Becky still seethed with anger as she drifted into Harvard Square, a seemingly irresistible magnet for young people. Becky, with long dark hair, eyes wide and deep, and wearing tight jeans and platform sandals, fit right in with the throngs of kids who crowded the area along with the usual tourists.
Hours before, Becky stormed out of her family’s large suburban home after yet another fight with her mother. This time it was over clothes, but it could have been about anything. These days Becky not only got into fights with her parents but with her boyfriend, or former boyfriend as she now thought of him, friends at high school, teachers, anybody and everybody.
Everything is so damn phony; everybody is such a goddamn hypocrite, she seethed. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, everybody. She couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on TV without getting angry. Innocent people were being bombed and killed in one place. Or ethnic cleansing. Or kids starving. Or racial hate stuff. Companies were poisoning the air and killing whales. It was all too gross, and nobody seemed to care. People just chatted on their stupid cell phones, drove around in their stupid sports utility vehicles, watched their stupid stocks go up, and talked about how much their stupid houses were worth. It was all so phony. Becky was sick of it all.
A camera hung over Becky’s shoulder. It was a present from her bat mitzvah three years earlier–the only positive thing that came out of her bat mitzvah, which she considered as phony as everything else. She used the camera to take pictures of some of the things that bothered her. Maybe she could shake people up. Her pictures of junked cars, dead animals in the road, or disgusting garbage strewn about shook people up all right, but they didn’t understand what she was trying to get at. Everyone just thought she was weird or disturbed.
She was so engrossed in her own thoughts, she didn’t even realize she had arrived at Harvard Square. It was a lovely spring Sunday afternoon. The area around the university was jammed with people–college students, high school kids like Becky, all sorts of young people, tourists, everybody. Street performers–jugglers, magicians, musicians, mime artists–were everywhere. Becky wafted among the crowd like smoke, drifting from street performer to street performer.
One group of musicians, a couple of young guys with guitars and a girl with a tambourine, especially caught her interest. She couldn’t put her finger on it exactly at first, but then it dawned on her: it was the Jewish music. She vaguely recognized some of the songs. They were singing Jewish and Israeli folks songs, but the music really sounded fresh and fun, not like the pathetic, stupid singing she remembered from Hebrew school. This was totally different. Some people joined in singing. A group of cool-looking kids appeared to hang around with them. Other people jumped up and started dancing. Before she knew it, a spontaneous hora, a circle dance, was spilling into the street. Drivers started honking their car horns. Becky watched and listened.
Off to the side, she noticed an old man, dressed in the black coat and old-fashioned black hat. He had the tzitzit of a really observant Jew dangling by his side and dancing alone. He didn’t really know how to dance. He was just jerking around to the music. He looked kind of ridiculous, but he didn’t seem to care. He appeared not to have a care in the world. His face glowed with a look that seemed to Becky like pure happiness. He seemed oblivious to everyone and everything but the music. She snapped his photo.
Becky stayed the rest of the afternoon. Each time the musicians passed the hat, she threw in a little money. When they started packing up to leave, Becky approached them cautiously. “Hey, our best customer,” one of them greeted her.
“I really like your music,” Becky said. “Are you here all the time?” The musicians, she learned, were high school and college students who played on street corners all around Boston and Cambridge, whenever the weather was nice. They tried to be in Harvard Square every Sunday afternoon. They passed the hat but they didn’t make much money. Mainly they really believed in their music. They wanted to bring people back to Torah through music. Becky envied them. She wished she believed in something like that.
A week later, Becky returned to Harvard Square. She found the Jewish musicians right away. She talked with them a little as they set up and tuned. Some of the other kids were there too; they seemed nice. She noticed some of the boys wore kippot, which they clipped to their hair with bobby pins. Usually something like wearing a kippah would be enough to turn her off immediately–too much like Hebrew school, which she hated. But she didn’t seem to mind this time.
As soon as the musicians started playing, a crowd began building. Becky found a good spot on a doorstep. She scanned the crowd, wondering if the old Jewish man would return.
After a while Becky noticed him off to the side. He was wearing the same rumpled black suit and hat. He was dancing in his silly way. No one seemed to pay attention. A crowd was swaying and singing along with the musicians. Becky watched the old man intently. He seemed so joyous, so at ease with himself, so utterly unselfconscious.
At the first break, he stopped dancing. Becky found herself staring at him. He looked very kind. He noticed her staring at him and smiled. Embarrassed, she turned away and pulled from her camera bag the photo of him she had taken the week before. When she looked back, he was walking up to her. She jumped up.
“Shalom, sad little girl. May Hashem bless you with peace,” he said with a gentle, warm smile. Still, Becky suddenly felt defensive.
“Why do you call me that? I’m just sitting here listening to the music like everybody else,” she replied.
“Last week when I saw you here, I thought here is a girl so full of all the troubles of the world that she cannot even enjoy the music. Now you are here again, but you don’t seem to enjoy the music. But if I insulted you, I apologize,” he said.
“It’s OK,” said Becky, who suddenly blurted out, “Here is picture of you.” She thrust her photo toward him. Becky was stunned and sort of flattered that he had noticed her last week.
He looked at the picture, and then handed it back to her. “So, what do you see in this old face that made you think it was worthy of taking a picture?”
“I don’t know,” Becky slowly replied. “Happiness. Joy, maybe.”
He took the picture out of her hand. “Happiness, joy, yes. Maybe celebrating the joy of beautiful day, of just being alive, or the wonder of Hashem’s creation,” he offered.
“I don’t think Hashem’s creation is so wonderful. Maybe at the start, but things are a real mess now,” Becky snapped back.
“You’re right. I don’t think Hashem is happy with his creation right now either,” the old man said in a sad but soothing tone.
“Then why doesn’t he do something about it?” Becky continued, trying to maintain her indignation.
“Hashem needs you to help fix it, to finish creation,” the old man said.
“Gimme a break,” said Becky, disappointed.
The musicians resumed playing. “Come, the music has started. You dance too,” the old man said, and immediately began his a jerky shuffling around. Becky started tapping her foot, but pretty soon started moving in a dance of her own. Some of the other kids who had been hanging around with the musicians joined them. Quickly, the dancing coalesced into a hora; Becky found herself being pulled in and ended up dancing next to one of the boys wearing a kippah.
The musicians started another song. “I love this song,” the boy said, as they stopped to catch their breath.
“I don’t know it,” Becky mumbled.
“It’s Lo Alecha,” he said, “one of my favorites. The song says ‘it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.’”
Complete what, Becky thought. She was confused. Still, she stayed the rest of the afternoon.
Returning home, Becky found her mother furious. “Carla called me this afternoon. She saw you hanging out with some punky kids in Harvard Square,” her mother charged.
“They weren’t punky kids. They were musicians,” Becky fired back.
“Street musicians. That’s punky as far as I’m concerned,” her mother continued.
“They’re Jewish street musicians who play Jewish songs and try to get people excited about Torah, okay,” Becky argued.
Becky tried to explain about the musicians who really believed in Torah and the old man, who Becky had learned was a rabbi. He didn’t work anymore at the usual rabbi jobs, but he spent a lot of time on the streets trying to help street people. He knew shelters for homeless people and free clinics for poor people who needed medical care. For an old guy, he was really cool. He was the coolest rabbi she ever met. And the kids were really cool. Her mother didn’t care to hear any of it. She didn’t want Becky hanging around in Harvard Square, no matter what, ever.
“What if I get into Harvard?” Becky hissed, and stomped off to her room.
Slamming the door, Becky flopped onto her bed. The walls of her room were still the soft pink color her mother thought looked so cute for a little girl. Becky hated it. She tried to cover most of the pink with glaring posters of her favorite rock groups and movie stars. On the back of the door and over her desk, she had lately started tacking up her own photos. There were pictures of smashed up cars, a dead bird snared on a barbed wire fence, industrial waste pouring into a river from a big pipe.
Becky had to get back to Harvard Square. She fought with her mother all the time. Maybe she’d relent. Becky would talk to her dad. He was a computer consultant who traveled a lot. A big, quiet man, he often calmed Becky’s mother down. Like the time Becky got a tattoo, a pretty little flower on her thigh. Her mother went ballistic. Her father had a tattoo from his college days–a really ugly peace sign–so he couldn’t get too mad. He smoothed things over.
Becky’s father worked out a truce when he got home. “Look, you remember what it was like when we were in school. Let’s cut her some slack. She’s a good kid. Her grades are good,” he told Becky’s mom. Becky remembered looking at pictures of her parents when they were in college–they participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. There was even a picture of her mom, with really long hair and a loose tie-dyed shirt, burning her bra at a women’s lib rally. Becky couldn’t imagine her mom not wearing a bra today. She cut her hair really short and mainly wore gray stockbroker power suits.
Her parents allowed Becky to return to Harvard Square, but she had to let them know when she was going, when she would return, and whom she was seeing. Becky chafed at being so closely monitored, but she went along with it. “Thanks Daddy,” she said grudgingly, giving him a light kiss on the cheek. When he tried to hug her, she pulled away, angry about having to tell them everywhere she was going.
The next week, Becky was back at Harvard Square with her camera. She also brought some of her photos. The street rabbi, as Becky thought of him, had asked about her photos the previous week.
“You have seen a missing part of creation,” the rabbi mused, looking at the photos. Wow, thought Becky, feeling flattered. Becky and the rabbi talked about her pictures, about all the things wrong with the world. He didn’t disagree or argue or tell her she was weird or sick. From his comments, she thought she finally found someone who understood what she was thinking, what she was trying to say in her photos–things she couldn’t explain in words.
“Hashem needs you to take these pictures as much as he needs them to sings songs about Torah,” the rabbi said, gesturing toward the musicians. They talked about how creation was unfinished. How God counted on people to finish creation. People finish the work of creation by doing mitzvot and living the Torah. The rabbi’s own efforts on behalf of street people were his way of helping to finish creation through mitzvot.
The word mitzvot set off alarms in Becky’s head. She suddenly felt let down, angry, betrayed. What she heard from the street rabbi was just more of the same old stupid stuff she’d heard a million times at Hebrew school about doing mitzvot–a bunch of hypocritical lies. She had repeated similar things in her d’var Torah at her bat mitzvah. Then someone’s stupid cell phone rang while she chanted the haftarah. She got angry just thinking about that farce. She also remembered how she gotten thrown out of nursing home during a USY mitzvah project just because she brought an old lady some measly M&Ms. “The lady begged me to get them for her. She said she was desperate. I was doing a mitzvah,” Becky insisted. Still, it was against their stupid rules.
“I’ve done all that mitzvot stuff. I’ve visited old people in the nursing home. It was all hypocritical bullshit. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what these pictures are about. You don’t get it either!” she cried.
The rabbi put an arm around her and hugged her like he would a granddaughter. “Listen to me, Becky. Playing music that leads people to Torah is part of finishing creation, a mitzvah. Helping old people in a nursing home is part of finishing creation, a mitzvah. Taking pictures that open people’s eyes to problems in the world–pictures like yours–are part of helping with creation too. It also is a mitzvah,” he said soothingly. “There are lots of ways to do mitzvot. I don’t want you to do something you don’t believe in. Hashem doesn’t want that either.”
Becky curled into his hug. She hadn’t been hugged in a long time, she realized. She hadn’t let anybody hug her. She missed it. She felt so alone. Quietly he began to hum the tune to Lo Alecha. “Do you know what this song is about?” he finally asked.
Becky shook her head, “Not really.”
“Literally, it is about rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, but it is really about finishing creation. It’s about tikkun olam, healing the world, maybe the greatest mitzvah of all. The song says that you can’t complete the work of rebuilding the Temple and healing the world–you can’t finish creation–all by yourself, but you are obligated to try to do as much as you can, in the best way you can,” he said. “Through your pictures, you open people’s eyes to parts of creation that need finishing. People may not like what they see, but Hashem needs them to see it just the same. So, you are important to finishing creation. You are doing tikkun olam whether you know it or not.”
Tikkun olam, healing the world: Becky really wanted to believe the rabbi, to see her pictures as part of finishing the work of creation and fixing the world. But she wasn’t sure. “It sounds so simple, so easy,” she said after a while.
“Simple, yes. Easy? No, not at all,” the rabbi relied. “It is the hardest thing in the world.”
The rest of the afternoon seemed magical to Becky. She talked with the old rabbi about her fears and her anger, about the phoniness and hypocrisy that so bothered her. She talked about her parents. She also talked about the stupid things she did out of anger and frustration; once she had cut herself with a razor on purpose, another time she stole prescription pills. She knew they were dumb things to do, but the rabbi never lectured her or told her she was bad or dumb. He understood, and he reassured her that Hashem also understood exactly what she was feeling. She didn’t feel so alone anymore.
“Talk with your parents,” he gently suggested.
“You gotta be kidding. They’d kill me. They’d go crazy. They’d never let me out again. And, they’d never understand. All they care about is their big fancy house and their work,” she insisted.
“From what you tell me, they will understand, maybe not right away but eventually,” he replied.
In the weeks and months that followed, Becky returned to Harvard Square often. She became close friends with the musicians and their friends. They welcomed her into the group. When she showed her photos, they understood and accepted her. They didn’t think she was weird. Together, they were healing the world by finishing creation. And not just through music but other mitzvot–the kind she used to consider stupid. But when she joined in with them it wasn’t stupid at all; she discovered tikkun olam could be satisfying and fun.
At home, Becky kept taking her kind of photos. They weren’t masterpieces, she knew, but some seemed pretty good. She even entered a few in photo contests. Her parents grew less uneasy with her photos. They started talking and listening more, instead of shouting and fighting. Becky liked that. Once during their discussions her father even admitted that Becky–rebellious, headstrong, and idealistic–wasn’t so different than what he and her mother were like when they were young. How far he and her mother had drifted from their ideals, he observed sadly. Becky appreciated hearing that. There were fewer fights. Maybe the fights with her parents wouldn’t ever stop completely, but at least they were talking, listening, and learning to respect each other. That was a start.
The bad things in the world still outraged Becky. The bad things in the world happen because creation isn’t finished, the street rabbi had told her. Hashem needs people to help finish creation through tikkun olam, and over time Becky really grew to believe it. Creation probably wouldn’t be finished in her lifetime, if ever, but at least she felt she could help it along. And by healing the world a little bit, Becky was healing herself.