It was another year’s chagim spent abroad, away from Israel where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur (and Simcha Torah and Shemini Atzeret and Succot…) are a matter of course; where in a spiritual analog of the Soviet agents who once visited America and pointing in any direction were astonished to be taken to a supermarket stuffed with food, so in Israel in any direction that can be pointed to a synagogue lies; where the Days of Awe do not require instructions on the packaging: It was another year for me away from those kinds of comfort.
This year’s Yom Kipur found me in Australia. The year before was South Africa. The year before that the south of France, and the year before that Central America. (Yes, I get around.) In all these places, the chagim are an issue — of security, of buying tickets, in other words of potentially being turned away by a shul packed to capacity and made nervous by all too recent experiences of bombings, stabbings, riots, and various other attacks.
Three years ago in Honduras, where I traveled from Nicaragua since the Sandanistas had burned that country’s last synagogue and no Torah scroll survived, a coup erupted and I had to flee the country at 4 in the morning when the 24 hour-a-day military curfew was lifted for a few hours so people could buy food.
I crossed the border, never so happy to return to Nicaragua. But I realized I would spend the chag alone, without a shul or a minyan, or a Torah. So I printed out as many pages as possible of a machzor I found online, and on the day of the holiday took the pages into a mountain forest where I guiltily read from them, feeling the inadequacy of such a “service.”
This year, to forefend as much of that guilt as possible, I bought a beautiful edition of the Art Scroll Machzor, but also a copy of Shai Agnon’s precious and near-holy work, Days of Awe. The introduction to the book notes that Israel’s literary Nobel laureate spent two and a half years working 16 hours a day to compile the passages of Scripture, midrashim, commentary and tales that constitute what has been called an almost essential accessory to the High Holidays machzor.
In the book, Agnon relates the tale of a man who just before Yom Kipur had gotten lost in a forest in Europe. Having no machzor, no sidur, and no internet to print either from, he did the only thing that he could do: he said the Hebrew alphabet aloud, sending the letters up to God and let Him put them in the right order.
In another story Agnon relates, a man lost in the forest came across another Jew, also lost in the forest. (GPS-less Jews were forever getting lost in European forests, it seems.) The first asked the second which was the way out. The second said he did not know. “But this I can tell you,” he said. “Do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a way out together.”
In France last year, my situation was considerably better than that of any of the three Jews lost in the forest, but also better than my own situation not lost in the forest (but almost lost), and certainly better than holed up in a Tegucigalpa hotel as gunfire and tear gas erupted around me.
There in France, I found the local synagogue, and after an appropriately intense haranguing by Israel-trained security, I made my way in. It was not a Chabad synagogue, and most members nodded politely but not much more. There was an exception, a Jewish man with a Southern accent who came up to me exclaiming, “You’re not from around here!” and promptly invited me to his home.
This man, Daniel, a righteous man if I’ve ever met one, told me where the local Chabad shul was. There I went, meeting a group of young French Jews who whisked me to one of their homes for Rosh Hashanah dinner, where I listened to them debate intensely about their community, about leaving France for Israel (and about the possibility of riding the tram on Shabbat). The next day in shul the Chabad rabbi offered me — a stranger — an aliyah to the Torah on one of the calendar’s holiest days.
This year I called the Chabad center in Sydney to find out about services. The woman on the phone, without so much as seeing my face, invited me for a meal at her home before the holiday, and told me where I could attend Kol Nidre and the Yom Kipur service.
I walked to the Chabad shul in an elegant Sydney neighborhood, and after another security-minded haranguing (there were bloody Islamist riots in the city just weeks ago), I was welcomed in. The rabbi, the gabbi, the cantor, and the shul’s members greeted me, asked where I was from and wished me gmar chatima tovah. One of the members, who seemed to play an important role at the shul, hugged me at the end of the chag, wishing me a sweet year (and, one day, a beautiful bride). And the Jewish man who conducted security apologized profusely, and graciously, for the duty he had to perform.
It was here that I realized the full significance — the triumph — of the Rebbe’s innovation. There is no longer a place in the world where a Jew can be lost in a forest, metaphorically speaking. In the wide swaths of China, in Patagonia, in San Jose — and in our own backyards, in Los Angeles, Montreal and New York, even in Tel Aviv — every Jew has a home. Every Jew has a place. No Jew has to find himself in a moment of despair, thinking, in his loneliness, “What’s the point?”
In discussions of Chabad, the Big Question always arises: Was he the Messiah? Could he have been? Is it not my presumption to say that he was or was not. I can’t adjudicate on matters as weighty as those. But even without going so far to call Rav Schneerson the son of the House of David, we can say that he was a kind of social messiah who has ushered in a new era of community for the Jewish people, which has irrevocably changed the world for the Jews.
The two Jews lost in the forest in Europe found each other, and in this they found a community. But more importantly, they both realized that their personal paths were not the right one to continue to pursue. They had to look in a different direction for their salvation.
Sitting alone in a forest in Nicaragua three years ago, I could pray on Yom Kipur. I could throw words and letters into the air, and perhaps they would be heard and assembled. But I could never find guidance. I could never ask a question and receive an answer. Chabad has changed that. We may not know with precision the way forward, but knowing the way from which we came, and from which others have come, but we can know that the past is not the way forward and that the future is not alone.