Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Whole Ten Yards

When I was younger, so much younger than today, football, according to the experts—or, in any event, the old-timers—took a turn for the worse. Players began doing strange things after scoring or making a big play. They would dance; they would jump into the stands; they would cluck like a chicken. Simply spiking the ball (the first recorded instance of which, according to my Google search, came in 1965) was passé.

This development did not please many a football sage, who felt that when players reach the end zone, they ought to “look like they’ve been there before.”

And I had always agreed with this line of thinking. Even as I enjoyed the short-lived antics of Terrell Owens, I wondered: Who needs this nonsense? The high fiving, the helmet banging, the chest thumping, the arm pumping on each and every play was overkill, I felt. Since when does a tackle on second-and-seven, making it third-and-four, deserve any sort of recognition, let alone a festive gesture?

But then I got to thinking.

Is it really so bad to celebrate every moment in life—even if the moment really isn’t that big? To put it another way aren’t the “small” victories also big? Aren’t they valuable too, deserving of celebration?

Watching the game the other Sunday, I saw an ad for ESPN with the slogan, “Living Life Ten Yards at a Time.” Those NFL players have it right after all, I thought. They celebrate every play as if they had just won the Super Bowl, because in some small way they have. Each and every play brings them that much closer to gaining the ten yards needed for a first down. The accumulation of first downs ultimately leads to a touchdown, or at least, a field goal. The touchdowns and field goals, if there are enough of them, add up to a victory. And the victories are what get a team to the playoffs and on the road to the Super Bowl.

So, in point of fact, each and every well-executed play deserves celebration.

Certainly in the world of sports, where tenths- and even hundredths-of-a-second can mean the difference between the gold medal and fourth place—between immortality and obscurity—there is no such thing as a small event. In a society where obscure statistics are tracked and measured, where every move a player makes contributes to his coach’s opinion of his performance and determines whether or not he ought to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars—every single play counts.

In life, every day, every hour, every moment has value. Especially as Jews, who live a life under G-d’s Divine direction, we must recognize the value of our time and not simply be motivated by the “big” events.

I once heard a story about two friends who wanted to know what the Afterlife was like. They made a deal that whoever died first would report back to the other (no, this is not the “bad news is you’re pitching tomorrow” joke). Eventually one of them died and the very next evening appeared to her friend in a dream.

“I can’t begin to describe what Heaven is like. It’s simply not possible to understand on human terms the reward that awaits us for our mitzvos,” she said. “But I can give you a small understanding. Do you remember the time we were delivering food to that old lady and it was dark and we couldn’t find her house? We circled and circled the block and eventually I spotted the house and pointed to it. The extra reward that I received for simply pointing is beyond description.”

Two years ago I decided to try and learn a perek of the Rambam’s Yad Hachazakah every morning after davening. That’s a thousand perakim of Rambam, and based on my calculations, I ought to have been getting ready for a siyum this summer.

But wouldn’t you know it, I’m not on track for that. Heck, I’m not even close. Some days I had to run off to work and didn’t have time to finish the perek. Sometimes the perakim were so long and arduous that they took a week or more to complete. Thus, after two years and two months working on this project, I’m only about a third of the way done.

Pitiful? Hardly.

Despite my dawdling, I know more Rambam than I did last year, and I’m learning more than I was last year. In fact, I’m so pleased with my small victories that tomorrow morning I may just high five the gabbai and do a little jig in the back of the shul.

Although, admittedly, spiking the sefer would probably be inappropriate.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Haftorahs and Hollywood Endings

I don't know how it works in most shuls, but in mine they generally give you the heads-up that you're reading the Haftorah somewheres around Revi'i. And so it came to pass that, midway through the Torah reading, the gabbai hands me a laminated card that reads "MAFTIR."

Now I don't get nervous, mind you; I kind of like being asked to read the Haftorah. It means they think (a) I can read Hebrew pretty well, and (b) my voice isn't lousy. For this I am grateful. But in order to avoid the embarrassment of a meltdown—in the event that there are some strange words or trupp combinations—I take a sneak peak before the aliyah.

The first thing I notice is that there is a break in the Haftorah. According to the Knower of all things Jewish, Rabbi Arthur J. Scroll, the Sephardim, Chabad Chasidim, and German congregations, end the Haftorah early. We Ashkenazim, however, go the distance.

And what a distance it is. Quite a long read. And with a fairly impatient shul behind me, I knew I'd have to rush it a bit to make sure that my vocal chords wouldn't wear down before the chatter in the back spread to envelope the entire sanctuary. Would asking the rabbi if we could be German for a day be appropriate? I thought not.

The Haftorah is about the prophet Elisha and the woman from Shunam, who prepared a room for him to stay during his travels to her area. She was childless, so Elisha blessed her and her husband that they should have a child. Sure enough they do. But one day the child dies. The woman goes to Elisha for help, and Elisha sends his attendant, Geichazi, to revive the child using his staff. But that doesn't work, so Elisha has to go himself and lie upon the child, bringing him back to life.

It's a beautiful little story with the perfect ending, yet if you attended shul last week in Crown Heights or Washington Heights or certain areas of Flatbush, you'd never have known the outcome. If you take a look to see where the aforementioned Sephardim, Chabad Chassidim and Germans end the story, you'd be perplexed. The final verse read by these three communities comes as the woman is preparing to seek out Elisha after her son dies. Her husband, unaware of the tragedy, asks, What’s the occasion? To which she simply says, “Shalom—It will be well.” The End.

How strange.

Why stop the story at the declaration of the Shunamite woman, "Shalom—It will be well"? It wasn’t well—the child was dead! This would seem to be the absolute worst place to end the story.

I discussed my confusion with one of the baalei keriah in shul (he read the Haftorah at the first minyan) and he, too, was at a loss. "I could understand," I confessed to him, "if the Litvaks stopped there. That's a stoic group for you. But the Sephardim? The Lubavitchers?"

Perhaps, I thought, that was the point. You don't need the happy ending for the story to work. What if, for instance, the child had remained dead. Tragic as we may find it to be, would it not also be G-d's will? What if, in the parshah we had just read, G-d had not stayed the hand of Avraham at the Akeidah, and he followed through and slaughtered Yitzchak? Wouldn't Avraham have carried out G-d's will just the same as if Yitzchak had lived?

Just because we want something to happen doesn't mean that G-d agrees with us. Ultimately, as difficult and painful and hidden as it may be, G-d's will is the ultimate good.

I brought my question to the rabbi, and before I could share with him my answer he beamed. "I discussed that very question in my lecture Wednesday night." (I hemmed and hawed, trying to think of a good excuse as to why I wasn't in attendance that evening, when he informed me that it was a class for women only. Whew!)

When Elisha sent Geichazi to revive the boy, the rabbi explained, he told him, "Gird your loins and take my staff in your hand and go....and you shall place my staff on the lad's face." The Meshech Chochmah explains the symbolism: Elisha believed that the woman was meritorious because of her kindness toward him. She prepared a place for him to stay and to rest. Elisha's staff—upon which one leans and rests—symbolized the mitzvah the woman had done. Surely that would revive the boy.

But it wasn't her kindness that merited a child; it was her devotion to the prophet and her faith in his word as the word of G-d that merited a child. She displays this devotion again when she approaches Elisha. He inquires: "'Are you well? Is your husband well? Is the child well?' And she said, 'Shalom—We are well.'" Once again, her simple expression, “Shalom,” speaks volumes about her convictions. Elisha recognizes this, continues the Meshech Chochmah, he understood that he would have to use himself—the symbol of her faith—to revive the child.

It was her faith in G-d and in His prophets (the sixth of Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith) that brought her this blessing. When the child died she knew that the prophet would guide her correctly. When he asked how she was she simply answered, "Shalom—we are well." Whatever happens, it is the will of G-d, and therefore the ultimate good.

Yes, the story does have a happy ending. So does the story of the Akeidah. The child lives. Yitzchak lives. It's the classic Hollywood ending.

But not all our stories end that way. Sometimes the child dies. Sometimes the parent has to grieve. We don't understand why. But what we must know is that it is part of G-d's plan and we need to embrace that faith in order to sustain ourselves, in order to live our lives on a higher plane. We need to recognize that under G-d's protection, despite what we may feel, despite what we don’t understand, we are always well.

(translations courtesy of