After a few hours of Sabbath lolling back at my dad’s house, I’m once again standing in Barbara’s living room. The dining table is exactly as it was when I left, dirty forks dangle from plates that bear the remnants of lunch and glasses sit puddled with water and wine.
We set out on our walk, just as Barbara and her husband have done thousands of times. Our destination this evening is not the synagogue, but a small building owned by the congregation several blocks up from the beach.
At the building, Barbara and I separate from her husband and enter through our own door. The women’s side of the room is cordoned off by a thin curtain, through which I can see the silhouettes of the men, the outline of fedoras as they take turns leading the prayers. When it’s time for the rabbi’s talk, the curtain gets pushed open just enough to give the women a view of him at the podium. He is a young rabbi with a scraggly beard and an excited gleam in his eyes. He says he finds the subject of animal sacrifice fascinating because, while the practice is suspended for now, at some point in the future when the original temple is restored, a decision will need to be made about if and how it will be resumed.
Rabbis and Jewish scholars all over the world debate the topic and theories abound as to what might happen because, to the contemporary sensibility, the idea of killing animals for God seems archaic. Today, people expect their religious leaders and their butchers to be separate people. But, the young rabbi explains, this could change. One theory purports that the general public will come to see animal sacrifice as no worse ethically than killing animals for food and will embrace it as an acceptable practice. Another theory proposes that new rules from God will materialize upon the completion of the temple—and that perhaps some new thing, like sacrificing plants, will be an option. Finally, the rabbi arrives at the last theory that he promises will “blow our minds.” He explains that some scholars suggest animals may evolve in such a way that in the future they will understand the meaning and significance of being sacrificed and will volunteer for the privilege. A wave of chuckles sweeps the room, and I think we must be sharing the same cartoon thought-bubble of cloven hooves in the air with the caption: “Me, pick me!”
What happens last is short and poetic, like a 3D haiku that bids farewell to Sabbath. It’s just Barbara, her husband, me and three other men. While Barbara’s husband straightens up the room, the three men gather around a plate. The oldest of the three holds a large woven candle. He lights it. He pours wine into a cup and sips it. He opens a small box and inhales deeply. As he does this, one of the younger men unscrews the lid on a typical spice jar—the plastic kind you can buy at any grocery store—and smells the contents. He passes it to me and I put it to my nose, taking in the sweet aroma of cloves. I give it to Barbara who does the same. I’m mesmerized as the men study their hands in the light of the candle and utter a Hebrew prayer. Then the oldest one douses the flame with the wine from his cup. All three touch the drops of wine that have landed in the plate and then press their fingertips against their closed eyes. Each step is like a single line of a poem whose meaning is allusive but by the end conveys perfectly the joy and sorrow of life; this final act leaves my heart heavy but full.
In front of the building, the six of us say our farewells. The sun has set and the sidewalk is bustling with Saturday night revelers. Music and laughter spill from a crowded Mexican restaurant. The eyes of passersby linger on our small group and I recognize in their expressions the quiet curiosity I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve happened upon a pocket of people engaged in something I assume is both sacred and private. I recall the awe with which I would consider my old orthodox neighbors as I watched them playing and how it was tinged with resentment at my exclusion. I want to reach out and touch people as they pass and whisper, “I’m one of you.”
If a stranger cared to listen, I might tell him: “This religion thing is not the impenetrable mystery you think, but so basic and beautiful you can grasp its meaning if you desire.”