Monday, October 3, 2011

The Rabbi's Tale--Responses by Dan Ronfeld, Rebecca Groves and Jack Bonawitz

Dan Ronfeld

So the rabbi, having been given the keys, offers them to the congregation, saying, “Our community has always acted at its highest when we act as a family and whatever decision we make today we will do as a family. Opening this door, we reach a place of milk and honey. A land not given to the troubles of this life. So please, offer up your thoughts.”

The first up was a logical one, the Patriarch of the Congregation. A.K. Markowitz. He spoke up and said, “My father and my mother came to this community wanting the independence the open minded West offered. They were shackled by the constraints of the Lower East. Before that, my grandparents got on boats, barely in their teens with nothing but memories of families they would never see again. Since Abraham we’ve taken up and moved forward. Now with the chance to go into Gan Eden, tell me—what has this world got left for us, that we should stay? I may have an old man’s eyesight, but my vision is clear. Times are bleak. Things are bad. I might not be here too much longer, but the whole of our people isn’t slated to make it into another century. We need to go now while we’re still here to go.”

He was resigned. Soon almost all in one form or another were in agreement. The door, for a variety of reasons, must be opened and the age of wonder let in.

Then from the back there was a noise, all too familiar with the Hebrew School teachers, belonging to Shmoey Abrams- the pisher nightmare of Classroom Gimmel. No shin was safe as he made his way to the rabbi, halting, almost in time, and yelled, “STOP! STOP! Don’t to it.”

The rabbi who was wonderful with children... said “Shmoey, why not?”

“Because the last Harry Potter stunk!”—and they all looked at him… At this point, his parents wished little Shmoey was an orphan. The rabbi, who was also patient, said “Shmoey, I think you are a little off topic”.

“NO,” he looked back ferociously, “when you finish anything it’s bad and when you finish it’s over. Even when you are losing the game, playing is better than stopping. Even when the movie scares you, it’s better than when it’s over. You can’t say it’s over, you can’t call it over. Whatever is there, it can’t matter as much as what is here. How good can another life be, how can it be better than this one? Even when it isn’t great, it’s still really fun.”

The eternal optimism of youth smashed the idol of defeatism. Shmoey’s parents for the first time felt something akin to naches. The game of life isn’t called on account of rain, and if you are alive enough to assess your failures, you are alive enough to keep trying. Jewish history has always been written on the blade of a knife. Apathy is a horrible enemy, but it’s not pogroms. Intermarriage is a tough conversation, but it’s not Kristallnacht. Whatever, the congregation decided, an afterlife might hold, it would have to wait- and this life must be engaged. We may not have any solutions—but they are ours to find, and as long as we exist, we have time to find them.

The rabbi looked at her congregation. The Abrams and the Markowitzes, yes, but also interfaith families, gay families, childless and adoptive families, families made up of individuals not born Jewish. It’s not a shrinking circle, it’s a broadening one. Her job was to embrace that change. Not force it into the mold of an antiquated template, but assess and evaluate the new opportunities that a 21st Century Judaism offers. One with Chinese 5 spice in the Chicken soup. A seder table with a new illustration on our struggle for freedom.

So she took the keys, put them in a box, and wrapped it up, to be stored in the attic of the temple under a large forgotten crate marked “Golem.” One day, she told herself, she would have to open that and see whatever could be inside...


Becky Groves

But this time, the rabbi was not alone. For on that eve of Rosh Hashanah, the sacred day when the world labored to be born anew, she found her entire congregation waiting there for her—young and old, long-time friends and newcomers, women and children and men. She laughed and cried and smiled as they embraced her and she embraced them back. Then, she pointed at the door, held up the glittering keys, and said, “ You will remember not long ago we celebrated Shabbat and I spoke to you of the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, which means “when you enter”. I stand before you today as we are about to enter a new beginning. This door holds behind it the promise of what will be, but I cannot open it alone, I need your help.

Before the Rabbi had finished speaking a young man from the congregation jumped up. He burned with a desire to right the injustices of the world. His whole body was ablaze as he snatched the copper key from the Rabbi's hand, confident that his passion was all that was needed to unlock the great door.

Next, an older congregant rooted in tradition came forward. He was sure that the steady flow that had always led him on his way was the only true way. The cool, calmness of knowing that the current was the same today as it had been yesterday and would be the same tomorrow guided him forward as he deliberately reached for the silver key.

After some time passed and no one else came forward the Rabbi walked to the back of the room and handed the remaining key to a quiet woman who looked confused and unsure as she hesitantly took the gold key in her hand.

Each one tried their key in the lock. The copper key in the copper lock, the silver key in the silver lock, and the gold key in the gold lock, but the door would not open.

Then they tried them together, each one putting their key in the locks simultaneously, but the door still would not open.

Just when the congregation was losing hope, a small child stepped forward and the face of Elijah was in the face of the child as she spoke to the three holding the keys.

“Why don't you switch keys” she suggested, “Embrace what the other has to offer. It is only when you accept the other that the door will be opened to you.”

The quiet woman timidly reached for the copper key and her confusion became conviction.The young man grabbed the silver key and his fiery passion cooled to a calm contentment.

The older man smugly scooped up the gold key, confident in his beliefs, only to find that he was filled with the blessing of doubts.

These three then joined hands and each with the key of the other firmly in their grasp they went to door and inserted the keys into the locks.

It was only then that the door swung open and they heard these words:

“All Jews are responsible, one for the other. Ki Tavo, when you enter, you enter as one.”


Jack Bonawitz

But this time, the rabbi was not alone. For on that eve of Rosh Hashanah, the sacred day when the world labored to be born anew, she found her entire congregation waiting there for her—young and old, long-time friends and newcomers, women and children and men. She laughed and cried and smiled as they embraced her and she embraced them back. Then, she pointed at the door, held up the glittering keys, and paused. She could see that they were waiting for her to open the three locks and reveal so much to them. The rabbi imagined that her congregants saw her as the Israelites saw Moses.

What happened next surprised everyone, the rabbi included, for she took each of the keys as one would take a Frisbee and sailed it with all her might as far as she could. She saw each of the keys sail through the air, almost in slow motion, and each one landed in a deep pool of muddy water where it quickly sank out of sight.

When the last of the keys was gone, she was as astonished as anyone in the congregation. She hadn’t planned to throw them away; it just seemed to happen. Had someone asked her what she was going to do or why she was going to do it, she wouldn’t have known what to say. Her actions were more like instinctive reactions to danger—like swatting at a wasp flying into one’s face.

And when her gaze turned back to her congregation, she saw a range of emotions: some were confused at what she had done; some were disappointed at the loss of the keys; and some were openly angry at her actions.

Now, at this point you’re probably wondering how this is all going to work out since the Erev Rosh HaShonah service was supposed to begin in just a few short hours. So I will tell you—I don’t know.

An old Litvak, known for his keen mind and vivid imagination, said that the congregation met within the hour to decide the rabbi’s future. The president, a hard-nosed businessman known more for thin budgets and short meetings, had wanted to fire the rabbi on the spot. The rest of the Board decided that a congregational meeting would be the best forum for uncovering the truth. No email or phone tree was necessary—everyone even remotely connected to the congregation wanted to be there to see what would happen.

The congregation’s sanctuary, which would normally seat one hundred, was packed for the meeting. In fact, many noticed with some irony that more people were there than ever attended High Holy Days services.

Promptly at the set time, nothing happened. Finally, almost twenty minutes later, the president arrived with a cup of coffee in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. He quickly called the meeting to order, and turned it over to his son, a young man whose sole accomplishment was being the only child of a wealthy man. The son strode to the reading stand, looked around the sanctuary at the congregation, cleared his throat, and began: “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said somewhat pompously, “allow me to set forth the facts in this case. Our rabbi had in her possession today three keys which would have allowed the members of this congregation to become what we all aspire to—pious Jews.” At this point, the Litvak said, more than a few knowing looks were exchanged since the young man rarely attended services, and he once asked at Passover when they would sing his favorite song, Kol Nidre. The congregation, however, seemed willing to allow him to make a point or to find one, but they were already beginning to look at their watches. He continued, “Given the power to guide this congregation, our rabbi knowingly, willingly, and”—he searched here for another adverb—“uh, haphazardly discarded three keys to the doors of…of…”—by now everyone could see that he was as prepared as Noah’s neighbors.

The president, seated on the bimah, quietly said, “Hymie, sit down.”

“I’m not done,” the young man said stridently.

“Sit, Hymie,” his father said, “sit.” And with that the father strode to the reading stand while the young man slipped quietly into a pew next to his mother who patted his hand and offered him a Lifesaver.

“Now,” said the older man, “I just want to ask you, Rabbi, why did you throw those keys away?”

Not since her bat mitzvah had the rabbi been so anxious. As she stood to walk to the shtender, she felt light-headed, the way she had felt hours earlier when she threw the keys into the pool. She wondered to herself if she was having an out-of-body experience because she was moving without thinking, looking without seeing.

Grasping the sides of the shtender, she looked out at the congregation, smiled as best she could, and said, “Friends, I apologize if I have hurt you or confused you.” She paused to let this sink in, then she continued. “I could ask you to trust me to do what is right, but I feel like you deserve more of an explanation.” As she looked around the sanctuary, she saw heads nodding, but few smiles.

“Over the past months, I’ve had a series of—well, I don’t know what to call them exactly. In some ways they were dreams, but they weren’t exactly dreams. If I studied kabbalah, I’d say they were mystical experiences. Whatever they were, they were very odd and very powerful. Just as Dante had Vergil to guide him, I had Elijah to guide me.” As these words came from her mouth, she saw looks of confusion on some faces and amusement on others. Sensing their concern, she went on: “I know this isn’t the explanation you expected, but allow me to continue.” She paused, gathered her thoughts, and continued. “In those dreams, when Elijah appeared to me, he showed me a door with three locks on it. Behind the door was Torah and transformation. If I passed three tests, I would get the keys to those locks. The first test was fire, the second water, and the third wilderness. But when I passed all three tests, Elijah said he couldn’t go any further, and he just disappeared. He gave me those three keys you saw, and—poof!—he was gone.” As she said this, she realized how preposterous the whole story sounded. Had someone told her the story, she thought, she would have wondered at his sanity.

Based on the looks on their faces, however, the congregation seemed to believe this story. It was as odd a story as they’d ever heard, but she was, after all, their rabbi, and she had never misled them before.

At this moment, though, she realized that the most important part of the story had yet to be told—why had she thrown away the keys? “So,” the rabbi said, “you’re wondering why—if those keys were so hard to get and so valuable—why did I throw them away? If I could give you that great gift, why didn’t I?” A room full of heads nodded, almost in unison. The rabbi continued, “Well, I’ll tell you. Judaism.” She paused for that to sink in. “Yes, Judaism is about doing, not receiving, not believing. Doing. Think about that. What are some of the important principles of Judaism? Torah (lifelong learning), Avodah (spiritual growth), G’milut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness), Kehilah (community-building) Tsedakah (justice). Each of those principles requires that we do something, not just talk about it or profess to believe in it. We have to do.” She paused, as much to catch her breath as to let this lesson sink in.

After a moment, she continued, “Those keys that some of you were so upset at losing? Well, you did nothing to earn those keys, you never had them in your possession, and you don’t even know what you would have received if I had given them to you. In a way, you’re like Jonah. He tried to avoid his responsibility to do something, then, when he did something, he didn’t understand what he’d done. And we don’t know if he ever—as they say today—got it.”

Feeling more confident, the rabbi paused for a moment then went on, “May I ask you some questions? Do you want your children and grandchildren to be b’nai mitzvah?” Virtually every head nodded. “Good. Do you want your children to be married under a chuppa?” Again, nods all around. “Good. Do you want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” Again, nods. “Very good. Now, would you like to see the world be a better place?” There was widespread murmuring in assent. “I thought so,” said the rabbi. “So what will it take to get those things? Magic keys? Or you—each and every one of you—doing what you can to shape the world as it should be.”

Looking at her watch, the rabbi said, “Now, we can begin our Erev Rosh HaShonah prayers, or we can put our faith in magic keys. We can begin transforming ourselves and our world, or we can cross our fingers and hope.”

The old Litvak said that no one even thought about going out to that pond. As a matter of fact, he claimed that the new sanctuary, which was constructed during Hymie’s first term as president, was built where the muddy pond had been.

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