Growing up as I did in Washington Heights, Manhattan, there were two names that were pre-eminent in the minds of the Jewish community. The first was Rabbi Joseph Breuer and the second was Rabbi Shimon Schwab. Both were committed to preserving their Ashkenazic roots and legacy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. When Rabbi Scwab (1908-1995) was a young man, he spent one Shabbat at the home of the revered Berlarusian authority, the Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan (1838-1933), the author of the Mishnah Berurah and other influential books. That singular Shabbat made an indelible impression on the young Rabbi Schwab, attested by the many legendary stories of that encounter.
During his stay, the Hafetz Hayyiim asked the young Schwab if he was a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. “I am a Yisrael,” was the answer.. Himself a Kohen, the Hafetz Hayyim then asked, “Well, why aren’t you a Kohen?” Rav Schwab, a little perplexed by the oddity of the question, gave the obvious answer, “Because my father was not a Kohen.” Unsatisfied, the Hafetz Hayyimm asked further, “And why wasn’t your father a kohen?”
Rabbi Schwab intuited that the question was not really about his lineage but about something deeper. The Hafetz Hayyim then asked, “Do you know why you and your father are not Kohanim? Because many years ago, when Moshe Rabbeinu (Moshe, our teacher) called out, “Who is for God? Let them gather to me” (Exodus 32:26), your ancestors did not speak up. They did not respond. That’s why you’re not a Kohen. Had your great-great-great grandfather gotten up in response to Moshe’s call, he would have become a Kohen and all of his descendants up to this day would also be Kohanim. But they didn’t, and only those people who answered that call became Kohanim.”
The Hafetz Hayyim was not interested in teasing young Rabbi Schwab for not being a Kohen. Rather, he was pointing out that there are moments in all of our lives when we are faced with making a critical choice. For us as that Jews, that moment arrives from the second we awake each day. Each of us must decide whether we are with God or against Him. Let us choose wisely.