Monday, April 21, 2008

Mitzvah In Manhattan! Or: It! The Torah From Beyond Space!

Tefillin are two small black boxes with black straps attached to them; Jewish men are required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm each weekday morning.
- Jewish Literacy
, Joseph Telushkin

I’m dancing in a circle singing Mazel Tov while holding hands with two strange Hasidic men (strange as in I’ve only just met them) on a Manhattan street corner, just a block or so away from Radio City Music Hall.

I don’t seek these non sequiturs in my life out, you understand. Somehow they seem to come looking for me, as if to say “Please stop complaining about how boring your life is. When it gets boring, you’ll know it.”

The wife and I had braved the streets of New York so that we might attend a taping of Elvis Costello’s new talk show, Spectacle (he wears glasses, geddit?). Coming to a Sundance cable channel near you this fall, we’d been promised that the interviewee would be none other than the King of New York, Lou Reed, a combination that threatened to send the wife’s head spinning off her shoulders like a Frisbee.

The text that is inserted inside the two boxes of Tefillin (are)… the words of the Torah on a scroll, hand-written by a scribe (and) placed directly between one's eyes and on one's arm. Tefillin are wrapped around the arm seven times, and the straps on the head are adjusted so they fit snugly.

We went from the Port Authority to Times Square, hobbling our way up the street as we’re both suffering from leg problems at the moment. I was keeping one eye peeled for this parody of The Wall Street Journal that poked fun at how it would look now that Rupert Murdoch had gotten hold of it. So far, no luck.

As we crossed the most famous intersection in the world, I noticed this RV or bus type thing that was driving past, emblazoned with the words Mitzvah Tank.

“What is that, do you suppose?” I asked the wife.

“Oh, I read about them,” she replied. “Something to do with the Lubavitchers celebrating the 106th birthday of the Rebbe. They’ve got 58 of these Mitzvah Tanks out there to mark each year of his leadership.”

“Really?” I said. “But what do they actually do?”

One Jewish group, the Lubavitcher Hasidim, have made a particular effort to promote the mitzvah of Tefillin among Jewish males. They often set up vans, known as Mitzvah Mobiles, in neighborhoods frequented by Jews, and ask men who pass by: "Are you Jewish?"

We’d gone just about another block when a small boy in Hasidic garb came up to me and asked me “Are you Jewish?”

I replied, “Yes, yes I am.”

He then handed me a pamphlet that loudly proclaimed Passover! on its cover and explained at the bottom, Courtesy of Mitzvah Tank Int.

Flipping to the back, I read that they were indeed celebrating the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by bringing “a Mitzvah on the spot for people on the go.” That certainly sounded convenient, and time-saving, too.

Underneath the headline Do we truly matter? I read

The Rebbe would often point out: The very fact that you are here, in this place, at this time…means there is something to be done

A comforting thought, especially for someone who frequently questioned his cosmic usefulness.

something that only you can do

Even better.

something of utmost importance to G-d.

Now I’m starting to feel a little stressed, especially as I’ve now noticed the two Orthodox gentlemen on the next corner who seem to have taken an interest in us.

...bring G-d’s presence into your corner of the universe.

I had the feeling that I was about to receive a lot of help in this department.

Next: Sh'ma, He's Making Eyes At Me!


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