By Rabbi Baruch Lederman
SAN DIEGO- The Hebrew word for life, chaim is a plural word. This teaches us that life is meant-to be lived together with others. Our interactions with others help us bring out the best in each other, as the following story submitted by Barry Iskowitz, illustrates:
The man slowly looked up from the sidewalk. This was a woman clearly accustomed to the finer things in life. She looked like she had never missed a meal in her life.
“Leave me alone,” he growled.. To his amazement, the woman continued standing. She was smiling — her even white teeth displayed in dazzling rows.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“No,” he answered sarcastically. “I’ve just come from dining with the president.. Now go away.”
The woman’s smile became even broader. Suddenly the man felt a gentle hand under his arm. “What are you doing, lady?” the man asked angrily. “I said to leave me alone.
Just then a policeman came up. “Is there any problem, ma’am?” he asked..
“No problem here, officer,” the woman answered. “I’m just trying to get this man to his feet. Will you help me?”
The officer scratched his head. “That’s old Jack. He’s been a fixture around here for a couple of years. What do you want with him?”
“See that cafeteria over there?” she asked. “I’m going to get him something to eat and get him out of the cold for awhile.”
“Are you crazy, lady?” the homeless man resisted “I don’t want to go in there!” Then he felt strong hands grab his other arm and lift him up.
Finally, and with some difficulty, the woman and the police officer got Jack into the cafeteria and sat him at a table.
The manager strode across the cafeteria and stood by his table. “What’s going on here, officer?”
“This lady brought this man in here to be fed,” the policeman answered.
“Not in here!” the manager replied angrily. “Having a person like that here is bad for business.”
Old Jack smiled a toothless grin. “See, lady. I told you so. Now if you’ll let me go. I didn’t want to come here in the first place.”
The woman turned to the cafeteria manager and smiled. “Sir, are you familiar with Eddy and Associates, the banking firm down the street?”
“Of course I am,” the manager answered impatiently. “They hold their weekly meetings in one of my banquet rooms.”
“And do you make a goodly amount of money providing food at these weekly meetings?”
“What business is that of yours?”
I, sir, am Penelope Eddy, president and CEO of the company.”
The woman smiled again…. “I thought that might make a difference.”
She glanced at the cop who was busy stifling a laugh, sat down at the table across from her amazed dinner guest. She stared at him intently.
“Jack, do you remember me?”
Old Jack searched her face with his old, rheumy eyes. “I think so — I mean you do look familiar.”
“I’m a little older than when you worked here, and I came through that very door, cold and hungry.”
“Ma’am?” the officer said questioningly. He couldn’t believe that such a magnificently turned out woman could ever have been hungry.
“I was just out of college,” the woman began. “I had come to the city looking for a job, but I couldn’t find anything. Finally I was down to my last few cents and had been kicked out of my apartment… I walked the streets for days. It was February and I was cold and nearly starving. I saw this place and walked in on the off chance that I could get something to eat.”
Jack lit up with a smile. “Now I remember,” he said. “I was behind the serving counter. You came up and asked me if you could work for something to eat. I said that it was against company policy.”
“I know,” the woman continued. “Then you made me the biggest roast beef sandwich that I had ever seen, gave me a cup of coffee, and told me to go over to a corner table and enjoy it. I was afraid that you would get into trouble. Then, when I looked over and saw you put the price of my food in the cash register, I knew then that everything would be all right.”
“So you started your own business?” Old Jack said.
“I got a job that very afternoon. I worked my way up.” She opened her purse and pulled out a business card. “When you are finished here, I want you to pay a visit to a Mr. Levi. He’s the personnel director of my company. I’ll go talk to him now and I’m certain he’ll find something for you to do around the office.”
She smiled. “I think he might even find the funds to give you a little advance so that you can buy some clothes and get a place to live until you get on your feet. If you ever need anything, my door is always open to you.”
There were tears in the old man’s eyes.
Outside the cafeteria, the officer and the woman paused at the entrance before going their separate ways…. “Thank you for your help officer,” she said.
“On the contrary, Ms. Eddy,” he answered. “Thank you. I saw a miracle today, something that I will never forget.”
After months of negotiation with the authorities, a Talmudist from Odessa was finally granted permission to visit Moscow. He boarded the train and found an empty seat. At the next stop, a young man got on and sat next to him.
The scholar looked at the young man and he thought: This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, so if he is no peasant he probably comes from this district. If he comes from this district, then he must be Jewish because this is, after all, a Jewish district. But on the other hand, since he is a Jew, where could he be going? I’m the only Jew in our district who has permission to travel to Moscow .
Ahh, wait! Just outside Moscow there is a little village called Samvet, and Jews don’t need special permission to go to Samvet. But why would he travel to Samvet? He is surely going to visit one of the Jewish families there. But how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? Aha, only two – the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs.
But since the Bernstein’s are a terrible family, so such a nice looking fellow like him, he must be visiting the Steinbergs. But why is he going to the Steinbergs in Samvet? The Steinbergs have only daughters, two of them, so maybe he’s their son-in-law. But if he is, then which daughter did he marry?
They say that Sarah Steinberg married a nice lawyer from Budapest , and Esther married a businessman from Zhitomer, so it must be Sarah’s husband. Which means that his name is Alexander Cohen, if I’m not mistaken.
But if he came from Budapest , with all the anti-Semitism they have there, he must have changed his name. What’s the Hungarian equivalent of Cohen? It is Kovacs. But since they allowed him to change his name, he must have special status to change it. What could it be? Must be a doctorate from the University. Nothing less would do. At this point, therefore, the scholar of Talmud turns to the young man and says, “Excuse me. Do you mind if I open the window, Dr. Kovacs?”
“Not at all,” answered the startled co-passenger. “But how is it that you know my name?”
“Ahhh,” replied the Talmudist, “It was obvious.”
Rabbi Lederman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillas Torah in San Diego
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–Friday evening with a secular group, the conversation was exclusively about the assassination in Dubai. My companions were convinced it was Israel’s work, and almost all of them were sure it was a failure. Their standards are demanding. Anything less than perfect is embarrassing. No matter that the bad guy was dead and the good guys got away. Their crime was identified as such rather than death from natural causes that was preferred, and their pictures spread across international media.
My companions ignored efforts to turn the conversation to Rabbi Elon. I tried twice, then realized that I was learning something from their lack of concern.
My hypothesis gathered weight Saturday morning in a religious setting, where the conversation was exclusively about the Rabbi, and the profound shock and dismay felt in the Orthodox community. In this conversations, Dubai was a passing event of no lasting importance.
Benjamin Disraeli wrote a good novel and social commentary, Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845)
Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws: the rich and the poor.
Israel’s two nations are not those of mid-19th centuryEngland, and one can exaggerate the difference between them. In fact, there are three that are prominent: religious and secular Jews, and Arabs. Moreover, there are significant variations within each of these.
Religious Jews differ principally along the Orthodox-Ultra-Orthodox axis, with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews occasionally noisy but small minorities. Secular Jews vary by ethnic origin, income, education, and political perspectives. What to outsiders may look like a homogeneous Arab group are Druze, Christian, Beduin and the sizable communities of non-Beduin Muslims, who vary in their character by locality or extended family.
I make no claim that my weekend encounters comprised a scientific sample. Yet they are people I have known over the course of three or four decades to fall across the social cleavage between secular and religious Jews that is the most important for the country’s politics. On this occasion, the cleavage was apparent in what was important, or of little interest, to each community
As I have written in several of these notes, one should not exaggerate the extent of this cleavage. It marks, but does not threaten the social fabric of the country. Tensions and conflicts are routinized, and only occasionally heat up to a low level of violence. The people I spoke with over the weekend are moderate in their political views, but more or less representative of secular Israelis and Religious Zionists.
Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews together may be only 20 percent of the Jewish population (10 percent each), but they are prominent to the right of center on the political spectrum. Neither the Orthodox nor the ultra-Orthodox have ever dominated a government, but they have been close to several prime ministers, and have put their people at the heads of important ministries of finance, justice, and interior, as well as in the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee. They have been significant in defining what it possible with respect to the sensitive issue of settlements.
Some see the religious as important enough to cast a veto on the removal of major settlements or proposals for peace. However, they were not successful in stopping Ariel Sharon’s move to withdraw settlements of religious Jews from Gaza in 2005. That failure still pains Religious Zionists, and helps to account for efforts to persuade religious boys to refuse recruitment to the IDF, and to persuade religious soldiers to refuse orders that would remove additional settlements. Those remain minority efforts within the settler community. Activists come up against the patriotism that prevails among Religious Zionists, as well as the condemnation of refusing military orders or recruitment by leading rabbis.
The anxiety felt by Orthodox Israelis in response to the condemnation of a leading rabbi for violating sexual norms by a distinguished group of his colleagues is different from the anxiety produced by the failure of Religious Zionists to stop the withdrawal from Gaza. This crisis is associated with anguish about a fundamental element of rabbinical Judaism: the authority of a rabbi who had widely been viewed as a leading religious and political authority, as well as a counselor of individuals seeking help for their personal problems. Not only has he been revealed as a homosexual, but as an individual who took advantage of young men who sought his help for their own feelings of sexuality.
A secular social scientist is tempted to note that homosexuality would appear among the rabbinate in about the same incidence as it appears among other populations. However, this is not relevant to this shock about the prestige that attaches to rabbis, especially those who have acquired status as leading commentators, teachers, and counselors. Such men share in the tradition that begins with Moses, passes through Ezra, and counts as its members rabbis who are prominent in the arguments of the Talmud and subsequent commentators on religious law. For one of the contemporaries who has acquired some of that prestige to have violated both religious law and the trust of his colleagues and students is a shock to a foundation of the Orthodox community.
Israel will survive whatever embarrassment of its security services will come out of the operation in Dubai. Religious Jews will also accommodate a recognition that some of their leaders resemble Catholic priests and television evangelists that have sullied the expectations of their communities.
The exposure of Rabbi Elon strikes more sensitive nerves than whatever errors were made in Dubai. Also it is more shocking to members of the religious community than the possibility that a former president and a former prime minister may go to prison for their violations of sexual or financial norms. Israelis are familiar with the clumsiness of security operations, and have low expectations of politicians. Disappointment rather than shock or even surprise marks discussions about the follies of Moshe Katsav or Ehud Olmert. Religious Jews should also be familiar with the traits that religious leaders share with other humans, and this experience–however painful–may move them toward that realization.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.