Two Pebbles; Rosh haShannah 5756

Ben walked home from school, his backpack loaded with books, a bit of leftover lunch in his bag, and a couple of pebbles in his pockets. A jackrabbit leapt out of the chaparral and across his path. For a fleeting moment he thought of trying to throw one of the pebbles at it, but no. They were special pebbles, he'd kept them for years. Every night when he changed into his pajamas he first put the two pebbles on his night stand. And when he got dressed in the morning, he put them back into his pockets again. They were almost indistinguishable, the same shape, size, color, weight, and yet, each day, Ben put the same one into the appropriate pocket. He could tell, like the parents of identical twins, something about the texture, or the faintest streak of color that only he had noticed helped him distinguish which went where.

As he walked to his bus stop each morning, one day one pebble felt a bit heavier than the other. He could almost tell what kind of a day he'd have based on which pocket felt lighter. The day may be overcast and gloomy, yet Ben felt a glow within. He could tell by the pebble in the pocket. Now and then through the day, Ben would pause, think about his pebbles and move on with his activity, he'd block on the football lineup with Steve and Dennis the tackles, count the number of measures rest before his next entrance in the band along with the other clarinet players, read the next paragraph in the math or science textbook....

From where did he get these pebbles?

Years earlier he found them. They seemed pretty plain at the time, but he'd just finished reading about Alice and Gulliver and that year at Yom Kippur his rabbi (of course) had told him about a woman in Santa Barbara, she (the rabbi) even gave away some pebbles. They shared no physical resemblance, but the pebbles reminded him of the Yin/Yang symbol that Liz (who sat next to him in math) had doodled on her notebook. She had said something about them being the same, yet opposite.

That scorching afternoon on his walk home he recalled once again what had happened to Alice when she went into the garden. She fell into a deep hole while chasing after a white rabbit who was very late... for services (I think). There at the bottom of the rabbit hole she found two bottles each labeled "drink me." We all remember what happened to Alice:

"Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall."

Ben had recently become bar Mitzvah and he could clearly identify with sometimes being gargantuan. So big that he couldn't move. And almost every time he turned around he needed new clothes. Or sometimes others treated him as the adult he truly felt he was becoming, being given and accepting responsibility for a whole variety of tasks, and then the next minute it was as though he'd drunk from Alice's other bottle and everyone ignored him as though he wasn't even there. Or treated him like a kid, as though everyone couldn't already see that the fuzz on his upper lip was turning into a mustache!

Ben remembered the power and strength of Gulliver when he found himself shipwrecked on Lulliput. How Gulliver had prevented war and done all those wonderful things. He also recalled how Gulliver had been to another land called Brobdinnag, where the people were to him as he had been to the Lulliputians. There he felt as though a toy to these tremendous people. It all reminded Ben of what that weird bird the Chirkendoose (part chicken turkey duck and goose) had said so many years ago, when he was a child:

It depends on how you look at things,

It depends on how you look at things,

Is the baby chimpanzee any prettier than me?

It all depends upon,

Begins and ends upon,

It all depends on how you look at things.

Ben reached into his pockets and took out the pebbles, one in each hand and examined them once again. Which was he, how was he to know?

Rabbi Janet told them that year about Laurie Gross who lived near Santa Barbara and made fabulous woven pictures often using groups of tallitot. One year, Laurie had remembered a story about an ancient rabbi and decided to write two phrases one on each of two pieces of fabric which she kept in her pockets. Each piece of fabric had a different verse from classic Jewish literature:

One statement was based on the idea that God had made only one individual at the beginning of creation so that if a person could save the life of even one other individual, it was as though he or she had saved an entire world. The ancient rabbis also taught from this that since we all have the same ancestor at the beginning of time, no one can say "My parents are better than yours" And they also said that only one individual was crated at the beginning of all time in order to proclaim the greatness of God. We've all seen coins all stamped from the same die, the rabbis said; they all look identical. But even though God has stamped us all from the same mold as the original human being, each and every one of us is unique. And because of this each of us must say (and Laura Gross wrote on her fabric): "For me the world was created." Such glory we each carry within us! (Mishnah Sanhedrin IV, 5)

Yet, on the other hand, or... in the other pocket, she carried a different phrase, this one from the Bible, from the Book of Job (42:6b) expressed with absolute and utter, almost depressing, modesty: "I am dust and ashes."

Both this and that were the words of the ever-living God, Ben understood! How could he know which was which at any given moment!?!

As he walked along Ben saw some torn papers laying in the dust and picked them up. He could throw them away in the trash at home. A group of middle-school kids left the sidewalk and run across someone's yard, trampling some flower beds in their path. A car slowed into a four-stop intersection and cruised on through. When he finally got close to his house he saw his little sister outside playing with his ball. She had lots of balls of her own, but she always played with his. It bothered him, so as he walked by he gave the ball a kick that caused it to bounce against the wall then back to him so that he caught it and he took it into the house with him. Whose ball was it anyway?

"Benny... why did you do that?!" She cried after him.

He felt pretty big and strong, as he walked into the house, till he caught his mother's eye. He could tell that she had seen what happened with the ball. Ben put the ball down and slunk away to his room to do his homework without getting a snack. He didn't feel much like sitting in the kitchen just then. He reached into his pockets, pulled out the pebbles and studied them again.

Ben studied hard for the exam. He spent extra time in the library following up leads for questions he had. Often, when he walked into that collection of books he felt overwhelmed, some of the books were even physically out of reach, and others, when he opened them, were written in English, but in sentences he couldn't penetrate. So many people know so much that's accumulated into this room! How could he ever get to know even a significant portion of it. Ben reached into his pockets, pulled out the pebbles, examined them, then returned them to their places. He was an insignificant kid trying to know the world; he had the ability to understand. He focused on the problem he had to solve and found that as he explored more his knowledge rippled out into new areas. Ben became aware of new thoughts that led into different directions through various aisles of the library.

Ben learned. He enjoyed the process and he shared his new knowledge with his parents. He even explained the subject to his sister. A number of details along the fringes of the matter still eluded his comprehension but he felt a thrill of joy knowing that he could make the issue meaningful to others.

The day of the exam Ben dressed, put the pebbles in his pockets, swung his backpack over his shoulder, picked up his clarinet and went of to school much the same as any other day. His chemistry class didn't happen till late in the day. In math they started a new unit and the dust pebble grew heavy as he struggled, trying to understand the strange concept of cosine. Their history teacher had been discussing one of Ben's favorite subjects, about which he'd read a number of historical novels and he could feel the other pebble grow light and almost glow as the characters he'd come to know seemed to come alive in their discussion.

Finally, the hour arrived. Ben sat with his pencil ready. They had to piece together various atoms to create molecules that made sense. Like one tremendous puzzle, they had the building blocks and their task was to make sense of it all. Ben pulled the pebbles out of his pocket and placed them on his desk for a moment. He looked at them carefully. He remembered how he felt when he first went to the library. He then recalled how he had felt when he explained the material to his family. He put the pebbles away and thoughtfully shifted the pieces around till their meaning seemed clear. He finished, the bell rang, Ben started for home.

Dennis, the tackle, approached him. Dennis was big. Bigger even than Manny Pasternack, and not nearly as nice. In fact, Dennis was mean. Dennis had his fists clenched in front of him almost as though he was ready to hit Ben.

"Hey, smarty. I've got a real puzzle for you. If you get it right, I won't hit you, you little speck of dust. I caught my sister's parakeet this afternoon. What do you think, is it alive or dead?"

"Great. Some puzzle. All I have to do is say its alive and he'll crush it in his hand, then bash me. And if it's not dead yet and I say that it is he'll let it loose and his sister'll lose her bird, and I'll still get hit."

Ben paused, put his hands into his pockets to think and pulled them out with the pebbles, one in each hand. The two of them stood facing each other, fists clenched, looking almost as though ready to fight.

Ben knew that he couldn't hurt Dennis, not even with the pebbles in his hands. That was out of the question and not a solution to the puzzle in any case. He held his hands out, fists clenched, but with the fingers up. He looked from hand to hand as though studying them. Then suddenly he realized, he had answer in his hands. He wasn't dirt, nor was Dennis. For him and also for Dennis, the world had been created. And he had to express this to Dennis in some way.

Putting the pebbles back into his pockets Ben looked straight into Dennis's eyes and said:

"Dennis, I'll tell you whether the bird is dead or not. The answer is in your hands."

©Mark Hurvitz