I’ll take my Torah with carpentry, thank you. Jerusalem in the 1970s was a world of beautiful juxtapositions. Standing in the center of the Beit Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem was the Mir Yeshiva, surrounded by workshops of glassblowers, carpenters and stone cutters who shaped slabs of marble into countertops and floor tiles. The juxtaposition of laborers and students made for fascinating interactions. Somehow, the honesty of physical labor and the search for truth melded well, especially when laborers also searched for truth.
One such laborer was Yehezkel Alon, an immigrant from Iraq. Unmistakably Sephardi, Yehezkel was dark complexioned with high cheek bones and a guttural accent. His shirt was half open, his arms half-bare, his muscles always bulging as he moved about his carpentry shop cutting wood, drilling holes, pounding nails and turning screws. His shop, like most of those a block up from the Mir Yeshiva, was a single room, about 12 ft. x 20 ft. Fresh sheets of pine and plywood stood alongside semi-completed cabinets, a large electric saw and a tool bench.
Each morning at 6:30 a.m., Yehezkel lifted the heavy metal folding door which opened directly onto Beit Yisrael St. A high school dropout, Yehezkel spent years teaching himself how to calculate the cost of his materials and labor. To learn carpentry itself, he was an apprentice for eight years. Eventually he produced quality carpentry by himself and delivered on time, no mean feat in the twilight world of petty business and artisanry in the Middle East.
When he wanted to make a point, Yehezkel would pause momentarily, then draw upon a wealth of Biblical verses and Talmudic sayings memorized in childhood in Baghdad. He turned a sympathetic ear to troubled souls, traded in folk wisdom and patiently explained principles of carpentry to his curious clients.
Conspicuously absent from his shop was the incessant shouting, the raucous arguing, emanating from the adjoining workshops. Yehezkel was refined, polite and reliable.
As I say, the juxtaposition of physical labor and yeshiva studymade for illuminating interactions. One of Yehezkel’s younger clients, an Ashkenazi Jew, a student at the yeshiva, once entered Yehezkel’s shop while I was there and began to discuss the meaning of a certain Biblical verse. He cited famous medieval commentators and soon was off on a monologue, unaware that he had become condescending. Unaffected, Yehezkel listened. At some length the student cited Ibn Ezra, the famous 12th-century Sephardi commentator and grammarian. The client chided Yehezkel:
“You know Ibn Ezra, don’t you?”
“He was one of yours.”
(How — I wondered — would I respond if such condescension had been directed at me?)
I am going to interrupt the interchange between Yehezkel and his client. We shall return to it. One of the glories of Torah study is its complexity —the drawing of distinctions. Take, for example, the Jewish holy times, such as the Passover holiday we have just completed and the Shavuot holiday we now anticipate. Please observe:
In the Haggadah, we recite “Hallel,” praise to G-d for His liberation of our ancestors from Egypt and their formation into a cohesive people. Actually, there are two Hallels, two sets of praises which are never put together in any other Jewish liturgical or sacred text.
The first Hallel in the Haggadah is “The Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113-118), so called because these psalms express gratitude to G-d for all of the stages of redemption from ancient Egypt.
The second Hallel is called “The Great Hallel” (Psalms 136). It is best known for its 26-time refrain, “His kindness is everlasting, ki le-olam hasdo.” The Great Hallel includes somethematic overlap with the Egyptian Hallel, but the Talmud characterizes The Great Hallelon the basis of its second-to-last verse: “[G-d] provides bread to all flesh, for His kindness is everlasting.”
The praises to G-d in the second Hallel are universal, while the praises to G-d in the first Hallel are particular to the Jewish people. Only in the Haggadah are these two Hallels joined, recited one after the other.
In the Haggadah, Hallel is twofold — a distinction arrived at through Torah study; specifically, the analysis in Talmudic tractate Pesahim (118a).
We have here a distinction that runs throughout all Jewish holy times. They are all twofold.
The coming Shavuot holiday is characterized by an offering unique to it: “the offering of the two breads.” Two.
Next comes Rosh Hashanah. It is the only Jewish holiday that, on the Biblical level, is two days long.
Next comes Yom Kippur, identified in the Torah as fallling on both the ninth and the tenth days of the Hebrew months of Tishrei — two days. How so? Yom Kippur actually begins on the ninth of Tishrei in the sense that the fast of Yom Kippur must begin before the tenth of Tishrei. For Yom Kippur, prior secular time is invested with holiness.
This is taken by the Talmud as paradigmatic for all Jewish holy times. It is why Shabbos candles are lit 18 minutes before sundown. In this sense, Shabbos, like Yom Kippur, partakes of two days. Indeed, “two’s” dominate the themes of Shabbos.
There are two Shabbos candles and two challahs. There are two metaphors for Shabbos, “queen” and “bride.” There are two rewards of Shabbos, “pleasure” (oneg) and “dignity (kavod).
The Torah identifies Shabbos as both a remembrance of the liberation from Egypt and a remembrance of the creation of the universe. Again, two historical roots of Shabbos.
Shabbos is denoted in the Torah both by “Remember” (zachor), symbolizing Shabbos’ positive commands, such as the recitation of kiddush, and “Safeguard” (shamor), symbolizing its negative commands, such as not plowing ground, sowing seeds and watering plants on Shabbos.
Move on to Sukkot. Its beginning and end are two distinct holidays, “Sukkot” and “Shemini Atzeret.” Move on to Chanukah; it is also twofold: the holiday of praise (again, hallel) and the holiday of lights. Next comes Purim. Lo and behold, there is Purim and Shushan Purim, the celebration of the day on two distinct days, depending on where you live.
We return now to the Torah discussion in the carpentry workshop adjacent to the Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva. Yehezkel, the carpenter, the Sephardi Jew, is listening to one of his clients, the Ashkenazi yeshiva student, who cites Ibn Ezra, a Sephardi Bible commentator, and says to Yehezkel, “You know Ibn Ezra, don’t you?
“He was one of yours.”
Upon hearing this, Yehezkel pauses, but instead of drawing upon his stock of Biblical verses and Talmudic sayings, he looks his client in the eye. Instead of being insulted, he sees an opportunity to educate, and to connect. With a trace of a smile but without a shred of anger or defensiveness, Yehezkel, coming from a higher place, a truer place, says simply, “You mean, he is one of ours.”
Israel is tearing itself apart over judicial reform. The radical breakdown in Israel’s internal cohesion is frightening.
A simple carpenter says what needs to be said, heard, felt and repeated, and he says it so plainly, yet for all that so powerfully: We are one people.
G-d forbid we forget that.
“You mean, he is one of ours.”
Take pride in your Ashkenazi heritage, take pride in your Sephardi heritage, but cradle it within the unity of the Jewish people.
“You mean, he is one of ours.”
Underneath the twofold character of every Jewish holy time is a unity. Check the Haggadah. There are two Hallels, but in the listing of the stages of the Passover seder in the Haggadah there is only one stage, one word, “Hallel.” Two parts, but within a unity. Same with the Shavuot offering of the two loaves. It is two loaves, but it is a single offering. Rosh Hashanah, two days long, is called “one long day.” Yom Kippur, whose holiness is extended into the prior day, remains the Day of At-One-Ment.” One day. Likewise, Shabbat (Sephardi)-Shabbos (Ashkenazi): in all of its spiritual layering, it remains the “sign” (not signs) between G-d and the Jewish people. The two separate days of Sukkot comprise the “Season of our Joy”; the season, not the seasons. Chanukah is Chanukah and Purim is Purim. Unity cradles the twofold holiness of all Jewish times, of Jewishdistinctions and Jewish complexity.
“You mean, he is one of ours.”
Israeli Jews on the political left and Israeli Jews on the political right — for our own self-preservation we must take note:
“You mean, one of ours.”
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