This is the story about a silver plate. It was a trophy I won for finishing in first place at the Harvard National Invitational Speech Tournament when I was a junior in high school. But that wasn’t the most special thing about it. Strange as it sounds, that silver plate would come to encapsulate my Jewish spiritual journey. But that would take many more years to discover.
My earliest memories of being Jewish were of my mother tucking me into bed, and saying the Shema with me.
There’s no one here. Am I supposed to say, "Excuse me?" And then I remembered that God is here.
Another big one was when I was six. I learned that after you burp, you’re supposed to say, “Excuse me.” Later that night, I was sitting alone in our giant pink kitchen, and... I burped. I remember thinking, There’s no one here. Am I supposed to say, "Excuse me?"
And then I remembered that God is here. So I did.
When I was eight, a neighbor sent us a subscription to “Talks and Tales,” the Chabad Children’s Magazine. The issues were only a few pages long, printed in black and white on shiny pages, and each one contained a Chassidic Story.
The premise of each was there is a God, He loves us, and He is intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. I loved them. They changed my life and became the foundation of my Jewish education. (By the way, we are still getting to the silver plate!)
When I was 15, I wanted to start keeping Shabbos. Well, not exactly. What I really wanted to do was to go to shul Saturday mornings. The only problem was that I’d just started competing for my school’s Speech Team, and all of the tournaments were held on Shabbos.
I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed competing and was beginning to do well. On the other hand, even though my family didn’t observe Shabbos, my soul was telling me that I should be in shul. And not just any shul -- my shul.
It was small and warm and holy. On Simchat Torah my life changed there while dancing with the Torah. I was 14 and it was clear to me then that the Torah in my arms was the center of my life. Someone suggested I speak with the rabbi. His name was Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Reb Shlomo never pushed anyone into religious observance. He’d inspire people (thousands all over the world) and then left it up to them to take the next step in their Jewish journey.
He once said that the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe, is that a rabbi teaches you something you didn’t know before, but a rebbe connects you to the deepest part within yourself.
We spoke and afterwards, he told my parents that I had a gift for speaking and that I had a responsibility to develop that, too. In our innocence this was interpreted as a recommendation that I should go to the speech tournaments. When I shared this with Reb Shlomo years later, his eyes almost popped out of his head. In his extreme tactfulness and gentleness, he had been misinterpreted.
The truth is, I wasn’t ready at that point in my life to commit to that level of observance. Looking back, I think this turned out to be a blessing since it gave me the chance to continue to grow spiritually at my own pace.
And so I started competing in the Speech Tournaments. It was a painful choice. Time passed.
Inspiration if it’s not nourished fades. Our souls are subject to the forces of gravity too, and if we don’t nurture them our wings molt, and we can forget about the sensation of soaring.
I wanted to say thank you back to God. So I started keeping Shabbos.
After graduating college, I was so filled with a sense of thanks for all the blessings in my life -- my parents, my friends, my health, my career -- that I wanted to say thank you back to God. I thought the best way to do that would be to start keeping Shabbos.
I once thought that every Friday night God says, “Good Shabbos” to the world by sending us Shabbos. I wondered, how can I say “Good Shabbos” back? And then I thought -- by keeping Shabbos! I was writing comedy for television at the time and that made it a little tricky, but thank God it all worked out.
After much searching, I met my wife, who also loves Shabbos, and then one day I came home and noticed something special. There is a custom to put your Shabbos candle sticks on a silver tray. My wife kept that custom. What I hadn’t realized was that she’d chosen the silver plate I won at the speech tournament to rest the candles on.
My head spun.
That plate was the very representation of not keeping Shabbos. And yet here it was, serving as the foundation for the Shabbos candles themselves!
How could that be?
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that wherever a Jew walks, he’s heading toward Israel. Even if he’s heading in the opposite direction, he’s still heading toward Israel. Furthermore, our Sages teach in the Talmud that if one returns to God out of love, all of their mistakes turn into mitzvahs.
For many years now I have been using to the best of my ability the skills I learned competing in speech tournaments held on Shabbos to teach about the beauty of Shabbos. I even have a weekly podcast called Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World.
It’s amazing how God runs the world. Sometimes He blesses us to see that our destiny is being played out right in front of our very eyes, even if in the moment it’s impossible to see.
Ten years passed between wanting to keep Shabbos and actually keeping it. All those years I was looking at the world and what it held, all the while secretly comparing it with the joys and holiness of Shabbos. After being fortunate enough to see much of the world, I finally knew. Nothing is better than Shabbos.