I’ve always hated to travel. I like my home. I like being around my wife and kids. I like sleeping in my own bed. I like the U.S. Central time zone. I like that the 7-11 near my house carries Chocolate Power Bars, which you can’t always find. I like the Chicago Tribune sports section, where I can read about the Bulls and Bears and Cubs and no column inches are wasted on unimportant sports like soccer. I hate travel so much that, once, I even began writing a poem entitled, She Wants to See Rome, He Wants to Stay Home. The poem, in the style of Ogden Nash—one of my favorite poets—is unfinished, but the first line goes like this:
She is a curious individual with a desire to see the world and experience its bounty. He, on the other hand, would be happy to lay on the couch with a bag of chips and a Diet Coke and watch reruns of the Real Housewives of Orange County.
As much as I wish I never had to leave my house, my line of work, ironically, requires me to travel frequently. So, I go where I need to go and fly back as soon as I can. Sometimes, however, the timing of my trips forces me to spend Shabbat away from home. Once, I was in Hong Kong, where there’s a small but wealthy Jewish community that holds Shabbat services and offers Shabbat dinner. So, as much as I did not want to venture from my hotel room and my jet-lagged body and mind could have benefited from an early evening, I made it to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Ohel Leah Synagogue, endowed to the Jewish community of Hong Kong by the famous Sassoon family, the Rothschilds of the Orient.
The Sassoons originally came from Iraq, where they were wealthy merchants. But, consumed with wanderlust, the family patriarch, David Sassoon, traveled throughout India and China in the 19th century and became the largest cotton and opium trader in the Orient. And though he spent decades in far-flung places, Sassoon remained Torah-observant and established Jewish communities in multiple places in India and China, including the building of schools, hospitals, welfare societies, mikva’oth and cemeteries, as well as houses of worship like Ohel Leah. Avram, the hero of our current parasha, Lech Lecha, also came from an affluent Iraqi family and also was consumed with wanderlust. Of course, he left his home at God’s command, with the assurance that God would make Avram’s name great and for a blessing.
That night, in the sumptuous synagogue, filled with handmade rugs, colorful stained glass and intricate woodwork, missing my wife and kids and feeling far from home, I had a strange experience; an encounter with the ghost of David Sassoon. Sounds crazy, I know. Maybe it was the jet-lag or, maybe, I suffered a break with reality, but I definitely felt his presence. And I wanted to know, what led him to leave his home and family? Did God command him, like Avram, to hit the road for some higher purpose? Or, was David Sassoon simply a businessman, like me, trying to make a buck?
So, after Shabbat ended, wanting to remember the experience—even if I wasn’t sure what it meant—I started writing a poem called Ohel Leah, Hong Kong, March, 2014. More than two years later, I’m still not sure what to take from this odd moment, but I finished writing the poem just today and offer it, here, in honor of Parashat Lech Lecha.
Ohel Leah Synagogue: Hong Kong, March 2014
And God said to Avram: go forth from your land, from the land of your birth, from your father’s house…And I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.
Praying in a synagogue endowed to the Jews of Hong Kong
by the Sassoon family, the Rothschilds of the Orient, I gaze
at the domed ceiling and think of money (the hand-made
rugs, the splendid holy ark, even, the building’s courtyard,
a wide plaza in this city of cramped quarters). And, like most
Westerners, I’ve traveled to Hong Kong chasing money. But,
for the next 24 hours, I will cease and rest, in the ancient tradition.
I look around the sanctuary: 50 men, in suits and ties. A dozen
children, scampering like mice beneath the carved wooden
benches. The women, secluded high above, in their own section,
unseen and unheard, but nearer to God. Who are these Jews and
why do they choose to live here, in a diaspora beyond the diaspora?
We sing together the Lecha Dodi and I’m moved. 13 hours hence,
they will sing the same tune in my own diaspora community.
And, then, I feel his presence: David Sassoon. Merchant. Patron.
Ghost. I imagine he visits here often, arriving without the fanfare
he enjoyed in life; probably through an open, stained glass window.
For 50 years, the great man created riches like a farmer raises crops:
till, plant, nurture, harvest. Season after season. Year after year.
Far from home. Far from family. In the diaspora beyond the diaspora.
Today, the measure of his Midas touch is in this ohel, this tent. This is
where his wealth was born and continues to grow.
My jet-lagged mind wanders. Both Davids, both seekers of fortunes
in distant places, I feel connected across the realms and wonder how
the saga began. Did he dream a voice commanding him to go forth?
To bring God’s message into the nooks and crannies of creation? Did
God speak to David Sassoon in the voice I’ve been waiting to hear
my entire life? Or, was he just another traveling salesman? As always,
the questions I want answered most, remain beyond my reach.
Beneath my bench, a little boy looks up at me and smiles. He reminds
me of my own sons, thousands of miles away. And my thoughts drift
to a mythical place, where it is always Shabbat. Where money has no
meaning and all the questions of mortal man are answered.