This report of Partner’s trip to Panama was originally written in the winter of 2014. Please see the postscript for some updates.
If you’re Jewish, chances are high that you’ve heard of Boca Raton. It’s a beautiful city of tidy subdivisions in South Florida with great weather, dozens of kosher stores and restaurants, and a burgeoning Jewish populace, currently said to be around 80,000. Its’ delicious climate attracts tens of thousands of active retirees, who chose to live their Golden Years in a place with golden weather; it’s average high in January is 75 degrees!
But while you probably heard of Boca Raton, the Mouth of the Mouse, you probably have not hear of Bocas Del Toro, the Mouth of the Bull, a place that in many ways is the opposite of Boca Raton. While they share a warm climate and sandy coastline, that is about where the similarities end. Bocas Del Toro, a popular surfing island in Panama, has only 25 Jewish residents, no subdivisions, very few roads, and almost no one over 40 years old. We visited Bocas Del Toro on our recent Partners Detroit Panama Trip, and it left an impression on me that I hope I never forget, one that I’m about to share with you.
Our wakeup calls came at 4:15am, so that we could check out of the hotel and leave to the airport at 5am. While that’s not a normal time to get up, none of our Partners trips ever have sleep time written into the schedule. As a good friend of mine used to say, “Sleep is for the next world!” This world is for doing.
We were driven by our ever-exuberant driver, Rafah, to Albrook International Airport which we thought sets the record for smallest international airport in the world, until our turboprop landed us at the Bocas Del Toro Isla Colon International Airport, whose name is probably longer than its runway! There is no luggage carousel, the luggage is simply brought in by hand, and as we exited into the public area, we greeted by a young bearded man, white shirt untucked, tzitzis flying all over his pants, “Shalom! Shalom! Welcome to Paradise!”
That man Rabbi Yariv Klein, a man who would fascinate and inspire me for the next 36 hours. Yariv was born into an Israeli expat family living in South Africa, that later embraced Judaism and returned to Israel. There, he grew up in a Chabad community, and learned in a Chabad Yeshiva. He quickly decided that he wanted to spread the light and joy of Judaism, and scoured the world for a place that needed some Jewish zest. He settled on Bocas Del Toro, a tiny surfing town in Panama, not for its large Jewish population, but because of the thousands of Israelis who pass through it each year on their world travels.
Six months ago, at the age of 23, he left his family and friends behind, raised over $50,000 and set up a Chabad house at the end of the world. He rented the first floor of a building on the main drag in Bocas, Street 3a, and immediately began construction. That construction is still going on. While we were there, workers were erecting a wall for a room that will soon house the synagogue (now it’s just a corner of the big open space). We left one morning, and returned eight hours later to find a large framed window in what used the be the wall dividing the kitchen from the main social room. He opened a kosher falafel stand, both so that people could buy awesome fresh kosher food, and to give employment to some of the Israelis, who inspired by the joyful Judaism of the Chabad of Bocas, wanted to stay on for a few months to learn and study!
Israelis are notorious for traveling; almost every Israeli travels abroad for three to six months after completing their army service, and the two most frequent destinations are Central America and Southeast Asia. Bocas Del Toro can see anywhere from 40-300 Israelis at any given time, and it is for those Israelis that Rabbi Yariv is building his community. They learn about his place in their many travel forums, and if they don’t, it’s located directly under the International Hostel, which is where Israelis have been staying for years.
As soon as a tourist wanders into the Chabad house, he or she is greet by a warm “Shalom! Shalom!” welcome, and then invited to use the wifi, enjoy a hot or cold beverage, and stay for any meal, class, party, or bongo circle that happens to be coming. The internal space is hard to describe. Palm branches are tied to all the columns in the open space, giving it a very tropical feel, slogans are painted onto all the walls, exuberant signs hang from the ceiling, couches, tables, hammocks and chairs all vie for space in a cluttered room.
It may not be the Ritz Carlton, but it sure is warm and inviting. Any time you walk in, you will see young people lounging around, people Skyping their friends back in Israel, you might see a prayer service being held in one corner, and breakfast being served in another. Island power is sparse, so sometimes there is electricity, sometimes not. The night we were there, power was out for a few hours, and all the staff scurried about with headlamps. The massive BBQ party they threw for us and all the visiting Israelis was postponed by an hour or two, but no one seemed to mind. When we finally got started, it was an epic meal, followed by singing, talking, and dvar Torahs late into the night! (A few of us Detroiters, amazed by what was going on quickly raised the funds to buy them a generator, and we were deeply thankful that we could provide something so essential to such a beautiful place.)
The kitchen employs a mix of locals and Israelis, and they turn out freshly baked pita, chummous, techina, and salads, for daily use, as well as full Shabbos meals. On a busy Friday night, 150 people cram into the main room for Shabbat dinner accompanied by songs, stories, and inspirational dvar torahs, followed by a “Farbregen” a more intimate study and song session for those who stick around, that lasts to at least 2am. On Rosh Hashanah, they rented out a covered dining patio overlooking the ocean, and had 300 young Jews, many of whom hadn’t celebrated Rosh Hashanah in years, join them for Rosh Hashanah dinner. Even the mayor of Bocas came to give a speech!
Rabbi Yariv follows in the footsteps of our great forefather Avraham Avinu. Avraham opened an Eishel, an inn where people could step out of the harsh desert for a meal and a bed, and it was from there that “He called out in the name of G-d.” Avraham understood that people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Rabbi Yariv’s center follows this exact model. His center is a place filled with unconditional love and acceptance. Everyone is welcomed with a smile, given food and drink, helped with their travel plans, and only after that, is there any discussion of G-d.
Discussion of G-d there is. One of the slogans in Bocas is “ELOKUT!” which means G-dliness, and the rabbis there constantly point out to people the G-dliness that is inside of them, as well as the G-dliness apparent in all of nature. So many Israelis unfortunately grow up totally starved of religion, and when they hear the joyful message of personal G-dliness from these Chabad rabbis, they can’t get enough of it! The Chabad house has only been open for six months, but already a number of people have decided to stay on, so that they can learn and live in this amazing community. One Israeli surfer volunteered to stay for four months, and work in the kitchen for free, just to do what he could to support what he saw as an amazing mission. A lanky twenty year old, who grew up religious, but then walked away from it, is now re-enthused and is staying indefinitely. He was given the job of running the Falafel stand, but it’s just an excuse so that he can stay on, and learn and live with the amazing Rabbis.
This brings me to what I found to be most inspirational, and what I hope to live with for the rest of my life. Prominently painted onto the wall of the main room was a slogan in Hebrew, that said, “WHY DO WE DESERVE ALL THIS GOOD!?” This statement is one that we can live our lives by. It doesn’t only apply to people who are vacationing in Bocas Del Toro, a gorgeous island, with pristine waters, vibrant rainforests, and a relaxed Carribean vibe. It applies to us as well. WHY DO WE DESERVE ALL THIS GOOD!? We are alive! We have 5 senses that fill our world with vibrant color, heavenly scents, and diverse and delicious tastes. We have closets full of clothing, clean hot or cold water at the twist of a faucet, we live in safe communities, we have people who care about us, OUR LIVES ARE SO GOOD!
The answer of course to the question is simple. WHY DO WE DESERVE ALL THIS GOOD?… ELOKUT! It was given to us by G-d so that we can bring out the G-dliness in ourselves and the world around us! G-d has showered us with blessings, so that we can recognize who much He cares about us, develop our relationship with Him from a place of gratitude and love, and then pass it on to everyone around us.
Sure, it can be tough to keep focused on that message when stuck in a frigid, never-ending winter vortex, it can also be tough when stuck without work, or with an illness, but I guarantee you that if you can live with the slogan of Bocas Del Toro’s Rabbi Yariv, your life, and the life of people around you will be immeasurably better.
WHY DO WE DESERVE ALL THIS GOOD!?
Postscript: My family went back to Bocas Del Toro in Feb of 2020, just before COVID came crashing down on the world. Rabbi Yariv Klein and his partner-in-Chabad, Rabbi Moti Cohen, both went to Israel, got married, came back and continue to build the Chabad of Bocas Del Toro. They each have a bunch of children, and they have a mini-Jewish school that is mostly online with the children of Chabad rabbis in other remote places all over the world. They now have a mini-yeshiva in Bocas Del Toro, as they bring in between 6-10 young Chabad Yeshiva Students at time. They have build a large building, with two apartments for their families on top, and a restaurant, synagogue, and open public space on the bottom.
Bocas Del Toro itself has grown tremendously from the backwater island to a much more developed island with more streets, hotels, and modern buildings… During the pandemic, Chabad of Bocas sprang into action and became a significant NGO (non-governmental organization) in the procurement and distribution of medicines, food, and other essential items to the locals, when their tourism based economy was in shambles, and people were sick and fearful. So they Baruch Hashem are a beloved part of the Bocas community. There are streams of tourists coming through, and ELOKUT is still quite evident there!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the vestments worn by the Kohanim, the priests who served in the Tabernacle (the portable temple the Jews used in the desert) and in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. The regular priests wore 4 garments – pants, a tunic, a belt, and a hat. The High Priest had four extra garments, a long robe, an apron-like garment tied around his waist and reaching his ankles, a golden breastplate with 12 precious stones on it, and a golden plate worn on his forehead.
The Torah teaches us an interesting law about the apron and the breastplate, “They shall bind the [lower] rings of the breastplate to the [lower] rings of the eiphod (the apron) with a cord of greenish-blue wool, so that it [the choshen, the breastplate] remains against the eiphod’s belt, so that the breastplate does not move from the eiphod.” (Exodus, 28:28). There is a special commandment that the breastplate not be removed from the apron. Why?
The Sages teach us that each of the extra vestments worn by the High Priest effected forgiveness for different sins that the nation committed. Obviously, each individual had to repent, but these special garments somehow aided the forgiveness. The breastplate helped bring about forgiveness for sins having to do with corruption of justice. In today’s terms that would be described as white-collar crimes, such as cheating in business, overcharging, and fraud. The apron helped forgive for the most egregious of all sins, Avodah Zara, idol worship, which denies the existence or power of G-d. From the fact that the two garments must always be tied together we can derive that the Torah is telling us that there is a strong connection between the two sins. What is that connection?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986, Lithuania-NYC), in his commentary Darash Moshe, explains the connection. Both a person serving idols and one cheating in business has the same problem – they display their lack of faith in G-d. When a person bows down to a statue of Buddha, ascribing it power, it is clear that he is denying G-d’s omnipotence and omniscience. But when a person sits in his office and overcharges a customer, he is actually doing the same thing. If that person really believed that G-d was there in the office with him, looking over his shoulder, watching him steal, he could never commit that crime. It is only by removing G-d from the picture, effectively denying his omniscience that one allows himself to steal from another.
Not only does the white collar criminal deny G-d’s omniscience, but also his omnipotence. When someone steals he is in a sense saying that the only way he can get this extra money is by taking it, and that once they take it, it will remain theirs. They forget that G-d can easily give them money from any one of a million sources if He wants them to have it, and if He doesn’t want them to have it, there is nothing they will be able to do to hold onto it.
The apron and breastplate are always linked to teach us this important message. Stealing from people and corrupting a just system of law is tantamount to idol worship. (I love how this Dvar Torah happens to fall out right in the middle of tax season!) They both deny G-d’s reality.
Today, we have no High Priest, no holy vestments to help us with our repentance for those two sins. But the message for us is the same. We would never bow down to an idol, never ascribe G-dly powers to anything other than G-d. But we need to be just as careful to never take a penny that is not ours!
This week we read Parshat Titzaveh. Parshat Teztaveh begins with the commandment to bring only the purest olive oil for lighting the menorah. It then continues with the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohain Gadol, (the regular priests and the High Priest). Here is the basic breakdown: all priests wore white linen pants, covered by a white linen tunic, wrapped up in a multicolored belt, and a white linen hat (the shape of the High Priest’s hat differed slightly from that of the regular priests.) The Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, wore four additional vestments; a blue robe, an apron-like garment, a breastplate made of multicolored wool and containing a gold plate with twelve precious stones, and a gold head plate with the words “Holy to G-d” engraved on it. After Ha-shem tells Moshe what the Kohanim should wear, He commands him about the sacrifices and services that will serve as the inauguration of the Msihkan, the Tabernacle.
(Quick lesson: Contrary to what many would like to believe, the clothes we wear make a big statement about who we are. They are the primary way we represent ourselves to the outside world, and the first message we give to those who don’t know us through any other medium. It is for this reason that the discussion of the inaugural service can come only after the commandments telling the Kohanim how they have to dress during the service. One cannot say “On the inside I will serve G-d, but to the outside world I can appear any way I would like.” The Torah here tells us that, au contraire, we must first ensure that the way we portray ourselves is consistent with our ideals before we go in to serve G-d)
The parsha continues with the description of the Tamid, a twice-daily sacrifice brought in the Mishkan or Beit Hamikdash, and finishes with a depiction of the incense altar.
Quote of the Week: If you want an accounting of your worth, count your friends. – Merry Browne
Random Fact of the Week: The smallest known frog is found in Cuba, and is about the size of a dime.
Funny Line of the Week: What would happen if I hired two private investigators to follow each other?
Have a Smashing Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham