What Do You Have When You Are ‘Just Passing Through?’
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What Do You Have When You Are ‘Just Passing Through?’

Rabbi Spike Anderson shares his thoughts and inspiration for the Jewish New Year.

Rabbi Spike Anderson is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.

Rabbi Spike Anderson
Rabbi Spike Anderson

What Do You Have When You Are ‘Just Passing Through?’

As the famous Jewish story goes, in Belarus there lived a simple peddler. Like his entire Jewish village, he was poor. Yet his joys came through his Jewish pride in tikkun olam/changing the world for the better, and in his deep Jewish connections through his community.

As a peddler, most of his work came from being on the road, going from one hamlet to the next, exchanging goods and news. These long stretches of road were hard for him, in part because he worried about his wife and children. Knowing that their community would be there for them was the only thing that allowed him to sleep at night.

The mid-1800s were a time of great Jewish learning in the Pale of Settlement, and word reached the peddler that Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, would receive students with questions. Rabbi Kagan was widely acknowledged as ‘the great sage’ of his generation, and the peddler loved Jewish learning. The only problem was that the Chofetz Chaim resided in Dzyatlava, which was far away from anything.

However, the opportunity was enticing, and so the peddler traveled many weeks outside of his normal route in order to see the sage. When he arrived, he was shown to the boarding house where the Chofetz Chaim lived. The innkeeper showed him to Rabbi Kagan’s room, where he would also receive his visitors.

With some trepidation, the peddler knocked on the door, and was warmly welcomed inside by the Chofetz Chaim himself! The peddler was a bit out of sorts because he had so many questions that he wanted to ask and did not know how much time he was going to have with Rabbi Kagan.

But as his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the Chofetz Chaim’s room, he couldn’t help but notice that it was almost bare. Strikingly so. Just a mat on the floor to sleep. A small table with a wash bin. A few books. That was it. And so, despite having so many questions prepared, the peddler could not help himself. “Rabbi, you are known far and wide as a great teacher of Torah. And yet, you have almost nothing. Rabbi, I have to ask … where are all your things?”

To which the Chofetz Chaim answered, in that typically Jewish way, with a question of his own and a slow smile on his face. “Well, Sir, where are all your things …?”

“Me?” said the peddler, “well, I am just passing through.”

“So am I,” answered the great sage. “So am I.”

This story has been told and retold countless times. It’s profundity rests in its simplicity. In this tale we share with one another our ‘truths’ about what is most important in life. Not the ‘things’ that we might accumulate but, rather, the intangibles: knowledge, making a difference and sacred Jewish connections through family and community. In fact, our Judaism reminds us of this throughout every holiday and life-cycle event, through every mitzvah and worship service.

Now that we have named it, you will see it through Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and it is raised up even higher during Sukkot.

We Jews have brought, and continue to bring, so much to the world. In the Jewish world, the synagogue is both the hub and the engine for us to recognize and create those incredible intangibles that make life worth living.

Whether it is through Jewish study or social justice, spirituality, connection with Israel and the Jewish people, or that wonderful penchant that Southern Jews have to just ‘hang out’ with other Jews. … It is in the synagogue that we find a measure of what we really want and what (if we are honest with ourselves) we really need.

May this new year, and the year to come, be one of health and blessings, growth and profound connection for you, for your family and for the entire Jewish community.

L’Shanah Tova!

Spike Anderson is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.

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