays, snow days – where we can’t count on anyone beyond the people who come specifically for minyan; and when we miss a minyan, it breaks my heart that we miss by only one or two people. We came so close… but eight is not ten.

Parashat Ki Tissa opens with a census of the Israelites, but the census takes an odd form. God tells Moses, “Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary.”[1] In Jewish tradition, it is considered a bad omen to count people individually, but a census is necessary as the Israelites work toward entering the land of Israel. To get around this problem, each person will give the same amount, half a shekel of silver, and the population can be calculated from the total amount collected. The system makes sense, but it also invites us to ask: why a half-shekel? Any amount would achieve the same result; why not a whole shekel? Why not ask each person to put in a date, or a pint of goat’s milk? Almost anything could serve as a proxy for the census.

The half-shekel, however, is far from arbitrary. It sends a very deliberate message to the Israelites, and to us as well. The people are asked to contribute a half shekel as a reminder that each Jewish person is only part of the picture.[2] While it’s possible to practice Judaism in isolation, on one’s own, it is only a limited version of our tradition that will work that way. There are prayers we can only recite with a minyan; texts that can only be learned in hevruta, with a study partner; mitzvot that we can’t perform without another person’s involvement. Spending Shabbat alone, without family or friends, can be a nice respite once in a while; observing Shabbat alone every week, without a community, is torment.

If you look in the weekly Shabbat announcements, you’ll see the names of the people who came out to support our morning and evening minyanim this past week. The list goes longer or shorter from week to week, but we have our core foundation. Still, we should not make the mistake that the people of Chelm made, and think that we can rely on others to cover our responsibilities. Our strength runs in direct proportion to how much we pull together, and depends on each and every person’s individual contribution.

If the idea of going to minyan every single day seems daunting, it is – but as grateful as I am for the dedicated few who come, rain or shine, each day, that’s not the most important thing. Last summer, at kiddush, one of you asked me how the morning minyan was doing. At the time we had strong attendance most days, but were consistently falling short on Mondays, and I said as much. He nodded thoughtfully, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him at minyan the following Monday morning, and delighted when he told me he had resolved to come every Monday going forward. Here’s the interesting thing: from then on, we consistently made minyan on Mondays. It turns out that just one person’s commitment, to one day a week, makes a material difference in our minyan’s success.

Aidan, Cooper, Leo, Matan, Matthew, Nathan, Nicholas, Reuben: the siddurim you receive this morning are more than ordinary books; they are sacred tools.[3] They are the same siddurim you will use when preparing for your b’nai mitzvah, and God willing they will travel with you to college and beyond. This morning is your first real step on a path that leads toward your taking responsibility for the mitzvot and your commitment to serve the Jewish community wherever you live.

For the rest of us – parents and grandparents, teachers and rabbis, anyone who cares to see BZBI’s continuing strength and vibrancy – our responsibility is to show these students, through our daily actions, how to live engaged Jewish lives. While that is bigger than any one thing, our daily minyanim are an important service that we offer the Philadelphia Jewish community. BZBI is home to the only twice-daily egalitarian minyan in Center City. This has long been a source of pride for our synagogue, but it is also a responsibility we all share. Our minyanim continue to struggle – some days we’re solid with eleven, twelve, fifteen people; other days we’re at seven or eight. It wouldn’t take very much to get our minyanim on solid ground: if even ten people in this room choose just one weekday to be “your” weekly day, if forty people in this room commit to come once each month, on the day whose number matches your birthday, we could know for sure that any person who comes to BZBI, whether a neighbor or someone visiting from out of state, would find the ten Jewish adults they need at our synagogue.

Of course, this won’t work for everyone. Some of us work in the suburbs, or have schedules that conflict with our minyan times. Some of our children or grandchildren need to be taken to school at precisely the time of our morning minyan, or picked up during the evening minyan. At the same time, I know there are people here today who have made the commitment to be at minyan consistently, some once a week and some even more. We list the names each week to show our gratitude to the people who support this vital service. And I believe there are yet more of us who could join the ranks of minyan regulars, once a week or even once a month, and make a difference. None of us can know for sure what anyone else will do, but we have one essential question to answer for ourselves: will we bring water, or our best wine?

[1] Ex. 30:13.

[2] Menahem Zion (Sacks), Ki Tissa, p.309.

[3] This d’var Torah was given on the occasion of our Gimel (third grade) students receiving their first siddurim (prayerbooks).