In trying to please all the people all the time, Table Talks are divided into two sections, the first is short and sweet, the second perhaps something to print and read Friday night when things slow down. Appropriately, this week there are two dedications. The first is by Robin Kavall to the memory of her father Chaim ben Moshe, whose 10th Yartzeit is remembered this week. Please see his remarkable story below. The second is by a friend in Baltimore who has an amazing home a few blocks from ours that went on the market yesterday. For more information, please call 410-578-0573. (Update on the child mentioned last week: he and his sister are thankfully improving slowly but still have a difficult way to go.)
Pair-Adam Shift I
One of the hardest things to do for a person who wants to study the Torah is to get beyond the way other non-Jewish groups have warped the story and the beliefs.
Here are ten questions to test your warp-level. Try them at the table.
1. The first word of the Torah is “Beraisheet” - what does it mean?
2. Who was Adam?
3. How was Chava (Eve) created?
4. What kind of fruit was the forbidden fruit?
5. What was their error that caused them to be kicked out of the Garden?
6. Adam and Eve’s first children were Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel). Why did Kayin kill Hevel?
7. How did Kayin kill Hevel?
8. Later Kayin gets married. Whom does he marry?
9. What does the word “Torah” mean?
10. Why, Jewishly-speaking, does the Torah include the Book of Genesis?
Ready for some answers? (Don’t peak until you’ve tried to answer the questions!)
1. It means “in the beginning of”. This causes a translation problem, because “of” should be followed by a noun. But the next words are “created God” (or “God created” because verb order in Hebrew is the opposite of English). Together that reads, “in the beginning of God created....” That doesn’t make any more sense in Hebrew than it does in English. So translations usually take one side or the other: “In the beginning God created” or “In the beginning of God’s creating....” Neither is precise. The Kabbala explains that both meanings are correct, along with 68 others. In fact, one major, multi-volume work of Kabbala, the Tikunei Zohar, consists of seventy different interpretations of the word “Bereishit”. The last is about as long as the first sixty-nine put together.
2. Adam in the Torah is “Ha-Adam” - best translated as “the human”. “He” represents both male and female together.
3. Chava was created by splitting the Adam into two halves, male and female. No ribs please!
4. The Talmud gives three opinions about the type of fruit: fig, grape (or wine) or wheat. No apples, thank you!
5. Their error was not owning up to their violation of the ban on the forbidden fruit. God gave them a chance to admit their mistake and apologize, instead they blamed someone else.
6. Kayin was born with two twin sisters and Hevel with three. Kayin, the materialistic one, was jealous of Hevel from a very young age.
7. They had a fight and Hevel out-wrestled Kayin, pinning him down. Kayin begged and pleaded for Hevel to let him go, feigning hurt. Hevel, feeling sorry for his brother, helped up to his feet, whereupon Kayin stabbed Hevel all over his body (he wasn’t sure where he needed to strike a fatal blow, after all TV hadn’t been invented yet).
8. One of his sisters.
9. It means “instructions” and is short for “Torat Chayim” - instructions for living.
10. So that when we get to the main meat of the Torah, the vision of how to build a utopian society in the Land of Israel, and other nations call us robbers for taking a piece of real estate that belonged to someone else, we will understand this real estate as a parcel within a world that is a work of art belonging to its artist, who is ultimately the only one who can decide who gets to live where, and when.
Pair-Adam Shift II
This week, after several months’ hiatus, there were more of the calls. In fact, there were three in a row. I felt like I was in a Twilight Zony thingamajig, as Homer Simpson would say.
What is happening, as far as I can tell, is this:
There is this businessman I know in a different city (don’t worry, it’s not you - he’s not on my mailing list). He is by American standards extremely successful. He has a multi-million dollar salary, several homes, a wife and children, good health. What more could a person hope for in this life? And he hasn’t even reached forty.
Now, even though he stopped responding to my emails years ago, he evidently – perhaps inadvertently – keeps my number stored in his phone. Because every once in awhile, and it happened again this week, his phone calls my phone.
On its own.
I’m not making this up.
I can hear him in the background having a conversation: sometimes it sounds like he’s in the car talking to his wife, other times I can’t make out the words. But every time it is clear that he doesn’t know the phone line is open. I try shouting his name into the phone, but get no response. Finally, I just hang up.
Is this an omen of something wonderful or ominous?
This week when his phone called mine, it was late at night. It was one of those cold, quiet nights. Really quiet. I couldn’t sleep, and at 2 am or so I went down to the kitchen for a drink of water. “Quiet night,” I thought.
Suddenly, at that late hour, my cell phone rang. I looked at it long and hard across the room. That’s a very late call, and possibly an emergency. But when I saw in the caller ID who it was, I didn’t even bother calling his name. After saying “hello” a few times, I just hung up.
Then it called me back. I hung up again. When it called me a third time, I thought, “OK, so maybe I’m supposed to pay attention to this,” and I just listened for a few minutes.
What I heard sounded reminded me of an outdoor café. There were no café sounds, nor street sounds, but the voices were a bit over-stated, as you would talk if there were a bit of noise around you. The businessman, I’ll call him Adam (not his real name) was talking to someone but I couldn’t hear the other person. It was like listening to someone talk on the phone. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s comment about hearing one end of a phone conversation, "that queerest of all the queer things in this world."
They were having an intelligent conversation, discussing current events. Adam sounded well-informed and concerned, and he responded to the hidden voice in ways that made his interlocutor appear intelligent.
At the moment I tuned in, Adam’s voice was rising and accelerating:
“The problem is with religion itself. Religion breeds fanaticism. They are all the same. You can’t reason with them. They will stop at nothing until they’ve converted you or killed you.”
There was some static and I missed his next few sentences. Then I heard, “The problem is that they are more than religion, they are social movements. They gain followers by feeding people and meeting unmet needs” His friend agreed, but wondered what can be done about it. Adam suggested a secular counter-movement: “We’ve set up a non-profit organization that is creating training and jobs for homeless people in the city. You don’t need religion to do that. But you have to have an alternative to the ‘faith-based’ programs.”
Two things strike me about Adam’s argument.
First, he sounds so Jewish. I wonder if he realizes that. It’s refreshing to me, actually, to hear that 4,000 years of Jewish history that started with Abraham’s pursuit of kindness and moral excellence could arrive to 2006 undiminished and undiluted in the form of this guy Adam.
Second, it strikes me that the content of Adam's perfectly rational analysis has a flaw that plagues many sociological theories: false starting assumptions.
The questionable assumptions that I’m thinking of include: that “religion” is a false god, that there is something called “fanaticism” that is always bad and that all religions are basically the same in their irrationality.
By the way, this is the same businessman whom I mentioned some time ago who had said to me, “The problem, rabbi, is that I don’t believe in God”, to which I retorted (sincerely) “That’s all right, I don’t either.”
The punch line was: Whatever you mean by “God”, I’m sure I don’t believe in that either.
Our worldview is informed by many things, but the only way to get a “Jewish” view of God, creation, Adam and Eve, ethics, kindness, marriage, and so on is to pick up some Jewish books other than the Bible. Think about it. Until you do so – as an adult, I might add, because many people make the excuse, “Oh, I had plenty of Jewish education as a kid” - you don’t even know what you’re missing. Any single issue of life that you have not studied from a Jewish perspective you are almost guaranteed by our society to have a non-Jewish view of it, because the classical Jewish vision has become so distorted. The Torah does not say “thou shall not kill” nor does the Torah say “be a fanatic."
But it does say to be zealous in the pursuit of three things: wisdom, spiritual humility and acts of kindness. This is what it means to be an “Adam” or a “ben Adam”.
Figure out where you’re deficient, and start to compensate.
Chaim ben Moshe
My father Chaim was a man whose childhood was strongly affected by the death of his mother when he was just 6 six years old. His father Moshe, an observant Jew, chose single fatherhood for all but a very brief period of his remaining adult life. Together, Chaim and Moshe became exemplary models of how to compensate for missing feminine energy in the household. Moshe was both a talmid chachom (scholar) and an excellent parnassa (income) producer. Chaim became a fabulous cook and manager of the physical details of daily living. Chesed for both each other and the people in their community was the cornerstone of their lives.
Not surprisingly, Chaim earned his living as a waiter, which was a natural fit for a man who loved to serve people. His work schedule required many late evenings and weekends, but that did not stop him from making the time to model his most cherished value, Honor Thy Father. In the final years of his life, Moshe lived in a nursing home, and I have very fond memories of visiting him with my father. I learned by extraordinary example how truly important it is to keep the elderly in our lives and to attend to our responsibilities to them.
In my growing up years, Jewish learning and observance were not a part of our lives. My mother came from a very business oriented family, and my father was happy to change his lifestyle to marry the beautiful girl who shared his love of horses. Interestingly, they also shared the tragic childhood loss of their mothers. Amazingly, these two wonderful people who grew up without a model of married life built a 42 year marriage together, often working out male/female roles in very unconventional ways.
May my father’s memory be for a blessing for all of eternity, and may enlightenment come speedily in our time.