Answering the Call: What Would Jeb Bartlet Do?

President Jeb Bartlet

I love to listen to podcasts.  Mostly I listen to podcasts of NPR radio shows that I never have a chance to listen to.  I also love the Slate Gabfests!  Now that I am out of my car and into public transit for my daily transport, I am catching up on my backlog.  I’ve been so diligent in this task that I have even been able to make a dent in my five years of Fresh Air.  If you are not familiar with this show, it is one of NPR’s best, with Terry Gross doing the most interesting interviews of people, many of whom you might have thought wouldn’t be too interesting.

Today I heard an interview with the TV writer Aaron Sorkin.  As a West Wing fan, he made me appreciate intelligent television.  In an interview that only Terry Gross could do, Aaron Sorkin talked about wanting to be an actor.  He also talked about how, although he was Jewish, there was no Judaism in house.  He received no Jewish education.  But when he was in seventh grade, he spent nearly ever Saturday going to a friend’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It was around the time that he was developing his love of theater.  He would go to these events and feel as if he really missed out.  “You get to go up there.  And you are wearing a costume. There were theatrics, and there is singing. And there is an audience.”  His brothers had a party on their thirteenth birthdays, but there was nothing religious about their experience.

So a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday he “opened the phone book and called a local rabbi.”  He asked the rabbi if he could become Bar Mitzvahed.  (His words:  Bar Mitzvah is not a verb!) The rabbi told him it was not that easy.  Sorkin suggested that he could just learn the words phonetically and he didn’t need to learn Hebrew.  The rabbi told him that it didn’t work that way.  Terry Gross pressed Sorkin for what had happened and Sorkin explained that he ended up learning the Hebrew to “bless the bread” and he proceeded to correctly recite Hamotzi, remembering the prayer to this day.  Sorkin then said that he didn’t know what he was saying and had not “blessed the bread” since.

As I walked up Third Avenue with the interview in my head, I thought, “What if?”  What if the rabbi had not hung up?  What if the rabbi had found a way to welcome the family and teach them a little Judaism?  What if Sorkin had learned that he wasn’t “blessing the bread” but using the bread to declare how blessed God is?  Who knows?  I know nothing about his life and whether he and his siblings have created Jewish families.  To use Christian language, were they lost? Could they have been saved?

In Ashrei we say: Karov Adonai L’Chol Korav — Adonai is close to all who call on God.  This is a phrase that the Reform movement has added to Reztei in the Amidah.  I don’t know whether the twelve year old Sorkin was really “calling on God,” but it does seem that he came as close as he might have.  And who knows what have might happened for him, his family, and the future Sorkins to come?

As a rabbi, as an educator, I often do not know whom I have an effect on.  Will I say something or teach something that a student will remember in twenty years?  Will the warmth I convey cause a former student to seek out a Hillel service or join a synagogue with his/her family?  I do not know.  But I do know that if we do not answer the bell, respond to the knock, we cannot open the door to possibilities.

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
This entry was posted in Spirituality, Teaching/Education, Tefillah (prayer), Torah and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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