Friday, December 26, 2008

Mikketz 5769: The first stranger in a strange land

This week, we take up Joseph’s story two years after he tells the baker and steward what their dreams meant. Now Pharaoh has a dream, and cannot find anyone to tell him what it means. The steward, remembers his promise the Joseph, and tells Pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph interprets the dream as foretelling seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. He also recommends to Pharaoh to begin a national storage program to be ready for the famine. Pharaoh agrees, and turns the program, and virtually everything but his throne over to Joseph. Joseph is wildly successful in his new position and in saving Egypt. He created a surplus so big, Egypt can even feed other peoples at a profit. It is not long into the famine that Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain, so he decides to jerk their chain a little, not just once but twice. Joseph frames Benjamin for theft, and the brothers now are in a terrible position: they may have to go back to their father once again to tell him that his favorite son is not coming home.
In Exodus, Moses will name his son Gershom because he was a stranger in the land of Midian. But he was not the first stranger in a strange land. How did Joseph end up thriving as a stranger in a strange land? There are several interesting passages:
Genesis 41:14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh.
At first, even before he meets with Pharaoh, he stops to clean up and look presentable before a king. Note the people who were to bring him were rushing him along. It was Joseph who thought of this, out of respect for a king.
Genesis 41:40-45 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. Then he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, “Bow the knee”… Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On

After meeting with Pharaoh, he likes what he hears from Joseph, and appoints him as prime Minster, several things happen. At the orders of Pharaoh, Joseph dresses the part of the national identity, drives the vehicles, and marries a local girl Asnat- ironically the daughter of his former boss and the older woman who tried to seduce him.
41:51. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.

Sometimes during the years of plenty, Joseph has two sons. The first he calls Menasseh, because he begins to forget who he used to be, as he is so busy in his office.
42: 7. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them; and he said to them, From where do you come? They said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.
42:23. And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spoke to them by an interpreter.
By the time his brothers show up, he is a different person, and they do not recognize him. The Rabbis believe this is because Joseph now has a beard, but it might be other things as well, such as his dress and his language - and the entire attitude of someone who is assimilated.
42:32. And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
Even how he eats follows the custom of the Egyptians. Eating with his brothers would seem abhorrent to the Egyptians. But the Egyptians still will not eat with him. As far as he assimilates this also shows he never can completely assimilate.
As we read these texts there are the subtle hints of assimilation into the majority culture, and very little that tells us that Joseph is being as virtuous as he was in slavery or prison. One of the ironies of our own times is best told by Joseph’s story. In a world of oppression and servitude, Judaism as a people and religion survived uninterrupted for close to two thousand years. In a world of freedom and success like America, both the culture and religion assimilate into the majority.
Jews have undoubtedly been successful in America, with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. The National Jewish population survey in 2001 had as one of its conclusions “Relative to the total U.S. population, Jews are more highly educated, have more prestigious jobs and earn higher household incomes.” Some statistics, for example the while only 8% of the general population have an income over $100,000 a year 22% of the Jewish population earns over $100,000. 25% of Jews have a graduate degree, while only 6% of the general population do. There are many other such numbers, all pointing to one thing: Jews did “make it” in America. On the other hand, only 28% light Shabbat candles at home, and 27% go to synagogue once a month or more. While success is there, the cost seem to be observance.
Joseph knew he forgot all of this when he named his first son. But there's something about family. For most of the rabbis, Asnat goes into the category of converts like Ruth, Rahab and Tzippora. There is bit of commentary I once heard from my Teacher Byron Sherwin. Ephraim and Menasseh Dressed like Egyptians. When they were introduced to their grandfather Jacob, he did not think them his descendants. Joseph’s response is “They are my sons, whom God has given me in this place” but its more literally is “They are my sons, whom God has given me with this.” Most have assumed “place” belongs here. “This” is referring to something else: their circumcisions. In having children, Joseph is reminded of his lineage and his contribution towards the future, and almost immediately he does something about it, having his son circumcised.
When I was recently at a tot Shabbat I was rather delighted when the rabbi asked the kids if they wanted to read Torah with him, and they all ran up to the bimah like they were going out to the playground. In the Al Hayt confessional during Yom Kippur, we confess we’re sorry we ran to do evil. How joyous it is to watch little children running to read Torah!
Joseph names Menasseh as his own lament of assimilation, and dedicates himself from that point on to his immediate family in Egypt, and to his bigger family back in Canaan, testing them to see if they are now righteous. It is family that makes him a Jew, and he who makes his family Jews. Joseph is known in rabbinic texts as Joseph the Tzaddik. He may have been the first Diaspora Jew, and the first Baal Teshuvah, the first to assimilate and return, stronger for being both the Man of Egypt and the Son of Israel. It is our concerns for family which most drive the need for Jewish continuity. Like I saw at that reform synagogue, many of those kids attend day school there, who at three or four knew their candle lighting and Torah blessings already. Jewish education is on the increase with many young adults making Jewish studies of some kind part of their learning. And as NJPS correlates, those who do any kind of study are more likely to keep connection and observances of the Jewish community.
A we light the menorahs with the little ones in our lives, it is good to think of every light and every blessing as one more step in Jewish continuity.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Repost: Why We Eat Chinese Food for Christmas

This is repost of the piece I did last year at this time. I'm a bit exhausted from too many long night driving home in either the blizzard of snow or the blizzard which is retail customer service during the holidays. So This will be this week's post unless I do get trapped at home tomorrow morning by the foot of snow that has been threatened and have time to both sleep and write my piece on Joseph for this week. With the exception of my biblical commentary on the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, this is the most Googled piece I've even written. So enjoy.

My thoughts on one of the beloved Jewish American traditions related to this time of year, Chinese food on Christmas Eve, started actually at work. As a restaurant consultant, I once did a site meeting a few days after Christmas at an upscale Chinese restaurant, one of several restaurants in a chain of restaurants with a variety of cuisines. The chef had just been transferred from an Italian restaurant in a predominantly Protestant western surburb a few months earlier, and so this was his first Christmas Eve in downtown Chicago.

“So were you open Christmas Eve?” I asked him.

He looked at me. “Yes, we were the only restaurant in the chain open which I thought odd, until I was shocked at how busy we were” he replied.

Smirking, I asked “A lot of takeout business I suspect, and I bet they were all named Cohen, Levy or Schwartz”

He looked at me like I was a magician. “How did you know that?”

So I explained to him the great Jewish American tradition of Chinese and a Movie on Christmas Eve.

While jokes about Chinese food mandated in the Talmud abound, this curious tradition however does have its roots in the Talmud. In the tractate that describes how a Jew is supposed to live in a idolatrous world Avodah Zarah, there is a Mishnah that deals with the issue of Saturnalia and Kalenda, the Hellenistic winter solstice festivals, forbidding business transactions with idolaters on those days. But in explaining these two festivals, the rabbis provide us with a fascinating passage about the origins of these two festivals:

Our Rabbis taught: When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world's course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. [Avodah Zarah 8a]

The rabbis claim the holidays not just for themselves but all humanity, dating back to the time of Adam. And there may be something to this. Primitive man may have seen the days growing shorter and thought the end of the word was coming, and then rejoiced when the daylight began to increase. Besides Kalenda, there was another Roman related festival at this time of year, the birth of Mithras, a sun god prevalent in both the Middle East and the Roman military. Mithras was born (or resurrected depending on your point of view) three days after the solstice, on the 25th of December. The sun was literally born on the 25th, which was a time for some serious partying and feasting, and possibly a few human sacrifices. Most scholars point out that the “tax rolls” of the New Testament that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem for had to be one of the harvest festivals, of which are spring and fall festivals. For the early Christians, however, all this festive activity around them made it difficult to get converts or keep converts from celebrating the idolatrous holidays. So they made a simple change: It was not the birth of the sun god Mithras, but the birth of the Son of God -- Jesus.

The Church fathers were not the first to pull this stunt. Several hundred years earlier, someone else did too. Judah Maccabee re-dedicated the temple on the same day of its desecration two years earlier: the 25th of Kislev (I Maccabees 4:52-54). From the texts in I and II Maccabees, it’s likely that the desecration of the Temple which started the revolt may very well have been a Saturnalia or Kalenda festival. The Maccabees celebrated for eight days, claiming that since they were so busy fighting they could not observe Sukkot, and this was a replacement for Sukkot. Coincidentally, Kalenda and Saturnalia were eight days long, and this might have been a ruse to once again get people to celebrate within their religion at a time when the world was very busy partying.

Yet the book of Maccabees is not included in the biblical text, and Hanukkah is an extra-biblical holiday. The Maccabees, later called the Hasmonean dynasty, were extremely violent fundamentalist rulers. What’s worse, they asked for help in their activities from Rome, who would eventually destroy the temple. Neither of these facts enamored them to the Rabbis of the Talmud, who had very little problem banning the books of Maccabees from the Biblical canon. But Judah Maccabee’s assessment that there needed to be a religious cover for the solstice holidays was right on the mark. The rabbis just couldn’t have the military victory be the reason for the holiday. So they told this story:

What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.[Shabbat 21b]
The military victory was replaced with a miracle, using the rest of the story to maintain the tradition. Like the Church fathers, The Rabbis maintained the tradition by keeping the dates and changing the story slightly. Yet the 25th of Kislev provided a problem in this observance. Jewish calendars are of course lunar. The date of Hanukkah tends to wander when compared to the solar calendar. Hanukkah might be celebrated before Christmas, and sometimes even after.

Yet halfway around the world, Chinese civilization influenced the calendar of most of the Asian nations around them. Using both a lunar and solar calendar the post-solstice festival occurs not days after the winter solstice but two new moons after the winter solstice. Chinese New Year usually occurs in late January or early February. The December holidays to most traditional Chinese was meaningless.

All this came together with the immigrant populations of the United States. Because their calendars used lunar dates, The Chinese and the Jewish immigrants had nothing to do on a day where everyone else, who was Christian, had closed their shops. The Chinese had found selling food was a profitable business, and Jews like to eat, particularly a food which was relatively easy to maintain the dietary requirements of kashrut. Thus a tradition was started.

In short, one could say the tradition of eating Chinese on Christmas was started by a bunch of American lunatics.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Parshat Vayishlach 5769: Breaking the Cycle

This week Jacob gets ready for this inevitable meeting with Esau, and then has an interesting divine wrestling experience. When Jacob finally meets his brother, he finds out that he and Esau actually can be civil to each other. Dinah is raped and then her rapist asks for her hand in marriage. To avenge the rape, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter all the males of the rapist’s town as they recover from circumcision. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, then Ruben sleeps with his stepmother, Bilhah. Isaac dies, and is buried by both his sons.
At the beginning of the portion, Jacob finds out that Esau is sending four hundred soldiers to meet them. He understandably gets very upset, splits his camps into two to allow at least half to escape an onslaught, and he begins to pray.
10. And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, Return to your country, and to your family, and I will deal well with you; 11. I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two bands. 12. Save me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and strike me, and the mother with the children. 13. But you said, I will surely do you good, and make your seed as the sand of the sea, which can not be counted for multitude.[Genesis 32]
Preparing for a Torah reading I’m doing this week at my minyan, I’ve been thinking about this piece, and can’t help but feel something I haven’t before. The cantillation marks don’t do the emotion justice. Jacob is both terrified and angry. Being played the fool by Laban over Rachel and Leah is one thing; being played the fool by God is another entirely. When I read the text, I can’t help but cry. It can be compared to the child who finds a parent has apparently broken a promise. Each time I read this or talk about this, I wonder, why am I crying?
This isn’t the first time God appears to break a promise of course. The first was the Akedah. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be a numerous as the dust on the earth, and that this covenant will be through Isaac. Yet
1. And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. 2. And he said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.[Genesis 22]
Abraham does not complain, Isaac only questions what will be used for the sacrifice. As many have noted, Isaac and Abraham never talk after the Akedah. I have often wondered about Isaac’s preference for Esau. Parents, I have found, often try to live vicariously through their children, to do the things they could not do. Isaac sees in Esau the strong, violent guy that would have broken his bonds and saved himself at the Akedah without divine intervention. Somewhere deep in Isaac, there is a part of him that wanted to be man enough to stop his father. Esau represents that in him.
There is another story this week.
1. And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. 2. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. [Genesis 34]
While her brothers commit subterfuge and genocide because of this, of Jacob’s reaction we are told at first:
5. And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; and his sons were with his cattle in the field; and Jacob held his peace until they came. [Genesis 34]

And later,
30. And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. 31. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot? [Genesis 34]

In neither of these conversations are Dinah’s feelings or trauma ever mentioned. Her value as property and good relations of the other peoples of the land seem to be the only issues.

I wonder about the four generations, the Abraham - Isaac - Jacob - Dinah connection. I’ve wondered a lot about Dinah in the past. As a survivor of partner abuse, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how does the Torah deal with the issue of victimhood, of being violated? I’ve always looked to the story of Dinah in this week’s portion for guidance, but Iv’e never found it. A Halakhah of the survivor does not exist there. It is not a single story, but a generational story. The true survivor was Isaac, as Elie Wiesel has put it, Isaac was the survivor of the first Shoah. Abraham committed the iniquity, and Isaac bore the burden, unable to recover from it. He looked to his sons though dim eyes, eyes that only saw that tragic event which changed his life. Isaac’s granddaughter saw the same in her rape, yet her attacker, not only apologized but tried to remedy the situation, only to be murdered by her brothers.
Abuse and violation are transmissible through generations. The ex-girlfriend who abused me in college was an abuse survivor herself. The abuse became so part of her life she didn’t even know she was doing it, only to transmit it to others. That the story repeats is the terror for anyone who has had this in their family. Alone waiting for Esau’s troops, Jacob has this terror now. His fear is not about the revenge his brother swore, but that the promise that has once come close to be taken away from Abraham will happen for real this time. He fears he too is going to be swept up into this cycle of violence, as a different kind of sacrifice to the Lord.
But it doesn’t happen; his meeting with Esau is not an attack, but a meeting of brothers who then go off on their own ways. What changed is what happened after that prayer.
25. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. [Genesis 34]
Whether it was God, an angel, Esau, or a battle in his own soul, the wrestling changed everything. He released a large part of the past iniquity in that wrestling tournament in the darkness. He emerged transformed, blessed with a new name of Israel. All the anger and fear that Jacob felt came out in the wrestling match. He was able to use all his skills and knowledge to make the meeting with Esau go off peaceably.
Fear and anger distort our view of the world. It causes us to say things that we do not mean, either about our selves or about others. It distorts our decisions into destructiveness to everyone. One rape, as horrible as it is, does not substantiate the slaughter and pillage of an entire town. The animal flight or fight response that is our fear and anger is more ancient than human existence. It is with human existence that this win-lose scenario changes to the possibility of conscious cooperation: a win-win. Everybody can win and consensus can be reached. Yet win-win almost always happens when anger and fear are under control instead of controlling us.
Three years ago, I wrote about a very interesting pattern. The way Jacob arranged people, and the gifts he gave to Esau had strategic value. While definitely the measure of wealth in that part of the world, the close to six hundred various animals he gave Esau also would slow down an army to a crawl. Esau would have to fight in a living quicksand a two front battle which could easily surround him. All the advantages of trained soldiers over a bunch of farmers were taken away – both Jacob and Esau know it. I concluded Jacob was smart enough to create deterrents. That does not come out of panic, or rabid anger, it comes out of self control and know how. It was that know how that got him from a wanderer with only a staff to a successful man. But it also comes from God’s blessing.
Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince you have power with God and with men, and have prevailed. [Genesis 32]
Being Benei Yisrael, we are the inheritors of that Blessing. When we are angry or afraid, we, Like Jacob, struggle with God. We can vent our fears and our anger in the direction of the Holy One in our own holy struggles in the darkness. By the time the light comes, we are transformed into one who does not act out of our fear or anger, but our reason and force of will.
There is no halakah of the survivor in Dinah. It is found in her father Jacob. We don’t get over it. Post traumatic stress syndrome is forever. What’s worse it can be transmitted through the generations if we are not careful. But we can control it, and turn it from a curse into a blessing. We can stop the transmission if we are conscious of it. In our releasing the pain and anger in safe directions, towards our struggle with God, we change into something more, and we find success we never know we had.
We can even end the cycle transmitting the iniquity from in our relationships as well, by a conscious effort to do so. Yet there will always be triggers, parts of the trauma we didn’t even know was there. Such triggers will affect our behavior. It may be a small thing that sets off a cascade of emotions. A small fight over the trivial becomes a big one with no one knowing why. Yet there are also behaviors which are more pervasive. While the trauma of the Akedah may be controlled in this portion, in the story of Joseph, we will see that there is still some behavior which still needs addressing.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Parshat Vayetzei 5769: The Lord Was In This Face and I, I Did Not Know.

This week we begin Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his adventures there. After a divine encounter with a ladder, he meets his beautiful cousin Rachel, and instantly falls for her. After a bit of deception on his father in law Laban’s part, he ends up not with one, but two wives. With a good grasp of genetics, Jacob grows rich and eventually sneaks away from him. His now rather large family of two concubines, two wives, soon-to-be thirteen children and lots of livestock goes with him. But as he starts home, he realizes something: he will have to eventually confront Esau once again.
After his divine dream of the Ladder, and God’s assurances about his journey,
16. Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I, I did not know. 17. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. [Genesis 28]

According to the Rabbis, this event happened on the Temple Mount. Jacob was given a taste of where Jerusalem would eventually stand. That spot did become the gate of Heaven not just for Jews, but other faiths as well. Is that the only gate to heaven however? Can we understand there is another, far more portable gate?
I tend to look for that gate in one of my favorite teachings. I learned this from R. Arthur Waskow many years ago while I was on retreat in upstate New York. He was leading the morning minyan, praying in a circular tent known as a yurt. He gave us a rather fascinating teaching about a very interesting parable:
To proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He: For if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. [Sanhedrin 37a]

Of course in Genesis we read.
27. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them. [Genesis 1]

Therefore every face is the image of God, yet all are different. Reb Arthur had us stand in a circle and do the Barchu while looking into the faces of the other people in the circle. We blessed the Lord while looking into the Lord’s face – each others. It was non-traditional certainly, but it was a powerful experience I don’t think I’ll forget.
I don’t think Reb Arthur is the first to notice this. Two thousand years ago lived two rather famous rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Their rivalry was legendary, only to be shadowed by the rivalry of their students. The classic story of Hillel and Shammai’s differences concerns the prankster who asked first Shammai then Hillel to teach them all of Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai wacked him with a ruler, and Hillel taught him the Golden Rule. Given that context, it is surprising to find this saying in the Perkei Avot:
Shammai used to say: Make your [study of the] Torah [a matter of] established [regularity]; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance.[Avot 1:14]

Shammai receives everyone with literally a beautiful shining face, which I often loosely translate as a smile. Note Shammai says all men, not just your fellow. All humans have a divine shine to them, including you. Where is this shine found the most? To understand that, let us look at a case where the shine is seen the least in this week’s portion. One of the sadder characters in this week’s text is of course Leah, who is continually trying to attract Jacob’s attention. Reuben Simeon and Levi are named with the idea that Leah will be loved once she bears children. [Genesis 29:32-34] Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to help. What made Leah loved so little? One answer is that Rachel was just so attractive, her sister couldn’t compete. The other is the one the text gives:
16. And Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17. Leah had weak eyes; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored. [Genesis 29]

What exactly is meant by weak eyes is not clear. Rabbinic thought [B.B. 123a, Gen R. 70:16] believes she cried so much believing she would have to marry Esau, her eyelashes fell out. In a more literal exegesis, Leah’s eyes may have not been weak in vision, but in the range of expression. Much of our inner emotions are expressed by the eyes. As a painter, it is why I find eyes so hard to paint; the smallest change in shape gives a different expression. The window to the soul, as the expression goes, is the eyes. When Leah’s eyes didn’t work properly, it was difficult to look at her or pay attention to her.
I thought of this a lot last weekend when I tried a little exercise. In the summer of 2006, I began a self improvement program to turn the shy man I was into a more dynamic, social person. I even took an on-line course, with plenty of exercises to break my old patterns. Some were very unpleasant due to my fear of walking up to a stranger. That resistance translated into taking a lot longer to complete the course, with results far short of the expected outcome. In my frustration, I added one exercise to the curriculum. In the online discussions, I suggested it to people with even bigger shyness issues than me: Say hello to a certain number of people. I started with ten, then twenty five. By the end of the summer I could easily smile, look someone in the eye, say “hello” or “good morning” a hundred times a day.
Since then I haven’t really done that exercise. Recently, I’ve noted in myself a return to much of the isolation of my past. I thought re-doing this exercise would be a good idea. So I set the goal of greeting a hundred people over the weekend, primarily strangers. Depending if I count everyone in my synagogue, I either missed my goal by a handful, or exceeded it. It was once again hard to catch someone’s eye and say “Hello.” But something weird happened too, which didn’t happen last time. On a few occasions, I’d just say hello and a conversation would break out, whether I wanted it or not. In some restaurants, all of a sudden I got preferential treatment. All of the servers were congregating around me like I was some kind of movie star. Thinking about this later, I’ve realized what happened.
Since 2006, this has gone from exercise to habit, and I, I did not know. This exercise, which ended up as rather interesting social experiment, has yielded some very unexpected results. I greet people all the time and open myself up to be receptive to them. Some, I’ll admit are scared and suspicious of me and won’t look me in the eye. But most find a cheerful, open person who greets them in a friendly way and doesn’t mind listening to whatever they want to say. A lot of these people are counter help or customer service people or restaurant servers. Because I do it so often and naturally, people react openly to me.
I saw the opposite yesterday, in the throes of a bad head cold. Both with the lack of energy to keep up a good attitude and my eyes watering, I was not at my best. So with the weak eyes of a rhinovirus or just a busy day, both times it took a long time for the server to come over and take my order. I noticed two things in those interactions at lunch and dinner. One was internal to me. When my existence was not acknowledged, I got angry and started treating the server as an object with a specific function. The same thing happened at dinner. I realized what I was doing and decided I’d try a little flirting. Strangely enough the service improved from that point on.
We read about the divine connection of heaven and earth in Jacobs’s dream, with Angels going up and down the ladder. We each have a divine face, each face a rung on that ladder between heaven and earth. When we acknowledge a face, we acknowledge God, and that person can also acknowledge it in us. This builds up from a small interaction to the attraction of keeping this relationship going. The conversation ascends like the angels heading up the ladder of Jacob’s dream. There can be something special, maybe even holy, in this conversation about the mundane. On the other hand, this connection breaks down and people spiral downward into alienation when we don’t acknowledge them and they don’t acknowledge us. As social creatures we want to connect to others, and have others connect to us. Through fear of the unknown, we often don’t and isolate ourselves. Being so isolated, we no longer pay attention since there is seemingly nothing to pay attention to.
All it needs to start the process is for one person to come up, look into the other’s eye, smile and say “hello!” Both Hillel and Shammai understood this. Both said hello to the stranger. Shammai, when confronted with a silly question, lost his openness. The connection that Hillel made inspired more connection and study. If one is open to connection, one gets connection and one builds connections which reach toward heaven like Jacob’s ladder.
God is not just on the Temple Mount. The gate of heaven is in Target and Wal-Mart too. Not in the merchandise lining the shelves, but in the faces of those around us. Sadly we don’t often think or see that. In the most obscene examples, people are injured or die because of it. In a rush-rush stress of December, indeed all year round, remember to say a friendly “hello” to that counter help and your fellow shoppers. What was once a stressful mundane task may just become a beautiful holy one.