This week, for the first time in a long while, I saw the Levi in shul once again.
Perhaps he’d been away, or maybe for the last long while we’ve just been davening at different times. Whatever the case, I was happy to see he’s well. I owe a lot to the Levi, because he taught me two important life lessons.
Several years ago, I began to notice that on Mondays and Thursdays, one particular older gentleman was being called up to the Torah as a Levi more frequently than usual. But it wasn’t just the frequency that made it curious; it was also, I noticed, that he seemed to wait for the aliyah almost longingly. He’d sort of put himself forth for it ever so slightly, which probably had something to do with the fact that the gabbai would choose him more often than his fellow Leviim.
On those occasions when the gabbai chose someone else, it seemed to me — though, granted, I may have been reading more into this than was really there — that the Levi felt let down, a barely perceptible expression of disappointment crossing his face.
In my mind he became “the Levi,” whose behavior I found puzzling, even a bit amusing. I admit, not proudly, that during more than one kriyas haTorah, I’d exchanged a subtle “there he goes again”–type look with someone else who was as puzzled as I was by the Mystery of the Frequent-Flier Levi.
Until one particular day, either a Monday or Thursday — or maybe it was a Rosh Chodesh, I just don’t recall. Davening had ended moments earlier and I was still finishing up my tefillos, when I chanced to overhear a conversation taking place two or three rows behind me. One fellow was sharing a true personal tale of self-discovery.
He’d come across his grandparents’ kesubah, he said, and there he saw that his paternal grandfather’s name was followed by the word “HaLevi.” This led to the further discovery of photographs of family tombstones in Europe, on which he saw — carved in stone, as they say — the title “HaLevi” appended to his forebear’s name. That’s “HaLevi,” member of Shevet Levi, not “halevai” as in “if only,” for this wasn’t “if only,” this indeed was. Unbeknownst, he had always a Levi. And — for joy! — he still was, and is.
I swiveled to see who the speaker of these dramatic words was — although, of course, I already knew. In one clarifying instant, with the addition of one small fact, this Jew’s behavior had become fully understandable. The anticipation, the hope of being noticed by the gabbai, the twinge of regret when not called upon — all were the emotions of someone who, in his advanced years, after almost an entire life lived, had serendipitously learned for the first time of an essential part of his identity, had stumbled upon himself, as it were.
From the Levi I had learned, once again, about how much there often is that we don’t know about other people and how important it is that we give people the benefit of the doubt. But I learned something else, too, because he taught by example what it means to seize the moment, even if that moment seems to have arrived some 80 years too late, because the whole notion of “too late” is a fiction that we create to give ourselves excuses, to wallow in our complacency and sense of inadequacy. Here’s what the Levi had to say in a past Mishpacha interview about having missed out on nearly a lifetime of aliyos, of elevations: ““If you came into one million dollars today, you’d say, ‘It’s a wonderful day — I have a million dollars,’ not ‘I didn’t have a million dollars before today.’ That’s the way I look at it.”
This week, as I watched the Levi receive yet another aliyah, making the brachah with visibly heartfelt kavanah, I was roused once again from my slumber to make the most of the precious time I have, to feel deeply the truth of zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagilah v’nismechah vo.
WHO’S INFLUENCING WHOM? Writing recently in Commentary, Michael Medved argues that evangelical Christians deserve Jews’ friendship and cooperation “because they aren’t just good forIsrael; they’re good forAmerica. And even more unexpectedly, they’re good for American Jews.” He observes:
A more vibrant and engaged Christian community in no way undermines Jewish commitment. By raising significant religious questions within the society at large, conservative Christians urge Americans of all ancestries and outlooks to conduct their own explorations. If your Jewish family lives in a community where the great majority of your neighbors attend church on Sunday, you are probably more — not less — likely to consider venturing into synagogue on Saturday.
In his 2006 book … [a] religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel described how the Christian community he covered as a reporter led him to stronger identification with his own religious heritage. Even though he describes himself as a “Daily Show Democrat, voting for the furthest left candidate on the ballot,” he found that his interaction with deeply religious Christians … led him to deeper involvement in his local Reform temple and to his wife’s conversion to Judaism after 24 years of marriage. “It’s made me a more committed Jew,” he told the New Jersey Jewish News.
Mr. Medved is probably correct about the likelihood of increased religiosity in society leading to a similar increase in Jewish religious involvement. But where he may have erred is in giving secular and heterodox Jewish leaders too much credit for being interested in such increased Jewish religiosity. It makes sense, of course, that Medved, as an observant Jew, believes this would be “good for American Jews,” but that doesn’t mean that others whose Jewish beliefs bear little likeness to the Judaism of the ages would agree.
Chazal (Pesachim 49b) teach that “the hatred of amei ha’aretz for talmidei chachamim is greater than that of the nations of the world for the Jewish People.” Of course. Both hatreds partake of the same dynamic, to which Chazal refer when they state that the name Sinai derives from the fact that hatred descended to the world from that exalted mountain. Its source is in the knowledge, often only subconscious, that the Jews, and the most learned of them in particular, carry G-d’s message for all mankind, and for His chosen People in particular.
The mixture of guilt and envy that this message creates in those who really don’t want to be reminded of it — lest it ruin their carefully laid plans to eat, drink, and be merry — and the resulting deep resentment towards the messenger who carries it, will obviously be far greater in the case of Jews, for whom the Divine message has infinitely greater implications than it does for non-Jews. Hence: “The hatred of amei ha’aretz for talmidei chachamim is greater than that of the nations of the world for the Jewish people.”
And so, to Michael Medved I say — au contraire. To the extent he’s right that a more religiously serious society would “[raise] significant religious questions within the society at large … [and] urge Americans of all ancestries and outlooks to conduct their own explorations,” it becomes eminently — if tragically — understandable that secular and heterodox Jewish leaders would fight tooth and nail, as they have for decades, to keep Christianity — and with it, the possibility of a flowering of authentic Judaism — out of American public life.