I arrived quite early to the fourth session of the weekly class, in which we were using the book of Genesis as a source for studying leadership.
Three of the students were already there, and they all seemed to resent my arrival and intrusion into their schmoozing. I sat down behind the teacher's desk, signaling to them that they could continue their conversation without concern for my butting in.
Carol was teasingly reprimanding Alex for a question he had asked Othniel. "It is rude to ask a person about his accent," she objected. "It makes him uncomfortable, and is really none of your business anyway."
I immediately realized that Alex, ever confrontative, had inquired about Othniel's accent. From the first time that Othniel spoke up in class, I had noted his thick accent and found myself wondering about its origin. It was like none of the other accents that I heard around the Jewish community in the city in which I then lived.
And, of course, Carol, true to form, was playing the role of the "big sister," protecting Othniel. But Othniel needed no protection.
"Let's wait until the rest of the class gets here," he responded. "My accent will be a good starting point for the story I plan to tell. It's my personal story, but it has a lot to do with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), and is most relevant to our topic, of leadership."
It did not surprise me that Carol applauded Othniel's intention to dominate the evening's class discussion. I was, however, shocked when Alex also encouraged Othniel, saying, "I would very much like to learn about your story, and I urge you to share it with the entire class."
At this point, the rest of the class filed in. I convened the session, remarking upon the fact that Othniel had a story to tell which was related to the weekly portion and to the subject of leadership. Everyone in the class expressed a readiness to let Othniel take charge. Everyone, that is, but Zalman, who had an agenda of his own, as we will shortly see.
Othniel began, and the difficulties we had experienced with understanding his heavily accented English vanished as we became absorbed in his story. "It was a few years after I first learned that I was Jewish, and I began to study Torah. The first thing I was struck with was that the Torah began with stories—long and fascinating narratives—and not with laws or statements of theology. So for me to tell my story seems quite appropriate."
The class was all ears, except of course for Zalman, who clearly feared losing the floor.
Othniel, oblivious to Zalman's concerns, continued: "Back then, two passages stood out for me. One was the commandment of circumcision, which we read at the end of last week's parsha. The other one was the story of the binding of Isaac, at the end of this week's parsha."
Aware that he had the class's attention, Othniel lowered his voice to a whisper: "My mother was a Jewish woman in the early years of the Holocaust in Poland. She was pregnant with me when she sought out the assistance of a Gentile doctor whom she knew and trusted. He promised to help her deliver the baby, me, when the time came. She was in hiding but managed to come to his home in time for him to deliver me. Then she surrendered me to him and asked that he see to it that I survived, because she knew that she had but days to live.
"He was in no position to raise me himself, so he gave me over to a young Polish couple. They raised me as a Gentile, indeed as a Catholic, and it was not until I finished high school that they told me that I was Jewish. I never knew and never will know the identity of my parents, but from the time I first discovered my origins, I began to study Torah. I first learned of the rite of circumcision at that first stage of my religious odyssey. After about a year, I arranged for my own circumcision. Now you know why I am transfixed every time I come across the passage we read last week.
"I soon learned that Abraham was not only faced with the test, or trial, of sacrificing his son Isaac. He was put to nine other tests as well. Indeed, his entire life can be seen as one long series of trials and tests. I identified with him, because I too was tested, far more than ten times, along my journey from that small Polish village and the Catholicism upon which I had been nurtured to this city and its large and welcoming Jewish community.
"When I was selected for this class, I was told that I was chosen because I showed the potential to become a leader in this community. Imagine my profound emotional reaction to the trust placed in me. For me, this is more than just a class. It is a confirmation of my adolescent decision to plunge into a life of difficult experiences.
"During our first discussion in this class about leadership, I must confess to having felt inadequate. How could I entertain a pretense to leadership when my Jewish background was so different from that of the rest of you? But then, between last week and tonight's session, I realized that these very difficulties, these trials and tests, are precisely what qualify a person for leadership. Abraham was put to the test ten times in his life, and that made him that much more qualified for the role he was to play in Jewish history than others who suffered no such trials."
The class was silent and deeply contemplative. Zalman broke the silence. "I too came to class this evening with words to share. But my words are based upon my intellectual experience, my studies, and not upon the type of life experience that Othniel just shared. I found it best expressed in the remarks of Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (Part III, Chapter 24), where he reflects upon what he considers the most difficult concept in the Torah, the concept of nisayon, of God's putting man to the test. This is what he says: 'A calm and tranquil life does not prepare one for heroism; toil and tribulation prepare the hero.' "
I have not yet introduced you, dear reader, to Sam, another member of the class, and one who eventually gained the title "Sam the Summarizer." It was at this point in the conversation that he offered his first summary: "There are two types of wisdom, and they sometimes lead to the same conclusions. There is Zalman's wisdom which comes from his scholarly efforts, and there is Othniel's wisdom, which derives from the lessons of a life fraught with difficulty."
It seemed that it was the time for the curtain to be drawn on this exquisite drama. But Sam soon demonstrated that his verbal skills were not limited to providing summaries. He turned to Othniel and asked: "Where did you get the name Othniel from? Surely that's not what you were called back in the Polish village of your childhood."
Othniel grinned. "At the rate we study in this class, we will never reach the early chapters of the book of Judges. In my early studies, I read those chapters and became intrigued by the man named Othniel ben Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, and one of the early leaders of the Jewish people. He conquered a city. I later learned that the Talmud insists that it was not a literal city that he conquered. Rather, he conquered "the city of ignorance." For, you see, during the period of grief and mourning following the death of Moses, 1,700 important teachings were forgotten. Othniel was able to recover those teachings through his skills of reason.
"It was my fate to reach the age of 17 ignorant of many more than 1,700 lessons. I have devoted my life to recovering those lost teachings. My model and my inspiration was the biblical Othniel.
"He was a leader almost totally unknown by most students of Jewish history. But in today's era, when so many Jews are ignorant of their heritage, it is incumbent upon all of us here to follow Othniel's path."
The clock on the wall indicated that we had gone long past the scheduled ending of our session. It would have been superfluous for me to add anything to the interaction I just described. All I could say was, "I wonder what lies ahead for us next week as we study the parsha of Chaye Sarah. I'll see you then."