Today I drove by my old synagogue and Hebrew school, now a Baptist church and day care center. I remembered what, inadvertently, was the most important lesson I learned in my ten years of religious education imprisonment.
Imprisonment is about right. By the fifth grade I was spending three days a week at Hebrew school, which was the beginning of the ramp up for my bar mitzvah three years later. I had to master a modicum of Hebrew for the Big Event—modicum meaning enough to learn the Torah portion with a plausible degree of fluency. I wasn’t half bad at it; another classmate had to rely on a cheat sheet for his Big Event (and I’d heard rumors of some particularly dense students who needed a transliterated pony for their trip to the pulpit.) Suffice it to say that we learned the stuff under threat of decapitation or, worse, harangues by our grandparents. In those days, threats worked.
During the mid-lesson recess we’d play in the side yard with a very old dog. He was so old that his fur would come up when you petted him. One afternoon we went out to play and the dog didn’t respond. We poked him with a stick, and saw that his moving days had ended. So we tramped back into class, and with heavy hearts told the principal that our friend was no more.
Our teacher decided to use this sad occasion for what is described today at a teachable moment. She presented a beautiful lecture on the meaning of life and death, what the Bible says on the subject of death, etc. In the midst of her oration a Philadelphia department of sanitation truck pulled up, two guys got out, shoveled the dog into the back of the truck and drove away.
I learned a valuable lesson about life that day: while people may give beautiful speeches about how things should be, the reality is more like the two guys with the shovel. I always consider the latter first before giving any credence to the former.
Even altruists need a healthy dose of reality from time to time.