For several years now, I have been taking a train to work every day. Not a subway train, mind you, but an old-fashioned inter-city railroad train, complete with a conductor who collects the passengers' tickets and even shouts, "All aboard!"
I enjoy my daily train ride because it gives me an opportunity to sit by myself and think, read, or study undisturbed.
Occasionally, my peaceful solitude is interrupted by someone who sits down next to me and starts a conversation. Generally, the conversation consists of the usual niceties and endures no more than a few moments. But Paul was an exception to the rule.
Paul is his real name, and he boards the train just one station stop after I do. The first time I met him, he looked around and spotted quite a few empty seats before my presence caught his attention and he deliberately sat down next to me. No sooner had he sat down that he asked me the question I have come to dread: "You are a Rabbi, aren't you?"
Sitting with my black yarmulke and an open book of Mishna before me, it was hard to deny my rabbinical identity. So I told him, "Yes, I am a Rabbi, and what do you do?"
He answered, "I am a questioner. I have many questions about all sorts of things, not the least of which is religion. Do you mind if I ask you some of my questions?"
I could see my jealously guarded commuting time vanishing before my eyes. But I felt I had no alternative but to respond, admittedly insincerely, "Of course I would not mind. Ask away!"
Before he began, he told me about his studies in comparative religion and asserted that he was a spiritual person, although not technically a religious one. I told him that I shared his interest in comparative religion, although Judaism was my professed faith and the specific religion of which I had the most knowledge. I also told him that I completely understood the distinction he made between spirituality and religion, although we might easily quibble about the precise meaning of both of those terms.
He then asked me what I consider to be the essence of Judaism. It was not difficult for me to answer him because I have long pondered that question myself, and I had my answer at the ready.
"The essence of Judaism," I responded emphatically, "is a sense of gratitude, of thankfulness to those who have benefited us, both to humans in our daily interactions, and to God – or perhaps as you would put it, to the Higher Power who shows us His grace every moment of our lives, if we are but open to experiencing Him as the ultimate source of all the good in our lives."
I anticipated a challenging retort from Paul, but I was taken aback when he nodded in agreement. He said, "I can agree with you but somehow never associated gratitude and thankfulness with Judaism."
I told him that I had two reactions to his failure to associate my faith with these essential spiritual sentiments. "I must first point out to you," I insisted, "that the very meaning of the term Jew is 'he who thanks.' We are called Jews in English because of our ancestor Judah. When he was born, his mother, Leah, exclaimed: 'This time I will thank the Lord,' and named him Judah, which means 'he who thanks.' "
With a smile on his face, he said, "I thank you for that insight, which I never heard before. I will thank you even more if you share your second reaction with me."
I told him that my second reaction was associated with the portion in the Bible we were about to read that week several years ago, which happens to be this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36).
He stunned me with his familiarity with the early chapters of the book of Leviticus. "Those chapters are all about animal sacrifices," he objected. "What on earth do those pagan practices have to do with the quintessentially spiritual sentiments of gratitude?"
I politely, but very firmly, objected to his description of biblical sacrifices as pagan practices. I told him that it would take many train rides for me to even begin to explain the deeper significance of the Temple sacrifices to the Jewish religion and the implication of those sacrifices for the truly spiritual human. "But," I said in my best rabbinical voice, "let me just tell you a bit about one of those sacrifices, the korban todah, the Thanksgiving offering."
To my surprise, he expressed his readiness to hear what I had to say. I happened to have a Chumash with the translation and commentary of Rabbi Joseph Hertz in my briefcase, so I was able to quote the following verses verbatim:
"If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice unleavened cake mingled with oil and unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour soaked. Together with additional cakes of unleavened bread he shall present his offering..." (Leviticus 7:12-13) I pointed out to him that four different types of bread were listed here and, of each type, ten loaves were to be brought to the Temple.
I asked his permission to read to him Rabbi Hertz' comment on that passage, which succinctly recapitulates the teachings of our Sages on this verse:
"The rabbis declare that... In the messianic era, all sacrifices will have completed their educational mission – all save the one inculcating the duty of gratitude. That sacrifice continues forever. The prophets rank ingratitude as a sin that reduces man below the level of a dumb animal..."
At this point, my new friend again astonished me with his erudition. "I know," he said, "he is referring to the famous passage in the third or fourth verse of the first chapter of the book of Isaiah: 'An ox knows its owner...Israel does not know...' (Isaiah 1:3)"
I confessed my astonishment and told him how accurate his biblical memory was. I went on to tell him that to this very day, in lieu of sacrifices, Jews recite benedictions of thanksgiving when they have escaped the perils of a long journey, an unjust imprisonment, or a protracted illness. "I myself," I reported to him, "have just returned from a trip to Israel, and I uttered this very benediction in the synagogue this morning."
He expressed how deeply impressed he was by the fact that somehow the sacrifices of old persisted, albeit in a verbal form, to this very day. But he asked my permission to pose one more question. I granted him his request, and was glad that he asked: "Why so many breads, four different types, and ten of each type?"
I was so glad that he asked this, because I again had an answer at the ready. I told him about the great 15th century sage and finance minister to the king and queen of Spain, Don Isaac Abarbanel, who raised this question over 500 years ago and wrote:
"The time limit within which the meat of the sacrifice and the many loaves of bread were to be consumed was restricted to barely one day and one evening. How could a grateful person bringing the sacrifice possibly consume all of that in so short a time? Obviously, he had to bring with him his brethren, friends, and acquaintances to eat and rejoice with him and to inquire of one another about the reason for this man's gratitude, so that the man would respond and tell of the wondrous favors which the Lord Almighty had done for him, and so the name of God would be exalted among a throng of people and praised in the presence of all the elders..."
Paul shook his head and said, "I learned something special today about the spirituality of gratitude. I had always thought of gratitude as something for individuals to express privately, in solitude, and now you're telling me that you expressed your gratitude this morning before all those assembled in the synagogue, and that even in the ancient Temple, one could not express gratitude to the Divine without sharing his gratitude, and his bread, with other human beings."
I told him that I too had learned this lesson anew. I made a commitment to myself: I would no longer protect my time alone on the commuter train so zealously. I would be open to anyone who sat down next to me and hopefully share more conversations as meaningful as this one had been.
Paul has sat down next to me about once a week for the past several months. I will do my best, dear reader, to share some of our other conversations with you, from time to time.