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When the Community Surprises their Rabbi for his Birthday

This past Shabbat, so many people approached me and said to me, “Tell me the truth.  Were you really surprised?”  I responded in the affirmative.  When 500 people can keep a surprise birthday Shabbat scholar-in-residence weekend and dinner from their rabbi, does it mean that these people simply are great at keeping a secret or does it mean that their rabbi is gullible and oblivious?  While I will not attempt to answer that question, I will declare that what my beloved shul, in partnership with my wife and family, did for me this past Shabbat ranks as one of the most special things that anyone has ever done for me.

This past week I turned 50 years old.  I generally don’t make a big deal about birthdays and my family has a hard time giving me gifts for my birthday. The reason for this is that, admittedly, I am not the best receiver of gifts, maybe because I don’t want to appear to be needy or maybe because I don’t want to feel that now I owe the giver.  As I’ve gotten older, though, I have learned that it’s important to learn to be a good receiver.  After all, expressing gratitude helps strengthen the relationship between the receiver and the giver who has taken the time to do something to express his or her fondness for the receiver.

I figured that my immediate family would do something for my birthday.  Maybe we would have a nice Shabbat together and go out to a restaurant for my birthday.  I also thought that maybe the shul would throw a Kiddush in honor of my birthday.  After all, I remember that when the shul made a public celebration of my 40th birthday ten years ago, a prominent member of the shul told me that he would do it again when I turned 50.

The president of my shul called me about two weeks before this past Shabbat and told me that in honor of my birthday, the shul would give me the Shabbat off.  What did that mean?  It meant that I wouldn’t need to prepare the drasha, the Gemara shiur and my Jewish history seudah shlishit class.  I told him that I was concerned that there would be no Torah during these time slots, so he told me that Netanel, my son who is a semicha student, would deliver the drasha, and Daniel Gottesman, my son-in-law who also is a semicha student, would deliver the seudah shlishit class.  He told me not to worry about the Gemara shiur but I could still give the Friday night halacha mini-shiur and the Shabbat morning Parsha shiur.  I thought that this “birthday present” from a shul was a little strange, but I was appreciative of the thought and little bit of extra free time that this gift provided me.  I was looking forward to hearing Netanel and Daniel share words of Torah in front of the shul, so I expressed my appreciation for this present.

Then the first strange thing happened.  My daughter, Leora, is studying in Migdal Oz Seminary this year in Israel.  While I was teaching at Shulamith high school last Wednesday morning, Yael, my wife, walked into my classroom with Leora.  I was a little shocked.  She told me that she returned to America for a week to celebrate my 50th birthday with me.  I told her that I very much appreciated her coming in my honor and I understood that my wife was planning on visiting her soon in Israel, so Leora coming to the States was instead of my wife visiting her.  At the same time, I thought it was a little strange that she would return to the States for my 50th birthday.  Returning for a wedding is one thing, but all things being equal I wondered whether it was appropriate for her to return just to celebrate my 50th birthday with the family.  Again, though, I tried not to be judgmental.

On Friday late afternoon, it was time for me to go to shul.  I noticed that Yael had set the table for Shabbat and there was a cholent and some “Shabbat food” in the kitchen, but I was oblivious to the fact that she hadn’t made as much food as she typically does on Shabbat, especially due to the fact that all my kids and their families came for Shabbat.  When it was time for me to leave for shul, I noticed that my two sons were ready on time without the usual pre-Shabbat rush, and that other members of my family weren’t home.  Then as I was driving to shul, I noticed that there were more cars in the parking lot than there are on a typical Friday night.  So I thought that maybe members of the shul may have put up some streamers or happy birthday signs in shul, but I really didn’t know.

As I walked into the shul lobby, I saw my brother from West Hempstead and his family there, which was a beautiful surprise, and then when I walked into shul itself, I saw my Rebbe, Rav Rosensweig, at the bimah.  I absolutely was shocked.  As I type these words, I am overcome with emotion.  The shul leadership secretly arranged to celebrate my birthday by inviting Rav Rosensweig and Professor Smadar Rosensweig as surprise Shabbat scholars-in-residence in honor of my 50th birthday.  I was told that Rav Rosensweig rearranged his trip to Eretz Yisrael to visit various yeshivot in order to be in Oceanside for this celebration.  Rav Rosensweig delivered shiurim Friday night, Shabbat morning and during seudah shlishit about leadership, creating a mikdash m’at, and the Rebbe-Talmid relationship and mesorah, and he offered very personal remarks about our relationship.  Professor Smadar Rosensweig also delivered a beautiful shiur on Shabbat afternoon about the importance of participation by all segments of society in the building of the mishkan and the mikdash.  The shul also arranged a very well-attended catered Friday night dinner with over 125 people, who had to reserve in advance.  At this festive meal, Leora, Netanel and Yael all delivered beautiful and entertaining speeches about me and an intimate picture of what it’s like to be a Rabbi’s child.

Adir Pinchot and Daniel Gottesman, my sons-in-law, led the tefillot of Shabbat so beautifully, and my thirteen-year-old son Daniel layned a few aliyot on Shabbat morning.  Our whole family, my brother’s family and Rav and Professor Rosensweig were treated to a beautiful lunch at the home of our shul president, where my brother, my son-in-law and our shul president shared beautiful Torah insights to celebrate this occasion.  To top everything off, on Saturday night, my immediate family and I watched an hour-long video tribute by many friends from our shul community and beyond who sent in short videos wishing me happy birthday.

How did the shul manage to pull off this multi-layered surprise, involving so many people?  First of all, they created an email list with the entire shul membership except for the Muskat’s.  For two or three weeks, they announced the upcoming Shabbat scholar-in-residence weekend on various emails but they told everyone to keep everything a secret.  They even sent a fake Shabbat memo for me to review and edit and they sent that out to the whole shul membership, but they told everyone except for me that that was a fake memo and they sent the entire shul membership a second memo with the real Shabbat schedule that included the times of the shiurim with Rav and Professor Rosensweig.  My wife had numerous phone calls with Rav Mordechai Willig to ensure that everything that the shul planned for me was consistent with my being in avelut over the passing of my father, and he, too, kept the whole Shabbat a secret every time I called him to ask him halachic questions during these last two weeks.  And, yes, they pulled it off.  Does it mean that 500 people are simply great at keeping a secret or does it mean that their rabbi is gullible and oblivious?  I will let the reader answer this question, but I will tell you that how this weekend has impacted me.

This weekend has reaffirmed for me how critical relationships are in life, especially in my life and in my line of work as a community rabbi.  Professor Charles Liebman wrote an article entitled, “Post-War American Jewry:  From Ethnic to Privatized Judaism.”  Professor Liebman distinguished between two terms:  ruchniyut, or spirituality, and kedusha, or holiness.  The Torah commands us to holy.  It does not command us to be spiritual.  What is the difference between spirituality and holiness?  Professor Liebman argued that spirituality evokes individuality and entails a process of personal self-realization.  Holiness points to an outside source to which we submit, usually in the context of public observance.  Spirituality is very enticing, as it calls upon each of us to tap into that which we find personally appealing.  Holiness, on the other hand, asks each of us to look outside of ourselves and submit to an objective source of truth, whether it is comfortable for us or not.  But I think holiness requires more than that.

God Himself stated, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado.”  It is not good for man to be in a state all alone.  The Talmud in Masechet Taanit 23b states, “O Chavruta O mituta!”  Give me a friendship or give me death!  The Torah Jew naturally desires companionship.  The Torah Jew naturally desires friendship.  The Torah Jew naturally desires relationships.  The source of the mitzva of Kiddush Hashem is “v’nikdashti b’tokh Bnei Yisrael,” being sanctified in the midst of Bnei Yisrael, in a community.  And the place where man can develop his closest relationship with God is called a “mikdash” – a Temple, a place of kedusha.

Certainly, self-actualization is a very important goal in our lives.  We all want to achieve our potential.  In my line of work, being fifty is a time to reflect on my accomplishments, where I have succeeded and where I have failed in spreading Torah to the masses and making a difference in people’s lives, whether it has been my community or my students.  And that is an important goal.  But I am starting to see that perhaps there is a more important goal, and that is to go out, create and develop real relationships, both with God and with other people.  I can’t tell you how meaningful it was that, unbeknownst to me, my Rebbe rearranged his trip to Eretz Yisrael to be in Oceanside for this celebration and personally valued the Rebbe-Talmid relationship that we share.

I was overcome with emotion and tremendous gratitude to God for the acts of kindness that my wife, children and family did for me.  And I was so taken by the outpouring of love and well-wishes, both personal and on video, from my beautiful Oceanside community.  When I reflect upon what it took to put together this entire weekend, I simply am overwhelmed by how my entire community banded together to surprise me, how the entire community was driven to ensure that nobody would ruin the surprise, how many of them came out for the Friday night dinner, for the speeches by my family and for the shiurim throughout the entire Shabbat, how they were so excited for me and how they supported this community-wide initiative and celebration.  As a rabbi, I think that it can be very hard to assess my relationship with the community.  Are we friends?  Are we allies?  What does it mean to be someone’s rabbi?  Am I making a difference?  I may never know definitively how effective I am in transmitting Torah and Torah values to my community, but this past Shabbat affirmed that the relationship between my community and me is one of mutual love, respect and friendship.  I am so grateful that God has placed me and my family in this community.

Again, I am not a big birthday person, so I didn’t even think about what it means to be fifty before this weekend, but so many people quoted to me the Mishna in Masechet Pirkei Avot 5:21 that “ben chamishim l’etzah,” that at fifty, one is able to give counsel.  Many of the mefarshim explain that the basis for this statement is that the Levi retires from active duty at fifty and then he serves as a consultant.  To this I say that, first, I am not retiring.  I hope that I am reinvigorated and reinspired to work harder to serve my beautiful community that I simply adore.  But I guess this milestone in my life also has given me the status of an advisor of sorts.  My advice is simple.  Grow, develop and actualize your potential.  These are all important things to do.  But take it from someone who just celebrated one of the most special Shabbatot in his life.  Do not underestimate the value of forming and developing strong, meaningful relationships with your family, your friends and your community.  Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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