A man from Mars came to a Bar Mitzvah this past Spring. Not being Jewish, he came a few minutes before services started. Because he was rather short – and green – I knew right away he wasn’t shul shopping (- a pity! We’re always looking for new members…). He somehow got past the Security guard, and I wanted to make sure everything was OK. I introduced myself, and welcomed him. He explained he was very interested in religion, and wanted to understand how it worked: What people did, and what people felt. I asked him to put on a yarmulke and told him to sit next to me; I would explain everything.
To be honest, he was more than a little lost during Shaharit. He couldn’t follow the Hebrew, and was flabbergasted when I told him that neither could almost everybody else. He also didn’t understand why people kept streaming in as much as forty-five minutes after the service had started.
But then we came to the Torah service, and I could tell he was really fascinated: Six people sent up to the Bimah. The doors opened. The curtains pulled. The congregation rising. The mantled Torah scroll with the silver crown taken from the ark. The procession around the Sanctuary. People jostling to get close and touch the Torah and kiss their fingers. I told him how we read a portion of the sacred text each Saturday – stories, poems, laws. And how we slowly make our way through the scroll, over the course of a year until we finish it in the Fall. “Then what do you do, when you’re done?” he asked. “We start it all over again.” “Isn’t that boring reading the same thing?” he inquired. “The stories are the same, but we’ve changed; each year we find new meaning and relevance.” He was very impressed by the idea.
He was intrigued by the parade of congregants who came to stand up close to the open Torah, and recite the blessings before and after each reading. I filled him in on some of the hidden rules: Torah reader chants from the scroll which has no vowels or notes; the two Gabbais who follow in a book and correct any mistakes; the first congregant descended from the family of the High Priest; the second from the tribe of Moses; three congregants on Monday and Thursday morning, four on the beginning of a new month, five on a festival, six on the Day of Atonement, and seven on a Sabbath.
And then he said something that stopped me in my tracks – “OK – I understand what’s happening on the Bimah. But explain to me what’s going on down here, in the pews. What are all these people doing, and thinking, and feeling?” I had never really given it much thought.
He could see that I was stumped, so he pointed at two people in the back who were engaged in conversation. I was a little embarrassed to tell him that they were gossiping about a mutual acquaintance. “And that’s permitted?” he wanted to know. “Well, no, but…” Then he motioned towards some other congregants. “Why do they have their communication devices out, and why are they sending and receiving messages during the reading of the sacred text?” My face must have turned red and he could see that he had put me in an awkward spot. Still, he waited for an explanation. “Well, um, ah, ya see” I stammered. “People come for all sorts of reasons. Some out of social obligation – they were invited and it would be rude not to come. But they have no real interest in what’s going on, and they can’t wait until it’s over. Others come out of habit. This is what they do on a Saturday. Where else would they go? Some come for the free food – a rainbow cookie on an ordinary day, and a full lunch on a special occasion. Others are here with their own agendas. That woman is going in for surgery next week. That man just became a grandfather. That guy’s business is failing. That lady just sent her youngest kid off to college. That person, and that person, and that person all lost close relatives in the past few months. That woman’s husband just left her. That man’s son hasn’t met the right person to fall in love with. That woman’s daughter just miscarried. Some people are here to plead with God to help them. Others are here to thank God for something good that happened. Some are here because they want to be; some are here because they have to be; and some would rather be any place but here. Some are here for God; some are here for their friends; some are here for themselves…”
“Wait” the Martian interjected. “Are you telling me that what’s going on up there on the Bimah has nothing to do with what’s happening down here in the seats?”
“To be honest” I told him, “for most of the people – it doesn’t. But there are some for whom this moment is why they’re here. See that woman over there? She’s reading along in the Humash, and as the Torah reader chants the Hebrew, she’s reading the English translation, and when she doesn’t understand something, she checks the commentaries. And see those people holding those yellow pamphlets? We put them out each week in the lobby. They have short essays and explanations that add a modern perspective and bring a contemporary relevance. That guy over there? He went to Yeshiva as a kid, so he prefers the traditional commentaries. Today he’s reading Humash and Rashi – Rashi lived over a thousand years ago, but people still read his insights. And that woman holding the book with the white cover? She’s into modern feminist perspectives on the Torah. Do they even have such things by you on Mars? Or do you have to go to Venus for that?”
Suddenly, a man – he must have been a guest at today’s Bar Mitvzvah because he wasn’t one of our regulars – stood up as the Torah reader began chanting and he pulled his Tallis over his head. You could still see his face, and his eyes were closed. He held no book in his hands, and his arms were hugging his upper body. He was rocking slightly, back and forth.
“What’s going on over there?” the Martian asked. I explained that for some, like the people following along in their various books, the essence of the Torah experience was intellectual. It was studying the words and delving into their meanings. But for a small number of Jews, this experience was mystical. “That man is enacting a sacred drama. He is pretending that he’s standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, 3000 year ago, with Moses and the Israelites. When the Cantor reads the Torah, that man hears the voice of God! He is doing a ritual re-creation of Revelation. He is less interested in what the words mean and more focused on how they move him. He’s meditating, and during the actual chanting, he’s not here – he’s gone back in time and is halfway around the world. When the Torah reading is completed, he comes back. Very few people are able to do what he’s doing, or to ignore the stares and the whispering – and the laughter – that are aimed at him.
A man and a woman were called up to the Torah, the congregants all stood up, and the sacred scroll was lifted in the air, for all to see. As the Martian gazed at the black letters on the white parchment, I told him:
“Every couple of months out technology leaps light years ahead. Books now appear magically in iPads or other electronic devices. Yet we Jews still write the Torah on animal hide by hand with ink made from gall nuts. The old is not always discarded; sometimes it is held onto, and sanctified.” The scroll was wrapped and put aside and a 13 year old was called up. The teen sang from a book, with a different tune than the Torah reading. I explained to the Martian that this was the Haftara – words of the prophets who lived 500 years after the time of the Torah. These were speeches and poems of either rebuke, or of comfort – depending on the historical circumstance.
The Martian seemed to be having trouble understanding the translation. “Does the child know what this means: ‘There is no balm in Gilead’. Or ‘I will lay carbuncles as your building stones’? Or ‘An ephah for each ram, with a hin of oil for each ephah’? I don’t!”
I tried to explain: “At 13 – probably not. But this kid now has a lifelong connection with this speech. Maybe when he’s older, he’ll get it. This year, we teach him how to read and sing the words. In 10, or 20 years, he’ll figure out who Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were, and how these words are a part of his history, and how these words might speak to him, personally. In some places, tribes send their adolescents off into the woods to kill a bear. In our tribe, we send our kids in front of the congregation to chant ancient words in a foreign tongue. We pray that this is not his last step – but the first one. Many never come back. It’s the ones that do that have kept us going for 3000 years.”
The 13 year old finished – flawlessly – and received a blessing and a gift from the congregation. The Torah was marched again around the congregation. As it came near us, the Martian asked: “Would it be all right if I touched it?” I smiled and nodded my head. As he made contact with the scroll, I could see goosebumps on his arm, and the hair actually stood up on the back of his neck.
I wished that more of our people felt such reverence.
We went quickly through Musaf, and when we got to Adon Olam he said: “Amazing! That tune sounds just like a children’s song we sing on Mars!” As I accompanied him into the Kiddush, I told him: “You’re in luck! Today that have lox and schmaltz herring!”
The Martian was puzzled by the seriousness of the service juxtaposed to the festivity of the feasting.
I explained: “some people are no doubt celebrating that the service is over. And some may even be celebrating what the service taught them, and made them feel. But the real truth is that the service, and the feasting are the two sides of life – the spiritual and the physical. The ultimate goal of our religion is to bring those two sides together, in the proper balance.
The crowd slowly thinned out, and I walked our guest out to his flying saucer. (Because he had come early, he got a great spot in the parking lot.)
I wished the man from Mars a ‘Gut Shabbes’, and told him I hoped he’d come back again, sometime soon. I’ll not soon forget his last words to me before he blasted off”
“You have a wonderful religion, here. I can see that. I just hope that your own people do, as well…”