"Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok"

Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok

Dear Friend, 

The following ludicrous story was forwarded to my email by a congregant seeking to lighten his rabbi’s day with some kosher humor. Whether the story is actually true or not is not so relevant…. It certainly could have happened. I found an interesting parallel in my work this week as you will see below. 

Outside England's Bristol Zoo there is a parking lot for 150 cars and 8 buses. For 25 years, its parking fees were managed by a very pleasant attendant.... The fees for cars ($1.40), for buses (about $7).

Then, one day, after 25 solid years of never missing a day of work,
he just didn't show up; so the zoo management called the city council
and asked it to send them another parking agent.

The council did some research and replied that the parking lot was the zoo's own responsibility. The zoo advised the council that the attendant was a city employee. The city council responded that the lot attendant had never been on the city payroll.

Meanwhile, sitting in his villa somewhere on the coast of Spain or France or Italy is a man who'd apparently had a ticket machine installed completely on his own and then had simply begun to show up every day, commencing to collect and keep the parking fees, estimated at about $560 per day -- for 25 years.

Assuming 7 days a week, this amounts to just over $7 million dollars ......and no one even knows his name. 

This week I finally got down to the bottom of a mystery that had taken place in our local Jewish cemetery. M had passed away and several months after being buried in our cemetery I send the undertaker the file containing the language and fonts for preparing the headstone. The understanding was that the headstone would be the same standard stone that we have erected for the fifteen or so other graves. Lo and behold, the stone that was actually put up was much more elaborate and expensive, it sticks out very prominently (you could even call it ‘snazzy’) and makes the other stones look somewhat ‘drab’ by contrast. 

After calling the undertaker and complaining why he had changed the ordered stone without checking with me, he told me that as far as he knew, his worker had erected the ordinary stone. It took several visits to the cemetery to finally understand what was going on. 

Like in the above parking attendant, it seems that the local ‘gardener’ who is living on premises in the cemetery has been running a side business of his own. He approaches well meaning family members of the deceased who are interred in our cemetery and promises to ‘garden’ and look after the graves for a nominal fee of several hundred to several thousand baht per month. Lately he became more innovative. His latest idea was to explain to the friends of the recently deceased M that they could put a more elaborate stone up using a craftsman that he could recommend. It seems that the cost was at least THB 45,000 more than what we pay for a standard stone. 

There are two reasons I am relating this story. Firstly, if you ever visit the cemetery and are solicited by the gardener, please be aware that the gardener is receiving a monthly stipend from the Jewish Association for tending to the cemetery grounds, and as well he is living rent free on the premises.  If you choose to give him a tip, this is entirely up to you. (He probably does not have a padded bank account anywhere and will not retire on the beach). 

Secondly, I tell this story, because I wanted to get your feedback about a question that has now arisen as a result of this story. 

Initially, the board of the Jewish Association had maintained that all the gravestones should be of one standard. This fit very much with many of the ‘rules of equality’ regarding Jewish burial as described in the Talmud (Moed Katan 27 a-b).  There are a host of laws listed there, enacted to be adhered to by poor and rich alike so as not to humiliate the poor at the time of their passing. One well known law is the burial in simple white shrouds  (tachrichim). This standard and uniform dress express the equality of all the human beings at the time of their passing. Burial in any other kinds of clothing would invariably create a variety of levels of ‘burial attire’ depending on personal wealth and thus created a distinction between the classes and ultimately humiliate the ‘have-nots’ of society. 

In other words, the ‘final journey’ and the cemetery are a time and place where wealth and flamboyance should not play a part. It’s a solemn place where people are not judged by the zeros they left behind in the bank, rather by the good deeds they have done in this world. And while well meaning friends and relatives may think they are doing a favor to the deceased by placing an elaborate monument, it’s highly likely that the soul of the deceased is now in a better place in the ‘world of truth’ trying to escape the very lifestyle he was constantly chasing during his life. To me, its almost like I hear the deceased pleading with me, ‘Stop reminding me about the follies I carried out during my lifetime by making me a different tombstone'. 'Just let me rest in peace and equality with my peers’. After all, as King David says in Psalms ‘For when he dies he shall carry nothing away; his glory shall not go down after him’. 

Taking into account that at least half the of the burials till now, have been people who had no family and left no funds to be able to pay for any expenses related to their burial – as a matter of fact, had we not stepped in to bury them they most likely would have been cremated which is totally contrary to the Torah – there will definitely be a visible class distinction created by allowing the elaborate headstones. 

However, one could argue, there is no particular Talmudic enactment pertaining to uniformity of headstones and perhaps there is validity to allowing for individual expression in one choice of tombstone for oneself or for a loved one. After all, we are all different and G-d has blessed each of us with different gifts. Some may be leaving a wonderful family behind, for others the tombstone may be the only sign that the person ever lived. Some are blessed with wealth, others not. 

Perhaps a happy medium would be the best solution, where a certain range and style of stones are approved for use thereby allowing for individuality while at the same time protecting the dignity of the others by not allowing for anything ostentatious which would highlight the contrast.

I have initiated contact with Rabbis who have great expertise in this field and ultimately the Jewish Association will make its decision based on the clear mandates of Halacha as understood by learned scholars. However, I am also interested to hear whether you, as part of the Jewish Community in Thailand, have any personal thoughts on the matter that we should take into consideration. 

Hope to have happier topics in the future. But in the meantime….

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor 

Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok

Dear Friend,

I have received so many emails asking me about what happened to my snowed in car that I feel it only right to share the second half of my story with you.

On Tuesday night after attending the ‘sheva brachos’ (post wedding party) of the Sunday night wedding which was held in Boro Park, I had a friend drive me over to check up on my (Hertz rented) car. Lo and behold, it was still there, double parked in the exact same spot I had left it. Miraculously no one had rear ended or sideswiped the car. Not surprisingly it took about half an hour with a shovel and rocking back and forth with spinning tires to get out of the snow but thank G-d I was able to drive it back to Crown Heights. However, in Crown Heights there was nowhere to park as the service roads had not yet been plowed, so leaving my car parked on the main parkway of Eastern Parkway I ran into my parents home, packed my bags and headed straight to the Rebbe’s resting place where I wanted to pray before I headed to my 6:30 am LA bound flight. Arriving there before 4 AM I figured I had plenty of time to say my prayers unhurriedly and make my flight comfortably. I was supposed to fly to LAX visit an elderly Jew in S. Barbara and then fly out to Melbourne Australia on Wednesday night to attend the Bar Mitzva of the youngest son of a prominent supporter.

The Rebbe’s resting place at 4 AM was quiet and serene with no one else there. I prayed with special fervor, for myself, my family and my community and got so caught up with my prayers that the time passed without me noticing. I ran off to the airport trying to make my flight but while my suitcase made the flight to LA I myself missed the flight as I needed to give back my rental car. It is usually no problem to get another flight to the west coast to catch the Australia bound flight. But not on this Wednesday the first day of normal flight schedules after three snow days. Flights were overbooked and people had been stranded for days at the airport. Yet, the miraculous happened and I was rebooked on a S. Francisco bound flight with ample connection time to Australia. As a gold member I have access to the lounge so I got busy with my computer (what would we do without computers) and fought off my extreme tiredness waiting for the afternoon flight with the guaranteed free upgrade to finally go to sleep. The flight got delayed once, and then delayed again and then delayed again but the United staff still told me I had a good chance of making the connection. After boarding the plane in NY I promptly fell asleep on the luxurious business class seat and did not awaken till we landed in Frisco. Then I heard the announcement over the PA system ‘for all passengers connecting on to Australia, please see the gate agent for your new arrangements’. OY VEY! I immediately realized that once I had not left California by Wednesday night, I could not get to Australia before Shabbat for the Bar Mitzva and even worse, I could not even get back home to Thailand before Shabbat. What in the world would I now do? There was no reason to continue to Australia as the bar mitzvah was on Shabbat and I had missed it. There was no way to get home either. The only option seemed to be to go to my parents in law in LA and then leave home on United to arrive on Monday night. What a shlep, and to top it off, I needed to be in Bangkok on Monday morning for an important appointment. I felt quite at ease about the whole situation as the missing of the flight had been precipitated by prayers at the holy resting place of the Rebbe and I knew that I was on my way to where I was supposed to be even if I had not planned to be there. My wife felt that my situation was hopeless and I would probably have to miss my Monday morning appointment but not one to give up as long as there is a chance, she got on the phones once more and was finally told by helpful United rep that the only way to get home before Monday would be to fly from SFO to Frankfurt, arriving Friday morning and then continuing from Frankfurt to Bangkok on Saturday night. Even thought my ticket was routed the other way, they would make that change for me as an exception.

But where would I be for Shabbat in Frankfurt? I figured that this was an opportunity to go to Brussels. Why Brussels? The Shluchim in Brussels had repeatedly asked me to come to see their institutions as they had wanted my input about a certain situation they were facing. I had not seen an opportunity when I could have visited them as my schedule is always so full and I am not looking for any ‘non essential’ travel. However, considering my current predicament, this seemed to be the obvious place to spend Shabbat. I arrived in Frankfurt on Friday morning and continued straight on to Brussels arriving there at 12:30 PM. I was shown around the thriving Chabad institutions in the area of the EU Parliament and spent a very enjoyable Shabbat, giving a sermon for the local Jews as well as leading a discussion for the Yeshiva Bachurim there. As it turns out, the situation I was asked to comment about was really pressing and it was most providential that I had arrived there when I did. My colleagues in Brussels were amazed at how just a few days earlier they had discussed how it was urgent that I visit and here I was ‘falling in to their laps’ just several days later. It was now amply clear to me that Hashem was guiding my footsteps and leading me exactly where I needed to be to fulfill my mission of serving Him with love.

I arrived home safely thank G-d on Sunday afternoon. My luggage arrived on Wednesday night. My body is slowly catching up from the fatigue but my spirits are high as I reflect on the Divine Providence that envelops us like a protective cocoon.

So much talk about traveling… fits the theme of this weeks parsha where we actually traveled out of Egypt on our way to the receiving of the Torah.

With blessing and special thanks for all your help during last fiscal year and advance thanks for all your help during 2011.

Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor
Director, Chabad of Thailand

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