ëSee here how everything leads up to this day. And itís just like any other day thatís ever been,î go the lyrics to a Grateful Dead song framed in the Manhattan office of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.
It was like any other day, explains the rabbi. He was walking in Jerusalem with his wife, Becky, and their two small daughters. The older girl, Avigail, 7, was hungry. They turned onto King George and Jaffa streets midway through afternoon. The kids let him know, again, they were hungry.
ìWhat would you like, honey?î he asked.
ìPizza,î said Avigail.
ìNow it just so happens,î recalls Rabbi Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL-the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, ìthat by complete chance we were standing in front of Sbarroís,î the pizza joint where
a suicide bomber killed 15 and wounded dozens in August 2001. ìBecky and I looked at each other. My first feeling was, I canít go in there. My second feeling was, can we go in there? But how could we not? All of that in the blink of an eye. We went in.î
The girls were oblivious to where they were eating, much as if they were at a picnic in Polish woods.
ìWe get in line for our pizza,î says the rabbi, ìand Becky looks up at the wall and sees a Ner Tamid [eternal light] burning. Meanwhile, Avi is asking if she should have the thick slice or the thin slice.î
It wasnít about politics. ìWe didnít think, they died here and weíre going to eat here, so there,î Rabbi Hirschfield says.
A girl was hungry, her parents fed her.
But pizza, like a lot of things in Israel, now resonates beyond its first definition. ìThe rock was just a rock until Yaakov lay down on it, and then it became Bet El,î as in the Torah story, says Rabbi Hirschfield.
ìThere are no small things anymore, just big things that havenít yet been revealed. Pizza was just pizza, but now it isnít. A bus used to be just a bus. Bread was just bread,î the rabbi explains, ìuntil HaMotzi transforms it into a recollection of the Temple. When it comes to the sacred, nothingís all that small.î
Nothing is all that big either, anymore. Apocalypse once came by the millions; now it comes in sixes and sevens. This war has no concentration camps, just the commonplace. Death isnít accompanied by the End of Days, just the end of ordinary days. Death comes gently, slow dancing on a Tel Aviv night; driving in Judea with the radio on; feeling a breeze blowing through open bus windows; as safe as a midnight cafe.
And then, months later, says Rabbi Hirschfield, you turn the corner and find yourself on a page of yesterdayís news. All through the pews on the Days of Awe, hundreds of Jews are being inscribed to appear in newspaper stories that they will never read, stories about discos, pizza, weddings, cell phones and twists of fate.
On the way to meet Rabbi Hirschfield, we visit the cardiac wing of a local hospital and speak with a woman who is taking an anti-clotting drug known as Coumadine (Warfarin), prescribed to many heart and stroke patients to prevent blood clots. In a war where cafes are no longer cafes, Coumadine is laced into suicide bombs so it stops the clotting by the wounded as they lay bleeding.
The woman in the hospital says she is afraid to walk into New York subways because she twice went into cardiac arrest on a subway platform. A defibrillator, implanted in her body by doctors, brought her back to life with a massive electrical jolt that felt like a kick in the chest from a muleís hind leg. She says she canít go down into subways because of associations with the pain.
Hearing this, Rabbi Hirschfield says, ìI donít think we can anticipate how we make connections, such as what meanings we bring to pizza or Israeli buses ó or subways. But what we can do is heighten our capacity to associate holiness with even a paradox. Long after I stopped eating non-kosher Chinese food, I would walk past a Chinese restaurant and smell Sunday in Chicago with my grandparents. That smell ó of something I donít even want to eat again ó is a holy smell for me. It evokes my grandparents, who are gone a long time.
ìMost things in traditional Jewish life that we think of as sacred, they werenít always obviously sacred,î he says. ìThey just gained an association with the sacred at some point along the road. The trick is not to become cynical just because you know that but to give yourself permission to create other sacred associations,î to let the sacred redeem the profane or mundane.
The previous Lubavitcher rebbe once said that as much as we yearn for the Messiah in this world, when weíre finally in the Other World weíll yearn just as much for this earthly one.
When our souls are unbound from our bodies, weíll look back and long for the even the most commonplace sensations ó hot and cold, skin on skin, the scent of memory in big cities.
The smallest details speeding by become sacred, luminous, when seen through the windows of an ambulance. n