No Dummie's Guide Needed

In recent years there have been a flurry of books titled "The Dummy's Guide To This" or "The Idiot's Guide To That" I take issue with this development on two scores:

First, the books are directed at the nonprofessional in various fields and suggest a self perception of that person as a dummy or an idiot. I don't think most people are dummies. We may be unschooled in a particular field, we may be inexperienced in someone else's area of expertise. But, we are not idiots. When people would remark to my father at how impressed they were that he was able to do one thing or another that was part of his specialty, he would respond with mocking false modesty: "Anyone with forty years experience could do it." In my daily activities as a technical support professional helping people solve problems with their computers I'm frequently told similar things. It was not that these people nor my father, nor I are dummies, but that a significant amount of effort had gone into getting to the point that each of us knew what and how to do what was needed.

A couple of weeks ago a young rabbi in New Jersey called me to figure out a particular task with her program. She needed to produce the congregation's Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur Machzorim and had been busy in rabbinical school studying the sermons of a renaissance rabbi from Venice I walked her through the process of what she needed to do. That same week, a professor from Denver needed help getting a syllabus printed for her class; every time she tried to do something her machine crashed. I had her send me the file via email and with the appropriate tools I was able to get it all working again. I have rabbinic colleagues who are in awe of what I am able to do with a computer. I explained to my friends, the professor and this young rabbi that this is what I do. I may have a newer and faster computer with more programs, but my friends have larger libraries and know their way around the TaNaKh, Talmud and other aspects of Jewish tradition better than I do (now), because that's what they do on a daily basis. The professor had shared a file with a colleague who had corrupted the file and I (because I work in a shop) had the right tools to fix it, but I certainly did not know much about her field (the history of Islam) and certainly could not have taught the class outlined in the syllabus. And the new rabbi who was suddenly thrust into the desktop publishing business had been asked, even expected, to assume a new rabbinic role that wasn't even imagined for anyone (let alone rabbis) fifteen years ago. She certainly wasn't trained for this task nor had she been given the appropriate tools to accomplish it. From where did this expectation come? No one expects me to give a dental exam or prepare a case regarding negligent roadway behavior, or diagnose my dog; if I have a task to do with my car, I could maybe change the oil, but beyond that I have none of the tools required. And I most definately could not do it today or tomorrow. Yet no one considers me a dummy or an idiot.

And that leads me to my second complaint regarding these books. The books represent a new part of America's "do-it-yourself" culture which expects everyone to have instant capability. Some of us probably remember the old response to the kid carrying a violin in its case who walks up to an adult in Manhattan at the corner of 57th and 7th and asks: "How do I get to Carneige Hall?" And the response is: "Practice."

I've since learned that this is not how you get to Carneige Hall (which is, after all, at the corner of 57th and 7th). All you need do is pay the rent for it. However, the lesson has been lost on us. To achieve something consequential requires work (as my father put it, sometimes, "forty years of experience").

You know that Hebrew is not my original language. I did not learn any more of it (other than your basic how to read the letters when I was 13) until I graduated high school and lived in Israel for a year and studied the language three hours a day five days a week for four months. You also know that I now speak only Hebrew to my children. You have also heard me easily slip into a Hebrew conversation with an Israeli now and then. I thought that I was speaking Hebrew to my children for their benefit. Well, it turns out that speaking to them has given me great practice time with the language. I would probably not have as easy a time speaking with Yigal were it not for the commitment I made to my children. There are a few other simple statements that grow out of this understanding I gained from speaking Hebrew to my children.

Using a language, whether spoken, musical or mathematical requires practice.

And so it is with the language of Jewish living.

You have to be familiar with the language of Jewish life in order to reap the full benefits of what it has to offer. You don't have to master all aspects of it. You do not need to be a "Jewpiterian" a "Jewishician" or a "Jewatician," just as you don't have to be a musician or a mathematician to appreciate music or math. But deeper awareness you have of the concepts, the grammar of each language the easier it is for you to resonate to its harmonics.

Think of it this way:

And here are some corollaries to these statements.

So, you shouldn't be surprised if I tell you: you can't deny or ignore the beauty and power of Jewish living, and then expect to experience its warmth in your life.

This is a special time for us together. We're gathered to note, observe, even celebrate the beginning of a new year. This year is known as 5760. In Hebrew the spelling is . We've had the and for quite a while now, but this is the first time in our lifetimes that we've used the . Take a good look at the letter. This is what it looks like in the modern font Arial: , and this is how it appears in the Torah . As Idelle Rudman, Librarian at Touro College, Women's Division Graduate School of Jewish Studies in New York recently pointed out: the samech, sixty in Hebrew, is a full circle. Sixty seconds surround a minute and sixty minutes surround an hour. Six sixties: three hundred sixty, in degrees surround any circle. The symbol of the cycle of life. We can take this time and consider the cycle of life as it is reflected in each of us.

Our tradition could have created a cycle of a six day week. You know: six days we will labor and do all our work, and then six days we will labor and do all our work, and then again six days we will labor and do all our work. But somehow the seven got inserted. A day outside that cycle. What's it there for?

As Rabbi Deborah Prinz is saying tonight: "God rested on the 7th day, not because God tired out." No, that seventh day is awfully refreshing, but it's not there because God got tired. So, why don't we pay more attention to it: it's there, it's additional, it's exceptional.

Today is an especially good time to do begin this process as this Rosh haShannah, which is the first day of the seventh month, is also Shabbat.

Try adding a Jewish structure to your living patterns and start counting time in base seven.

Make Friday evening through Saturday into Shabbat.

Have dinner by candle light with a glass of wine. If you eat at the kitchen counter most nights, eat at the dinette table. If you eat at the dinette table most nights, eat at the dining room table. Put a special white or floral table cloth out. Wash up and put on a clean shirt or blouse before dinner. Talk to each other about what happened during the past week. Sing a song at the table before going off to your next activity. Enjoy some of the special relishes that Shabbat comes to offer.

I know, just as when you first sat down at the piano and didn't know the difference between the white and black keys; or when you first learned to count and could not tell the difference between a 6 and a 9, it will feel odd at first. Nobody expects you to achieve instant Shabbat. But you don't have to be a professional at it either.

Remember, there is no book "Shabbat for Dummies," or "Judaism for Idiots." None of us here are dumb or idiotic, some of us have simply not been practicing. We can add this Jewish structure to our lives and appreciate the flow of time that it offers.

©Mark Hurvitz