I first heard about Yehuda Cohen after my husband Zev and son Izzy were in Jerusalem last fall. I heard how they went to a store to buy some gifts and the owner didn’t want to take a credit card, but my husband didn’t have a check with him. And then I heard something I had never heard anywhere, certainly not in a store where a total stranger comes in to buy something made of silver: the man told my husband and Izzy to take the items with them and to send him a check when they got home.
My husband and I were just in Jerusalem last week for a family wedding and wanted to buy a special gift; I don’t have to tell you where we went to get it.
Although I didn’t know his name all these months, I’ve thought of Yehuda Cohen many times, especially on Shabbos when I used the salt shaker Zev bought from him. Last week when we walked into his tiny Judaica store, we found him sitting at his desk hunched over a scroll of paper no wider than a roll of packing tape. (He was writing the tiny letters that would eventually create the perfect travel Megillah.) He looked nothing like I imagined. He was older, fairer, just a little rounder, with more of a gentle rabbi’s demeanor than that of the free-spirited, darker-skinned artist I pictured in my mind. (Did you ever notice how nobody ever looks like you imagine them to?)
Zev reminded him of the story of their earlier encounter. When I told him how amazed I was that he was so trusting, he seemed genuinely surprised by my surprise. He showed me a book written a thousand years ago that he said he reads, I guess you could say, religiously, about bitachon, trust in G-d. I couldn’t help but think how many times I’ve seen signs in stores saying, “In G-d we trust; all others pay cash.”
What a pleasure it was to do business with someone whose total trust in us caused us to totally trust him–and to want to do business with him. He told us how grateful he was that we came in when we did; things had been slow and there were bills to pay. Hearing his accent and judging from his looks, I thought he could have been born in Europe, but he told us his family had lived in Jerusalem for nine generations. We told him that we had become ba’alei teshuvah many years ago through Chabad.
“I envy ba’alei teshuvah,” he said with the sincerity of someone who shows his love for G-d by letting people leave his store without paying for the merchandise. Ba’alei teshuvah, literally, are “masters of return,” people who were not always on the Torah path, yet have “returned” to it. Because of Yehuda’s own love for G-d, he envies Jews whose connection to G-d and Torah is said to be stronger because it was acquired through great effort.
So, you might ask how one “returns” to something he or she never was close to in the first place. Torah’s answer is that every Jewish soul is intrinsically and inextricably connected to G-d, but sometimes things get in the way. The soul’s placement in a physical body is the first challenge; not being raised in a Torah environment, un-G-dly habits, and subsequent rationalization all add layers that block the connection even further.
Yet, according to the mystical teachings of the Zohar, with just one fleeting but sincere thought to reestablish that G-dly connection, the most alienated Jew can get closer to G-d than a perfectly righteous person can get after many years. Thinking of it in human terms, the farther the child has strayed, the greater the father’s joy upon the child’s return.
If that’s what a moment of teshuvah can do, how much better is an hour? Our sages say that one hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is better than all the life in the World to Come.
Teshuvah is not like losing weight, something that is best done slowly and sensibly. Teshuvah is the opposite of nature. Because If the Jew’s thought is sincere in mind and heart, it connects that person with G-d’s essential infinitude, transcending all logic and limitations. And it is just as accessible to the Jew whose soul is heavily covered by thickened layers as it is to someone whose soul needs a quick brush-up. In a teshuvah miracle minute, both of them shed the unhealthy, accumulated junk that obscures a perfect G-dly connection. And as happy as they are, G-d is even happier.
Teshuvah is an essential message of Purim, celebrated on the 14th of Adar (this year on March 14th); it’s what saved the entire Jewish people from certain annihilation in Ancient Persia. G-d’s desire for our teshuvah applies no less to us today as we await the “happy ending” to the Jewish people’s miraculous yet difficult story, once and for all, with the coming of Moshiach.
It’s hard to imagine that after such teshuvah, there would be nothing left for Yehuda Cohen, or anyone, to envy.
But if we all do it right, it’ll only take a minute.