As part of our 25th Anniversary Torah v Talmud debate, Hebrew Seminary Board member Allen Meyer presented the following well received and most enjoyable story about the relevance and longevity of Jewish values, traditions and peoplehood.
Albert Einstein boards a train. It leaves the station. The conductor comes to collect the tickets. He gets to Einstein who looks high and low for it. He looks in his cuffs, in his pockets, his briefcase and even gets up to see if he is sitting on it. The conductor says, “Don’t worry, I know who you are. You are Albert Einstein. I don’t need your tickets. I am sure you have one. You are Albert Einstein, it’s an honor.” The conductor moves on to other passengers. He hears rumbling and looks back. There is Albert Einstein on all fours. Looking under the seat, opening his suitcase which he had taken down from the overhead compartment. The conductor comes back and says, “Mr. Einstein, I told you I know who you are. I don’t need to see your tickets, I am sure you have one.” Einstein replies, “I understand, but I need to know where I’m going!”
The Jewish people have taken many trains. Some to places of wonder, some sadly to places of death. But we have survived because we always have had the ticket. The Torah has been our ticket, our template. It has remained unchanged, undeterred and steadfast. The Jewish people have the ticket.
Three airplanes are flying east over the Atlantic. The first one lands in Athens. An old man exits and is greeted by an attendant. “What is your name the attendant asks?” “My name is Socrates.” “And what brings you to Athens?” Socrates replies, “What brings me to Athens? This is my city, this is my country.” “Never heard of you.” “Take me to the Acropolis!” The attendant replies, “The Acropolis? For $7 you can see the remnants, I think a tour starts in 45 minutes. Socrates says “Take me to Zeus!” The attendant replies, “We don’t worship at Zeus anymore.” Socrates asks, “What do you worship?” “We have the Greek Orthodox Church.” “What is the Greek Orthodox Church?” “The religion of Greece … (which of course developed centuries after Socrates.)” “Tell me, how is Greek philosophy doing, where do they study my work, the works of Plato and Aristotle?” The attendant replies, “It’s pretty obsolete, maybe a few Professors teach it on one of the Islands. I heard there is a retreat once a year; it’s mostly drinking.” “Do people still fear the Greek Empire?” He replies, “There is no Greek Empire, we are barely a country. People fear if their money will still be available to them in the banks tomorrow.” Socrates asks, “Why aren’t you speaking the language I wrote in; the language of Ancient Greece?” The attendant replies, “We don’t speak that language anymore.” Socrates says, “This is not my Athens, this is not my country. Get me out of here.”
Another plane lands in Rome. A Statesman exits looking old and disheveled, blood still on his shirt. An attendant greets him and asks what his name is. “My name is Julius Caesar.” “Oh, like the Caesar salad?” Caesar replies angrily, “How is Rome doing? How is the Roman Empire doing?” The attendant laughs and says, “There hasn’t been a Roman Empire in 1,500 years!” “So what is Rome now?” “It is a city; the capital of Italy.” “What is Italy?” “A member of NATO.” “Take me to the Coliseum!” The attendant replies, “For $8 I can show you the remnants. I think a tour starts in 45 minutes.” “Do people still worship Venice?” “No, we have the Vatican.” “What is the Vatican?” “The seed of Catholicism?” What is Catholicism?” “You never heard of Christianity or the Pope?” “No, tell me.” “Well it’s a long story, you see there was this Jewish boy.” “Why aren’t you speaking Latin?” “Who speaks Latin? A few Academics.” “What do you speak?” “We speak Italiano, the language of Italy.” “What is this Italy known for?” “Pizza and Pasta.” Julius Caesar says, “This is not my Rome, get me out of here.”
A third plane lands at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. An old man comes out and is greeted by an attendant who says two words to him, “Shalom Alechem.” The old man replies, “Alechem Shalom.” The attendant looks at the old man and says, “Ma shimcha, what is your name?” The old man says, “My name is Moshe, and what is your name?” The man replies, “Gam ani Moshe, my name is also Moshe. I come from Russia. Where do you come from?” The old man Moshe replies, “I come from Egypt.” “Really! What brings you here?” The old man Moshe replies, “I come to my homeland.” “Have you been here before?” Moshe answers, “No, but I tried getting here for 40 years, believe me I tried. I tried very hard; it didn’t work out. Trust me, I made a lot of sacrifices for this land. I’m entitled to call Israel my homeland.” The attendant says, Moshe, Welcome to your homeland!” Old man Moshe turns to him and says, “I have an embarrassing question. Socrates and Caesar were in such a rush to find their golden roads in Athens and Rome, I forgot something. Does anyone in this country have what is called a Tallis and Teffilin?” Moshe laughs pointing to his bare arm, “I just finished Shachrit, the morning prayer. Look at the marks on my arm from the Teffilin straps, the box mark on my head. You can borrow mine; they are in my backpack. You see that room there, it a Shul here in the airport. Maybe 200 people are also finishing their prayers. Anyone would lend you their Tallis and Teffilin!” Old man Moshe says, “I have one more favor; I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in a few thousand years. Do they have food here in Israel?” “Food?” the attendant Moshe says. “They don’t stop eating here. In the airport alone there are 90 restaurants.” Old man Moshe says, “You may not understand, I need Kosher. You know from Kosher?” Moshe replies, “Kosher? They have every type of kosher. Glatt Kosher, Semi Glatt, Almost Glatt, Tuesday and Thursday Glatt, Deli Glatt, Dairy Glatt, Jewish style, every type of certificate. OU, KU, Gluten Free Certificate, Free Range Kosher, Grass Fed Kosher, and coming soon Amazon Kosher! They have every type of Kosher. Chinese Kosher, Thai Kosher, French Kosher, Brazilian Kosher, even Subway and McDonald’s Kosher…..no cheeseburger, no cheeseburger……fries!” “WOW!”
Old man Moshe finishes eating and then asks, “So what do they teach in the schools today?” “Come with me, I have a security pass. There is a small school nearby.” They walk across the street and Moshe hears a song. They enter a small classroom and the teacher tells her students to open their Chumash, their Bible, and repeat as one. And old man Moshe hears, “”Va y’dabeir Adonoi el Moshe l’mar.” And G-d spoke to Moses and he said….” And two huge tears fell from the eyes of Moshe Rabbenu.
If Socrates and Caesar land today in Athens and Rome, what will they recognize? Only the geography, if that. But if Moshe Rabbenu lands in Israel what will he find? The same language, the same values, the same heritage, the same traditions, the same G-d, the same Mitzvot, the same Shabbat, the same Yiddishkeit, even the same arguments. The same Rams horn, the same Tallis and Teffilin, the same philosophy, and yes my friends, the same letters, written the same way, with the same spacing on the same parchments forming as it still exists behind every ark in every Synagogue on this planet, giving we Jews our continuity despite everything. Moshe Rabbenu will find the exact same template which has kept us as a people for centuries…..The Torah. As it says over our ark, Da lifnei mi atah omed. Know before Whom you stand.