Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal. He would have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they would have to leave. The Jewish people met and picked an aged but wise Rabbi, Moishe, to represent them in the debate. However, as Moishe spoke no Italian and the Pope spoke no Hebrew, they all agreed that it would be a “silent” debate.
On the chosen day, the Pope and Rabbi Moishe sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Rabbi Moishe looked back and raised one finger.
Next the Pope waved his finger around his head. Rabbi Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.
The Pope then brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. Rabbi Moishe pulled out an apple.
With that, the Pope stood up and declared that he was beaten, that Rabbi Moishe was too clever and that the Jews could stay.
Later, the Cardinals met with the Pope, asking what had happened. The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there is still only one God common to both our beliefs. Then, I waved my finger to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us of all our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He had me beaten and I could not continue.”
Meanwhile the Jewish community gathered around Rabbi Moishe. “What happened?” they asked. “Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I wagged my finger and said to him: “No Way”!
Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews and I said to him, Mr. Pope, we’re staying right here.”
“And then what,” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said Moishe, “he took out his lunch, so I took out mine.”
One external reality can bear a multiplicity of meanings. Just ask a therapist trying to negotiate a miscommunication between angry spouses or attempting to resolve a difficult parent-child dynamic. Often the problem is not what is being said as much as how it is understood.
In the Divine scheme, it must be that way. K’sheim sheparztufeihem shonim, kach deioteihen shonos. Just as their faces are different – so are their attitudes. Ben Zoma (Brachot 58a) commented that it is only upon seeing 600,000 Jews that one may make the remarkable bracha (chacham harazim) praising God who reveals His secrets (through His people). Different minds complement and add understanding to the point that a full spectrum can reveal the essential nature of His world.
The flip side is that different mindsets also create great complexity.
The Kotzker Rebbe once wryly commented: if only the world would be as tolerant of different opinions as they are of different faces. A sanguine intellectually cogent comment doesn’t necessarily make it any easier, however. The simple fact is that being plugged into one’s inner world takes great effort. Trying to understand the other’s inner world is even harder.
I sometimes ponder the endless mass of cars traversing the 405 or the massive crowds walking through an airport. One can be walking down the very same corridor or driving on the same road as the other and yet each is embarking upon a different journey.
Walk into a shul during the silent amidah. For a brief moment there is serenity and intensity. (Hopefully, a cell phone will not go off). You might observe individuals in the crowd uttering the very same words. You may see faces of intensity and expressions of joy. Yet for Moshe the pre-med student, atah chonein is critical – because he is taking the MCAT’s tomorrow; John’s mother is undergoing chemo – so his refaeinu is poignant; Rivkah’s husband has just been laid off – so bareich aleinu looms large; Behzad’s father can’t get an exit visa so he is moved by teka b’shofar; after a long wait, Yehoshua’s wife finally gave birth – so modim is so personally meaningful. The same shul and yet so many personal dramas emanating from vastly different worlds. Individual Jews that are part of something bigger, linked by a common faith and national destiny and yet distinguished by their unique challenges. They are a part and yet apart.
Each of the twelve nesi’im in Naso (heads of tribe) deliver the identical altar inauguration offering. Silver bowls and golden spoons, incense and animals to boot. They are all identical, yet, according to the classical midrashic analysis, each offering represented a different weltanschauung – a new, fresh and unique inner world. (For Nachson, the offering was all about kingship while for Netanel it was an ode to Torah study, whereas for Eliav it was about a partnership, etc.). In Judaism, the private world looms large.
Rabbeinu Nissim (Barcelona 1320 – 1380), in a remarkable analysis of Sanhedrin 74, distinguishes between a Jew and Gentile’s obligation in Kiddush Hashem (giving up one’s life rather than violating the Torah). For the “big three” (idolatry, adultery/incest, murder) a Jew must give up his life for even a private violation. If a gentile (Noachide) is obligated to cede his life (an ambiguous Talmudic conclusion), it is at best only in the public realm (of these three).
Wherein lays the distinction? Ran answers: A Gentile is obliged to respect and/or sanctify God’s name; a private violation does not profane or disrespect God’s name. A Jew is obligated to love God (v’ahavta es Hashem Elokecha). Love’s primary manifestation is away from the spotlight; its brightest shine is precisely when the curtains are down and no audience is present. In its purest and most unadulterated form, love is giving for the sake of giving.
Some might even call this the essential notion of tznius.
It is that private world that is the unique domain of the Jew and where he most celebrates his special relationship with his Creator.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.