As I was reciting Tefillas Haderech on a recent early morning flight from Denver to Los Angeles, I noticed that the fellow across the aisle was reading his Psalms. I was confident that he would soon strike up a conversation, and, sure enough, five seconds later, he inquired, “Are you a rabbi?”
From past experience with evangelicals, I knew that we would have a pleasant conversation, and find much about which we could agree politically and with respect to the parlous moral state of our world. And indeed, he began by telling me that former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had spoken at the local university, Colorado Christian, and he had been impressed.
But I confess that I also assumed that my conversation partner for the hour-and-a-half flight to Los Angeles would not be highly educated or too intellectually sophisticated, and that the conversation would consist mostly of my throwing out red meat in the manner of Rush Limbaugh.
I could not have been further off track. I soon learned that my traveling companion was a pilot (which explained his recitation of Psalms — “I know everything that can go wrong”), and held a PhD in geological sciences. He had headed a geological survey company that left him rich enough to retire at 40, and thereafter told his wife that he intended to devote the rest of his life to more spiritual pursuits.
His wife, by the way, had finished her pathology residency in her early 20s. But they decided that he was making enough money for her to concentrate on child rearing. In addition to their own two biological children, when their youngest was ten, they adopted a child from Korea whose parentage would have left him as a permanent outcast in Korean society.
I could not help but be impressed by the elevation of spiritual values above purely material ones, and in his wife’s case, the choice of child rearing above professional prestige.
But there were more surprises to come. His son completed his doctorate at Cambridge University in one of the hard sciences, and his son’s wife had earned her doctorate in physics in the laboratory of Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest living physicists, but no great friend of religion. Her research was so important as to make her a vital national resource for the British government. For good measure, my new buddy’s brother is the chief economist in the antitrust division of the Justice Department.
Nor has all this higher education — at places where atheism is the default position — been at the expense of religious belief. When his son told his wife that he didn’t think they could afford more children after their fourth, she told him not to worry, “G-d will provide.”
By this time, all my stereotypes of evangelical Christians had been pretty much shot to pieces. But it wasn’t over. At least he would turn out to be dour and humorless, or so I assumed.
Not so. It turned out that we had both grown up in suburban Chicago (though he was from the western suburbs, which were pretty much without Jews in my day) and we were both high school tennis players. He then moved to Kansas City, where he had the unenviable assignment in one high school basketball game of guarding Lucius Allen, who some old-time basketball fans may remember as the other superstar on the Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar UCLA team that claimed three national titles in a row. (In the warm-ups to the game, Allen would put his hand not on the rim, but the top of the backboard.)
I will spare the reader details of the defensive strategy my across-the-aisle neighbor adopted, but suffice it to say that it resulted in a sharp elbow to his face that caused him to bite nearly clean through his tongue. His retelling at the distance of more than four decades was riotous. (I wonder how he knew that the “rabbi” might have ever heard of Lucius Allen.)
As we got up to disembark and I put on my black hat, my friend offered the last surprise. “Oh, I bought one of those fedoras when I was a vice president at Sanford Bernstein. So many guys in the firm wore one that I didn’t want to stick out.” (It turned out that he did not have as much money as he thought when he retired at 40, and had to go back to work at 50.)
Why am I sharing this conversation? Because it strikes me as somewhat absurd that I, a chareidi Jew, should have had so many stereotypes about devout members of other faiths.
And if I could have so many misconceptions, why should I be surprised that non-chareidi Jews in Israel, who know so little about our community, harbor so many stereotypes and misconceptions about us?
Can it really be just three weeks since we sat down with such anticipation for the Seder, hopeful that we had succeeded in removing the chometz from our hearts as well as our homes? What happened to the spiritual elevation of Leil Haseder? How can we keep some remnant of it alive?
The most obvious answer is to take Sefiras Ha’omer seriously. That would require focusing on each day as part of a step-by-step process of growth toward kabbalas haTorah. Two recent works based on the sefiros can help in that regard. Both Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer, (Judaica Press) by Rabbi Yaacov Haber and Rabbi David Sedley, and Sarah Hermelin’s Journey Together: 49 Steps to Transforming a Family (Urim Publications), delineate the 49 different combinations of the sefiros and suggest kabbalos relevant to each day in three realms — bein adam l’Makom, bein adam l’chaveiro, and bein adam l’atzmo. Mrs. Hermelin has designed a program for the entire family and includes a wide variety of material appropriate for different ages.
Some have the custom to study one of the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired during the sefirah. Rabbi Shmuel Wittow’s 48 Kinyanei HaTorah offers a brief and useful distillation of numerous commentaries on the 48 ways and possible kabbalos related to each.
The renowned mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, pointed out another way to retain the elevation of Leil Haseder. The name Seder for the festive evening is not accidental: Seder (order) and freedom are intrinsically related. The baalei mussar, of course, place a high value on seder. Someone once entered the Talmud Torah of Kelm in the midst of a shmuess by the Alter and from the mournful tone assumed that the Alter was delivering a eulogy. The subject turned out to be a pair of boots not placed together in the cloakroom.
My own appreciation of seder grows yearly in direct proportion to my failure to attain it. My pre-Pesach project was opening a half year or more of Hebrew mail, much of it from government agencies. The failure to do so on a more regular basis can be an expensive habit — parking tickets double, insurance policies get canceled. And I can assure anyone tempted to emulate my habits that your spouse will not be amused when the ATM stops dispensing cash because Bituach Leumi has frozen your bank account.
But seder is much more than just the key to home economics and the productive use of one’s time. A midrash quoted by Rav Wolbe says that only when Pharaoh saw Bnei Yisrael arranged by tribes as they left Mitzrayim did he regret his decision to let them go. For Pharaoh realized that if they could order themselves in such a fashion, they were no longer lowly slaves, reacting to their master’s commands, but people of stature capable of setting their own course. Their order reflected their ability to think in advance and plan.
The more we take time to reflect on our goals in life and develop plans to reach them, the more we become bnei aliyah capable of receiving the Torah.
This article originally appeared on Mishpacha.com