Latest update: March 1st, 2013
The first and only time I said I was a rabbi was also the first and only time I had a gun pointed at me. What led me to that moment was my need to stay on the Upper West Side for a Shabbos and a hospitality committee that arranged for me to stay with a man who lived in the former janitor’s apartment on the fifth floor of a synagogue.
Single and becoming more religious, I relished the time I spent in that community, with the Beginner’s Service at Lincoln Square Synagogue and a wide array of people inviting others into their homes for Shabbos sleepovers and meals.
My Shabbos roommate (I’ll call him Yaakov) asked me to arrive a little early on Erev Shabbos so he could explain our individual comings and goings, as we would be eating out that night at different homes in different apartment buildings. But I was delayed on the subway and when I finally arrived, Yaakov, busily getting ready for Shabbos, had very little time to explain the complex details of my entrance to his apartment if I got back before him.
As it turned out, following the lively davening among the friendly congregants, my gracious host accompanied me back to his apartment. We engaged in a spirited and spiritual conversation.
The Torah portion was Vayigash and since I consider telling the truth one of the foundations of my essence, I was enthused to talk about how Yosef was finally able to reveal to his brothers who he really was. He wasn’t only some very powerful viceroy from the most powerful country in the world. He was the brother they had sold into slavery so many years prior.
After a tasty dinner and stimulating words of Torah, I walked the mile and a half back to the shul where I was staying, a place I found both peaceful and invigorating.
Having seen the premises only by day, I now found it challenging to remember what door to enter. I kept thinking that it must have looked odd – and potentially scary – for someone in the street or from the shul to see a stranger trying to open each door of the shul.
Then I heard a voice. “Oh, you want that door.” I turned and saw a woman in a nice robe and holding a candle, pointing to what she believed was the correct way for me to enter.
Despite the woman’s sweet smile and my somewhat weird feeling (why was she so friendly to a stranger who could have been an intruder, and why was she walking in the street holding a candle? I asked myself) I opened the suggested door. I thanked her and walked into the shul.
Yet again, quite a difference between day and night. The entranceway was dark and I felt my way along the locked doors that led into the sanctuary. I finally found the door to the staircase that would lead me up to the 5th floor apartment in which I was staying.
With each tentative step I took up the stairs I heard creaking from the floorboards, which made me feel uneasy. And I went beyond uneasy when my imagination started playing tricks on me. Passing the ladies section I imagined hearing a blending of all the prayers that had been said there over the decades. Aware that the door had been left open downstairs and how anyone could have been on that darkened stairway escalated my foreboding. I was now frightened.
A feeling of tremendous relief and immense gratitude to Hashem came over me when I finally made it to the fifth floor and saw the light on underneath the door of the apartment in which I was staying. True to my roommate’s word the door was open, and when I walked in I reentered the oasis of calm that is Shabbos, made more tranquil by the juxtaposition of my all-too-recent fears and my current safe situation.
I called out my roommate’s name but he hadn’t returned yet from dinner. Not ready to go to sleep, I began reading the Torah portion of the week from a Chumash. I was stirred by Yehuda’s courageous plea to the man he thought was the viceroy of Egypt to let him stay as the viceroy’s servant in place of his youngest brother Binyamin, who would go home to their beloved father, Yaakov.
Reading further, I was deeply moved that the time had finally come for Yosef to reveal his true identity to his brothers. I read, “Now Yosef could not restrain himself…” Then, “He cried in a loud voice.” And then my eyes saw the much-anticipated words: “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?”
At that exact moment of Yosef’s truthful words, I heard loud noises from downstairs in the shul. They were footsteps and voices, both of them coming closer to me. It didn’t make sense. It was 11:30 p.m. If it was my roommate coming back at this hour, he would more than likely be coming home alone – certainly not with a group making such loud noises.
The footsteps were getting closer, the voices were getting louder, and my fear was increasing. Then a wonderful thing happened. I told myself, “Stay calm. Whatever’s going to happen is going to turn out better if you stay calm.” The best part: I listened to myself.
I stared at the door as it opened. I stared at the cylinder that came through the door. I saw the shock of blue coming in.
I saw a gun pointed at me and heard the policeman, with three other policemen behind him, ask in an agitated way, “Are you the rabbi?”
With great emotion, I responded, “Yes, I am!”
I figured it was what they wanted to hear.
Then all four policemen plopped down on the sofa and chairs and let out immense sighs of relief. I realized that they had come up the same dark stairs, with the same creaky floorboards.
The first policeman I had encountered said, “We had gotten a call that an intruder had been trying all the doors and had finally gotten in.”
That clearly explained their relief. They had been expecting a prowler and instead got the rabbi.
But I wasn’t the rabbi, and I knew I had to inform them of that fact. But first I reserved a moment to reflect on the rich irony. Just when I’m reading about Yosef’s revelation of truth to his brothers, I, one who so values honesty, lie about who I truly am. But I figured that as worked up as the policemen were, telling them a lie was the best thing I could have done.
“I’m not really the rabbi,” I said to them. Whatever calm they were experiencing regressed quickly into a suspicion that something was very wrong here. So I told them the truth of what was going on, including the details of which door to use when entering the building and that I ate dinner out.
One of the policeman then said, “Call the people you were at to verify your story.”
“They could be called,” I said, “but they’re not going to answer the phone. It’s the Sabbath.”
This seemed to anger them, and one of the policemen severely criticized me for leaving one door of the synagogue open. I explained that it was my roommate’s idea and that since it was his apartment, I followed his instructions.
Another policeman read the riot act to me, basically saying that he didn’t like what had happened. He added in a very strong tone, “We’re going to be leaving now. Tell your roommate never to do this again!” I agreed to do so.
Making a move to leave the apartment, the lead policeman stopped, as if he had another thought.
“Maybe we should work him over just to teach him a lesson,” he said, smiling. I was hoping that he was just kidding.
The second policeman said, “I’ll hold him and you could get some good punches in.”
And the third policeman said, “It would serve him right.”
They were heading out the door and I figured this whole unexpected encounter was about to end.
But more of the unexpected was yet to come. Just as the last policeman was about to walk out, he said to his colleagues, “My mother’s never going to believe that I went to shul on a Friday night.”
Thanks to Hashem, I had remained calm at the key moment – and even did some kiruv work to boot!Alan Magill
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