– by Jeremy Gimpel
“Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free: Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.” – Zhuangzi, Nan-Hua-Ch’en-Ching.
I’m not certain I understand fully what Zhuangzi is saying, but it certainly sounds nothing like classic Jewish texts.Some may see the Torah as a book of laws, a code of ethics and an all-encompassing directive on lifestyle. And the text is not meant to be a spiritual guide for the perplexed. Although there’s truth to that observation, the books of the Torah and the majority of the Bible aren’t really a code of anything or a series of laws. They’re stories. Why is our most influential text a story about a man named Abraham, his children and his children’s children? I believe the three stories below address this profound question.
Jews in Manchester: On a cold and cloudy day last week, I made my way up the English countryside heading to northern England. After missing my flight to Manchester and catching the next flight to London, I had to take a train and make my way north. I had no cell phone and wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to find my way to the Jewish community. I was invited by the local shaliach (emissary from Israel) in Manchester to speak over the weekend in honor of the Torah portion Lech Lecha, where Abraham was called to leave his homeland and move to Israel. Without a cell phone, I had no way of finding him or even giving him a general idea of how to find me when I arrived.
As I was sitting on the train marveling at the grey skies and the green pastures of Britain, I heard two women, many rows behind me, making more noise than everyone else on the train combined. They weren’t doing anything particularly disruptive, they were just really loud. As many seasoned travelers would suspect, the loud lovely ladies were speaking Hebrew.
Although at first I was a bit embarrassed, I also realized that salvation was only a dozen rows behind me. I walked over to them and explained about my missed flight and lack of cell phone. In a moments time I had two cell phones at my disposal, a bottle of water just in case and three sandwiches for the road.
Jewish Savtas (Grandmothers): One of my favorite stories told by the co-host of my TV and radio show relates to when he arrived in Israel after burning his arm in a cooking accident during college. He was ordered to wear a spandex glove that covered his entire left arm for several months. And, in classic Ari Abramowitz style, he chose the bright blue spandex over the skin colored cover.
While he was in America people would look, even stare, at the glove and uncomfortably try to ignore it while talking to him. But when he arrived in Israel and traveled on a bus for the first time, the savta next to him asked, “What happened to your arm?” He politely answered, “I burned my arm.” She countered, “You don’t need that glove. You have to take some chocolate and eggs, rub it on your arm… ” and proceeded to give a total stranger her ancient family remedy for arm burns.
Jewish children: One day after work in downtown Jerusalem, I was standing at the crosswalk in the early evening waiting to cross the street and I felt something warm in my hand. I looked down and there was a little girl about seven years old holding my hand and looking up at me. In not so many words, she was simply asking me to help her cross the street.
I grew up in Georgia before moving to Israel and little girls there don’t walk around alone in downtown Atlanta. Seeing this Jewish child in Jerusalem holding my hand, I realized she probably does this every day on her way home.
Why is the message of Judaism transmitted through stories? Why is the Torah centered on the story of a man named Abraham and the trials and tales of his offspring? The purpose is to ingrain in our consciousness from generation to generation the reality that the little seven-year-old girl in downtown Jerusalem lives with daily. Jewish life is not only living a religious or observant life; the Jewish people are in every sense of the word a family.
Whether on the train to Manchester or on a bus sitting next to a Jewish grandmother, those “Jewish strangers” we encounter are our distant relatives and feel a deep seated responsibility for us. It is one of the most beautiful aspects of Jewish life. It began with our father Abraham and was given to all of us through reading his stories.
On a national level, a remarkable society can be built on this social foundation. Our orphans, our poor and our unfortunates are not random individuals or even citizens of a shared nation; they are our family. Only a country whose citizens feel a sincere bond and responsibility to each other will be able to create a perfected society that will serve as an example for the world.
In an interview, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was once asked to share his single most profound message to the world. He said, “The Jewish message to the world is that we have one God, one world, and we are all brothers and sisters.”
As arguably the most influential man in human history, that is the essence of the message of Abraham and why we must see ourselves as the next chapter in the book of our people.