It was our first big celebration as a family since our son's bris, eight years earlier. Our daughter Aliza was becoming a Bat Mitzvah. We had a fun idea for how to celebrate it: We had been married years earlier on a boat in Manhattan, and since Aliza was born on our first anniversary, we thought we would do it again.
So we hired a boat and invited a small group of mostly relatives and classmates. In planning the food and the flowers and the music, there seemed to be something missing. We had the “bar,” but where was the “mitzvah”? Aside from my daughter's Dvar Torah (“the speech”), what could we do to elevate this gathering from being just another birthday party?
Providentially, there was a request in our synagogue to pray for a local soldier who was being deployed to Iraq. The idea was born; let's have all the kids at our simcha (celebration) make Chanukah cards to send to Jewish soldiers overseas. Nothing earth-shattering, just a way to inject some meaning into the festivities.
The date arrived and our ship sailed. God granted us a picture perfect September day and when Aliza's carefully prepared speech blew overboard, she adlibbed admirably. The Chanukah cards were written and colored and decorated. A lovely time was had by all. And the next day, the cards were mailed out with heartfelt wishes and love to our Jewish brothers and sisters. End of story.
Or so we thought.
Six months later, when the bat mitzvah was a fond, distant memory, there was a knock on my door in the middle of the day. Bravely, I unlocked the door, even though I didn't recognize the voice on the other side. A pleasant twenty-something man greeted me:
"I'm Lt. Steinberg, and your daughter sent me a Chanukah card when I was in Iraq."
Well, you could've blown me over with a feather.
But wait -- it gets better.
Apparently our few dozen cards had been thrown in with the hundreds and thousands of cards sent to celebrate that other December holiday. The chaplain showed up one day at the army base with an enormous sack, filled to the brim with cards and letters. As he passed out handfuls of cards to the grateful troops, Lt. Steinberg was hanging back, feeling pretty left out and lonely.
Suddenly amidst the celebratory crowd, the company captain noticed our soldier. "Steinberg, why are you so quiet? How come you’re not opening any cards?"
Oh brother, Steinberg thought, don't they get it? "Captain, I'm Jewish, remember?"
"C'mon, Steinberg, don't be a spoilsport. Take a card."
Steinberg tried to shrink himself into invisibility. But the captain wasn't having it. "Let's go, Steinberg. These people were nice enough to write to us. NOW TAKE A CARD!"
By now the captain had everyone's attention and Steinberg was getting pretty uncomfortable in the spotlight. Quick, he told himself, just grab a Christmas card and you’ll stop being the center of attention.
Steinberg reached deep into the sack, pulled out a card and looked at it. To his complete and utter shock the return address said Wesley Hills, New York. Steinberg is from Wesley Hills.
Hands shaking, he tore it open and found a beautiful hand-made Chanukah card, signed by my daughter Aliza, the Bat Mitzvah girl herself. Steinberg was dumbfounded by the providence of it all. He broke out in a huge grin and proudly showed the card to the captain and the entire platoon. Everyone understood the small miracle they had just witnessed.
Standing there in my Wesley Hills home, with my mouth gaping open and tears in my eyes, I begged Steinberg to come back and retell the story when my children were home. Indeed, he returned the following week with a friend and a camera. For our family, it was an incredible inspiration to see so clearly the power of our "little" mitzvah.
But that’s not the end of the story. Just this past September one of the chaplains I had contacted about sending those cards asked if I could help arrange kosher meals and snacks for troops in Afghanistan for the High Holidays and Sukkot. I organized some people in my community and we sent 144 kosher meals to Afghanistan. Aish HaTorah’s Project Inspire got involved and sent dozens of personal cards and honey sticks for Rosh Hashanah and then chocolates for Chanukah to troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Italy and Kuwait.
The story of Lt. Steinberg continues to bear more and more fruit. May all my daughter’s mitzvot enjoy such success!
(The story is true; Lt. Steinberg’s name has been changed.)