Last month, I became the interim rabbi of a Toronto shul. This is the third synagogue where I have served in this capacity. It gives the congregation time to do a proper search for a permanent spiritual leader.
An issue I’ve had to work out is what do to on Shabbat, as the shul is not in my immediate neighbourhood. Do I walk there or stay over at someone’s house, or sometimes do one and other times do the other? Will my wife join me on occasion or every time?
My first Shabbat on the job, I decided to go by foot from my home to the shul to get a sense of how long it would take me to get there. Better to do it before winter sets in, I figured. I was blessed with perfect walking weather. The temperature was neither too hot nor too cold, and not a drop of rain fell from the sky.
It was difficult to get an accurate reading of the time required, since I kept running into people I know. Some were acquaintances who were coming or going to their own shul. Others were members of my new congregation who had attended a simcha elsewhere and wanted to meet me. In some cases, I was able to say a quick “Good Shabbos” or “Shabbat shalom” (there are two types of Jews, after all) without breaking step. However, other times, I needed to stop and shmooze. This was the case with people who knew about my new interim position and wanted to find out how it was going.
Surprisingly, the most memorable encounter I had while walking that day was with someone who was not only not going to shul, but wasn’t even Jewish. Although I tried to avoid the noise of main thoroughfares, I was forced to walk on Bathurst Street for a few blocks to get past the massive obstacle otherwise known as Highway 401. At one point, I heard someone call out to me from a car stopped at a red light. A person of colour wanted to know if he could ask me something. I nodded my permission. “Why do the Jews wear black?” he inquired. I didn’t think I could give him a thorough religious, historical and sociological analysis of the phenomenon before the light changed. Instead, I mumbled something about it being an indication of modesty and dignity.
At some point during our brief interaction, the man waiting at the light said, “I admire the Jewish people.” This made a big impression on me. He obviously wasn’t talking about mode of dress. I’m sure he could easily put on a white shirt and dark pants instead of the jeans and T-shirt he was wearing at the time.
I believe his expression of esteem related more to the sense of purpose and mission he recognized in people dressed in their Shabbat finery hurrying off to synagogue. The fact that the Jews he sees walking on Bathurst Street identify with a higher purpose made an impression on him.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this brief meeting. But even if I’m wrong, it made me realize an important idea for the High Holiday season. We should recognize what we as Jews have and be proud of it: a tradition that is thousands of years old; that we have managed to survive against all odds; great contributions to the world in many areas; the unprecedented return to our homeland two millenniums after being expelled from it; and so on and so forth.
If you are reading this column in this newspaper, it almost certainly means that you have an association of some kind to Judaism. We should all ponder that connection over the holidays and treasure that which others recognize about us. And now that I am a pulpit rabbi again, at least temporarily, might I suggest that we also try to enhance commitment to our tradition.