Join Rabbi Haber's mailing list:
Home What's New Blogs Store Dedications Weekly Parshah About TorahLab Contact Us Links


The Systems of the Jewish Year

The Mayor Who Comes to Bar Mitzvas

By Rabbi Sender Haber

In 2008, as the world watched President-Elect Obama make his way to the white house, the people of Virginia Beach watched their first and only Mayor wave good-bye. Mayor Oberndorf has lead a remarkable career, both in developing Virginia Beach and as an active member of the Jewish Community.

The Honorable Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf will be remembered for many things, but not many people know about the time she spoke at a Siyum on Masechtas Kerisus.

My chavrusa (study partner), Jimmy Ellenson understands the importance of Torah learning. When he arranged our siyum he arranged for his entire family to attend. His entire family included his brother David (then president of HUC) and his cousin, the mayor.  His sister from Seattle was also there. She’s the one the one who told her friend that if he dropped out of college he would live his life as a loser (Despite ignoring her advice, Bill Gates actually did OK).

Mayor Oberndorf spoke and discussed family history. She discussed how important Judaism and learning had always been to them. She told the story of the sister and Microsoft and she mentioned the old Rabbi in Newport News – Rabbi Nachman Bulman Zatzal. The mayor was a wonderful woman with a wit who did not shy away from personal and revealing statements about her family, most of which were quite inspiring.

The President of HUC spoke eloquently and quoted a gaonic text on Kareis; I spoke and gave a pretty good Hadran which I felt was appropriate for the setting.

Here it is:

A person talking to a great man – for example, the president of the United States – would never have the Chutzpah to interrupt to answer a call from a telemarketer. Yet, in Parshas Vayeira, Abraham, who was in the midst of speaking to G-d, interrupted his prophecy to greet three travelers who were approaching his tent. To add insult to injury, Abraham actually asked G-d not to leave, but to wait a few minutes while he tended to his guests.

We can understand G-d’s patience, but Abraham’s behavior is astonishing! How could he have the Chutzpa to interrupt a rare communication with G-d to tend to three strangers? These people were at best angels and at worst idol-worshipping nomads!

Abraham knew that Man’s mission in life is not about transcending the physical and becoming an angel. If this were his purpose, G-d would have created just a soul. Why the cumbersome body? Avraham understood that our purpose on earth is to live spiritually in a physical world. G-d wants us to take our physical bodies and infuse them with the spirituality of our souls.

Abraham said to G-d: As long as there were no guests around I was “content” to transcend my physical reality and speak to you. Now that I have an opportunity to fulfill my true mission, to use my physical body to serve you; I am sure that you would prefer that I speak to my guests.

Our existence in this physical tangible world is proof that we are created for the purpose of bringing G-d into the physical world.  A person who completely ignores G-d will have a very hard time attaining unity between the physical and the spiritual.  Hashem gave us the Torah and through the Torah he teaches us how to bring spirituality to the mundane. “Torah”, like “Morah”, means teach. In order to act G-dly we must study the torah and thereby become students of Hashem.

Jimmy once invited me to observe his closing arguments at a case at the Federal Courthouse in Norfolk. I found him very compelling and later remarked that if he would use the same talent in our studies as he did in his closing arguments, he would win every argument. Jimmy thought for a moment and then responded: Studying Gemara is not about closing arguments. It is not about convincing each other of our own point of view. Gemara study is about understanding the process that the Tanaim and Amoraim used in understanding the word of G-d. Only through this type of learning can one become a student of Hashem; someone who is able to bring Hashem into everything they do.

Our tractate, Krisos deals with people who did not know what Abraham knew. It deals with people who have sinned so terribly that their body is “nichras” - cut off - from their souls. These people lost their opportunity to bring holiness into everything we do.

Rabbi Yaacov Ettlinger was a very influential and almost radical rabbi in 19th century Germany. He writes in his book, Aruch La’ner, that there are four relationships, four types of Shalom, in which a person must strive for perfection: 
1. The relationship between Man and G-d
2. The relationship between Man and Man
3. The relationship between Man and spouse
The fourth relationship is the one we are discussing: the relationship between physicality and spirituality.

Rabbi Ettlinger identifies the Mesechtos (tractates) of Brachos, Nazir, and Yevamos as dealing with each of the first three categories. The tractate of Krisos deals with the last relationship: the relationship between the body and the soul.

Interestingly, these are the only four tractates that choose to conclude with the exactly identical quote:

Rabi Elazar taught in the name of Rabi Chanina: Torah Scholars bring peace to the world. This is based on a verse in Isaiah 54 “And all your sons will be learned in the ways of G-d; and there will be much peace among your sons”.

(Rabbi Ettlinger points out that the final word “Banayich” – your sons, is actually an acronym for the four tractates Brachos, Nazir, Yevamos, and Kerisos.)

This uniformity indicates that the four relationships which we strive to perfect will affect Shalom in the world. The way to achieve this Shalom is by being “limudei Hashem” – students of G-d.

Rabi Elazar ends with a blessing that the day will come when all of G-d’s children will be learned in His ways leading to much peace amongst G-d’s children.

I believe that Rabi Elazar in his “closing argument” to our tractate is teaching the same lesson that he taught from Abraham: Our job on earth is to become students of G-d. We can bind our bodies and souls by using our bodies to reflect G-dliness. If everyone were learned in the ways of G-d then the world would be a perfect place. Thus -

Rabi Elazar taught in the name of Rabi Chanina: Torah Scholars bring peace to the world. The verse in Isaiah says “And all your sons will be learned in the ways of G-d; and there will be much peace among your sons”.

Thank You, G-d Bless You, and G-d Bless the United States of America.

Note: I originally wrote this article in 2008. I share it today as we mark the passing of Meyera Oberndorf, past mayor of Virginia Beach and long-time member of our congregation. I last spoke with the Mayor when she attended a class I gave Chanuka at the Beth Shalom Home. She was as passionate and graceful as always and proud of our heritage. My class centered around the idea of gratitude for even the smallest kindnesses and celebrating G-d’s miracles rather than our own strength and prowess. I tried to make my points eloquently, but I needn’t of bothered. The mayor was respected by every person in the room and her vehement nodding left no doubt that she agreed fully with the timeless messages of our tradition.

View and leave comments • (3 comments so far)