If you have tuned in to the Chabad world within the last several weeks, you have probably heard about the tragic passing of Rashi Minkowicz, a 37-year-old mother of eight and Chabad emissary in Atlanta. She was scheduled to give a class in her home on Tuesday night, March 11th, but she had a terrible headache. She went to lie down and never woke up.
For any number of reasons, Rashi’s passing has become a clarion call for Jews to do more mitzvahs and to encourage other Jews to do more mitzvahs as well. Over five thousand people are part of a group on Facebook who have pledged to do a mitzvah for Rashi. Although I never met Rashi, her husband Hirshy has had a special place in our family’s collective heart since he was the head counselor at Gan Israel summer camp in Pittsburgh almost twenty-five years ago. That summer, as HIrshy was leaving shul to come to our house for Shabbos dinner, he was severely injured when a speeding car hit him as he and our eight-year-old son Mordy were crossing the street. By pulling Mordy away from the car’s path, Hirshy very possibly saved our son’s life.
Like so many who knew Rashi or Hirshy, or even of them, I wanted to transform some of this unspeakable grief into action. Within a week of her passing, I was one of hundreds of women who listened to a telephone hook-up memorializing Rashi; the charge was that each listener should encourage at least one woman to go to the mikvah.
On Monday night, my friend Sararivka took the plunge.
She was a good student and learned all about this mitzvah during the twelve days in which she prepared. She was struck by the fact that it is known as Taharas Mishpacha, Family Purity. It’s not just about the spiritual sanctity of the woman herself, or even her immediate family— it’s about our mishpacha, our entire Jewish family.
One immersion and she took over forty years of married life to a new level of holiness. One immersion and she joined generations of Jewish women who have fulfilled this mitzvah faithfully no matter how difficult the circumstances. One immersion and she affirmed G-d as a partner in her life in a way that she had never done before.
We have exchanged several emails since then. Hers are mostly to tell me that she feels transformed, somehow lighter and more free as a Jewish woman and that she is grateful that I was the catalyst for her to do something out of her comfort zone. (I would never have suggested it if not for the commitment I made to myself that night on the telephone; this was definitely out of my comfort zone as well.) My emails to her shared insights from the Rebbe about the huge spiritual implications this mitzvah has on the Jewish nation.
I’m hoping the experience was transformative for me, too. Maybe it was the magnitude of the mitzvah, but I felt totally connected to Sararivka every step of the way as she undertook it. For me not to have an “I” involved is tremendous–“I” wasn’t doing something for someone because that’s what “I” am supposed to do. I wasn’t thinking about whether it was easy or hard for me, whether I enjoyed doing it or not. I was only thinking about my soul sister’s getting the job done right.
The fact that this kindness came so naturally is a delicious taste of a new freedom for me.
Of course, it is an especially powerful feeling since Pesach is (fast!) approaching; freedom from our limitations is as relevant today as it was in ancient Egypt.
At the time of the original redemption, the Jewish people needed to be freed psychologically from their idolatrous surroundings. They were a “nation within a nation,” separate yet totally dependent on their Egyptian hosts.
In order to be truly free to serve G-d, the Jews needed to be weaned away from the powerful Egyptian ideas they had absorbed through the generations, like the notion that a lamb was a god. When the Jews were unafraid to obey G-d’s command to slaughter that lamb, eat that lamb, and smear that lamb’s blood on their door posts, they were freeing their minds to think like Jews.
This point has always resonated with me. While much of American culture is beautiful, my journey back to Jewish observance has been a delightfully arduous effort to wean my soul from its less beautiful aspects, to free myself of ideas that I thought were my own but were really a result of the time and place in which I lived. Thank G-d, I have enjoyed a lot of spiritual lamb chops.
But one American idol that is particularly hard to slaughter is that of self-centeredness. When I truly feel another person’s pain and truly share another person’s joy, I know that I have made another nick in that loathsome little lamb that keeps me from being truly free to connect to another Jew.
So, thank you, Sararivka. By your getting to a new level, you allowed me to see myself at a new level, too.
And thank you, Rashi, for helping us both to do something G-d wants.