A Branch and a Bar Mitzvah

It’s Chanukah again. Tonight I lit two candles. Yesterday I lit one. Just following the custom — with the simple purpose of marking the exact night of Chanukah for the onlooker. Yet, I’ve heard it said that the glowing Chanukah candles are speaking to us; teaching us their age-old lessons with their sagely shine. And perhaps, the nightly increase to the number of candles is also a message. Softly speaking to all who stop to listen. Letting us know that one candle lit in the dark of night will very surely be followed by a second. One act of goodness will set you up for another. And one act of selflessness and courage will surely bring to a holiday for all the generations. Because positivity feeds on positivity. That’s what I believe I heard the candles whisper. And if the message is true it is bound to shine through on occasion. In this post, I would like to share a personal experience. The following is the story of a branch that led to a Bar Mitzvah. Please enjoy.

It all started in the fall; Tishrei — the Jewish holiday season. The month is full of celebrations and biblical traditions. One, specifically, is the holiday of Sukkot — a week-long festival during which we are accustomed to eating in a sukkah — an outdoor hut covered in greenery, and making a blessing while holding a lulav — a branch of a date palm to thank G-d for the harvest. As it is a biblical tradition — and not every Jew has a date palm at hand — I took up a mission in Philadelphia, where we set up a sukkah with snacks in the driveway of the busy supermarket — Acme. Thank G-d, it was well received as many appreciated the opportunity to enter a sukkah and took up the offer to make a blessing over the lulav. Some expressed their gratefulness as the sukkah reminded them of celebrations they would have in years long gone…

Needless to say, I left that holiday feeling warm in the heart and encouraged in my work. The story should’ve ended here. But one light leads to another, right?

The story continues in Montreal. That summer I took up another mission with a friend; to be at hand for the many tourists (and locals) traveling the Old Port. To inform them of the local Chabad — for meals and services on Shabbat, to provide Shabbat candles on-the-go, and offer the donning of tefillin.

In my line of work, I’m accustomed to different sorts of responses. I get it. With everyone calling for one’s attention, it’s almost expected to block out some noise at times. Not judging. But this particular encounter went down a little different.

Approaching was an American family; mom, dad, two kids. I took a deep breath as I prepared myself.

“Shalom! Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

The father stopped.

“Yes. Why?”

“Would you like to put on the tefillin?”

His children, in the middle of conversing, were moving past.

“No thank you,” he said, glancing forward as he took a step to keep up with his family. But his wife had stopped, regarding me with a look I couldn’t read.

“Were you ever in Philadelphia?”




At this point, the entire family had stopped to listen in.

“We blessed the lulav together, didn’t we?” she finished with a smile.

I was speechless. I nodded.

“What is it you are offering here in Montreal?”

“The tefillin,” I said, lifting the velvet bag.

The husband joined in now, “What is that? I haven’t heard of this before.”

Well, this is something I could tackle, “Tefillin is a biblical Jewish prayer which has been part of our heritage for three thousand years. The straps are the wires, binding the ancient scroll of “Shma yisroel — Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one,” G-d’s ultimate oneness, with our mind and heart. As the mitzvah begins for the boy at the age of thirteen, it is considered a sort of bar mitzvah the first time one dons them. I’d be happy to guide you through this.”

Intrigued, he stuck out his left arm and my friend and I led him through the ritual. We said together a prayer. His family took a picture of him. If my memory serves me correctly, we even made a little dance to the tune of mazal tov. Right there, in the streets of Montreal. And after a warm parting I couldn’t help but overhear, wife to husband, “That was nice, wasn’t it?”

And it was only as the excitement died down that I truly understood. First it was a branch, and then a bar mitzvah. I couldn’t help but smile in my own thoughts.

Tonight, that’s the story I hear as I’m watching the shining flames. What’s the story you are hearing?

Happy Chanukah!

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