No, it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s better than that. And I should know: I’ve been starting each Saturday morning with a BLT at TBT for the past ten years because it leaves me energized (by more than caffeine) and feeling smarter than the guy who slept in a Holiday Inn.
It started when I saw a policeman, walking his Sixth Avenue beat at night, who came upon a man crawling on the sidewalk at the corner at 34th Street. “What’s the problem?” asked the cop. “Are you all right?” The man stopped crawling for a moment and looked up, saying, “I lost my wallet.” “Oh”, said the cop, “Where did you lose it?” “I believe that I lost it on 28th Street”, answered the man. “28th Street?” questioned the cop. “If you lost your wallet on 28th Street, why are you searching here, on 34th Street?” Pointing upward at the corner street lamp the man answered, “Because the light’s better here!”
There’s a lesson to this story that actually makes more sense if you put yourself in that place, substituting your Jewish Heritage for the wallet and our Rabbi for the cop. If you’re looking for your Jewish Heritage, or a better understanding of your Jewish roots, or even if it’s God that you’re looking for, doesn’t it make sense to look where the light is brighter? When it comes to Jewish Studies, the light is brighter where more people are searching; each with their own flashlights focused to find what they seek. That’s what BLT is all about.
Bagels, Learning and Torah is Temple Beth Tikvah’s long-running Adult Studies Program (open to mature youth, as well) that has enriched my life with knowledge, understanding, and the friendships shared with the “Regulars” who, like me, return week-after-week, year-after year, each time learning something new and gaining a better insight into who we are, what we can be, and our place in the universe. We, at BLT, will be completing our study of Genesis and Exodus on December 14th and will celebrate the occasion looking ahead to the next exciting chapter on our way to The Promised Land.
Inspired by things I learned at BLT, I asked my father a question that would not have previously occurred to me. “What kind of Jews are we? I know that we’re not Kohanim (descendants from Aaron, the High Priest), but are we Levites or Israelites?” At 87, he was the only one left in our family who might know the answer and I knew that this was a one-time opportunity to learn this about my past. Dad simply said, “We’re Levites.” Having studied Torah at BLT for many years, I knew just what that meant. It meant that my ancestors were from the Tribe of Levi; the tribe of Moses and Aaron; the tribe entrusted with the task of disassembling, schlepping and reassembling The Tabernacle (which included the “Ark of the Pact” – the box with the tablets of the law – and all of the accoutrements of that portable Temple) through forty years of desert travel, on their way to The Promised Land. In a nation with a brief history, some people take special pride in claiming that their ancestors came to America on the Mayflower (1621), or fought in the American Revolution (1776). How many can say that they know their heritage and tribe and their family’s vocation from 3,500 years ago? Believing, as I do, that there is historical record in the Torah, I find it fascinating and exciting that I should be able to know that I am a descendant of Levi, Son of Jacob (who is called “Israel”). Would you care to know if you are a Kohen (Cohen), Levite, or Israelite? Would that knowledge be meaningful to you?
I’ve told you about the man looking for his wallet (not a Bible story, but a New York Midrash). Now, let me tell you about another man on a quest, from a chapter that I learned at BLT, one Shabbat morning, before 10-o’clock Services.
Toward the later portion of Genesis (37:14~28), we read of an incident in which Joseph (11th son of Jacob; looked upon with jealousy by his elder brothers who envied his ‘coat of many colors’ given by their father as a symbol of his favoritism) is traveling alone through the desert, on a mission from his father in Hebron, seeking to find his brothers who are tending the family’s sheep in Shechem. Joseph had been searching for a long time, and was about to abandon hope and return to his father’s camp, when he came upon a stranger, described in the Torah only as “Ish” / “a man”. The man asked Joseph, “What are you looking for?” Joseph asked the man, “Have you seen my brothers who have been herding flocks of sheep in Shechem?” The man answered, “Yes, but they are no longer in Shechem, having moved the herds to Dothan.” Joseph went on to find his brothers and the man was not seen nor spoken of, again. Some have speculated that the man who appeared out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly was an Angel sent by God, but the Torah is emphatic in stating that he was only “a man”.
When Joseph encountered his brothers, following the directions given him by the man in the desert, they (acting out their jealousy of him) threw him into a pit as they considered killing him and then sold him to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt. As the story continues, through many plot twists, Joseph becomes The Grand Vizier of all Egypt (Pharaoh’s “right-hand-man”) and the stage is set for four hundred years of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt.
From this parasha (portion) we learned that Joseph’s brief, chance encounter with an unknown man in the desert was, perhaps, the pivotal moment in all of Jewish history. Had the man not appeared, Joseph would have returned to his father’s camp without meeting his brothers. He would not have been sold to a caravan; would not have been taken to Egypt, would not have garnered the Pharaoh’s favor and would not have invited the House of Jacob to be guests in Egypt (surviving a famine) where, in the following generation, a new Pharaoh would enslave them all. It is the story of the Exodus; The Children of Israel’s redemption from slavery and their path to The Promised Land of Israel, occurring four hundred years later, that is the foundation of Judaism. Thirty-Five-Hundred years of Jewish history have hinged on the appearance of one small-but-significant character. It is a lesson that any one of us, small and seemingly insignificant, could be the next lone person in the desert upon whom our history may turn.
It could be me. Or, it could be you. But it won’t be you if you’re not there. That’s why I and the BLT “Regulars” invite you to join us on Saturday, December 21st at 9:00AM, in the Oneg Room (rear of the Social Hall) as we start a new chapter in this study cycle when we begin reading Leviticus.
– Ellery Potash, a.k.a Zev Ben Chayim HaLevi