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The mezuzah that saved a life

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Religion

“And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates in order that your days may increase and the days of your children…” (Deuteronomy 11: 20-21)

The mezuzah has long been associated with protection. It has been compared to a helmet which a soldier wears in battle in order to protect him from enemy fire. The Torah states that in the merit of mezuzah, your life and the life of your children will be lengthened. I can definitively say that I wouldn’t be alive today if wasn’t for a mezuzah.

A mezuzah is traditionally placed on the doorframe of your home. However, there is an ancient custom mentioned in the Talmud that people would place a mezuzah in their walking sticks for additional protection while on the road. This is a story of one such mezuzah.

Ray J. Kaufmann was a short, quiet, and intelligent man. He was a civil engineer, had worked at NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Boeing, and was a World War II veteran. He was also my grandfather. I don’t remember much about him. By the time I was old enough to remember, his Alzheimer’s had already set in, and he generally didn’t say much.

As a kid, my family would go to visit Bubby and Grampy every Sunday. I would often go into his office to play while he was sitting at his desk, usually painting. There was a frame hanging on the wall of his office. It housed a large picture of his army battalion, the 87th Acorn Infantry Division, as well as various medals and stripes he had received for his service during the war.

One of those medals was a purple heart. The purple heart is a medal that is given to a soldier wounded in action. We all knew the story behind it. It was one of those family stories that was told and retold countless times.

In 1944, my grandfather was living in a small apartment in Staten Island, New York, overlooking the New York Bay. He would watch from his living room window as ship after ship was loaded with soldiers and would disembark for war-torn Europe. In early 1944, he enlisted to join the United States Army. He was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia for basic training. Upon completion, his unit was sent to Camp Kilmer with orders to embark for England. Camp Kilmer was close to Staten Island, so he received permission to visit his family once more before heading off to war.

It was October of 1944, and it had been quite some time since he had seen his parents. They were surprised and thrilled to see him. Before he left, his mother, Nana Helen, gave him a mezuzah on a chain, and told him to always keep it with him. They weren’t a religious family, but they were very proud that they were Jews.

Grampy said his goodbyes and hung the mezuzah around his neck with his dog tags. It was a tiny mezuzah, no more than two to three centimetres in length. It was in a silver case and the small “shin” on the front was embellished with three little coloured gems.

My grandfather shipped out, and made it safely to England. From there, his unit was sent to the small French city of Metz. The Germans were just beginning their last offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. They were to make their way to Luxembourg via the small French city of Metz.

The journey was treacherous, and his unit had to make its way under constant fire from the Germans. They reached Metz safely, and after a short rest, pressed on. After a few days of marching, they reached a forest and were able to make camp.

At about 01:00, my grandfather was woken up by two soldiers. One of the soldiers had fallen ill and they needed help getting him to the aid station. Grampy was the platoon runner, so this was one of his responsibilities. They started down to the aid station, and after about 10 minutes en route, he heard a tingling noise coming from around his neck.

He reached his hand inside his jacket to feel his dog tags and mezuzah, and passed out. He woke up in the field hospital in Metz. The doctor informed him that a piece of German shrapnel had hit him directly in his chest. It would have gone into his heart, killing him instantly, but there was this little metal charm that deflected the shrapnel into his lungs, saving his life. The shrapnel remained in his lungs until the day he died.

There was a second incident in which Grampy was miraculously saved.

After months of recuperating in various hospitals, he was re-assigned and sent to a camp outside of Nancy, France. In April 1945, his unit received orders to prepare to ship out to the Pacific front, as the war in Europe was nearing its end. The weekend before they were to ship out, my grandfather and a couple of friends decided to go into Nancy for one last night on the town. They hitched a ride and spent the night drinking at various pubs in town. There was a midnight curfew for soldiers. With midnight approaching, they hitched a ride back on a truck carrying other military personnel.

As my grandfather described it.

“It was raining, and the road was slick, but we were too intoxicated to care. Suddenly, I was sober and standing in the middle of the road trying to flag down passing cars. I heard moans and groans all around me. I soon realised that the driver had lost control and skidded off the road right into a tree. There were 12 soldiers in the truck. Three of them were dead, two had serious head injuries, and everyone else besides me had broken bones and serious internal injuries. I had a few scratches and a mild concussion.”

My grandfather spent the next two weeks in hospital, and while he was there, his unit shipped out for the Pacific.

I remember seeing this mezuzah when I was a kid. It had an almost mythical aura to it. This was the mezuzah that saved Grampy’s life. In a way, it’s fitting that today, I spend my time writing mezuzahs. Unfortunately, the mezuzah was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. However, although the physical mezuzah is no longer, its legacy will live on forever.

  • Yosef Kaufmann is American import, a sofer, children’s author, and most importantly, a father and husband.

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Religion

The never-ending voice

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And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.

Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.

Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?

Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”

Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.

Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.

And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.

Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.

Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.

Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?

The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.

Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.

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Religion

Memory versus history

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Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.

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Religion

Exile is a state of being

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In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.

Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.

Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.

Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.

Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?

Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.

Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.

Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.

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