Thursday, July 31, 2003

Showing Up

During my first year in the Rabbinate, an experienced colleague gave me some wise advice. Quoting that famous Jewish sage, Woody Allen, he told me that “showing up is 80% of life”. Actually, he underestimated the percentage. For a Rabbi, 99% of life is showing up: Brises, shivas, meetings, etc.. Remarkably, it isn’t that important what I actually do at these events, as long as I show up. Perhaps it’s because many people feel it isn’t a religious event without a Rabbi (a notion more Catholic than Jewish). Or it may be the magic factor; some people actually believe a Rabbi’s presence brings luck, as if the Rabbi were some sort of two legged amulet.

The mindless appearance is not the exclusive domain of Rabbis. Politicians have to be visible, performing the unremarkable tasks of shaking hands and hugging babies (In this regard, Rabbis are a sort of religious politician as well). Celebrities, in order to remain celebrities, have to stay in the public eye, waving blankly to the paparazzi. However, in actuality the mindless appearance is significant for everyone, famous or unknown.

Talk is overrated . Our society assumes that every encounter requires nonstop conversation, otherwise things are “awkward”. (Think of how you feel when you’re in the elevator with a stranger). This feeling is not universal. Robert Levine in A Geography of Time describes his experiences in India, where during visits people “drop by one another’s homes, only to sit and remain silent, sometimes ....for hours.....”. When Levine asked his friends whether they considered the moments of silence uncomfortable, they couldn’t understand why he would consider silence awkward.

The West is obsessed with verbal interactions. In India, the company counts for more than the conversation; simply sitting together is a worthwhile pursuit. Personally, my sympathies are with the Indians. Companionship in its own right is valuable; as the Talmud says “it is better to sit as two than to sit alone”.

No, I don’t look down on the profound, intimate conversation. But conversation is not the only route to friendship. Sitting together satisfies our existential need for companionship. When Adam in the Garden of Eden is searching for a companion, he isn’t looking for banter or insights or a soulmate; he just doesn’t want to be alone. He is waiting for another person to show up.

People often feel uncomfortable going to shivas. They feel they have nothing to say, and think it’s pointless to go and sit quietly. The truth is, there is nothing to say; but visiting is a gesture of concern that is more eloquent than anything one could say. Showing up is all that matters.

Showing up requires no skill, yet is immeasurably meaningful. Thank God it’s 80% of life.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Sometimes, It’s Your Call

“When did you receive your calling?”. I was a rookie Rabbi, making small talk with a local Minister, when he asked me this question. I was tongue tied; I had never heard voices or had a dream telling me to become a Rabbi. God never called upon me.

Since that time, I have reflected on different types of callings. Some callings appear out of the blue, a burning bush that beckons while searching for lost sheep. Other callings start early on. Samson and Samuel receive their callings before they are born. And like them, there are people who as children, just know, that they were meant to be a doctor or fireman. Or like Joshua, they are apprenticed from a young age, following a mentor into a profession.

However, most of us are never called. There are no angelic apparitions or divine signs that lead to our destiny. Where can we find our calling?

Sometimes it’s our call. We all experience times when we learn something disconcerting, and think to ourselves “ ‘someone’ should do something about that”. And we leave it at that, assuming that “someone” will take care of it. Well, there may be no choir of angels, no thunder or lightning, but the moment that you think “someone” should do something, is actually a moment of divine calling; it is you, not “someone”, who is being called to duty.

This is a much higher form of calling. It is far superior for people to step up on their own, without waiting for God to tap them on the shoulder. Judith Kaplan, a student at Yeshiva University, found her calling in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing. She joined a group of volunteers who kept a round the clock vigil at the city morgue. These volunteers were doing shmira, standing watch over the bodies until they were buried, reciting Psalms. For months, Kaplan volunteered for this task every Shabbat.

Aaron Singer found his calling after the Passover bombings in 2002. An American who had served in the Israeli army, he left his wife and baby daughter to return for reserve duty. Noting that Israeli soldiers were outfitted with average flak jackets, he started a charity to buy state of the art bulletproof vests for Israeli soldiers.

The greatest callings are the ones we discover on our own. These driving force behind these callings are best expressed in the words of a New York City fireman, interviewed after 9/11. He explained that he became a fireman because “I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, and say I’m doing something with my life”.

Now that’s a serious calling. What’s yours?
The Best Food on Earth

O.K., I admit it; at times, I critique the food at simchas. However, despite my own failings, I’m uncomfortable when I hear people play food critic at simchas. It bothers me because the purpose of attending a simcha is not gastronomic, an evening of fine dining, but rather to celebrate the bar mitzvah or wedding. Complaining about the meal at a wedding is like going to a baseball game and complaining about the hot dogs; if you’re a fan, the food doesn’t matter, and if you’re not a fan, you shouldn’t be there. Even worse, at times the critical comments about the salmon appetizer make their way to the family and cause them distress. Instead of celebrating a simcha with the joyous family, the erstwhile food critic causes them aggravation.

But what drives us to search for the world’s tastiest piece of salmon? Personally, I blame Martha Stewart. Not Martha directly (she’s had enough problems recently). But I do blame the Martha Stewart mindset, the attitude that everything must be elegant and tasteful. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing the perfect meal or home. Life is short, and in our brief time here, we should enjoy God’s good earth. As the Talmud says, “grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world we will leave is like a banquet” .

But here’s the problem. As we learn the nuances of fine culinary art, we also become discriminating snobs. Appreciating the best life has to offer can cause us to consider everything else inferior and disappointing. So a perfectly good piece of salmon becomes an affront to the gourmand’s tastebuds, and instead of toasting the joy of the new couple, we discuss the inept appetizer.

Indeed, the irony of learning how to “appreciate” fine food, is that at the same time genuine appreciation of food is lost. An overcooked, underseasoned piece of chicken is remarkably tasty; we’ve just turned off our tastebuds, expecting better, because our gourmet quest has caused us to lose perspective.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings is “hunger is the best cook”. She says that the army rations she ate right after being liberated from Auschwitz was the best meal she ever ate in her life, one that even the best chefs could never recreate. The overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland meal she ate. What she learned then was that with the right outlook, any piece of food is enormously tasty.

Ultimately, flavour depends on perspective; and to me, the food at simchas, even if it’s unworthy of five stars in the Michelin guide, is the best food on earth.