Alan Jay Sufrin

Alan Jay Sufrin

Joy, Pt. 1
© 2008 Alan Sufrin


            When it suddenly occurs to you that Stevie Wonder had it right, and the cabbalists had it wrong.  That’s when it’s time to face the firing squad.  When you find yourself davening without any emotion, let alone any kavana, for weeks or even years, but you abruptly find your direction in a funky live jam that was supposed to be relegated to the dank underbelly of obscurity.  And in the time it takes for you to dig it up, you feel your soul rise from the depths of Sheol to the highest heights of Eden.

            And you don’t care if you’re listening to a vinyl record or an MP3.  As far as you’re concerned, the daf you’ve been staring at for two days and the sounds coming out of Rick James are written in the same exact language.  It’s like you get it now.  It’s as though the burnt black letters float up into your brain through your eyes, and the sound of James Brown’s sweat swims into your mind through your ears, and then you can smell and taste the Holy One, Blessed be He.

            Your ancestors, may their memories be for a blessing, tried for generations to accomplish precisely this.  They put honey on their tongues, and they sat weeping in the dirt.  They sang and danced in the presence of the Holy of Holies, and they confronted their Creator directly, irreverently, heretically, begging “Return us to You Hashem, and we will return!  Renew our days as of old!”  But they didn’t get it like you get it.  Somehow, and for some reason, the Master of the Universe saw fit to give you this gift of returning.  You understand now that it’s a renewal not only of days, but also of Earth, Wind, and Fire. 

           So you take the example of the letter Aleph.  א - an unpronounceable symbol – shaped as though it were simultaneously reaching for the highest squawks, and for the White-hot basses, all in the hopes of escaping the dybbuks possessing its greedy and overbearing record company executives. 

           You take the Mem.  מ – calming and soothing vibrations between your lips – built for the horn section and formed clearly to visually represent the highest ideal of the beynoni, which is to get down on it. 

           And you take the Sof.  ת – which is no less than the Jazz guitar – now more percussion than string, reclaimed in modern times for the purpose of funking up our palates. 

*          *          *

           The firing squad is waiting.  It’s just after Shacharis, the firing squad is dressed in black, and is proud, and it is waiting to hear how you have progressed so far this year in the yeshiva.  Your choices are to lie and tell the holy rebbeim that everything you learned was taught to you by the pious men of Israel, or to tell the emes and say that you were inspired by G-d, the Father of Soul, through His funkadelic revelation.  But you know that your funk prophets are false without the Tosafos, and you know that your intention is meaningless without Kool & the Gang, so you decide to take the high road.  Don’t you want to get higher?  Now that you’ve experienced the presence of your Creator, of course you do.  You wish that all you had to do was explain, or even simply hope that they’ll somehow miraculously understand.  But no, you realize that you’ll have to go through a channel they’ll recognize - a Jewish channel.  It’s a family affair.  You learned that Rabbi Akiva could enter and exit Pardes as he pleased, unharmed.[i]  But you’ll have to explain that when you couldn’t understand why Rabbi Akiva would have taken his three friends and colleagues to a place that was as dangerous as Pardes, it wasn’t Rashi or the Maharshal who explained it to you, it was the Staple Singers.  I know a place,” said Akiva ben Yosef.  Ain’t nobody cryin’, Ben Azzai.  Ain’t nobody worried, Ben Zoma.  Ain’t no smilin’ faces lyin’ to the races, Acher.” And when Mavis Staples cries for Mercy!  Mercy!, now you know why.  Let me, let me, let me lead the way…

            The firing squad is composed of three truly great men.  The wisest of our generation and your role models for as long as you can remember.  It takes one look at them to know you’re in over your head. 

*          *          *

            “Your rabbis have come to us with great concern.”  Rov Ehrlich cocks his .44.  He sits directly ahead, sandwiched between Rov Sheindlin and Rov Levi.  Your teacher, Rov Fishbein sits facing you to their left, your right, but the desk that stands stationed between you and the tribunal doesn’t guard him.  Rov Fishbein must be free to restrain your hands and feet with chains when called upon.  “You have fallen behind the other students.  It seems as though you have great difficulty comprehending the material, and most importantly, you have not been asking questions in your chevrusas.”  Rov Ehrlich removes his reading glasses and stares up at you.  He has taken aim.  “Nu?  Either you are a gaon who has fooled us all, or perhaps the rabbinate is not for you.”

            This is the worst thing he could possibly say.  You have wanted more than anything else to be a rabbi, and here Moses himself stands poised to take that away from you. Shocked, you bury your lightly-bearded chin into your chest.  “Perhaps not,” is all you can manage to get out.

            Rov Levi and Rov Sheindlin lean in closer to hear what you’ve just said.  They can’t believe it either.  Rov Ehrlich passes a glance in the direction of Rov Fishbein as if to say, Let’s see who’s to blame.  Rov Fishbein’s face shows no emotion; he just stares blankly in my direction.  Rov Ehrlich leans across the desk to reach for one of the books piled high in the corner.  The one he slips out from somewhere in the middle of the pile is Avos D’Rabbi Nossan.  It’s the text you’ve been studying for the past few months, or rather, the one you’re supposed to have been studying, anyway.  He flips through for a while until he’s satisfied with what he’s found.  His mighty had turns the book right-side up for you while his outstretched arm hands it to you.  This is a test.  It’s understood that you are going to expound on the text to show what you’ve gleaned.  Any last words?  What nuances might you be able to find that could possibly teach these men something new?  You couldn’t think of anything all semester, and now you’re just supposed to decide quickly how to impress them out of nowhere?  Decide quickly. 

            When you finally look at the text, and the words are no longer so blurry, it’s chapter 4. 

           But the study of Torah is more beloved by G-d than burnt offerings.  For if a man studies Torah he comes to know the will of G-d, as it is said, Then shalt thou understand the fear of the L-rd, and find the will of G-d (Mishlei 2:5).  Hence, when a sage expounds to the congregation, Scripture accounts it to him as though he had offered up fat and blood on the altar.[ii]

           You read this part aloud.  Oy.  What are you supposed to do with this?  Your brain starts racing, and your eyes close.  The firing squad raises their guns as they watch you sweat. Okay, you think, This is clearly about Hashem giving people the opportunity to accomplish something without Temple sacrifices, but what?  To ‘know the will of G-d’ is way too vague a concept, and that won’t get you past the firing squad today.  What does G-d want people to continue?  What were the sacrifices for?  Come on, you encourage yourself, if you could only remember the midrash on this one 

           And then it just fades into your head – The Temple.  The Beis HaMikdash… Burnin’ down one night stands/ And everything around me/ Got to stop to feelin’ so low/ And I decided quickly (yes I did)/ To disco down and check out the show.  Your eyes open.  You got it.  Play that funky music.

*          *          *

           “Torah is ‘the show’” you say.  They look confused, but you smile to yourself, confidently.  “I mean, Ha-Kodosh Boruch-Hu shows us how to act through the Torah.”  So far, this is nothing new to the firing squad, so they wait some more.  And I decided quickly (yes I did)/ To disco down and check out the show….  “But we have to take the initiative. This text is about teshuvah.”  Now you’ve got their interest.  “In terms of teshuva, studying Torah is equivalent to offering up atonement sacrifices.  How do we know this?  The pasuk from Mishlei tells us that first one must understand the fear of the L-rd, and only then will he find the will of G-d.  Torah shows us understanding, and when we learn the merits of yiras Hashem as well as the consequences of not having yiras Hashem, we will immediately want to do teshuva.  Teshuva is clearly the will of G-d here.”

           Still no smiling from the squad, but you can see they’ve been impressed.  The gears in their minds are grinding through the libraries in their heads to where they learned this text. And indeed, they see that you’ve explained the midrash, which is about teshuva.  But the test isn’t over.  Rov Levi leans back and asks, “And what are the merits of having yiras Hashem?  And what are the consequences of not having yiras Hashem?”

           “The merits are that when you have yiras Hashem, you are in a state of understanding,” you begin.  Yeah, they was dancin' and singin' and movin' to the groovin'/ And just when it hit me somebody turned around and shouted/ Play that funky music white boy…, “You can see that there is a place of ecstasy and joy in being at one with Hashem, and you understand that you want to be a part of that, ‘till you die.  I mean, at which point you have different opportunities to be close to Hashem.  But the Ribbono Shel Olom is calling us to join Him and to be with Him by studying more and learning more in this world, and not to wait until the next,” …I tried to understand this/ I thought that they were out of their minds/ How could I be so foolish (How could I)/ To not see I was the one behind…, “The main consequence of not having yiras Hashem is a lack of understanding.  Without Torah, one cannot know that there is a place of ecstasy in being at one with Hashem,” …So still I kept on fighting/ Well, loosing every step of the way/ I said, I must go back there (I got to go back)/ And check to see if things still the same…, “It is a constant struggle because being at one with Hashem is an impossibility and yet it is the only goal of the pious Jew. Teshuva is a constant struggle because Hashem created humankind in such a way that there is always room for improvement on a spiritual level.”

           “And the second part of the pasuk?  ‘When a sage expounds to the congregation,’ etc.?”  Rabbi Sheindlin asks.  This one you had figured out already.

           “Just as when the sacrifices were brought to the mizbeyach at the Beis HaMikdash, all of the sins of the congregation had been atoned for.  So too, when a sage expounds to the congregation, he teaches them Torah thus enabling them and encouraging them to atone.” This would have sufficed, but your mind keeps reeling.  … Now first it wasn't easy/ Changin' Rock and Roll and minds/ and things were getting shaky/ I thought I'd have to leave it behind… “But good sirs, I am finding this to be a very difficult task.  The atonement sacrifices were laid out very specifically by Hashem for the sole purpose of atonement.  But the Torah has many purposes.  Teshuva is just one among the many things it teaches us. The sage’s job is much more trying because he must get his point across, and there is no scriptural formula for teaching the importance of teshuva.  And that is why I feel that perhaps the rabbinate may not be for me after all.”

           There, you said it.  To them it seemed that you were telling them that being a rabbi would be too difficult because finding the right curricula would be beyond your mental capacity, but you were really saying that no congregation could possibly understand you when you are trying to get them to funkifize.  Now you’re screaming inside yourself: tell me something good! You’re aching for them to tell you that they like it, yeah.  You can tell by the looks on their faces that the firing squad is disappointed.  You’ve failed.  Pick up the pieces. 

           There is silence for a moment while Rov Ehrlich’s face turns an angry red, and then just as he is about to pull the trigger, Rov Fishbein suddenly smiles widely, deceptively.  He gets up and walks over to the desk, and huddles around the other three men.  They whisper for a moment or two, and when Rov Fishbein returns to his seat, Rov Ehrlich is wearing a broad smile as well.

           “Rov Fishbein tells us you understand the material very well, and that he simply misread your behavior,” says Rov Ehrlich.  “We, too, are impressed.  We apologize for the confusion, and we hope you will stay with our yeshiva.  But it seems you lack confidence in yourself, and if you wish to leave, we will respect your decision.  Personally, I can see you’ve had a very difficult time here, and we wish it would have worked out differently.”

           “Thank you, Rebbeim.  I will be packing my things and leaving first thing after shabbos.”  As you rise to leave, you feel your heart sink into your kishkes.  There’s no point in remaining in a place where your only true means of achieving your goals are forbidden to you.  Better to remain a pious Jew who’s got a brand new bag than a rabbi without a congregation.

           “Before you leave,” Rov Ehrlich’s voice calls out, causing you to face him once again, “I have one more question.  So you were not destined to be a rabbi, eh?” he says.  I shake my head quietly.  “Well then, what were you destined for?”  You can only stare at him blankly.  What does he mean to imply?  After some silence, he says, “Please give this some thought.  At this point, I can only ask that you try to gain some understanding, and remain true to the laws of Moshe.  It only makes sense that you believe in things that you understand.”  Your head still swimming from the events of the past hour, you’re obviously having a difficult time digesting what’s going on.  “Take the lesson that you taught us today to heart,” says Rov Ehrlich, the man you have come to admire more than almost anyone else.  And as he orders the final command to the gunmen, he says, “after all, when you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.”

It’s a funky miracle.

[i] Chagigah 14b

[ii] Text translation: Judah Goldin, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Yale University Press, 1983