From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

My Son the Rabbi

In a storm, it is the bamboo, the flexible tree, that can bend with the wind and survive. The rigid tree that resists the wind falls, victim of its own insistence to control.

Joan Borysenko

My mother never wanted me to be a rabbi. Her dream was that I receive a graduate degree in mathematics, learn accounting and take over my father’s flourishing CPA practice. She was shocked and sad when I took her out to lunch and told her, “I am dropping out of graduate school. In the fall, I am beginning my rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.”

My mother was deeply Jewish, but her Jewishness had nothing to do with religion. It was ethnicity, memories and a few eclectic religious observances. She had the greatest disdain for Jews who were observant. “They are more interested in the law than in people,” she would say. I heard stories about the poor kids from a kosher family who had to bring their own hot dogs to neighbor kids’ birthday parties because they could not eat the food.

My mother was disturbed when I began keeping kosher. “Now you won’t eat in my house.” When she and my dad first married, he wanted her to keep a kosher home. She said, “No, there are too many rules.” Now, with her oldest son studying to be a rabbi, she bought a separate set of kosher dishes for me to use. When I told her that I would no longer drive on the Sabbath, and when I began to wear a yarmulke all the time, she became more concerned. “Why can’t you be one of those liberal rabbis, who don’t worry so much about the picayune laws?” That was not to be my dream.

For the first three years of rabbinical school, my mother waited for me to drop out and go into the family business. She described to me how delicious lobster was and asked me not to be too religious. One day she said, “I can live with you being a rabbi. But please don’t make law more important than people.”

Then one summer day, I finally convinced my mother that I would be a good rabbi. I shared with her a story of what happened to me on a cross-country drive.

During summer break from the seminary, another rabbinical student and I took off to drive across the country. As we mapped out our route, we discovered that we could reach Rapid City, South Dakota, by Shabbat. In Rapid City, there is one small synagogue that meets on an army base. It serves the few Jewish families in town, as well as those in the military. They were having Friday night services and invited my friend and me to join them.

“My friend and I would love to join you, but we do not drive on Shabbat. Is there any chance we can stay within walking distance?” The members of the Rapid City Jewish community were wonderful, arranging for us to sleep at the army base, and even getting us an invitation for a vegetarian dinner at someone’s home. So began a beautiful Shabbat in South Dakota.

Friday night the lay people led the service. More people than usual attended, intrigued that two seminary students were in town. At the Oneg Shabbat afterwards, my friend and I led a discussion on Judaism.

Suddenly, a little boy of about nine came up to me all excited. He had some things that his grandfather had left him, and he did not know what they were. The boy proudly showed me a velvet bag and took out a pair of tefillin. I explained that they are phylacteries worn by Jewish men on their head and on their arm during the weekday morning prayers. They literally fulfill the commandment, “You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for reminders between your eyes.”

The boy was excited. “Rabbi, show me how to put them on.”

“I am not yet a rabbi, only a student,” I responded. And I thought about what to do. It was Friday night. The sun had gone down. On Shabbat it is forbidden by Jewish law even to handle a pair of tefillin, let alone put them on. I was tempted to say, “Put them away until a weekday.”

On the other hand, how many observant Jews pass through this small South Dakota town each year? Who else could show the boy how to wear his grandfather’s tefillin? The opportunity may not present itself again. I told him to roll up his sleeve. And slowly, at this Friday night Oneg Shabbat, I taught the boy how to wear tefillin. Wearing his grandfather’s tefillin on his arm and forehead, we said the Sh’ma together. I could see tears in his father’s eyes. There was a joy in the boy’s steps as he went home that evening.

When Shabbat was over, I called my mother. She said, “Do you mean that you broke the laws of Shabbat to put tefillin on that little boy?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Maybe you will be a good rabbi after all.”

From that moment on, my mother supported my decision to enter the rabbinate. “Now I know that for you, people are more important than laws.” She cried when I received my rabbinic ordination and proudly spoke of her son the rabbi. And my mother made one more promise: “I will not eat lobster anymore. At least, when I go out with you.”

Rabbi Michael Gold

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