Manhattan has every flavor of synagogue imaginable. Some of the nation’s—and even the world’s—most prominent and impactful synagogues are in New York City. I have been to most of these famous congregations, and I have my own personal favorites that I like to frequent every Shabbat.
One particular Shabbat I decided, practically against my will, to go to my favorite Modern Orthodox synagogue. Every time I have attended this congregation I have been blessed, inspired, and I have always been able to feel the presence of God so powerfully unlike any other normative synagogue that I have attended. This Shabbat was no exception.
I walked into the synagogue—sulking actually—feeling incredibly exhausted physically and emotionally and I only hoped to get through the service and go back to my apartment for a nice, long Shabbos nap. Feeling dejected and worn out, I sat through the service, more or less going through the motions, trying to pay attention when all seven of the Torah aliyot and the haftorah were being read. After the hour-and-a-half Torah service I did not think I was going to be able to handle staying for the rabbi’s drash, the Mussaf Amidah, and the closing blessings. I was too weary to stay for another hour or more, and my heart and mind were very much elsewhere.
Just as I was contemplating the pros and cons of leaving early and trying to convince myself that it is a greater mitzvah to go sleep the rest of the day and then drown my sorrows in chocolate ice cream and movies for Motzei Shabbos, the rabbi walked up to the bimah and started delivering his message. I was not going to be rude and leave right then, so I decided to zone out and maybe snooze a bit until he was done. Then I could leave.
As I was drifting away I heard the words “Cardinal.” I shot up in my seat, not sure why I was hearing about a Catholic Cardinal in an Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi continued calmly. He was talking about Cardinal Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism after having been rescued and raised by Catholics in the Holocaust. I was intrigued.
The rabbi told a story about a Jew coming up to Cardinal Lustiger and asking him why he was carrying such a large cross around his neck. The Cardinal responded in Yiddish, “S’iz shver tzu zayn a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). The rabbi went on to explain that when Cardinal Lustiger said this, he was not merely saying that is was hard to be a Jew, but that it was heavy and weighty to be a Jew. I was not understanding the rabbi’s point, but I was still completely engaged.
“The Christians built a cross…” Oh no, I thought, he is going to bash Christians and Yeshua, I just know it. I prepared myself to feel the blow of my Messiah and my fellow Christian brothers and sisters being thrown under the bus. I was bracing myself for painful negativity; I was not prepared for what he actually said: “The Christians built a cross, but that cross represents the mitzvot of HaShem.” Was I hearing him correctly?
He went on to emphasize that the cross signified taking on the yoke of the mitzvot, and that as Jews we do the same thing, we take up our cross, our yoke, and perform the mitzvot not because we have to—even though we do—but because we want to. He spoke about how HaShem desires for us to take the yoke of his Torah not because we feel obligated, but because we are so consumed with love for him that we must take it on and distinguish ourselves as his followers.
He spoke of Yeshua as a good Jew, taking up the cross of the Romans because for him it signified the mitzvot of HaShem, and that he died being a good and faithful Jew. He spoke of Cardinal Lustiger as a Jew who was bearing that same cross, those same mitzvot that Yeshua himself bore. This rabbi portrayed Jesus as the good guy, the ideal Jew.
During the whole sermon I was looking around the room to see if anyone was noticeably offended or angered. What I saw was a whole congregation nodding their heads in agreement, saying words of affirmation and totally comfortable with what the rabbi was teaching. When he finished his sermon he ended with a warm “Good Shabbos,” and everyone responded with a loud, enthusiastic “Good Shabbos” and “Yasher Koach” (good job).
Even though his words may not seem so important or ground-breaking, my heart swelled with gratitude that HaShem allowed me to witness this. My faith was strengthened greatly in that moment, and I praised HaShem for this godly congregation, and I praised him for the work that has been done to repair the reputation of the Messiah, even amongst Orthodox Jews here in America. I left the synagogue (I stayed until the very end, even through Kiddush) with a new energy, feeling very encouraged that we are working toward a real reparation, and that all our efforts are not in vain.
What I learned from this experience is that HaShem sees us, loves us, and will send us these tiny jewels to encourage our faith and trust. Sometimes these little shreds of encouragement keep us going through difficult times, and HaShem is faithful and kind enough to show us tiny glimmers of what he is doing and the impact that he is making through our work.
It was as if HaShem blew me a kiss in this lovely moment in time. For me, this small gesture meant the world and it was exactly what I needed to lift my head up again and continue down this bumpy road that is Messianic Judaism. I left so proud to be a Messianic Jew and inspired to continue working toward the ultimate restoration of the Messiah’s identity in the eyes of the Jewish people.