#352 (s5764-46) 17 Menachem-Av 5764

The Jazz Singer

"See here young lady, I intend to sanctify this spot by reciting my morning prayers here, so take yourself and your bar elsewhere" is precisely what I did not say to the flight attendant.

Although the airline is under the impression that it staged the flight in order to make money, and the passengers think that they are on the plane in order to arrive somewhere, the chasid knows better.

The Jazz Singer

Yaakov Brawer

There are Chassidim who relish praying on airplanes. Immediately after takeoff, a Chassid of this breed stands up in the aisle (the farther forward, the better), intones a thunderous blessing, and with a great sweeping motion, envelops himself in a tallit, causing nearby passengers to flinch as flying tzitzit miss their eyes by millimeters. He then prays with an ardor rarely seen in shul, blocking the aisle and attracting the attention of everyone on the plane, which, of course, is precisely his intent. He is, after all, a Chassid, charged with the mission to reveal G-d's presence within whatever niche of creation he happens to occupy at any given moment.

Although the airline is under the impression that it has staged the flight in order to make money, and the passengers think that they are on the plane in order to actually arrive somewhere, the Chassid knows better. The Chassid understands that the objective of the flight is to sequester 150 souls 50,000 feet above sea level so that they can watch him pray and learn that there is a G-d in the world. Upon completing his prayers, any Chassid worth his salt works the cabin, entwining Jewish men in tefillin, reminding Jewish women to light Shabbat candles, and exhorting non-Jews to keep the seven Noahide commandments.

Although my admiration for these stalwarts knows no bounds, I am most definitely not one of them. I just do not have the genes. I abhor public display and I can not bear to make a spectacle of myself, no matter how worthy the cause. It goes without saying that I am useless on mitzvah campaigns, except in those instances in which an adult is simply needed to drive the getaway car.

Thus, some years ago, while en route to LA, my stomach knotted up as I realized that I would have to pray on the plane on my return trip. The homeward flight left too early to pray the morning service beforehand and because of the time change, it would not arrive until well past noon. The fact that the flight was scheduled for the Tenth of Tevet, a fast day on which the morning service is unusually protracted, didn't help. While pondering my predicament, I recalled that, when our kids were small, my wife always asked for the bulkhead seats when we traveled. As I remembered, the bulkheads were partitions that separated the last five or so rows of seats from the rest of the plane. I looked down the aisle and confirmed that there were indeed panels partially isolating the back end of the cabin, just as I had remembered. If I could secure a seat immediately behind a panel for the return flight, I could stand facing this partition and pray in relative privacy. Such an arrangement was not ideal, but I could live with it, and I began to relax.

Immediately upon my arrival in LA I rushed to the ticket counter and procured a boarding pass for a bulkhead seat for my homeward flight. Thus assured of a reasonable place to daven, I left for the city with a light heart.

When I arrived at the departure gate for my return flight, I glanced at my precious ticket to semi-invisibility and noted, with some unease, that the seat number seemed quite low for a position at the back of the plane. My uneasiness ballooned into anxiety when I caught a glimpse of the plane. It was much larger than the one on which I had arrived and it had an upper deck. I approached the agent at the gate who examined my boarding pass and assured me that I did indeed have a bulkhead seat. However, when I boarded the plane and showed my pass to the flight attendant, she indicated a seat right at the doorway, facing the cavernous entry to the plane. I stared at her in disbelief and explained to her that I had been assigned a bulkhead seat. Just so, she replied, and pointed to the same seat. It began to dawn on me that the airline personnel and I did not speak the same language. Another brief exchange with the attendant set me straight. The "bulkhead", as the term applied to this particular aircraft, was nothing other then the door to the plane, behind which were endless rows of seats all facing forward.

My prayer offering that morning would be graced by a captive audience of about 300 people. Pavarotti could have wished for no better.

The plane took off and soon the captain switched off the seatbelt sign indicating that we had reached our cruising altitude. The moment of truth had arrived, and I had no choice but to pray as best I could. As I stood up and donned tallit and tefillin, I soon discovered that the doorway area afforded plenty of space in which to stand and I found that if I positioned myself hard by the door, I was visible only to a few forward rows. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all. However, the revelation that it would be so bad after all was not long in coming.

Just as I finished Baruch Sh'amar, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to confront two very impatient flight attendants standing by a mammoth mobile bar. "Sir, you can't do that here. This is the bar area".

"See here young lady, it so happens that I am a servant of G-d and a Chassid of the great and holy Rebbe of Lubavitch, and I intend to sanctify this spot by reciting my morning prayers here. So take yourself and your bar elsewhere." This is precisely what I did not say. In fact I didn't say anything because I was between Baruch Sh'amar and Yishtabach, an interval in which speech is not permitted. I couldn't have spoken in any case because my stomach had lurched up against my diaphragm, and I began to wheeze and hyperventilate. I raised my eyebrows, which had become decorated with fine beads of sweat, and shrugged hoping that the attendants would understand this gesture as an appeal for sympathy, help and understanding.

Unfortunately, they were unreceptive. They were clearly annoyed that this apparition from the biblical era had not only commandeered their bar area, but wouldn't even speak to them. "Sir, you can do whatever you are doing at the back of the cabin near the rear galley."

So there was a place at the back of the plane where I could do whatever I do. A sense of relief surged through my distraught brain, and my stomach let go of my diaphragm, allowing me to take a couple of normal breaths. I nodded vigorously at the flight attendants, utilizing the opportunity to shake a drop of perspiration from the tip of my nose, and I began untying the strap of my tefillin in preparation for my escape to the refuge at the back of the plane.

Suddenly I froze with the dread realization that Providence was not about to let me off so easily. This was simply one of those shlock disaster-movie interludes, the moment of false hope, in which the poor suckers about to be decimated by an inevitable and inescapable catastrophe are deluded into believing that salvation is at hand.

I would remove my tallit and tefillin and walk to the rear of the cabin, but what then? Did I need to recite a blessing upon re-strapping the tefillin or not? Did a walk down the aisle of the aircraft imply hesech hadaat (loss of conscious attention from the tefillin)? If it did, then a blessing was required. If not, and I recited the blessing on the tefillin, it would be "a blessing in vain" - a severe halachic prohibition.. Although instinctively I felt that a blessing was unnecessary, I wasn't really sure. Just two weeks before I had listened in on a complicated debate on just this subject at the Yeshivah, and the situation was far from clear. What should I do? My frenzied cogitations were cut short by the flight attendants, now, openly hostile, who insisted that I must move at once.

There was no way out. I picked up my tallit bag, took my prayer book and walked the full length of the plane, resplendent in tallit and tefillin. My trek down the aisle electrified the entire cabin. "What the...?" "Mommy, what's that ?" "Hey look Lucy, Moses is back" "Bizarre, man" "What's that box on his head?" From the corner of my eye, I caught images of bewilderment, shock, and amusement. As for me, the death of a thousand cuts would have been preferable. Somehow I made it to the semi-secluded haven at the back of the cabin and tried to collect myself. I started to daven but the only prayerful thought that I could muster was a fervent hope that the rear emergency door would blow open, and I would be mercifully sucked out of the aircraft.

This would never do. I had to pull myself together and pray properly. After all, the brain, by virtue of its innate superiority, rules the heart, right? I thought of Reb Mendel Futerfas (of blessed memory), who managed to perform mitzvot and daven with zeal in a Siberian labor camp surrounded by the dregs of humanity. I reminded myself of the parable in Tanya of the "heathen" whose efforts to distract a Jew from praying were really a Divine gift, intended to elicit from the afflicted individual hidden spiritual strengths. I told myself that this episode presented a golden opportunity to transcend my own personal limitations, and that I should be overjoyed. None of it worked. The emotional turbulence and the effects of caffeine withdrawal as a result of the fast had dissipated whatever inner resources I might have had. My brain, despite its vaunted innate superiority, did not rule my heart, nor, for that matter, any other part of me. I recited the prayers like a zombie and removed my tefillin and tallit. I cringed at the thought of walking back up the aisle to my seat, and I briefly considered crawling, until I realized that everyone would be able to see me anyway.

I hunched my shoulders, stared at the floor and quickly proceeded up the aisle. The cabin was quiet and fairly dark. It was obvious that the in-flight movie had begun. I glanced up at the movie screen and the marvel that met my eyes stopped me dead in my tracks. There on the screen were Jews, dozens of them, all wearing tallit and tefillin, and all davening. I couldn't get over it. I stood and watched until this extraordinary tableau faded to another scene, and I then continued up the aisle. The movie, which as I later discovered was "The Jazz Singer", had also apparently made quite an impression on the other passengers.

As I made my way, I attracted considerable attention, but it was of a totally different kind than that which I had received an hour earlier. The looks were those of admiration and respect. People nodded knowingly to each other and smiled. I saw one woman pointing to me and explaining something to her small child. People in aisle seats wished me good morning and one man even stood up. When I arrived at my place the erstwhile testy flight attendants deferentially inquired after my comfort.

I was aglow with wonder, gratification, and thankfulness. I was also more than a little ashamed of myself. The Almighty did not produce and direct this magnificently orchestrated comedy of errors only in order to apprise 300 people of His eternal and all-encompassing presence. It seems that the 301st passenger, namely myself, was also in need of some serious instruction in this ultimate truth.

I thought of the Kotsker Rebbe. When he was a child someone jokingly told him "Mendel, I will give you a penny if you tell me where G-d is". The little boy answered "I will give you two if you tell me where He is not."

Selected by Yerachmiel Tilles from www.Chabad.org; originally published in De Yiddishe Heim.

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at McGill University Faculty of Medicine. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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