Last November, after Muslim terrorists killed the directors of the Chabad House in Mumbai, India and other Jews, I attended a memorial service for them at Chabad of Stamford, Connecticut. There, I had a unique spiritual experience – and I mean that in the real sense of “unique,” something completely new in my life.
I wrote about the service before. It featured a video tribute to Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg. It praised their hospitality in welcoming everyone to the Chabad House, and their Jewish learning. During that mournful but forward-looking night, somebody compared Gavriel and Rivka to Abraham and Sarah, the first Hebrews, who welcomed angels and others into their household.
At that moment, something momentous clicked in my soul. Perhaps the speaker made this explicit point: Gavriel and Rivka weren’t just like Abraham and Sarah – somehow they actually became Abraham and Sarah. Somehow, 4,000 years of history vanished and I saw the Patriarch and Matriarch.
What happened then – so long ago after Abraham heard the command “Lech Lecha” (get thee out) and left Ur of the Chaldees – assumed an electrifying immediacy in my life. I felt a direct connection to my faith that I had never known before. A line ran from Abraham to the Holtzbergs to me.
The thoughts inspired me to rent a movie I had seen before and liked a lot: Déjà Vu with Denzel Washington as investigator Doug Carlin, unraveling an explosion on a ferry in New Orleans. What's the connection? You might ask, “How is Chabad like a Denzel Washington action movie?” I’ll explain.
Washington uncovers a secret (of course) government research project called “Snow White” that enables viewers to peer into the past for short periods of time. The more he hears about the project, the more he wonders about the true nature of what he sees, and eventually he discovers Snow White can function like a time machine. This dialogue especially grabbed me:
Technician: “Basically we’re folding space in a higher dimension to create an instantaneous link between two distant points.”
Washington: “Why can’t I see this bridge?”
“It’s not visible to the human eye. I mean, it’s real, though. It’s just as real and just as solid as a cell phone signal or a radio wave . . . In a sense we are always looking into the past.”
“You’re trying to tell me that at the other side of this bridge is the actual past?”
That dialogue exactly captured my feeling about the memorial service and the Holtzbergs. I felt a spiritual bridge open between that November night and the life of the Patriarch. Abraham and Sarah stopped being distant myths of my religion, something taught, studied and filed away under the “Jewish stuff” folder in the desk drawer of my life. They became immediately real through the selfless behavior of the Holtzbergs, who showed me who Abraham and Sarah were. Time dropped away, like in the movie. I found myself on the bridge between now and then, or, if you will, now and another now.
“I am actually looking at and experiencing Abraham and Sarah,” I thought. “This is the way it was and the way it is.”
Déjà Vu had a strong spiritual sensibility and it echoed Jewish teachings. At a funeral service after the film’s bombing, a preacher mused on God’s will and the nature of time. He said, “Everything God has done will remain forever. There is nothing to add to it, nothing to take from it. God has done this so man can be in awe. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before. God calls forth the past.” This reminded me of the second principle of the 13 Principles of Maimonides, the medieval rabbi also known as the Rambam, who wrote here:
I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is One and Alone; that there is no oneness in any way like Him; and that He alone is our G-d – was, is and will be.
I read that to mean that time does not bind God, that He exists at all times. So I can extrapolate, in my "Snow White" moment, to see the Jewish people as a unity stretching forward and back. I don't mean that in the trite, fundraiser declaration of something like "We are one!" but in a personal sense. I am one point in a line pointing to the past and the future; I am personally responsible for doing what I can to sustain that line and shove it into centuries to come.
Chabad drew that lesson from the killings. The memorial service called for Jews to rededicate themselves to study and service, and I can connect my insights at the memorial service with other Jewish moments. These instances raise religious expression from what I call “display case Judaism,” where the gestures, prayers and symbols are something distant from me, to an immediate, directly experienced reality.
For example, sometimes I'll imagine the Prophet Elijah — beloved invisible guest at Passover seders — riding the commuter train with me, a faithful, accepting companion. One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder (speaking of Elijah) comes with this statement, "In every single generation one is obligated to look upon himself as if he personally had gone forth out of Egypt."
Those words always make me shiver. The seder explodes at that moment, as I am at the Exodus, leaving bondage in Egypt for a new life. I stand with my fellow Jews at that moment, part of a family that transcends time and place as surely as if we had our own “Snow White” machine.
Gavriel and Rivka, of blessed memory, will always be with me in my Jewish time machine, my version of Deja Vu. They showed me, as nothing else has, what can happen when time ceases and the world becomes clear.