Tetzaveh - Shabbat in Cuba
On Rosh Hashanah 2 years ago, I spoke about light. We reference light all the time, we see the light or the special spark in someone's eyes, it is the light of God or the light of their soul. We bring light to darkened regions of the world, enlightenment -- wisdom, education, skill. Light is the strongest metaphor we have for goodness, hope, and love. Light vs. dark, light vs. what is hidden, light vs the unenlightened.
Last Shabbat I was on another bima, 300 miles away in Havana, Cuba. The Patronato, whose Argentinian rabbi only visits 3 or 4 times a year, was not with us -- a volunteer leader in the congregation, along with a teen age congregant, a Rabbi from Miami, and myself, all contributed to bring several hundred strangers into the light of God on Shabbat Terumah - the shabbat of giving from the heart.
Just days before-- the 30 Americans in our group crowded into a one room shul in Santa Clara, David Tretcher, the President of this 30 person congregation proudly showed us the enormous ark donated by a Washington DC congregation, along with their neir tamid, the eternal light that hangs above every bima in every synagogue around the world. As David told us the history of Am Shalom, his shul, something felt out of place, it was unusually dark for a bright afternoon -- the lights were out that day -- was the electric bill not paid? Was electric service cut off in that neighborhood? No one would dare shame him by asking. Almost as if reading our minds, he explained they had no electricity, but pointed to the neir tamid -- laughing in Spanish that we could partially understand, saying that the Americans who sent them their neir tamid ALSO sent batteries so it would stay lit. Yes, it was the only light in the room.
The torah portion that we read this week, Tetzaveh, means 'you shall command' and continues God’s instruction to the Israelites in furnishing the tabernacle –They are told to bring olive oil so that Aaron and his descendants as high priests could kindle lamps regularly in the holy temple. This is our instruction to keep a burning light for all time, as a reminder of God’s presence. From this phrase, we draw the neir tamid!
But why should the neir tamid be THE sign of God’s presence? Why the light?
We are only aware of light by way of what it illuminates.
We can’t look at the sun, but when the sun shines, we are able to see everything around us. We can’t see God, but we can see what is holy by what is beautiful, miraculous, and sacred.
I have never been to a country that I would consider ‘war torn’, or one that I would picture with bombed out homes and rubble in the streets – perhaps how we envision Germany after the war. But many parts of Cuba made this old-world picture complete. Driving in the capital city, one renovated, beautiful Spanish styled home painted a bright pink or blue, a front stone arch with columns fortified and strong, standing directly next to a gray, partially crumbling shell of what was once so beautiful. The old and the new. Was there great suffering alongside plenty, right here in 2016?
You could envision the Cuba of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s – large thoroughfares for fancy cars and romantic couples, maybe even American mobsters who came down to smoke cigars and drink rum. These last 50 years, post-revolution have damaged this incredible island which built itself on the sugar cane industry. A country whose heart is made from sweetness now struggling to let the light of the world seep in and modernize, held back by its tattered infrastructure, leaky pipes, and government issued ration books.
Was this country truly in the dark since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959? They are still driving cars that have been lovingly preserved from the mid-1950’s – since after ’59 no cars were imported until the 80’s. They have free education and healthcare… and yet are barefoot in the countryside.
Where was the neir tamid?
As we huddled in this tiny Santa Clara community, enjoying the jolly optimism of David Tretcher, a man who was happy to report that they are able to gather 30 people from the local communities for Jewish holiday celebrations – and always share a meal. He proudly spoke of the generations of his family who continued to remain Jewish in Cuba. Their numbers were tiny, but their conviction is strong – what else is there to do but continue on? His story in many ways is similar to the shul in Cienfuego, numbering 20 people, in the living room of one of the community members.
David’s shul is modest, but it had a kosher kitchen, and a beautiful, clean, rooftop – cleared of debris and rubble, unlike the neighboring rooftops that have been coopted with dingy clothes lines. In spite of the inconsistent view -- we danced and sang Israeli songs together.
The Neir Tamid – the light in parashat Tetzaveh, that reminds us of God’s presence, even in a darkened room still shone silently, tiny, but constant. Though David was talking in Spanish, our eyes were glued to the light, the source -- he shared his dreams, and said over and over, “the most important thing is to live Jewishly” – forget teaching Hebrew to kids, they needed to re-kindle basic Jewish life and Joy for the generations that are here, the courageous few to maintain a life outside the city, where the majority of the 1200 Jews in Cuba still lived. Una mas importante vivir como Judea . The most important thing is to live as Jews.
AND THEN THE LIGHTS CAME ON!
We all gasped, David looked to the ceiling, and said, Ah – the lights are here! Did the city turn on the electricity? Did a wire get fixed? Who knows… but the symbolism was so obvious– the light’s significance on what it illuminates. That somehow in a country that had pushed religion out of the churches and synagogues and public spaces for half a century, also pushed away anti-semitism – so that when the Pope visited in the 90’s and slowly warmed the environment for religious practice, the Jewish communities revitalized themselves. There was no anti-semitism, no knowledge of how to hate someone for their religious differences, so they were beginning anew. Rekindling their own light.
The presence of the revolution was everywhere – silhouettes of Castro and Che Guevarra were painted on buildings in both the city and countryside and we struggled to understand what it meant to live in a communist country while a new era was dawning. The US embargo is shifting and beginning to lift, the influence of the world’s tourism is showing, what did we expect to see? Were Cubans always yearning for the democracy that was only 90 miles north? Were they content? Did they have what they needed?
I’m not sure, because though they have hospitals and university education, the hospital beds may not have sheets, the pharmacy may or may not have your medicine, and you might never receive assistance to repaint your house —and so as missionaries we brought medical supplies, donations, support, music – our own light and love to the Jewish communities we visited. We showed them that they were not alone.
Every synagogue had a neir tamid, from Havana to Guantanamo – the island’s 1200 Jews all had a light to look toward, to remind them they had not been lost.
Adela Dworkin, the president of the Patronato in Havana shared a story of when she was introduced to Fidel Castro years earlier, she knew he had always allowed the one kosher butcher to remain open, and asked him why he had never visited their synagogue. He said he had never been invited. And so she invited him for Chanukah…what is Chanukah he asked….ahhhhh she answered, it’s about a revolution, you will LOVE IT!
If light is our symbol of Godliness, our chumash teaches, then the neir tamid is a fire we build of our creativity and perseverance, it represents our efforts to bring God into our world.
In Cuba, the light still burns and I am grateful to report that the light is shining