A Feeling that Never Grows Old

There is an expression still used in modern Hebrew that is actually obsolete. I suspect that people still use it because it’s so wonderfully expressive. It is what Israelis say when someone finally “gets it,” when he/she actually understands what’s going on, and gets the point. The expression is “nafal ha’asimon:” the phone token has fallen.

Back in the day, when Israel’s public phones worked with tokens called asimonim (the singular form is asimon), you would buy yourself a handful of these tokens, usually from the post office, and place as many in the phone as it would hold. As your conversation continued, the asimonim would drop, one by one. It doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually, one every minute or two. And thus the expression “nafal ha’asimon.” The dropping of the coin came to symbolize the actualization of the call, and, metaphorically, the point. Eventually, you get the point.

And why am I thinking about asimonim in this era of omnipresent cellphones? Actually, it has to do with the question that I am most often asked… and which I most often ask myself. What do I find most gratifying about my work?

As you might imagine, after thirty years of the pulpit rabbinate- in the same pulpit! – the question takes on a greater sense of urgency. People tire of their work regardless of what they do, especially when they’ve done the same job over a long period of time. The pulpit rabbinate is no different; if anything, it is more so the case. In point of fact, the rabbinate is one of the professions in which a person is most likely to burn out. The stress factor is high, there is more than the usual exposure to cosmic chaos which most people are regularly shielded from, and as wonderful as the positive reinforcement can be, there is also negative reinforcement equal if not greater that lurks just around the corner.

So, after all this time, what do I invariably still find gratifying? The answer is easy to come up with: teaching.

And why do I find teaching so gratifying after all this time? Again, the answer is easy to come up with. The feeling of satisfaction that comes with watching the metaphorical asimon drop just never gets tired for me.

I do a lot of teaching within my rabbinate, formal and informal. But the class that I find myself enjoying the most these days is a relatively small Talmud class that I teach in my study after morning minyan on Thursdays. Just this morning there were a dozen students- a real crowd! – and after a few weeks on hiatus, people seemed genuinely anxious to once again sink their teeth into the material.

Exactly what it is that we’re studying is not so much the point, but for the curious, we’ve been exploring, in the Tractate of Brachot in the Babylonian Talmud, the laws relating to the proper times for the recitation of our fixed daily prayer services. More significant is the fact that most of the people in the class- all adults- have never studied Talmud before. There are more than a few lawyers, who have a particular fascination with another legal system that is both similar and strikingly different from the American legal system. We also have a few social workers, and some retired people from different professions. Even though, by Talmudic standards, the material that we’re studying is not particularly difficult, learning to think like the rabbis of the Talmud is challenging if you’ve never done it before, particularly at 7:45 in the morning.

There are more than a few instances when I have to repeat an explanation multiple times, and I can see the wheels turning in people’s heads. But then, almost invariably, there is that moment of “nafal ha’asimon;” they get it! And I think to myself “how great is this, that these people are discovering the world of their own tradition, in all of its richness!”

Of course, with that realization also comes the disquieting appreciation of exactly how vast that tradition is, and how little they know. But that, I would submit, is the beginning of all knowledge- when one finally understands how little one knows. That is the true “nafal ha’asimon” moment of teaching… and that feeling never gets old for me.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation.
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About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.