Friday, November 20, 2009

Was He Good or Bad?

Often in this space I have told you personal stories.

Occasionally these take place in Paris. (E.G., E.G.)

Here’s another one for you.

I was living in Paris trying to write a Great American novel” and my best friends were a French couple, Pierre and Veronique. Pierre was a computer programmer and Veronique an aeronautical engineer for French Aerospace. I visited them every Thursday (and they insisted I bring my laundry).

One such Thursday I found Veronique sitting in the blue beanbag chair in the corner, reading a very thick book.

She looked up at me and said, as if making an excuse, “All these years I’ve never read the Bible, so I decided to read it, the whole thing.”

She was obviously pleased with her new goal. She was reading it in French, of course, and she simply started at the beginning.

Well, the next Thursday Veronique was back in the corner reading and suddenly said, “How is it possible to use this as a source for teaching morality to children? Here you have two brothers, one who is older and has rights to a certain inheritance, and his mother tells his younger brother to trick their father into giving the inheritance to the younger! Okay, I understand that the older brother sold the birthright to the younger, but trickery isn’t the way to right a wrong, is it?”

Her question stirred some deeply-buried ethnic defensive mechanism in me and I tried to come to Jacob’s rescue. “I think that the older brother was bad, wasn’t he?”

“It doesn’t say so.”

“Didn’t you read that when they were in their mother’s womb, Jacob was going to be born first but Esau threatened to kill their mother if he didn’t get to be born first? So Jacob really was supposed to be firstborn.”

Veronique didn’t recall reading that episode, so I took the Bible and thumbed through it almost frantically. I was sure I’d learned that story in Sunday school, but she was right: it wasn’t there.

I was pretty darn sure that Esav was bad, but this episode frustrated me and reminded of my own ignorance. It wasn’t hard to decide to go to Israel for a month. I figured that:

a) Judaism is 3000+ years old and I’m mostly ignorant of it
b) It would be silly to throw it out without learning what it is I’m throwing out.

So I went to Israel.

Well, not directly, but that’s another story.

I am supposed to leave you with a question for your table, so here it is: What’s the better way to learn Jewish wisdom – to take a class every once in a while or wait until you retire and can study seriously, or to begin with 5 minutes a day right now?

Shabbat Shalom

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” - Churchill

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