It was Erev Shabbos
Chanuka and all of the children on our block including our own were running around
yelling, "It's coming, it's coming!" They were referring to the helicopter that was about to land in the field across the street from us. The Rabbi who was in charge of lighting the large Menorah in Manhattan had to find a way to light the Menorah on Erev Shabbos and be back in Crown Heights before sundown. The solution? A helicopter of course. Lubavitchers always find a way to get the job done. I focused on the Rabbi as he got out of the helicopter and proceeded to hand out little dreidels to all the children who had gathered around him. At that moment I was overtaken by a familiar feeling of excitement as I recalled another Chanuka over 20 years earlier, the first time I saw Lubavitchers when they walked into my Temple and into my life forever.
I remembered how I had stood there staring at these odd looking people along with the other members of my Temple Youth group wondering to myself "who are these crazy people and where do they come from? They sang and danced and filled the room with a joyfulness I had never before experienced. Many years later I was to learn that a chasid goes above and beyond following the laws of the Torah by serving G-d with joy. Chasidus, which many Jews had originally feared was a contradiction to the Torah, proved to be an even stronger way of connecting to G-d. Chasidim not only follow the Torah completely but they follow it in a truly positive way with a sense of joyfulness instead of treating it as a burden that was put upon them. As I joined with those wonderfully warm Lubavitcher Chasidim in celebrating Chanuka, unknowingly I was beginning to discover there was something more to Judaism that I had been exposed to at my Temple. Until that very instant I had thought everything Jewish I needed and loved could be found in my Temple. I couldn't have imagined there was another kid who loved their temple as much as I loved mine. I loved listening to the Rabbi reciting the prayers and telling stories. I loved listening to the beautiful sound of the Cantor's voice (who happened to be a woman). I loved being in the junior choir. I loved every single member of that Temple and everybody loved me back. I had grown up in that Temple where I was nurtured and taught to feel proud to be Jewish. I had thoughts of marrying someone from that Temple and of one day bringing my own children there so they could also grow up feeling proud to be Jewish.
And then came that moment when G-d sent His very best helpers, those beautiful Lubavitcher Rabbis, into my life. Their presence revealed a whole new level of Jewishness that no one at my Temple had ever conveyed to me. During that magical Chanuka evening while those Lubavitchers were overwhelming the atmosphere, a moment occurred when from somewhere deep inside of me I felt this tremendous urge to strengthen my feelings as a Jew. But sadly in that same moment I realized I had absolutely no idea of how I was supposed to make those kind of feelings a reality in my life. Many new thoughts began to stir inside me, thoughts that were unsettling and yet exciting, as if I was about to embark on a great adventure. Maybe those crazy Lubavitchers knew something I didn't, something even the Rabbi at my Temple didn't know.
One of those Lubavitchers, Rabbi Yoseph Samuels, became friendly with my family. He was in his early twenties and already married with two children. He had a long reddish beard and wore a black hat, a white shirt and dark pants. His voice was deep and he spoke slowly and clearly. I enjoyed talking with him but I didn't always like what he had to say. During one of our conversations I explained to him how strong my feelings were for Judaism, and how deeply committed I was to being and feeling Jewish. He stunned me by saying that having strong Jewish feelings wasn't something I could pass down to my children. He said a Jew must pass down Mitzvahs such as lighting Shabbos candles and keeping Kosher in order for Judaism to exist in the way G-d meant for it to exist. He further explained that it was through these very Mitzvahs that a Jew would ultimately develop truly strong Jewish feelings, the kind I so desperately craved. As he spoke I realized the concept of Mitzvahs was alien to me. And why not? I was a product of the Reform movement which had virtually wiped Mitzvahs out of their revised and totally man-made invention of something they dared to refer to as Judaism. They had tossed out the very essence of Judaism and what remained was only a flicker of the eternal flame I was entitled to be warmed by. I had been cheated and I didn't even know it. And yet I loved everything I knew as Judaism and I wasn't prepared yet to fully accept this eye opening knowledge imparted to me by Rabbi Samuels. His words left me feeling unsure of how my life as a Jew had grown and developed into something completely misguided and totally improper. It really bothered me to learn that what I knew and loved as Judaism was something I could not properly pass on to my children. I wondered if I would ever be able to let go of what I had in order to pursue and ultimately achieve what I should have had originally.
Sometime later, during a phone conversation with Rabbi Samuels, I asked him how he knew for sure that Jews were still supposed to do these Mitzvahs from the Torah, and how was it he knew the Torah really came from G-d in the first place? He answered me slowly and with such confidence, "Leslie, every single Jewish soul was at Mount Sinai when G-d gave the Torah, including yours. We stood together as one nation and we promised G-d that not only would we follow the Torah, but our children would always follow it as well. It was an experience that will forever remain deeply embedded in the soul of every Jew. You were there, Leslie. Remember Mount Sinai, and you will begin to understand what I am saying. As long as you continue to remember Mount Sinai and fulfill the promise we made there, your life and the lives of your children will always be on the right path."
I stood there frozen, and except for my tears there was no movement in my body. The knowledge that I had been there at Mount Sinai was penetrating every pore and overtaking me, almost paralyzing me, and yet somehow allowing a strong sense of euphoric awareness to surface in a slow but steady stream, causing me to be speechless. Rabbi Samuels' words had managed to stir my soul, creating a newfound consciousness in what had been a seemingly semiconscious state of existence for so many years. I held onto that moment for as long as I could, and I hoped that one day this astounding awareness would become so much a part of me that it would last forever.
I continued to watch silently as the helicopter took off, and then I was ushered back into my house by the sound of the siren letting Jews know that Shabbos was soon approaching. It was time to light my Shabbos candles. As I waited while my daughters lit their candles first, I thanked G-d that I now understood what Rabbi Samuels had said. And more importantly, my children also understood, for they had not been cheated. Because of the influence of Lubavitchers in my life, the lives of my children were thank G-d on the right path. The flames in my daughters' Shabbos candles would always remind them of the eternal flame that belonged to them, to their children, and to their children's children. As I lit my Shabbos candles I was enveloped by the warmth of the flames that had fostered the strong Jewish feelings I had finally found. I stood there smiling, surrounded by the sacred security of Shabbos and a strong sense of awareness that the promise we made at Mount Sinai would live on forever.