“Do you accept Jesus?” exhorted the leader or minister or whatever title he went by–Arnie never really bothered to keep it straight. As if on cue, someone in the large crowd would just jump up and yell “I believe.” A wave of shouts invariably followed: Yeah brother. I do. Go for it. Awright. Do it… To Arnie, it almost sounded like he was sitting in the bleachers at a ball game with the home fans trying to spark a rally.
Then other people started jumping up and shouting “I believe,” and the whole thing began all over again as more and more people joined in. Arnie started to giggle. The image of popcorn popping rushed into his head. He could imagine the crowded tent where they were gathered expanding like the aluminum foil of popcorn packages. He knew this was serious, but still it was a funny thought so he giggled.
“What’s the matter with you?” Kris hissed in his ear. “Don’t you believe? Tell them you believe. Say you accept Jesus. It’s that easy,” she urged.
Kris was Arnie’s newest girlfriend, a cute, petite blond with short hair, a wide toothy smile, and infectious optimism. He met her at work, where they were both computer programmers. He had discovered that she was a follower of a local charismatic Christian leader. Arnie had envied her assurance and her calm and her positive outlook. At work things often got incredibly hectic and intense, but she remained utterly unperturbed. People might be working all night or working through weekends and pulling their hair out, but Kris always took time out for prayer meetings. The managers would glare at her, but she didn’t care. He liked that.
She had found Jesus, Kris told him. That gave her peace and serenity, she claimed. Life was so simple, she insisted, when you accepted Jesus. Arnie had spent the last few years looking for just that kind of thing. He had been searching what turned out to be the whole world–India, Nepal, Japan, Africa–looking for meaning, for peace, for something spiritual that he could believe in and live by. And Kris had found it with some charismatic something-or-other right here in Dallas.
“It’s not that easy for me,” Arnie replied.
“Yes it is. Do it. You gotta do it before you feel anything. Just friggin’ do it,” she urged.
Arnie took a deep breath, muttered what the heck to himself, and jumped up. “I believe,” he called halfheartedly.
“Do you accept Jesus?” the congregation called up.
“Sure,” Arnie replied almost casually. Still, he felt like a hypocrite. People swarmed around him. They hugged him. Others smacked him on the back. Kris jumped into his arms kissing him.
Arnie might have declared himself for Jesus, but nothing had really changed. He still felt frazzled and pressured. He would go to prayer meetings with Kris but didn’t find any kind of solace there. He would only come back to feel even more pressure at work to make up for the time he lost. Sure the sex was better with Kris now; they had enjoyed sex before, but since he accepted Jesus, Kris had become utterly uninhibited with him. He loved it, but it left him wondering. Is this what it is all about, good sex? He didn’t feel any greater sense of spirituality. Jesus was just a word to him, a name. He felt like a liar.
“You have to give it time,” Kris assured him.
Arnie tried. He went to prayer meetings. He went to Bible study groups. The study groups were nothing like the intense Torah and Talmud study Arnie remembered from growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, which would pour over every word of the Torah, discussing the smallest point, even down to the significance of dots over individual letters. By contrast, this group accepted every word literally but on the most superficial level. Arnie remembered Torah discussions from his childhood where people argued over various points and extracted what seemed like deep insights. He remembered his father or his teachers citing one dead rabbi or another, arguing over the possible meanings of some ancient Hebrew or Aramaic word, of the significance of the use of a singular or plural form of a word. He had despised that kind of nit-picky Torah study when he was a kid, but at least there was substance to the discussions. These people were studying the Bible as a comic book.
Occasionally, Arnie brought up contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, two versions of the expulsion from the Garden, two versions of the Flood. The Bible commanded people not to kill, but the Bible was full of killing and even prescribed death as a punishment. The others looked at him like he just arrived from Mars. OK, he could accept Jesus and the Bible, but it cried out for interpretation. He wanted it to make sense.
“You embarrassed me,” Kris complained, returning after one study session to the apartment they now shared. “Why did you have to start asking all those stupid questions? The sacrifice of Isaac was a test. Abraham passed it with flying colors. Everybody knows that. End of story. Nobody cares whether God ever talked to Abraham again. Anyway, it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you accept Jesus.”
“I’m sorry,” Arnie said. He slipped his arm around her waist trying to pull her close to him. She spun away.
They didn’t do any lovemaking that night. Shortly after, Arnie dropped the study sessions altogether. A little while later he started skipping the prayer sessions. Their lovemaking grew infrequent and without much passion. Without talking about it, both realized their relationship was sputtering to an end. Arnie began to accept calls from headhunters. He was a topnotch programmer and frequently received calls from headhunters. In the past, he politely declined the various offers. Now he found himself interested in what they were offering. It wasn’t long before he landed an attractive job in Boston.
His final goodbye with Kris was brief; they both recognized the end. He packed only his clothing and some personal belongings, mainly books, and left Dallas, leaving Kris and Jesus behind. Like his embrace of Buddhism and Hinduism and Shintoism and half a dozen isms before, his embrace of Jesus had failed to satisfy his need for spiritual substance. What did life mean? What was our purpose? He still didn’t feel any closer to an answer or even a means to an answer.
On the flight to Boston Arnie tried to think when this search for meaning began. His orthodox Jewish parents had divorced when he was in college. It turned into a nasty affair with his father refusing to grant his mother the Get, the Jewish document legally dissolving the marriage. She had her civil divorce so what did a stinking Get matter, he told his mother. The Get was just an irrelevant Jewish legal technicality. That’s what he hated about Judaism. Everybody was so wrapped up in these technical legalisms that they lost whatever spirituality Judaism might have to offer. To Arnie, Judaism became rules without humanity. Anyway, at one point he called his mother stupid because of her insistence on the damn Get. Why didn’t she just move on with her life?
Still, he called his father a few times on his mother’s behalf to bug him about the Get. His father was bitter about the divorce. His mother was demanding a lot of money, his father said. The Get was just one of a lot of unresolved issues. Arnie and his father exchanged angry words, with Arnie calling him a stubborn asshole during the last exchange. “Don’t you ever talk to me like that,” snarled his father, who then slammed down the phone.
Ok, Arnie thought; I don’t ever have to talk to him again. Arnie had been a loner growing up. He had a few friends but more often preferred to spend time alone. He read or took long walks. On those walks he would think about lots of things–why people were like they were, why bad things happened in the world, what happened to you after you died–stuff he didn’t feel comfortable talking about with others. Once, before his parents got divorced, he thought he would find the answers in Judaism, in the Torah and the Talmud, but he found himself turned off by the picky rules and endless quibbling over technicalities. When was it permissible to recite Mincha, the afternoon prayers? Pages and pages of the Talmud, it seemed, were devoted to this and equally stupid questions. Did God really care if you recited Mincha an hour earlier or later? His parent’s divorce and the fight over the Get really shook him up. That’s probably when he began thinking about other ways of viewing the world and life.
Armed with a degree in computer science, some awards, and a stellar track record, Arnie found it easy to land computer work. He would stay on a project for a few months until he had completed his part, adding another accomplishment to his resume, and then move on to the next project. He made very good money and lived inexpensively. His tastes and needs were modest, so he managed to save a considerable amount of money very quickly. That’s when he finally decided to take time off to conduct his great search for meaning. His savings allowed him to travel the world seeking insight from supposedly the best teachers. He learned to meditate, he practiced yoga, he adopted vegetarianism, he read tons of sacred texts, he bathed in the Ganges, but he never found the answers he sought. While he picked up a few ideas along the way, he didn’t find in any of them the path to the kind of life he wanted to live or the answers he sought. Maybe this was all a stupid waste of time, he thought.
Arnie didn’t go to Dallas to find the answer in Jesus. Disillusioned with his search for meaning, he took the Dallas job for the money, to replenish his savings. But then he met Kris and she introduced him to Jesus. And, well, another disappointment.
He didn’t expect to find the answer in Boston either; he was going there to get away from Kris and Jesus and because the technology was tops. The financial opportunity was huge, the recruiter repeatedly pointed out, but money didn’t really drive Arnie. More recently, he had been bothered by the thought that there might not be an answer to the big questions. That was depressing. Maybe there wasn’t any more to life than the next trip to the shopping mall and the latest electronic gadget.
The bearded, heavyset man wedged into the seat next to him on the flight was given a kosher meal. Arnie, thin and lanky, had requested a vegetarian meal. They both unwrapped their meals. Before actually eating, the man closed his eyes and started mumbling a distinctly Hebrew blessing, the motzi, Arnie thought. However, the man didn’t just rattle through it fast. He almost appeared to be meditating as he prayed, relishing each word. When he was finally finished, the man turned and looked closely at Arnie. “You understand that? You Jewish?” he asked.
Arnie wasn’t quite sure how to reply. “I was born one,” he said. “I guess I have been everything but a WASP,” he added with a laugh. They talked briefly of inconsequential stuff while they ate their meals. Then the man started asking more pointed questions. Arnie didn’t want to get into his life story; he pulled out a book on programming technique and buried himself in it. He preferred to avoid a deep spiritual discussion about the meaning of life or anything like that with a stranger, especially an observant Jew.
The plane landed in Boston and taxied to the terminal. As Arnie put his book away, the man turned to him with a business card. “Here. I know a lot of Jews who have been everything else too. Call me sometime. I’d like to hear your story.”
Arnie was still holding the card in his hand as he walked briskly through the terminal to the baggage claim area. He glanced at it. The guy was a rabbi from some congregation in Cambridge, a city across the river from Boston. Printed on the card under the rabbi’s name was a line that read: New age spiritualism for Judaism. I don’t want any more to do with this kind of shit, he thought. Arnie crumpled the card and dropped it into a nearby trash bin.
Boston was caught up in gold rush frenzy. Young people like himself were flocking to Internet startup ventures that were multiplying faster than email viruses. The scent of money was everywhere. Even casual conversations revolved around IPOs and venture capital funding. People followed the stocks of hot companies more closely than the local sports teams. Stores seemed bursting with expensive stuff. Cell phones, fashions, electronics, jewelry were all the rage.
Arnie dived right into work. He was a top programmer in one of the hottest of the hot companies. Lured with stock options and a high salary, he was richer, on paper at least, than he ever imagined he could be and was poised to become far richer still. His co-workers seemed to him obsessed with the money. They kept the company’s stock price continuously displayed on their computer screens. They programmed their cell phones to beep them whenever the stock price changed. The company offered luxury high performance cars as incentives for exceeding financial objectives. Everything was driven by money. He and his co-workers spent days, nights, and weekends pounding out the next feature, the next enhancement, the next whatever.
Arnie hadn’t even gotten around to buying a car. Besides, he had little time to use a car and had plenty of money to take taxis or rent cars when he needed one. He actually found the focus on money disturbing, but he tried to ignore it. His co-workers thought he was weird. He did his work, he beat the goals management set for him, and his bank account grew anyway. But he wasn’t happy. Far from it. The same questions started to creep back. Why? What does it all mean?
At the same time, Arnie began to think about his parents again. During his travels he had pretty much lost touch with them and his brothers. Following the divorce, the family had scattered. Passover was coming. Arnie remembered large, rambunctious family Seders packed with his brothers, cousins by the score, and a platoon of aunts and uncles. Food overflowed the table. His father and uncles rattled through the Seder in high speed Hebrew, stopping only to argue some obscure point.
Arnie made a few phone calls to his brothers and learned that there would be no family Seder this year. He didn’t even bother calling either of his parents; he would only end up arguing. The family Seder as he knew it was gone for good. Life is change, one of the so-called gurus he visited had told him as if delivering a stunning revelation. That indeed may be so, but Arnie thought even then that it was a sophomoric thing to say. Thinking of his family now, he preferred something he saw on a bumper sticker: Shit happens. Maybe that was the answer spent so long searching for.
“What are you doing for Passover? Are you going to a Seder?” Steve, a co-worker asked Arnie as the first Seder approached. Steve, who had recently married, was as close to a friend as Arnie had at work. They shared an orthodox Jewish background that each had rejected.
“At this rate, I will probably be having pizza here,” Arnie replied.
“No, seriously. Come to our house. We’re having a lot of people over, people who have no family Seder to attend. I’m calling it the orphans’ Seder,” said Steve.
“I’m more a refugee than an orphan,” Arnie responded.
“Come. You’ll like it. No laptops, cell phones, or pagers allowed. And you won’t be the youngest, so you won’t have to ask the Four Questions,” Steve insisted.
Steve’s house was packed for the Seder. A long table ran through the dining room and into the living room. Fortunately, the newlyweds had very little furniture. The crowd consisted of young couples and a bunch of single women, friends of Steve’s wife Amy. A few couples brought small children. Arnie was one of the few single men present. It was a very different crowd from the seders of his childhood, which were noisily packed with cousins and aunts and uncles by the score.
Arnie ended up seated next to Karen, a friend of Amy. Karen was a schoolteacher. She came from a Reform background but was becoming increasingly observant as she sought more spirituality in her life.
The Seder itself turned out to be quite different from the family seders Arnie remembered. The first thing Arnie noticed was an orange sitting on the Seder plate along with the shankbone and egg and other traditional items. “It symbolizes the inclusion of women as equals at the Seder. God freed all Israelites, men and women,” Karen explained.
Steve led the Seder in a mix of Hebrew and English. Songs were sung. The Seder wove together Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions and a variety of tunes, modern and traditional. People freely added their own comments.
Early on, the children asked the traditional Four Questions. “The rabbis who created the Seder wanted people to ask questions. Everything is set up to elicit questions,” Steve explained. Then Steve directed each guest to ask one question. One by one, guests asked their questions. Some questions, such as the one about the orange, could be expected. The famous fifth question, when do we eat, was asked. Others asked more provocative questions.
Arnie had had so many questions racing through his head for so long that he hardly new what to say as his turn came. “You’re the last one, Arnie. We can’t move ahead until you ask a question,” Steve chided him.
Finally he said: “Our lives are so short, and the universe is so huge. What are we to make of it all?”
The room exploded in discussion. People eagerly offered comments from every conceivable angle. And that’s how it went for the rest of the Seder–wide ranging discussions around every point. Arnie was impressed. Unexpectedly, he found people versed in Torah and Talmud discussing those source texts in what he considered a very erudite yet humanistic, spiritual way.
Hours later, long after the meal, after the songs, after four cups of wine, after a debate over a fifth cup of wine, the discussion was still going strong. Karen was telling Arnie of a congregation she had joined in Cambridge, the geek congregation she called it. “A bunch of high tech people formed a Havurah and then sort of took over an old dying congregation,” she explained. They brought in an unconventional rabbi who was very charismatic and spiritual. He combined traditional Judaism along with new age stuff and the teachings of the Dalai Lama.
Arnie smiled and nodded, feigning interest, but he had had his fill of charismatic religious leaders. Karen invited him to join her on any Shabbat. “Maybe. Thanks,” was all the enthusiasm he could muster.
The pressure at work intensified. Investors were pushing the company to exceed expectations every quarter although the Internet economy overall began to sputter. The company’s stock price began falling. Managers grew panicky, trying desperately to slash costs while increasing their demands on the employees. The programmers along with everybody else felt the heat. People were edgy and nervous. Many turned angry and testy as they watched their big score–their big financial killing–evaporate before their eyes. Visions of early retirement, bigger houses, and fancier cars imploded.
As it turned out, Arnie never made it to the synagogue in Cambridge to which Karen had invited him, not that he ever intended to go. So soon after Kris, he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, certainly not one with a woman who followed another charismatic religious leader. And Judaism in any form had long stopped interesting him. If he wanted to spend his life sorting out legal technicalities, he would have been a lawyer.
At least he didn’t worry about the stock price. He never much cared about the company’s stock price when it was rising, and he sure didn’t worry about it now when it was falling. He had never gotten around to exercising his stock options. He didn’t have big expenses. He wasn’t interested in acquiring things. He didn’t have to support a family.
But he was distracted in other ways. Following the Seder, Arnie had started to think more about his family and his parents in particular. He kept telling himself that their divorce was their business. He wasn’t a child. It didn’t affect him. Why should he care? But he did care. It did make him angry, he realized. He just couldn’t figure out who or what he was angry at, or why. So he grew angry at all of them: his father, his mother, God, Judaism, the rabbis who made rules about divorce, everybody.
The summer flew by. When Arnie wasn’t immersed in work, he was aggravating himself over his parents’ divorce. For Arnie, it was a summer without sunshine or the beach. Usually, an active, outdoors type, he found himself trapped at work. He had no time to time go hiking or biking or to just relax outdoors. He had no social life either, but he wasn’t feeling very sociable anyway. Suddenly it was Labor Day weekend, and where had the summer gone? Arnie made plans to join Steve and Amy and some their friends for a weekend-long party at a house they had rented at the beach. At least he’d salvage some summer.
The first inkling of trouble came from email messages that began buzzing around on Friday morning. The software testing guys were complaining about having to spend the entire holiday weekend testing new code. What new code, thought Arnie. His group produced the new code, but they weren’t expected to finish it for a couple of more weeks.
Then the vice president appeared in their area and called everybody over to the conference room for an important announcement. They were being ordered to make a big push to get the new code finished early, this weekend in fact. Everybody would be expected to work around the clock through the holiday weekend, no exceptions. They all started complaining; everybody had made plans for the weekend.
“Change your plans. This is big,” ordered the vice president.
“I’m not changing my plans,” said Arnie quietly.
The vice president spun around and glared at him. “You better adjust your attitude fast,” he threatened.
“There is nothing wrong with my attitude that a holiday weekend won’t fix,” Arnie replied.
“In case you forgot, I will sum up our corporate work ethic for you in three short words–go, go, go,” the vice president declared, raising a finger with each repetition of the word go.
“What a coincidence,” said Arnie, feigning astonishment. “My personal work ethic can be summed up in three short words too: Get a life.” The room became dead silent. Arnie stood up, turned around, and walked out.
It was a gorgeous late summer day. The sun was bright and warm. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A slight breeze kept the air refreshing. Arnie walked aimlessly. Maybe Steve would cancel his plans and work through the weekend, but Arnie wasn’t going back until Tuesday. If they fired him, he didn’t mind. Getting a job was the least of his worries.
He walked past office buildings like the one he just left, people streaming in and out. He wandered into the university area nearby. The student neighborhood was crowded with rental trucks as students moved in for the start of the new school year. After a while he came upon the river, sparkling blue in the sunlight, and followed a popular walking path along its green grassy banks. Sailboats glided through the water. Joggers ran along the banks while musicians performed at various park benches. Tourists with their cameras and guidebooks and their children in tow took in the sights. Arnie noticed pretty girls in halter tops and skimpy shorts sunning themselves. I’ve wasted the whole summer, he thought.
Arnie turned away from the river and started walking through quiet residential neighborhoods of brownstones and Victorian homes. He gave no thought to work; he no longer cared about that. Instead, he was soaking up the life around him, unsure even of where he was or the time of day.
Eventually, he noticed he had entered a Jewish neighborhood. People were darting in and out of Jewish bakeries and Jewish butcher shops. His nose caught the smell of freshly baked challah, and he followed the aroma into a bakery. Without thinking, he bought a braided challah. “Shabbat shalom,” said the clerk cheerfully.
Arnie had forgotten all about Shabbat. He hadn’t observed Shabbat in years. Now, the images and smells of Shabbat filled his head. He could picture his family around the Shabbat dinner table overflowing with food–soup, roast chicken, potatoes, challah. He could see his mother lighting the Shabbat candles and reciting the blessing. His father would rattle off the Shabbat kiddush while he and his brothers said the motzi over the challah. Now he moved with purpose, pulling together the ingredients he would need for a Shabbat dinner of his own tonight. Before long, he had two shopping bags stuffed with items and looked for a taxi to get him home.
Shabbat dinner alone didn’t sound too appealing, Arnie realized once he arrived at his empty apartment, but he was at a loss of whom to invite. He actually didn’t have many friends in the area, except a few people at work and a few more he met through Steve and Amy. There was Karen, the woman he had met at the Seder, but he hadn’t spoken to her since then. He didn’t feel he could invite her to Shabbat dinner on a few hours notice.
Arnie also assumed his previous plans for the weekend–the party at the beach house–would be cancelled. He didn’t know what he would do. He had challah, wine, candles, and a roasted chicken and vegetables. Not much to build a weekend around, he thought. He picked up the phone and called Steve at work. Yes, their weekend plans were cancelled, Steve confirmed. Although he was as angry about it as Arnie, Steve felt he had to work all weekend. But he insisted on taking time to go home for dinner, a few hours anyway. Arnie immediately invited him and Amy to Shabbat dinner. “But no talk about work. It is Shabbat,” he added.
It was not shaping up as the most joyous Shabbat Arnie ever experienced. Despite his best efforts, his bare table and plain plates hardly looked festive. Steve and Amy arrived with dessert, but Amy could barely conceal her disappointment about the ruined weekend plans. Arnie was feeling guilty about walking out of work, leaving the rest of the team in the lurch. He had hoped everyone would leave too. A few did, Steve reported, but most stayed.
“When did you discover Shabbat?” asked Steve, barely concealing his anger.
Arnie glanced at a clock. “A couple of hours ago, a fast conversion. I’ve had lots of practice doing that,” he joked. “Actually, it was more like rediscovering something I once had,” he added seriously.
They stood in the kitchen awkwardly making chitchat until Arnie opened the oven, where the chicken was warming. Delicious smells filled the room. They lit candles, drank the wine, and ate the challah. Arnie recited blessings he recalled from years before.
“I’m sorry. I guess I’m not a team player,” Arnie said, as they dug into the dinner.
“We’re not talking about work, remember,” Steve replied.
The conversation turned instead to the way they remembered Shabbat as children. Each had stories to tell. They talked of favorite foods, of incidents and people from long before. As the conversation, food, and wine flowed, they settled comfortably into Shabbat. The tension slipped away leaving a quiet peacefulness in its place. Most pleasantly, without any of them noticing, hours ticked by.
The ring of the phone caused everyone to jump. Arnie started for the phone and then stopped suddenly. “Aren’t you going to answer it?” asked Steve.
“Why bother? We can guess who it is and what they want,” said Arnie.
“Don’t answer it,” insisted Amy. Steve shot her an angry look.
“They can leave a message. We can listen to it later,” said Arnie, moving back to his seat. The phone stopped ringing. “More wine?” he asked, picking up the bottle.
But the peace of Shabbat had been disturbed, the spell broken. Steve looked at his watch. “I better get back.”
Arnie woke up Saturday morning to another glorious summer day. With his beach plans canceled, Arnie wondered how to fill the weekend. His thoughts returned to the pleasure of Shabbat the night before. So he decided to go to a synagogue in the hope of extending Shabbat a little longer. The only synagogue he was aware of was the geek synagogue that Karen had mentioned at Passover. Arnie put on his best khaki slacks and sport shirt and started walking to the synagogue.
From the way Karen had raved about the place, Arnie expected to find it packed. Instead, he found a sparse crowd, a mixture of old men in rumpled suits, a few high tech people like himself dressed casually, and some young families with children darting around. Arnie peered into the sanctuary to see if Karen was there but saw no one he recognized. “Where is everybody?” he asked the usher, as he slipped on a kippah and tallit.
“It’s a holiday weekend; everyone goes away,” the usher replied apologetically, handing Arnie a siddur and a chumash. Arnie slipped into the sanctuary and sat halfway toward the front, along the side. He had a good view of the bimah, where the rabbi stood to lead the services.
They had already finished the preliminary service by the time Arnie arrived and were progressing through the Shacharit portion. The rabbi stepped forward to lead the Shema, the essential Jewish prayer that every Jewish child learns–Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One. Arnie expected him to rattle it off fast, as the congregation he grew up in had always done it. But this rabbi drew out every Hebrew syllable of the prayer in a long, slow meditative chant that clearly had been derived from the same Eastern meditations Arnie had studied. His father and uncles would have hated it, but Arnie found it intriguing. Although it slowed down the service, it did open some real spiritual possibilities, he thought. He liked this approach to prayer.
Arnie watched the rabbi. He definitely looked familiar, but Arnie couldn’t think where he might have encountered him. Probably during his spiritual sojourn through India and Nepal, he concluded. That would be where the rabbi might have picked up the meditative kind of chanting. There were all kinds of religious types kicking around those places, he recalled. He replayed his travels in his mind, trying to figure out where they would have crossed paths. He drew a blank and gave up, turning his attention back to the service.
The High Holidays would arrive early this year. Rosh Hashana was only a week away. The weekly Torah portion, Nitzavim, was part of Moses’ long final speech to the Israelites before they were to enter the Promised Land. Arnie had read the Torah numerous times and had studied it regularly growing up in an orthodox home. He should have been familiar with this famous speech, but as he followed along in the chumash it suddenly seemed new to him.
“The secret things are hidden and belong to the Lord our God; but the revealed things are for us and our children…” The words of the Torah startled Arnie. Hadn’t he been searching for those secret things, the hidden things? He hadn’t found them, and maybe this was why. Arnie eagerly read on.
“For the commandment that I command you this day: it is not too extraordinary for you. It is not too far away. It is not in the heavens so you should say: Who will go to the heavens and get it and have us hear it, that we may observe it? And it is not across the sea, for you to say: Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us so we may hear it and do it? Rather, near to you is the word, in your mouth and in your heart.”
Arnie sat stunned. Oh God, what have I been doing all these years, he thought. It was as if Moses was speaking directly to him, as if he had read Arnie’s mind. He clutched the chumash to his chest and started to sob quietly. He had traipsed all over the world looking for the answers, for meaning, for something, and all along what he sought lay right within his grasp, here in the Torah, if he had only looked.
“Are you all right? Can I help you?” asked the usher, tapping him on the shoulder and holding a small box of tissues in his hand.
“I’m OK. Thanks.” Arnie took a tissue and glanced up again at the rabbi on the bimah. He was big heavyset man with a bushy dark beard. Suddenly Arnie recognized him–the man with the kosher meal who sat next to him on the flight to Boston.
At the kiddush, the light snacks and socializing that follows the service, the rabbi made the motzi, the blessing, over the food. He did it in the same meditative way Arnie had heard him use on the plane. This time, however, he chanted it loud and clear. Arnie joined in with the rest of the congregation. He liked this approach; it focused his attention on the words and meaning of the prayer.
“Shabbat shalom. Welcome,” said the rabbi heartily as he walked up to Arnie. “My neighbor on the airplane, the Jew who has been a bit of everything, if I recall.”
Arnie was surprised that the rabbi remembered their brief encounter. The rabbi seemed in no hurry to move on so they stood and talked. The rabbi, Arnie learned, had adopted his meditative style of chanting prayers from one the same teachers in India that Arnie had visited. The rabbi also had gone in search of some greater spirituality and he, too, had ultimately been disappointed. “But I learned many things of value that we can use to get even more out of Judaism. That is the wonderful thing about Judaism. No matter how deep and rich you think it is, it continually refreshes itself so it always remains alive,” he concluded.
Long after most people had left, the rabbi lingered with Arnie. They talked about living as a Jew in the high stakes world of fast-track companies. “You did the right thing. There is more to life than money and work. Shabbat is far more important,” he reassured Arnie. And they talked about his family, his parents’ divorce, and his own reaction to it. “The High Holidays are coming. They give us the perfect opportunity to make amends, to forgive, to be forgiven. Do it. You will feel better,” he advised. Arnie was skeptical, but he promised to try.
That evening after Shabbat ended, Arnie’s phone rang. He picked it up expecting the caller to be someone from work trying to bully him into returning. It was the rabbi. He invited Arnie to join him and some other members of the congregation who didn’t have plans for the weekend on a picnic the next day. Arnie gratefully accepted the invitation. Later that night, he called his mother and then his father. Each was out, probably away for the holiday weekend, Arnie decided. He left a message that he would visit during the High Holidays.
In the week before Rosh Hashana, Arnie thought about his family and things the rabbi had said to him. With great effort Arnie began to let go of his anger. When he finally saw his father and, later, his mother, he embraced each of them. He apologized and asked forgiveness for whatever hurts he had caused, and he gladly forgave them. Afterward, he did feel better, much better than he had felt in a long, long time.
It would be nice to say that Arnie found the meaning of life in the Torah, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The secret things, Arnie now understood, belonged to God. In the Torah Arnie found the things God gave to us to help us lead satisfying, meaningful lives. Through the years, as the peace of Shabbat would settle each week over Arnie and his own family, he thanked God for Shabbat and the Torah. As for the secret things, well, they are secret, forever hidden. Arnie could live with that as long as he had the Torah.