Meltdown and Tchatchkas
Lehavdil is used in conversation when a person wants to compare two, perhaps inappropriate, outrageous, and yet apparently and (un)forgivably and irresistible ideas, things, or people.
The two really shouldn’t be compared, but we do it for emphasis or we want to express a humorous exaggeration. Two examples might be, comparing your daughter’s smashing a baseball over the fence like – Lehavdil — Babe Ruth in his prime, or your son’s highschool graduation speech to — Lehavdil — the eloquence and power of Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ address to Parliament. That said, still there was the expectation that something useful, meaningful or important would be derived from the comparison.
For this Dvar Torah, in order to compare parts 2 and 3 to part 1, add Lehavdil:
1. On the Plane Between Paris and Washington
A French woman is sitting next to an American man and says, “You know, the French people have 24 ways to make love.”
The American’s replies, “We only do it in the missionary position.”
“Ah, 25!” exclaims the French woman.
What I am working at in this Dvar Torah is that sometimes we have settled in comfortably with a topic, thinking we have covered everything, only to discover at some point that there is yet another aspect to it that we had not considered.
2. The Meltdown
My friend Janis Knight is an exceptional Jewish educator, and an in-depth front-line classroom problem-solver far beyond my capabilities. Recently, we were talking about “classroom management”, working with some students who function outside the normal, acceptable behavior range. One such 8-9 year-old student, with various emotional and intellectual challenges, would go into meltdown mode when faced with various tricky situations. One day, when there was a large gathering in the school with a great deal of commotion, Janis saw it coming. She took the student into the office and had the two of them count and roll the coins from the accumulated school Tzedakah money. Not surprising to Janis, it worked.
(Here comes the Lehavdil connecting #1 and #2.) “Aha!” I said, I had thought that I had “solved” how to teach the importance of counting and packaging Tzedakah pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters as opposed to a coin-counting machine. I told my students (among other things) that it heightens one’s awareness of how a little Tzedakah money can make a difference. And that was that – I had “cracked” the Tzedakah-idea and Mitzvah-reality. But there it was, in Janis’s hands, a new breakthrough.
Lehavdil from the flight from Paris to New York.
In common parlance, tchatchkas are knick-knacks, trinkets, baubles, sometimes made into household collections, like little souvenir spoons from the person’s travels. As long as they are not deeply embedded in the owner’s psyche or soul in an overly-emotional or pathological way, they are just tchatchkas. They were nice to have around, but not of any
cosmic personal importance.
We of the non-billionaires have been known to say that to the super-rich, the dozen Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Rolls, and Ferraris in their garage are just tchatchkas to the owners. My favorite teaching story about tchatchkas is from an alleged statement by Elizabeth Taylor, known for her fabulous collection of jewelry. Once, when some of the jewels were stolen, she was asked how she felt about the theft, and her (either actual or legendary) reply was, “If they won’t cry for you when you’re gone, then you shouldn’t cry for them when they’re gone.” To Liz, they were fabulously expensive tchatchkas, but still tchatchkas.
When my former roommate in college, Steve Glazer, was the rabbi at Beth El synagogue in Birmingham, Alabama, he told me an Aha! tale about a Rolls Royce, which, as I wrote above, until then was in my mind just a tchatchka of the rich. One of his congregants owned a Rolls Royce, but with this gorgeous, outrageously expensive vehicle, he would pick up one of the elderly European-born members and bring him to the morning minyan. This simple Jew — riding in the same kind of car vehicle as a Queen Elizabeth (something he would never have been capable of imagining in The Old Country) — this poshiter yid, simple Jew – felt like a king. This wouldn’t happen with a Cadillac or top-of-the-line Lexus…only a Rolls.
And there’s the Aha! story. What ostensibly was some wealthy person’s tchatchka was really a vehicle for a Mitzvah.
And there you have the lehavdil: A movie star’s Lamborghini and — lehavdil — the Birmingham Rolls.
In sum, lehavdil is an excellent but much underused Jewish value-principle that should be returned to its proper place in our Torah study and common discourse about Yiddishkeit.