srmnrh57bottles.htmlTEXTNISI7BwB|0 Empty Bottles

A comment in this month's Hadassah magazine struck me: It is quite likely that more Jews around the world will have voted in free elections this year than in any other year in history.

What makes this especially striking are a number of other comments I noticed as the Republican and Democratic national conventions ended this summer.

*An estimated 60 million people -- 40 percent of the population -- heard Humphrey say on the radio that America must "get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly in the bright sunshine of human rights." [at the 1948 Democratic national convention] Fewer than 25 million people -- less than 10 percent of a much larger population -- bothered to tune into the biggest viewer night of [the] Republican convention. [Arthur Schlesinger Jr. NYTimes August 21, 1996]

*Some 20 percent fewer people watched Colin Powell's opening night speech than watched Mr. Buchanan's opening-night address in 1992. Overall viewership on opening night was 16 percent lower than in 1992 and 33 percent below what it was in 1988 -- ratings dropped as the convention continued. [Paul Weyrich NYTimes August 17, 1996]

*On Thursday night [of the Republican Convention] at 9, while ABC and CBS were covering Jack Kemp's speech accepting the Vice-Presidential nomination, NBC's Jerry Seinfeld was buying a blazer -- again. But the "Seinfeld" rerun drew more than twice as many viewers as the other two networks combined. [Caryn James NYTimes August 18, 1996]

*As measured by our last, sad barometer of civic life, the Nielsen ratings. The convention was a non-starter. On opening night, which offered the genuine marquee draws of Nancy Reagan and Colin Powell, only 17.3 million viewers tuned in to the big three networks' coverage -- a drop of more than four million from the first night of the '92 G.O.P. convention in Houston. By Wednesday only 22 percent of the households watching TV were tuned in. Toss in the far smaller numbers from CNN, PBS, G.O.P TV and C-Span, and you're still left with an America that would rather watch "Seinfeld" reruns. [Frank Rich NYTimes August 17, 1996]

In light of all this precipitous drop in involvement and despite the comment reported by Hadassah, the synagogue arms of all four branches of Jewish religious life are joining with each other--and with a coalition of major national and local Jewish agencies--in a coordinated effort to reach out to as many as 1,000,000american Jews estimated to have not registered to vote in federal, state, and local elections.

But we don't just see this decrease in participation in our national elections. I'm afraid we find it across the board.

Last spring a colleague at work told me about an event that had occurred at his roommates business. Emily had announced she was having a party for all her friends and family. She considered the work group among her friends and asked that everyone bring some juice to add to a large concoction she had learned how to make during her college days of chemistry study.

Emily didn't explain the details of the recipe only that she would supply a large oaken barrel, a particularly potable and potent form of alcohol, and some dry ice. She said that the juices everyone would supply would give the brew a unique taste.

Emily explained to her colleagues that it didn't matter precisely what flavor juice they brought so long as they brought something. She even supplied everyone with a bottle so that they would all bring the same amount to add to the drink.

My colleague, Paul, reported that the afternoon of the invitation Emily overheard a number of her colleagues discussing whether they would bring apple juice or grape juice, Jane with the tie-dye skirt even suggested that she would bring carrot juice.

Even though Paul usually drinks seltzer with a twist of lemon, he told me he's always been partial to grapefruit juice. He even toyed with the idea of harvesting the fruit on the tree in his backyard and making it fresh. But that seemed a bit too much effort, considering all the other tasks he had to accomplish.

Paul told me more about the company for which Emily worked. Most of the people were of Generation X. they didn't have family in town and most of their social life centered around the softball games and parties of the company. It had even happened that a couple had developed and gotten married from among the young workers. A few of the older workers had families with smaller children and even they participated in many of the corporate activities.

The company was even big enough to have what they considered an official "party pooper." Virginia had a family and her husband had a job that expected him to be out and around at all hours so she felt an obligation to be with them rather than the group from work. They were nice people, hard working people who enjoyed the tasks they shared, but every now and then she couldn't help thinking (though she never said it): "Get a life!" Nonetheless, Virginia offered to bring her share of the juices.

Paul reported to me regularly about the preparations for the party as the time approached. Some of the group mentioned that they felt the party was more for Emily's family than for them and they weren't sure they'd attend. The majority still planned to attend, but they also felt less connected to the party as a whole and wondered how much effort they'd put into bringing their juice. In fact, even Paul whose room was just down the hall from Emily's had decided not to make the fresh grapefruit juice, but buy some from the market.

Finally the day of the party arrived. Even Virginia was there... and with her family. Jane had on a new tie-dye outfit... all the way to her stockings. There were crackers and cheeses, all kinds of cut up vegetables, and dips of various kinds. On the back porch, overlooking a canyon that led out to the beach, Emily had set up the barrel. The dry ice and the alcohol caused a smoky mist to bubble up over the top of the barrel and fall to the floor around it and over the deck. A large ladle with cups lay on a table beside the barrel.

Paul scooped out a ladle-full for his cup and was startled to find that it had no taste!

It turns out that Jane had decided that in the midst of the dry ice and the darkness of the barrel, her one bottle of juice would not be missed and she brought water instead. But not only Jane had thought of that, Virginia also had decided that her one bottle of juice would not be missed and so she brought water as well. And Howard decided that his bottle of juice would not be missed. And Jim and Arthur and Clara had each on their own decided that each of their bottles would not be missed. And so, in the end, there was nothing but water and nothing to give taste to the brew.

I fear that even here at Etz Chaim we run the risk of having brews with no taste.

What gives a brew taste?

It is told of the very wise Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina that he was often invited to the palace to talk with the emperor.

One day, the emperor, dressed in the clothes of the common people, happened to be walking through the streets of the Jewish quarter. He passed through the street of the cobblers and the street of the goldsmiths, the street of the charcoal burners and the street of the weavers. It was Shabbat. The shops were closed. The houses were scrubbed and shining. Their doors were open and the emperor could see inside. the Jews were having their Shabbat meal.

"It must be a wonderful kind of food they are eating," thought the emperor. "They enjoy it so much. You couldn't enjoy a common meal as much as that."

So the next day he sent for Rabbi Joshua.

"Rabbi," he said, "will you tell me how the Jews prepare their Sabbath food? I want my cooks to prepare a meal for me just like theirs."

"I will tell you gladly," said R. Joshua.

So the emperor sent word to the royal kitchen and up came all the cooks, the head cook, the first helper to the cook, the second helper to the cook, the salad maker and the baker.

They bowed to the emperor. then they turned to Rabbi Joshua and listened carefully. And R. Joshua told them exactly how the Jews prepared their Shabbat food.

"O Emperor," said the head cook when Joshua had finished "tomorrow (that is Monday) you shall have a meal exactly like the Sabbath meal of the Jews."

"Exactly!" said the first helper to the cook, the second helper, the salad maker, and the baker. Then they bowed again and went back to the royal kitchen.

Next day the emperor could hardly wait for dinner to begin. A servant appeared. He set a platter of fish before the emperor. The emperor tasted it. He looked puzzled. It didn't have a special taste at all. It was just fish.

A second servant came in. He set a golden bowl of soup before the king. The bowl was golden and the soup was golden. There were noodles in it, fine as thread. The emperor tried a spoonful. "Take it away," he ordered. "It's the kind of soup I get every day."

The head cook came in. He carried a huge platter on his head. There was roast chicken on the platter with the salad on one side and carrot stew with dumplings on the other. The emperor's mouth watered.

"Now surely," he said, "I shall taste the wonderful taste." He picked up a chicken leg and put it into his mouth. Then he pushed back his plate and left the table.

"Send for Rabbi Joshua," he cried to his servants. "Send for the royal cooks."

The cooks filed into the throne room. Rabbi Joshua followed them.

"Cooks," asked the emperor, "did you prepare the food exactly as Rabbi Joshua told you to?"

"Exactly!" said the head cook.

"Exactly!" said the first helper to the cook, the second helper, the salad maker and the baker.

"But Sabbath food must have a special taste," the emperor insisted. "I saw the Jews when they ate it. They sang with every bite. You couldn't enjoy everyday food like that."

"O emperor," said R. Joshua, and he smiled. "The Shabbat food has a special taste. The taste comes from a certain spice that is in it, a spice called Shabbat."

"Why didn't you say so before? Give me that spice," cried the emperor.

"O emperor," said R. Joshua again, "the spice cannot be given, it comes of itself -- to those who love the Shabbat."


Our Talmud tells us that each person should think of the world as being composed of an equal number of righteous and errant people, and ourselves as having an equal tally of mitzvot and transgressions. If we suppose that God's judgement of us is based on that tally, and the judgement of the world is based on the majority of people, then our next act can determine the judgement for all of humanity. (Kiddushin 40b).

This message really boils down to two ideas. One is that even the smallest actions do have consequences. Many of us are familiar with the expression of chaos theory that the flapping of butterfly wings in one part of the world can cause a hurricane in another part. In Genesis, all Rebecca did was offer a servant and his camels some water, yet she fulfilled a prophecy, becoming a matriarch.

The other idea underlying that Talmudic thought is that what we do effects others, and their actions effect still others, and we end up effecting society in ways unknown to us. An offhand comment here, an extra effort there, a vote in an election, a bottle of juice for a party, participation in Shabbat celebration, and a chain of events is set off. Whether the chain starts in a positive direction or not, depends on the nature of our own actions. How often have we heard someone say something like, "you know, a few days ago, when you said such-and-such, that meant a lot to me."

And that is one interpretation of an oft quoted passage from the Yom Kippur Torah reading: "See, I have set before you this day a blessing and a curse" (Deut. 11:26). The curious thing about the quote is that in the Hebrew, "see" is in the singular, and "you" is in the plural. It seems as if both should be plural. Why would God address a single person to tell him or her that blessings and curses are set before all of us? It is, as if to say: the blessings and curses for all of us depend on each of us.

The Talmud asks us to "act as if..." In the Presidential election this November, does any one of us actually think that our one vote will make the difference? Yet, good citizenship requires us to vote. We should vote as if our vote will make a difference. Why? Because good citizens vote, and we should not hold ourselves to different citizenship standards than others. What we expect of others, we should expect of ourselves. Or: "we should act as if our actions will make the difference." Or, even simpler, "Act as properly in small matters as in great ones." Does any of us think that our appearance at services on Shabbat makes a difference as to how meaningful it can be for us all?

To help us each remember to bring our bottle of juice to add to the Etz Chaim brew, I've prepared these bottles for each to take home and bring back each Shabbat. Each week someone can bring a special song or poem, a special thought that occurred to him or her during the week. Without your presence, without your spice, our Shabbat brew has less taste.


©Mark Hurvitz
1996