Haftarah Va’etchanan: Isaiah’s Advice to Seinfeld to Become a Grasshopper
In season six, episode four of Seinfeld, Kramer decides to stop wearing boxers or briefs or… anything. He just wears his pants. He recently learned that he has a low sperm count and that briefs—what he’d been wearing all his life—might have contributed to this deficiency. But he does not want to switch over to boxers because, to quote Kramer: “they’re baggin’ up, they’re rising in! An’ there’s nothing holding me in place! I’m flippin’ I’m floppin’!” And so, Kramer, dissatisfied with boxers and worried about briefs, decides to just wear nothing, nothing underneath his pants. Kramer enters Jerry’s apartment, and Jerry immediately notices how calm and cool he is strolling around the place. Jerry asks if he’s gotten used to the boxers. “No,” Kramer answers. “You went back to the jockeys [briefs]?” Jerry asks. “Wrong again.” “Oh, no.” “What? What? …” Elaine cries. “Don’t you see what’s going on here? … No boxers, No Jockeys.” “Ewww,” Elaine exclaims. “The only thing between him and us is a thin layer of gabardine,” Jerry peeps out.
The only thing between him and us is a thin layer of gabardine.
Jerry makes this statement with the utmost disgust. Even though he cannot see Kramer’s penis, and even though a thin layer of gabardine—gabardine is a fabric often used for suit pants—still separates him from it, this barrier is not enough for Jerry—it is too flimsy, too insubstantial. He is, we might say, too close to Kramer’s penis for comfort.
The only thing between him and us is a thin layer of gabardine.
I have often wondered about Jerry’s comment here. At what point do we gain enough physical distance from or construct enough barriers between that which upsets us that we can feel at ease? For Jerry, gabardine plus Jockeys would have been enough. Presumably, it would also have been enough for Jerry if Kramer, although still neglecting to wear underwear, were back in his apartment. In fact, to bring the phenomenon closer to home, for the vast majority of society, the walls to the bathroom provide enough of a barrier that we can allow ourselves to forget about what is really going on in there, while we continue to eat at the dinner table, and they go into the bathroom and do all sorts of things which would ruin our appetites. Bathrooms have walls for a reason. People wear pants for a reason. But Jerry’s point is that walls or pants are sometimes not themselves enough; they sometimes, while providing a layer, nevertheless have not reached a certain level of thickness and impenetrability for us to feel sufficiently “walled off.”
I have a similar situation going on with my roommate at the moment. Well, he is not exactly my roommate. All we do is share a bathroom. And that is exactly the point. Our rooms are next to each other, and our mutual bathroom sits between our two rooms. I have my door to the bathroom, and he has his. This past Sunday, I knocked on his door—his front door—to ask if he would clean out the hair he had left in the shower drain. But I wasn’t even able to voice this request. When he opened the door, he greeted me with utter hostility. What do you want? I don’t care what you want. I have been living here for five years. You are just a guest in this house. You should start acting like one. He then slammed the door in my face.
Since then, my life has gone on. I have not even seen this man again. But I feel similar to how Jerry felt—the only thing between him and me is a thin layer of gabardine. When I am in my room, I feel that he is in the neighboring room. When I am in the bathroom, I sense his presence in the next room, even though a wall separates us. On one hand, he does not exist for me at all, as I never see him and never speak to him. On the other hand, because he is so spatially close to me, it is almost—almost—as though he is in my very room.
In fact, these types of situations arise more often than most of us would care to admit. When we turn on the “mute” button of our cell phones and gossip about the person on the other end, the doubt that we might still be heard lingers in our minds. When we take our seat on an airplane, we all intuitively prefer to be as far away from the bathroom as possible. If we are shown a new apartment and learned that a double axe-murder took place there thirty years ago, we still feel that murder, no matter how thoroughly the mess was cleaned up, and we walk away in horror—or at least demand a lower price. If we travel to Memphis and stand atop Elvis Presley’s grave, we make sure not to use bad language because, well, we are paying homage to the king; we are standing before the king—even though we are really just standing before a stone tablet. We feel that Elvis is there because his bones lie beneath us. And so, we behave accordingly.
To what extent should we allow proximity to affect our feelings? Should we overcome these “irrational” feelings—whether they be disgust or anger or shame or jealousy—if they are based only on proximity to the source without any real risk of contact? Ruth Klüger was a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Vienna and later immigrated to the United States. She became a professor of German literature at UC-Irvine, specializing in the Baroque period. In 2001, she published an autobiography, largely on her experience surviving the Holocaust, entitled Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. Klüger was in Theresienstadt and also in Auschwitz. Her autobiography is gripping, terrifying, and masterful, reading like a philosophical novel.
Perhaps because I am someone who currently lives in Germany, a certain passage from her book has always stuck out for me. Klüger writes about a mood that overcomes her whenever she is about to land on German soil. She writes: “It’s a slight dizziness, not quite nausea, but a trace of a headache, all of it so slight … that it could be interpreted as a metaphor and not a symptom, or it could be shrugged off altogether, except that it doesn’t happen when I land in Manchester, Brussels, or Newark.” Even though the Holocaust is over and the Nazis are gone, Klüger still feels different—mildly traumatized—because of what once happened there. And I do not think Klüger is alone in this feeling. I would guess that many people—and indeed, many Jews—feel different when they set foot on German soil, even though Germany now has one of the most robust democracies and philosemitic governments in the world. Should this feeling be embraced as our body’s acute emotional intelligence or should it be overcome due to its trigger’s inherent threatlessness? Put another way, is this feeling a sixth sense or a phobia?
As we open up the second parsha from the Book of Devarim, Veh-et-chanan, we read an accompanying Haftarah once more from the Book of Isaiah. The reading begins at chapter forty of the Book of Isaiah. At this chapter, the tone and content of the book drastically change. Traditionally it is believed that Isaiah, who lived in the eighth and seventh centuries, BCE, wrote the entire book. However, it may be that this middle section of the book, due to its focus on the Babylonian Captivity which occurred over one-hundred years after Isaiah’s death, was written by an anonymous author (nevertheless through the inspiration of Isaiah’s spirit). During the period of the Babylonian Captivity (586-516 BCE), the Jews had been forced into exile to Babylon, not knowing if they would ever return to Israel. During this period, however, the Persian Empire, led by Cyrus the Great, began to war against Babylon (ultimately, Cyrus would defeat the Babylonians and graciously allow the captive Hebrews to return to Israel). Isaiah’s descendant (or Isaiah himself) wrote, however, whilst in captivity, when hope began to germinate that this Persian prince on the horizon would free them and allow them to return home.
A prominent theme in the reading is the fleetingness and ultimate meaningless of politics and nations and even a lifespan itself. Isaiah wishes to distinguish between the eternal and the temporal. Here, he surely has in mind the Land of Israel which, despite the vicissitudes of history, remains constant; it will always be there waiting, waiting for the Jews to return home. But Isaiah elevates this idea to greater theological heights. He emphasizes, over and over, that God is the one constant in the universe and that all other beings are inherently earthly, continually changing and hence—decaying. Thus Isaiah states: “The grass dries out, the flower fades, but God’s Word will continue to stand tall forever” (40:8). And thus Isaiah states: “He sits above the orb of the Earth, whose inhabitants are like grasshoppers, He stretches out the heavens like a curtain, spreading them out like a tent for us to dwell under” (40:22). In short, the Earth, the heavens, the universe, God’s Being are all vast, unbelievably vast, and we are just these miniscule grasshoppers hopping around amidst it before we eventually perish.
When we allow proximity to affect our feelings, we, in a sense, overemphasize our own place in the universe rather than see ourselves as just a mere speck within it. We allow our thoughts to become universes unto themselves. When Jerry could not abide the meager separation between himself and Kramer’s penis, he lost sight of his place in the cosmos, or even just in the city. After all, Jerry spoke these words while living in New York City, a metropole with over eight million inhabitants and three hundred square miles of land. Jerry forgot all this and saw himself as the sun and Kramer’s penis as a comet hurtling toward him. My uncanny ability to sense my neighbor’s presence and to feel irritated—even threatened—by it, although a firm wall separates us, demonstrates how poor I am at seeing myself as a grasshopper bouncing around under God’s tent. And, indeed, we can even apply the same logic to Ruth Klüger’s feeling upon landing on a German runway, whose smooth granite has coated the German soil underneath. For as Isaiah also spoke in the Haftarah of Va-et-chanan: “Nations are like a drop in the bucket … All the nations are as zeroes, as nothings, before Him.” Many accursed events may have occurred on German soil, but God’s trees and flowers and grass also grow on this soil.
We, of course, are humans, which means that our overdeveloped brains and lightning-fast thoughts chronically interfere with our ability to implement Isaiah’s urgent missive to us: to see ourselves as grasshoppers. One trick—we might even call it a “hack”—to overcome this debilitating tendency of the mind is simply to move. To move. The more we move, the more we become like Isaiah’s grasshoppers. This movement could take the form of a morning stroll, a relocation to a new city, or a trip to a new country. Moving shakes up and scrambles all of the nested associations of the mind and give the mind space to drop the story it had been telling itself. Jerry once decried that: “The only thing between him and us is a thin layer of gabardine.” Yet, a long walk in Central Park—maybe even with Kramer alongside—might have helped Jerry to understand, at least unconsciously, that the world is made up of nothing but these thin layers. In my case, as much as I may have felt as though a great injustice was committed in the name of humanity when my neighbor slammed the door in my face, I know my mind, and it just will not be able to hold on to this outrage if it is out doing yoga in Berlin’s Tiergarten or especially if it has moved into a new apartment altogether. In the case of Ruth Klüger, her trauma was undeniable and justifiable. But we must remember that even though she experienced this slight, slight dizziness each time her plane set down on a German runway, she still went there—she continued to fly to Germany throughout her life. She also sought to scramble up her mind from the recurrent memories implanted in there for decades. In this regard, Klüger seems to have longed to take Isaiah’s therapeutic advice aimed at cultivating deep inner tranquility—to see herself, too, as a grasshopper.
Another rendition of this article can be heard on my podcast The Schrift: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for Modern Times, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.