The Portable Chamber of Secrets

(for Geoff and Alex Cameron)

Long ago, the Jewish people had a magnificent Mikdash, a Temple, in Jerusalem. It was constructed with love and reverence to worship God, the Creator of the universe, and the God who made a covenant with the Jewish people. Tradition held that the spot where the Temple was built was chosen because on that very spot, two brothers had lived together and put the needs of the other before his own. The love of the brothers was meant to inspire every person who entered the Temple to love other people in same way, by thinking of what they need.

Every day, people gathered in the Temple to serve God. The priests made sacrifices, the Levites sang psalms and played instruments, and the people watched the proceedings with awe and reverence.

The Temple had two rooms. The back room was small and contained only an ark in which rested the Torah Moses brought down Mount Sinai. Only one person ever entered the Holy of Holies: the High Priest. He only entered once each year, on Yom Kippur. It was the most sacred place in the entire world. The front room was larger and contained many important things, including the table of showbread, the golden altar for burning incense, and the menorah.

There were also some small rooms and hallways built around the outside of the building. One of the most important places of all was a spot in dark, narrow hallway in the back of the Mikdash. There was a room there that one might easily pass without even knowing of its existence. It was call the Chamber of Secrets.

Every day, those in need and those with more than they need would file through the hallway quietly, avoiding being seen by others. Those with more than they needed would deposit coins in an alcove in the Chamber of Secrets to share their blessings with those less fortunate. Those in need would take a few coins to buy food for themselves and their families. In this way, day in and day out, the Jews of Jerusalem, and Jews who came to visit the Holy City, were able to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah anonymously. Those who gave money did not who received it and those who took money did not know who gave it.

You might ask: Why is it important to give anonymously? Wouldn't a person who gives like to know who receives the donation? Perhaps, but there are two important reasons why Jews are supposed to give anonymously wherever possible. First, because giving tzedakah is not a choice, it is an obligation. One gives not because it makes you feel good, but because others are in need. When people knows who receives their donations, they may come to think they have a right to decide whether a needy person is really so needy. They may come to feel superior to the people who receive their gifts. There is an even more important reason, however. No one wants to need tzedakah to feed his or her family and pay rent. It can be embarrassing. What is more, if a person knows that he is indebted to a certain person for helping him, it might make him feel less important, and less valuable, than the person who has more money. Therefore, for the sake of the feelings of both the giver and the receiver, it is best if neither knows who the other is. This Chamber of Secrets made this possible, and for many generations it enabled Jews to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah quietly and anonymously, just as they should.

The Mikdash did not stand forever. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple King Solomon built, but the Jews built a Second Temple which stood for hundreds of years. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple nearly 2000 years ago and since that time, Jews have lived both in the Land of Israel and throughout the world. Wherever we have gone, we have taken our Torah and our traditions, learning new ways in the new places we lived, but holding tight to the mitzvah of tzedakah.

It came to be that 100 years ago in a small town in Eastern Europe there was a small Jewish community. The people of this community lived and worked together year in and year out. Their children married one another and brought new generations into the world. When one person was in need, others would take care of the need.

One day, the rabbi of the community, Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer, was teaching a lesson in Mishnah about the Chamber of Secrets behind the Mikdash.

"How could anyone see in such a dark, narrow passage?" asked Mendel.

"They felt their way with the hands," the rabbi explained.

"And what if someone could not make the trip up Har Ha-Bayit, the mountain on which the Temple stood? It wasn't so terribly high, I know, but still not everyone could climb it. What about someone too weak or sick to come to the Chamber of Secrets?" Mendel asked.

"In such a case, it is the responsibility of the relatives and neighbors to see that those who are weak and sick are cared for," the rabbi replied.

"When we rebuild the Mikdash, will it have another Chamber of Secrets," Mendel asked.

"I suppose it will," the rabbi replied, "but now we live dispersed among the nations and we must carry out our traditions here in Europe, as our people do who live in the Land of Israel. After all, our ancestors carried the ark through the wilderness for 40 years and even carried the Tabernacle with them. So, too, must we carry such worthy traditions with us everywhere we go."

Mendel was troubled that night. There was a tzedakah box in the synagogue, near the entrance. Anyone making a donation could be seen. No one ever removed money from the box. It was collected and disbursed by the rabbi. The tradition of the Chamber of Secrets -- with its anonymity -- seemed lost.

Mendel was determined that such an important tradition not be lost forever. The following Friday morning, as everyone scurried around preparing for Shabbat, Mendel took out a rucksack. He removed the top flap so that one could easily insert or remove anything from it. He placed several loaves of bread, some cheese, and a bottle of wine in the rucksack, hoisted it onto his back, and headed for the rabbi's house.

The rabbi was deeply immersed in study when Mendel arrived and knocked on the door.

"Who is there?" the rabbi asked.

"Shalom aleichem, Rabbi. It is I, the Chamber of Secrets," Mendel replied.

"Aleichem shalom. But what is that you say?" the rabbi said, sounded confused and startled. "Come in, please, and tell me who you are."

Mendel entered the rabbi's study, walked over to where the rabbi sat reading, and turned his back to him.

"Look inside, Rabbi," Mendel said. "Just as our ancestors had a portable Tabernacle, so too can we carry a part of the Mikdash with us today. When I wear this rucksack, I cannot see behind me. If someone comes from behind and puts food in the rucksack, or removes food from it, I cannot see who it is. The rucksack will be our community's Chamber of Secrets."

Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer marveled at Mendel's idea. "You have brought a piece of the holiness of the Mikdash to our community, my friend," he said, and with that he escorted Mendel through the town, up and down the streets, explaining to everyone in the community how Mendel's rucksack would work.

From that day on, every Friday morning, Mendel hoisted his rucksack onto his back and walked up and down the streets of his village. People knew when to expect him, and they would follow behind, either removing food they needed for Shabbat, or donating food for others to enjoy. Mendel heard their footsteps and felt the rucksack grow lighter or heavier, but he never saw a single face. When he grew too old to carry the rucksack any longer, his daughter Miriam donned the rucksack and carried on the tradition of her father. And her son, Mordecai, after her. The rucksack grew old and worn, and it was patched many times.

When Mordecai decided to leave the Old Country, and move his family across the ocean to America, he brought the rucksack with him so he would be sure to remember what his mother and grandfather had taught him about tzedakah. In America, there were new ways to fulfill the mitzvah of giving tzedakah so that neither the giver nor the receiver know the other. Yet the rucksack hung in Mordecai's home, frayed and fusty, a constant reminder. Mordecai passed the rucksack down to his daughter, Sarah. By this time, it was threadbare and in such a state of disrepair that she could not hang it on the wall. Sarah removed the larger patches of intact fabric and covered a tzedakah box with them. Her family put money in the tzedakah box every week before they lit Shabbat candles. Sarah handed down the tzedakah box to her son, Joshua, and he in turn passed it down to his daughter, Rachel. The tzedakah box moved from New York, to Chicago, to San Diego. Then it moved to Jerusalem when Rachel made aliyah to the Land of Israel with her family. And while there is still no Mikdash in Jerusalem, the portable Chamber of Secrets has returned to its spiritual home just as the mitzvah of tzedakah has remained with the Jewish people through the ages.

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