Prepare to be Surprised
As I was reciting Tefilas Haderech, on a recent early morning flight from Denver to Los Angeles, I noticed that the fellow across the aisle had out his Psalms. I was confident that he would soon strike up a conversation, and sure enough, five seconds later, he inquired, "Are you a rabbi?"
From past experience with evangelicals, I knew that we would have a pleasant conversation, and find much about which we could agree politically and with respect to the parlous moral state of our world. And indeed he began by telling me that former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren had spoken at the local university, Colorado Christian (or something close), and how impressed he had been.
But I confess that I also assumed that my conversation partner for the hour and half flight to LA would not be highly educated or too intellectually sophisticated, and that the conversation would consist mostly of my throwing out red meat in the manner of Rush Limbaugh (not that I'm sure I've ever heard him.)
I could not have been further off track. I soon learned that he was a pilot (which explained his recitation of Psalms – "I know everything that can go wrong"), and had a Phd. in geological sciences. He had headed a geological survey company that left him rich enough to retire at 40, and tell his wife that he intended to devote the rest of his life to more spiritual pursuits.
His wife, by the way, had finished her pathology residency in her early twenties. But they decided that he was making enough money for her to concentrate on child-raising. In addition to their own two biological children, they adopted, when their youngest was ten, a child from Korea, whose parentage would have left him as a permanent outcast in Korean society.
I could not help but be impressed by the elevation of spiritual values above purely material ones, and in his wife's case, the choice of childrearing above professional prestige.
But there were more surprises to come. His son completed his Phd. at Cambridge University in one of the hard sciences, and his son's wife had earned her Phd. in physics in the laboratory of Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest living physicists, but no great friend of religion. Her research was so important as to make her a vital national resource for the British government. For good measure, my new buddy's brother is the chief economist in the anti-trust division of the Justice Department.
Nor has all this higher education at places where atheism is the default position been at the expense of religious belief. When his son told his wife that he didn't think they could afford more children after their fourth, she told him not to worry, "G-d will provide."
By this time, all my stereotypes of evangelical Christians had been pretty much shot to pieces. But it wasn't over. At least, he would turn out to be dour and humorless, I assumed.
Not so. It turned out that we had both grown up in suburban Chicago, though he was from the western suburbs, which were pretty much without Jews in my day, and we were both high school tennis players. He then moved to Kansas City, where he had the unenviable assignment in one high school basketball game of guarding Lucius Allen, who some old-time basketball fans may remember as the other superstar on the Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar UCLA team that claimed three national titles in a row. In the warm-ups, Allen put is hand not on the rim, but the top of the backboard.
I will spare the reader details of the defensive strategy Dave employed, but suffice it to say that it resulted in a sharp elbow to his face that caused him to bite nearly clean through his tongue. His retelling at the space of nearly five decades was riotous. (I wonder how he knew that the "rabbi" might have ever heard of Lucius Allen.)
As we got up to disembark and I put on my black hat, my friend offered the last surprise. "Oh, I bought one of those fedoras when I was a vice-president at Sanford Bernstein and Sons. So many guys in the firm wore one that I didn't want to stick out." (It turned out that he did not have as much money as he thought when he retired at forty, and had to go back to work at fifty.)
Why am I sharing this conversation? Because it strikes me as somewhat absurd that I, a chareidi Jew, should have had so many stereotypes about devout members of other faiths. And if I could have so many misconceptions, why should I be surprised that non-chareidi Jews in Israel, who know so little about our community, harbor so many stereotypes and misconceptions about us?
Taking the Sparks of the Seder Forward
Can it really be just three weeks since we sat down with such anticipation for the Seder, hopeful that we had succeeded in removing the chametz from our hearts as well as our homes? What happened to the spiritual elevation of leil Seder? How can we keep some remant of it alive?
The most obvious answer is to take sefiras haomer seriously. That would require focusing on each day as part of a step-by-step process of growth towards kabolas haTorah. Two recent works based on the sefiros – one thin, the other hefty -- can help in that regard. Both Rabbi Yaacov Haber and Rabbi David Sedley's Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer and Sarah Hermelin's Journey Together: 49 Steps to Transforming a Family delineate the 49 different combinations of the sefiros and suggest kabolos relevant to each day in three realms -- bein adam l'Makom, bein adam l'chaveiro; bein adam l'atzmo. Mrs. Hermelin has designed a program for the entire family and includes a wide variety of material appropriate for different ages.
Some have the custom to study one of the 48 Ways in which Torah is acquired during sefirah. Rabbi Shmuel Wittow's, מ"ח קניני תורה, offers a brief and useful distillation of numerous commentaries on the 48 Ways and possible kabolos related to each.
The renowned Mashgiach Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe pointed out another way to retain the elevation of leil haSeder. The name Seder for the festive evening is not accidental: Seder (order) and freedom are intrinsically related. The ba'alei mussar, of course, place a high value on seder. Someone once entered the Talmud Torah of Kelm in the midst of shmuess by the Alter and from the mournful tone assumed that the Alter was delivering a eulogy. The subject turned out to be a pair of boots not placed together in the cloakroom.
My own appreciation of seder grows yearly in direct proportion to my failure to attain it. My pre-Pesach project was opening a half year or more of Hebrew mail, much of it from government agencies. The failure to do so on a more regular basis can be an expensive habit – parking tickets double, insurance policies get cancelled. And I can assure anyone tempted to emulate my habits that your spouse will not be amused when the ATM stops dispensing cash because Bituach Leumi has frozen your bank account.
But seder is much more than the just key to home economics and the productive use of one's time. A Midrash quoted by Rav Wolbe says that only when Pharoah saw bnei Yisrael leaving Mitzrayim arranged by tribes, did he regret his decision to let them go. For Pharoah realized that if they could order themselves in such a fashion, they were no longer lowly slaves, reacting to their master's commands, but people of stature capable of setting their own course. Their order reflected their ability to think in advance and plan.
The more we take time to reflect on our goals in life and develop plans how to reach them the more we become bnei aliyah capable of receiving the Torah.