The day my friend lit my soul on fire

By Isaac Simon

Lennart Tange/Daily Collegian)
(Lennart Tange/Flickr)

There is a story told in the Midrash, the homiletical stories that fill in the narrative to the Torah, about a fox. This fox comes across a hole, barely big enough to fit his head through, where there lays a vineyard. But it quickly became clear that this hole is too small for him and the only way the fox would be able to retrieve these grapes is by fasting. So the fox fasts for three days and loses the necessary amount of weight, becoming so thin that he can fit through the hole and retrieve the grapes. To quote, upon entering this vineyard, “the fox began to eat to his heart’s content. He grew bigger and fatter than ever before. Then he wanted to get out of the vineyard. But alas! The hole was too small again. So what did he do? He fasted for three days again, and then just about managed to slip through the hole and out again.” As the fox looked back at the vineyard something dawned on him. “Vineyard, O vineyard! How lovely you look, and how lovely are your fruits and vines. But what good are you to me? Just as I came to you, so I leave you…”

In my introductory column for the Back to School issue I wrote a piece about coming to terms with personal loss by talking about my grandmother and her love and passion for Zionism. The story described above was one that someone from our local synagogue told during shiva. The conclusion he came to was that Rosalie (my grandmother) was someone who ate the grapes and soaked up all that life had to offer. That story always stuck with me, yet I still struggled to find the grapes.

During my formative years my identity as a Jew was solely through my passion and connection to Israel. As I continued to grow, the other Jewish students that were once strangers became surrogates, pillars in my Jewish world that I could depend on. Still, I struggled to understand my relationship to Judaism.

All of that changed this Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when I was invited to take part in a service in Brookline, Massachusetts. Before this opportunity arose, I was set on going to Hillel House, attending the conservative service, and attempting to fast. Little did I know that my good friend Jeremy Tibbetts, a senior public health major and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was in need of several men in order to make a minyan in Brookline. Yom Kippur was to be held at the house because the two people living there, Michael and David, were home-bound. Although I knew I was fulfilling a mitzvah, I was going for the experience as much as I was going to help others.

We arrived in Brookline at a quarter to six and quickly shoveled down the pre-fast meal because fasting began at 6:05. Following the short meal, I introduced myself to the other men before changing and entering the prayer room. To say that this room was beautiful would be an understatement. To say it was lavish and decadent would be more irrelevant than inaccurate. As I entered this room, I was in awe. Its small size and close quarters provided a very uplifting ambiance. Little did I know that my friend Jeremy was the chazan, or leader of the service.

Before I go further I have something to disclose. I do not speak or read Hebrew very well. I understand about 10 percent of what I read, whereas with Jeremy, the ratio is reversed. That being said, I have endlessly been fascinated by how scholars and Rabbis have considered someone like myself to be as much of a Jew as Jeremy. Although I agree with this statement (and I believe Jeremy would as well), there is no doubt in my mind that his devotion and knowledge of Judaism supersedes my own. And as I stood in this magnificent shul, Talmud and Torah adorning the walls, with Talit and Siddur in hand, I felt honored to be accepted as one amongst them. My background and lack of Hebrew no longer mattered, because I was praying alongside everyone else. Although, at times, I struggled to follow along, I understood much of what was happening and felt impassioned enough to take part in as much of the service as I wanted.

But it would be incorrect and shortsighted to limit my Yom Kippur experience to just this. Jeremy led a service of 10 men who ranged in age from their early twenties to mid-sixties. Whether it was the passion in his voice, the slight intonations in his chants, the melodic hymns and melodies, or the beautiful prayers and songs, I felt as if I was witnessing on the outside a little of what Jeremy was feeling on the inside. All other distractions, whether they were 21st century or older, were ignored. One could forget what time it was, for it was the beauty of the service which took precedent. The absence of the clock made it seem as if the service could go on forever. Because there was no right way to do the service, Jeremy’s drive and my own drive provided the passion to connect with our surroundings.

Often times, we feel it is hard to see passion and although we can see the physical expressions of emotion that follow from certain feelings, the words themselves are never tangible enough to hold in your hand. That changed for me on Wednesday. Watching Jeremy raising his hands up, praying for forgiveness, repenting in the most meaningful way he knew how, was revelatory. I felt as if I had a VIP pass to his prayer. And like so many great masters of their craft, he made it look effortless. This was so much the case that it became clear to me, the passive spectator who was both a Jew and journalist at heart, that the least I could do that day was fast. Before this Yom Kippur I never had a problem with not eating anything, it was always the lack of fluids that depleted me of energy. But this year it was a privilege to push through.

The story from the Midrash concluded by saying that, “Only the Torah he studied, the mitzvot he performed, and the good deeds he practiced are the real fruits which he can take with him.” For the first time in my life, I felt that I ate those grapes. I hope to one day find the cloth that Jeremy was cut from and share it with others. Jeremy lit my soul on fire by elevating and illuminating my Judaism to a place I didn’t think was possible. And those are the sweetest grapes of them all.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]