The mitzvah

“I…I…I’m not Jewish,” I tell the orthodox woman in red who has invited me to her house for lunch. More than wanting to protect myself from humiliation, I’m hoping to shield her home from my ignorance. I understand enough to know that a Jewish home’s dining room has, without the temple and bronze altar, increased in significance. Food on a table, especially on Sabbath, is a sort of offering to God.

I explain my situation in a nutshell: how I am married to a Jew who feels alienated from the faith, that I am interested in Judaism and religion in general, how the visit to her synagogue is a tiny step in an effort to educate myself.

She nods slowly. I can see her considering my words, measuring them with private weights. Perhaps she consults God. Whatever the case, the result is in my favor. “So you’ll join us? We don’t mind if you drive.”

Now it is my turn to consider. If she is willing to put up with me, how can I refuse? “Okay,” I say. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Wonderful,” she says, offering the first smile of our exchange. She tells me her name is Barbara and gives me her street address; I repeat it to myself over and over again, as I am not writing on Sabbath. “My husband and l will start walking home in about 10 minutes, so give us a half hour.”

About 30 minutes later, I approach what I hope is the right house. As I get closer, I spy Barbara through the screen door sitting with a group gathered around a dining room table. “Hello?” I call, marching in, not even thinking to stop and press my kissed finger tips to the little mezuzah posted at the doorframe. This gesture is meant to remind all those entering of the unifying presence of the Divine. Instead, I offer my toothiest grin as everyone turns to watch me ignore God.

Four men and one other woman besides Barbara and me sit around the table. As Barbara introduces me, I make sure to nod a polite greeting to the men, congratulating myself on knowing that orthodox men and women do not shake hands upon meeting. Barbara directs me to an empty seat on the lady’s side of the table. Barbara’s husband occupies one head, and the oldest gentleman present sits at the other. Two younger guys roughly my age sit directly across from the women. The table is set beautifully for seven and, knowing it would have been prepared the previous afternoon, it suddenly makes sense why Barbara pressed me on whether I would be joining them. Mine was the spot left empty in case God sends a lone traveler; feeding me is a mitzvah, or good deed.

When it’s time to eat, everyone takes a turn going into the kitchen for the ceremonial hand washing. The counters are crammed with the remnants of yesterday’s meal preparations, everything left just where it was when the sun set. The oldest gentleman shows me the ropes: he pores water from a pitcher over my hands and then asks me to repeat the Hebrew words after him, feeding them to me a few at a time. I try desperately not to mangle them. It’s the basic prayer before eating when the meal includes bread and translates as, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” After washing, we return to the table in silence and wait as Barbara’s fills each of our plates with the meat and beans from her slow cookers.


Dearest miners,

As promised, here is the podcast of my conversation with Justin Campbell of The Two Cities website. Among other topics, we discuss how the One None Gets Some project has revealed to me the importance of vulnerability in any spiritual quest. I hope you enjoy it, and please tell me what you think.

43 thoughts on “The mitzvah

  1. I’ve listened to the first 20-minutes so far and feel inspired to comment that it’s great to hear the voice-connected-to-the-brain behind your blog writings. Brings the vignettes even more alive. Like the host of the podcast, yours is the only blog that I follow by email.
    Dave (a tolerant, compassionate atheist)

  2. It sounded so like you. I think it was the first time I came to the possible realization that in all likelihood you are not made to settle into any one way of spiritual or religious thought but rather you would continue on your “nomadic” way as if your DNA is so constructed. In a way it reminded me of my visits to a couple of Bedouin campsites where the carpet or blanket is spread out and everyone sits and has warm tea and perhaps a pastry. For that moment you meet the family, elders, children and then later the campsite is pulled down and the movement goes on to settle into another campsite. It’s all part of a way of life to keep moving on, being very kind to strangers who come upon the campsite, loving their children and campsite but the deep need to move on and locate elsewhere for a while. It’s a commitment one makes with themselves rather than to any one spiritual way. I like that.
    It also reminds me of a woman I spoke to when I was going door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness. She was very pleasant and listened to everything I had to say. When I finished she said in a pleasant voice: “You know, I read your literature and I believe much of what it says but I know myself and the truth is I can’t stay in one way of spiritual thought. I would disappoint you if I started coming to your Kingdom Hall because I wouldn’t stay.” It’s taken me a long time to really understand what she was telling me. For me, it is wonderful to see and hear that something similar is evolving in you. It feels very freeing. Of course, if it turns out that way you will have many friends from a variety of religious settings who will look forward to your visits. 🙂

    • That’s a nice visual, Frank. Thank you. Plus, I like any scenario that involves pastry. You know, it’s interesting about your recollection of the woman whose demeanor and words you recall all these years later. I’ve wondered if a person being proselytized to might ever do or say something that might influence the proselytizer–and, in your case, it seems to be the case, which I think is really lovely.

  3. I’m about 40 minutes into your podcast. You used to work for GAO? No wonder I liked you and your blog so much! The GAO is like Valhalla for government auditors!!

    • Hey Tim, That’s hilarious! It was a great place to work and a wonderful job. In fact, it was so good that I knew that the little tug in my heart of dissatisfaction must be really serious because I couldn’t think of a better “regular” job for me. It was satisfying work in so many ways.

  4. All of these people from different religions inviting you into theirs and your willingness to go is wonderful.
    I have already really enjoyed a section from Moby Dick where Queequeg (the pagan) invites Ishmael (Christian) to worship with him, and Ishmael concludes God wants us to join others in their own ways of worship:
    “But what is worship?—to do the will of God—THAT is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—THAT is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.”

    • I don’t think you have to become an idolator any more than Queequeg needs to become a Presbyterian. Both of you are simply taking time out to celebrate each others way to worship. When the celebration of the day is over he returns to his idols and you return to your Presbyterianism. At best you would be blessed by having a greater understanding of each others faith.

    • “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law.” I Corinthians. Nothing new in sharing among faith traditions…

      Although I suppose in the 1840’s, “idolator” was more PC than “pagan”.

    • Thanks, Jordan. I love when I find little snippets about religion in fiction that provides insight into how the author must have thought. That one from Melville is great. I recently read Passage to India. E.M. Forester has some great writing about Muslims (he calls them “Mohamadans” though I can’t recall how he spells it).

  5. Corinna-

    I listened to the entire podcast, and I must say I’m even more awed by you and this blog than I was before. Roughly, I’d guess about half of the regular contributors come from a “traditional” Christian approach, (albeit a broad spectrum), and the other half fall into the “spiritual but not religious” group, (albeit a broad spectrum, too). The fact we are able to have a spirited yet respectful discourse on our beliefs is really incredible. I don’t think any of us are afraid to recognize the beliefs we don’t share, but at the same time we aren’t afraid of listening to others as well.

    A couple of nights ago, Jon Stewart had Malala Yousafzai on the Daily Show. I don’t know how many of you saw it, but that kid is awe-inspiring. I was watching it for the third time and thinking about this blog, and wondering what kind of fool would say she isn’t valued in God’s eyes because she’s not a Christian. This evening, the NT reading from the Episcopal Daily Office was from 1 Corinthians about how God made each body part unique to its function, but how they all must work together. I know Paul was talking about the various gifts people brought to the early church, but you can take that a little farther and see how he could have been talking about people of different spiritual approaches bringing their varied but equally valuable gifts to the table.

    • Yes, I love that idea. Now I’m always thinking when I’m out in my community, “Who looks hungry? Who can I bring home with me and feed?” Of course, the logistics of this have not panned out, but I really wish they would. I almost feel like it would be a privilege to find someone I could feed at my table.

  6. I continually notice the fine people who I come into contact with that are not of my spiritual persuasion and whom I don’t know what spirituality they espouse if any. My neighbors are “snow birds” from Wisconsin. A couple in their early sixties spending every Winter here in California. We always exchange hugs when they arrive. Knowing that I have a tough time getting around they constantly remind me that they will be happy to do anything for me. I never see them pulling out for church on Sunday and they never speak about religion but I couldn’t ask for nicer neighbors. This week is the week I usually call my furnace man to change the filters and check for any furnace needs. I have had this young man coming to the house for several years now. About 35, always clean cut, always knowledgeable about his work and explaining things to me and staying for a brief conversation about the city and his family. Again, I no nothing of his religious convictions. I have grocery delivery and always the neatest young men bring in my groceries, take a minute to chit chat and wish me a good day. I never feel the need to preach to them or ask them questions about their faith or lack thereof. To me they are just wonderful expressions of the best life has to offer and I feel blessed to have them in my life.

    • Well said, Frank. I have to say, I don’t ask people what religion (if any) they are when I meet them, or after that if its not appropriate. I’ve worked with the same great group of folks for more than 26 years and I couldn’t tell you the denominations of well over half, (except for us current or former Catholics who love to whine/joke about the Church). And these days, it doesn’t pay to make assumptions based on ethnicity, last name, or anything other “indicator”.

    • Ah, Frank, this is so nice–and illustrates exactly why I’m trying desperately to master the art of so-called small talk. Because sometimes small talk is really the biggest talk there is in that we can forge bonds with new people through it.

      • I smiled when you, Corinna, related my brief encounters as small talk. It is, but I am really the worst of the world’s small talkers. I think it’s because it usually requires taking a risk. On the one hand small talk can seem the most appropriate thing in the world with some people. On the other hand I can sometimes feel like a goof because either I didn’t intuit that the person I approached couldn’t care less about small talk or I said something that seemed to come out of left field and was related to nothing. Ah…There’s vulnerability again. I bless those times when I start the conversation and the stranger picks up on it as if we had always known each other. I cringe a little when the response I get is a look in their eyes that to me implies, “What the hell is he talking about?” One of us usually has the good grace to walk away.

      • I think that re-framing these conversations has been helpful for me. These initial interchanges could be called “gateway conversations,” People approach each other with varied amounts of openness and vulnerability. Sometimes these exchanges of simple, surface pleasantries are just small talk. Other times they seem to be a more complex social dance that we do…..trying to see where we have commonalities and interest in making connections. Small talk gone awry? With me that can happen easily. But if a person does not go there, they can miss the richness of getting to know new people……like you just talked about!

        • Hi Merrill, You know, I’ve been thinking about this small talk idea quite a bit lately. Maybe it’s more about how “present” one is when saying the words more than what words are actually being spoken. Like you can say “have a nice day” and, in your thoughts, be a million miles away so that you’re just speaking on autopilot. Or you can have simple exchange but really BE there, be in the present moment and mean what you say and make eye contact, etc. I think that makes a big difference in how “small” or “big” the talk.

          • Corinna,
            This business of “small talk” is pretty intriguing , especially when you reframe it as something that has the capacity for being “big,” both in terms of being in that moment and being totally present, and also for the possibilities it holds for the future. It is easy to see that point in time from our own perspective with its awkwardness and discomfort……..but really there are always at least two people involved. Why do we seem to believe that the other person’s/people’s intentions are to keep things surface oriented…ala small talk. They just might be longing for “real” conversation, too. It is about being vulnerable and making oneself available, perhaps.

            • One of the things I most like about being here with you and the others, Corinna, is the way that I most often go away thinking, I guess I could say. It is not like I push “post comment,” and grunt in satisfaction. Good. That’s done. Or that I read what someone has written, and I can just turn away with a shrug. Hardly ever. I usually ruminate and consider and think of things I would like to say. Or questions I would like to ask. I thank you for this opportunity for the “big” talk. Merrill

  7. ❤ “Instead, I offer my toothiest grin as everyone turns to watch me ignore God.” ❤
    Corinna, this sentence shows how humble you truly are, and how respectful you want to be, and your hosts knew this and thus bestowed upon you “the kindness of overlooking.” I mean, how embarrassing; had it been me, I’d have been calling myself an idiot all afternoon on the inside while shirking off my misstep on the outside ’cause, like, “I’m a Christian; I don’t have to stoop to ‘their’ level.” Well, I mean, that’s what I would have done in the past, but I’ve been so humiliated so many times and I thank God. I know I’m gonna say or do something stupid right out of the gate out of just plain ignorance. On top of that, I have awful panic attacks whenever I go anywhere! I love you for for saying “yes and thank you,” for choosing right then and there to make yourself vulnerable. “If she is willing to put up with me, how can I refuse?”
    Why am I not treated this way by other Christians? Why do I not treat them as though they—like every other human—are created in the image of God? There seems to be a lot of stress causing a whole lot of tension in a lot of Christian circles. We read our own publicity and believe it. We think we are better and that’s why nobody likes us. We think about stuff like that a lot. We think about ourselves a lot and every single time we open our mouths, we give thanks not to God but to “me,” that I’m more Christian than that loser two pews away. These things we do and think first in the church, then out amongst all nations. We (of course, I generalize, but not that much) are psycho-narcissists, so there’s no such thing as “bad publicity.”
    We forget the Jewish Jesus, the Gracious Welcomer; well, He had to welcome us as well. We say our way is “the only way” as though we paid for our ticket, so-to-speak, as though we ourselves actually, physically bore the inhumane, painful, bloody, and spiritual humiliation Jesus bore. We forget Whose way it really is so no wonder we forget—heck, I’m always forgetting—that every single human being is conceived and being knit together with yarn from God’s basket, not mine; the colors and textures are His. So, whenever any of us holds our dropped stitches and loopy, gaping holes up to Him (as you, Corinna, are doing in your quest and as we all should be doing), yes, He unravels it ’cause it won’t last if it isn’t done right. So I’ll whine and I’ll cry and have my little tantrums but I’ll pay more attention when I start it up again and end up with something to be treasured, a gift from God.
    (Or maybe I’ll patch it up with safety pins drawing the misshapen parts together, telling myself it looks just fine. I’ll pretend my garment is perfect and I’ll wear it proud, then I won’t need anybody’s little ol’ mitzvah, not even God’s.)
    ❤ “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth [all manner of nourishment] from the earth.” ❤

    • Great post, C,E–and welcome. It sounds like you share my concern–Christians are often our own worst enemies. Between the crazies of Westboro Baptist telling us who God hates, and Pat Robertson saying the Atkins diet is sinful (?!), why are we surprised people associate Christians with wingnuts. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I don’t presume to know how God thinks and how He chooses to work in the world. I have enough trouble trying to live up to Jesus example without pointing out the speck in other peoples’ eyes!

    • Beautifully expressed sentiments, C.E. I think it takes courage to go into a situation where we might not do the right thing and risk being seen as a goofball. But, as I’ve done it more often, I realize people are more forgiving of my foibles than I might have assumed they would be. It’s definitely made me more forgiving of other people’s foibles, too. I’m starting to see how religion has really helped me get in touch with my vulnerability and being okay–joyful, even?–with all that I don’t know.

        • I guess congenial small talk is one convention to establish some basic rules of contact. I frequently am brought up short by my not appreciating the full meaning of an opening gambit. “Have a nice day,” usually gets an unthinking, “You, too,” from me. Inevitably the pleasant lady at the airline ticket counter says, “Have a nice flight,” and I stumble, “You . t. . uh ..uh…Thank You.” Which reminds me of a small talk response from royalty. The British royal couple landed in Canada and a reporter said, “How was your flight?” Prince Philip said, “Have you ever been on a jet airplane?” Reporter answered “Yes.” The Prince said, “It was like that.” I now find it more pleasant for all to try to be sensitive to the informal rules and abide by them. Cheap laughs are too easy to come by and occasionally hurtful. Small talk need not be an excuse to be inconsiderate. However, I did think that anecdote funny when I first heard it.

  8. Interesting take on having a meal ready for a guest. Last night, we went to a meeting at our church, which was built in the 1950’s when land in the OC was still pretty cheap; the church’s campus is pretty large, with a god-sized lawn out front. One of our assistant bishops came to visit and asked our rector if there were any plans for the lawn area–she said no. So the bishop suggested we create a “pathways of hope” food garden to augment the soup kitchen we already host every Friday night. Last night, we got to see the proposed plans, and the landscape architect estimates we can harvest at least 1,000 pounds of food annually from the garden. When someone asked what we needed to do to keep people from stealing the fruit or vegetables, the bishop said “Nothing. The reason its there is to feed people who need it.” That gave a lot of us a new perspective!

    • Tim, how very cool is that!! We would call that a social justice project in my Unitarian Universalist church. It is good ministry wherever we are! MET

      • Agreed! Both our rector and the assistant bishop have been in their positions for a little less than two years and I really like the direction they’re taking us. Its a real “put your money where your mouth is” kind of ministry!

    • Good deal! (I started to write “Good deal”….and yeah, it IS that). Give us updates as it progresses. I’m sure you’ll some problem with vandalism, but you just might see the community step up to handle that. We were involved in a Hollywood church plant, and we also got involved in planting gardens at various “vacant” spots around. The local neighborhood councils really got behind the idea and I think it’s still going strong…..though they did have them locked up….

      • Will do, Walt. The congregation seems to be excited about the project and we’re all a bit curious to see how it’ll work out…

  9. Corinna: I’m listening and just realized it’s a whole hour….My hours have been really crowded these days, so I just downloaded it so I can listen on my iPod in the car, when I’m out running, etc. It is really marvelous to at last hear your voice, the excited, over-achieving, hard-charging voice what wants to discover everything! I’ll report back when I’ve listened to more of it. This is sooooooooooo great! 🙂

    • well, I just got back from the ‘pucky’….what I call our neighborhood when I go our running (also a name for the larger world of people, and what you might find on the ground in our horse area)…and finished listening to your conversation. You remind me (a gentle jibe) of the girl in most classes I’ve ever been in, eager to raise her hand and show the teacher (and the boys) what she knew….With the perspective of a lot of years, I now know that they always really DID know more than us boys, so, thanks, Ms. Over-achiever! This my stumbling way of paying you a HUGE complement for what you’ve done with this blog.
      I’m glad you mentioned the ‘shut-down’ so we knew it was actually a currently-produced program. I’ve never realized that Dallas could be a “Mecca” in which to study Islam, but I look forward to it….perhaps you can bring some sanity to our visceral reaction to all things Moslem.
      I also heard my 3 seconds of fame 🙂 Woof! made me poud! (Don’t know how to put a swelled head icon on here, but my earphones were starting to pinch!)
      One last thing: I was so glad Justin kept going back to talk about your experience even when he was resolutely trying to keep talking about the blog. We who have been privileged to be part of this all of a sudden felt suddenly closer to you. (I don’t know how to put a tear icon on here either so you’ll just have to settle for another happy face 🙂 )

      • almost forgot…..One of the more important things I thought about while listening: Your background and your present endeavor to “get some” show that you’re not just interested in playing church….which an awful lot of people do. Michelle (my wife) and I started doing some serious counseling with people in our church a few years ago. It hit me then as never before that we dare not play with peoples’ lives. We are all (whether you subscribe to my thinking or brand of Christianity or not) creatures made in God’s image, whom he loves and upon whom he places great value. You may not see it this way, but I think one of the great things this blog shows is the great value you have placed upon people. thanks.

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