Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rabbi's Notebook

A midrash tells a story of a rabbi who carried a small book with him every day. If he went to the market, the rabbi carried his book. If he went to another village, his notebook went with him.  If he took a walk in the country… where ever he went, the rabbi carried his book. 

Some people in the rabbi’s village believed that the rabbi was carrying a Siddur, a book of prayers.  Others said, “No, it is book with verses of Torah.” 

But other people disagreed.  “The rabbi is carrying a part of the Talmud with him.”

The rabbi’s book was none of those things. The rabbi was carrying a notebook that had only blank pages, but every day he filled it with his writing.

“Ah, now we understand,” said the people of the village.  “The rabbi is writing notes for his sermons or important ideas to share with his students!” 

But again they were wrong.  Yes, the rabbi wrote in his notebook but not for students or sermons. 

Instead inside the rabbi’s notebook were long lists of names and beside the names were directions or drawings. For example, the rabbi wrote: “Shlomo -  big blue door…”  or “Miriam -  behind the marketplace near the banyan tree.”

For years the rabbi wrote in his notebook and carried it with him wherever he went. And for years the people of the village speculated about the great wisdom or wonderful teachings that surely filled the little book.

One day, near the town square, shortly after the rabbi had passed by, several people began to whisper. As usual, they were talking about the rabbi’s notebook.  It was always the same discussion. What does he write? What are the drawings? Why all the names? Why?

“I know why!”  The voice was an old woman selling vegetables from a small cart. “I know what the rabbi writes and I know why he writes it.”

One man from the synagogue looked up. “You? How could you know? Your family is not religious and your husband never comes to shul.”

“He’s right,” another man chimed in. “And your farm is far away. It is not possible that you know our rabbi. You are lying!”

The old woman smiled at the angry men. “I know your rabbi and I know what he writes,” she said. And then she told this story.

“One day, many years ago, I had an accident.  My vegetable cart was stuck in the mud.
 I tried to push it, then I tried to pull it.  But it would not move.

Finally I pushed with all my strength.  And the cart moved all right. It fell right on top of me, breaking both of my legs.”

“For days I lay in bed, in terrible pain.  Then one day there was a knock at my door.  It was your rabbi.  He had come to visit me.  He stayed with me for hours, talking, singing and praying.

“Finally I asked him, “Rabbi, you have spent so much time with me. I do not remember meeting you or talking to you. How do you know me?”

“Your rabbi smiled and took my hand. He said, “I know you well. We once stood side by side.”

“Where?  Now I am so embarrassed because I can’t remember ever meeting the rabbi. Oy vey, I must be losing my memory!”

The rabbi said, “My dear friend, we stood together, side by side at Mount Sinai.”

“Then your rabbi told me about his notebook. He said that when he learns about a person who is sick, he writes down the name. Beside the name he writes directions to the house.

And he visits everyone, even if the person is like me and does not come to the synagogue. The rabbi told me that it makes no difference because we were together one time long ago when we stood with Moses to receive the Ten Commandments.”

This midrash is important because our traditions tell us that the experience at Mount Sinai is common to every Jew. Our sages tell us that every Jew, those that were living at that moment, those who had died, and those, like us, who were yet to be born—every Jewish soul was present at Sinai for the giving of the Ten Commandments. 

This means that every Jew is connected to every other Jew. It does not matter how we look, or where we were born or what our names are. It does not matter if we are traditional or modern, or if we are religious or secular. Every Jew is connected to every other Jew.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to participate in memorial services to remember the Shoah and the liberation of the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. In Italy, in Milan in 2005 my congregants and I stood in front of the prison where Jews from Milan waited to be taken to the train station for deportation to Auschwitz. With snow falling all around us we lit candles in their honor and memory.

Also in Italy, in Bergamo we remembered the courage of those who helped Jewish families. We placed a wreath against a monument and we cried for those who were lost. 

And again this year, on January 26, I have the honor to bring nine  Holocaust survivors to Tampa to participate in a beautiful memorial service hosted by the Italian consulate. Our survivors, all of them elderly, and all of the survivors of Nazi persecution, will light candles in memory of the six million who were murdered.

Why? Because January 27 is a day of Holocaust remembrance that is observed throughout Europe. January 27 marks the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Russian Army in 1945. When I think of that day, I am reminded that during the Holocaust, all throughout Europe all Jews stood together.

The Nazis did not ask which Jews were religious and which were secular or which were Orthodox and which were Progressive.  In that horrible moment in history, we were united. To our persecutors we were all Jews.

The lesson of the Shoah and the lesson of Mount Sinai should never be lost. The old rabbi with the notebook understood this. He realized that all Jews are connected to one another.

This year during this day of remembrance we will stand together once again. We will stand in solidarity with those who were lost, those who suffered and those who were saved. We will not ask which Jew was religious, which one was cultural or which one was secular. We honor the memory of every Jew who died.

And then we do one thing more. We remember that Mt. Sinai connects us one to another and like the old rabbi in our midrash, we continue to learn from Sinai. Regardless of persuasion or background, it is our duty to honor and respect every Jew who lives.


  1. Devorah Tikvah (Diana in Arad)January 27, 2014 at 7:49 PM

    My dear wonderful friend...this was the truest and best yet. Well said, well done. Kol HaKavod. It is an honor to know you and call you friend. DT

  2. Another beautiful lesson to be learned about the solidarity of the Jewish people. Thank you Rabbi for sharing this wonderful message with us.
    (Theresa Colosimo) February 6, 2014

  3. I just read it, and I promised myself to read every month your story. I am still learning, and this story makes me realize the strengh we have inside us because we know we are not alone. As you said so well, we were together on Mount sinai.