Introduction I: Things that slightly unsettle my mind
I took four years of Spanish in high school. But it was only later that I paused to think about the curious linguistic twist that the phrase for “everyone” was “Todo el mundo” – “the entire world”. I wondered if what I was thinking of or speaking about at that moment would have found a response from citizens of Liechtenstein, or Cannibals deep in the Amazon rainforest, or early childhood students in Toledo. Next, because I never took French, this morning I decided to check the dictionary. Sure enough, it’s “tout le monde.” I should have known this ever-so-slight jarring in my brain long ago from my years of Talmud studies: In Babylonian Aramaic, you say the same, “everyone” is “kulei alma.”
In some way, close to this peculiarity of language, are three things that come to mind:
(1) Grammatical mistakes, like the use of “apprise” and “appraise”, “lie” and “lay”, and the one that really raises my hackles, the all-too-appallingly-common disagreement “He/she” and in the same sentence “they” — though none of these consume much of my emotional energy;
(2) the obsessive need to find out what an “eyetooth” is and what the etymology of hydrangeas could be, and
(3) certain Yiddish phrases like “Yeder macht Shabbas far zich alayn – Everyone makes Shabbas for him/herself” for “doing your own thing” and the greatest of all for “You can’t be in two places at once” — Mit ayn tuchiss ken me nit tantzen oif tzvay chassenes – You can’t dance at two weddings with only one tuchiss”.
Of much lesser import are experts in creating ratings and making lists, for example:
(1) Some of my close friends can tell you which Kosher hot dogs are tastiest in most of America’s ballparks, (2) baseball’s greatest home run hitter – despite Hank Aaron’s 715th, breaking Babe Ruth’s record, The Babe in most minds is still the King, (3) and even though he was defeated five times, few would doubt that Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Even more remote, for sure, was the day a friend of mine and I discovered quite by accident – hands down The Mother of All Cinnamon Buns (Nobel quality) in a little bakery a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. It should have had a tag attached with a Surgeon General’s warning for customers with diabetes. Perspectivizing for a moment — I am certain that children far far away would consider this last one – while perhaps a nice addition to their ratings – totally irrelevant to their lives.
Introduction II: Other ones
For some reason that remains mysterious to me, my mind seems to be drawn to things that are off-beat, out of tune, jarring, extremely or ostensibly unbalanced, intellectually dissonant that violate a reader’s reasonable sensibilities, and, negatively, unreasonably psychopathic monsters in best-selling novels. So, too a jolt to some literatis’ feelings, when little Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota received the Nobel Prize in literature, joining the likes of Thomas Mann (whose daughter Erika married the British homosexual poet W. H. Auden in 1935 before the Nazis focused on her because of her German citizenship), and the anti-Semite T.S. Eliot.
And zeugmas. (Zeugmas are a literary device whereby two things from different categories are joined by an “and”.) Examples include: Charlie the CPA cooked dinner and the Mafia’s books; the farmer grew green beans and bored; and Julie lost her glasses and her job. There’s even a visual one: At Shabbat lunch, the son of a friend of mine mixed mayonnaise into his cholent!
An important editorial note: I have been emphatically informed that all these happenings are not unique to me. Other people experience the same things, perhaps not as frequently or extensively as I do. So, in the quest for self-definition (a worthy endeavor, I believe, for todo el mundo) the lists above do not make me one-of-a-kind. Enough Egocentric Self-Reflective Musings – Where’s the Torah in this Dvar Torah?
I’ve pulled out three books from my library about creative thinking – only a small portion of what’s out there: Genius by Harold Bloom, Uncommon Genius by Denise Shekerjian (a study of MacArthur Fellowship winners), and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation. While each of the books has interesting chapters with insights about wandering minds, non-concentration, self-enforced relaxation, and “accidental” discoveries, after a while, I lost interest. This is why the lengthy material above isn’t really what matters to me.
What does make a difference in my mind are people and their minds that led to great Mitzvah projects. I have discussed how these thoughts-to-action people got there in other places, so no need to mention that here. I just want to mention a few of the more than 100 people like this that I have met and what they came up with:
1. PK Beville, Second Wind Dreams, going into nursing homes and assisted living facilities, asking residents what their dream might be, and – whenever possible making them happen, usually for less than $50.
2. Dr. Will Rosenblatt, REMEDY, at Yale-New Haven Hospital recycling enormous amounts of still sterile and usable surgical supplies that would otherwise just be thrown out and instead sent to places that had none or limited supplies.
3. Judith-Kate Friedman, Songwriting Works playing music for Elders in nursing homes, who decided that residents themselves should be writing lyrics to the songs.
4. The scattered bunches of teenagers who play mah-jong and go to facilities for elders and play, having realized that many of the older women would prefer this over bingo. The same for poker-playing teenagers (both sexes) playing poker with the older men and women.
5. Jane Kemp, Salon Salon beauty salon in Berkeley, providing three free haircuts and crucial knowledge and facts for women who are going to lose their hair because of chemotherapy. And, as the hair begins to grow back, cutting short styles and teaching them how to deal with it, particularly if their natural hair was long.
6. Dr. George Brennan, cosmetic surgeon, Newport Beach, CA, former president of Face-to-Face, an extensive chevra of cosmetic and reconstructive surgeons who rebuild battered women’s faces, free of charge. His website shows a very successful (and no doubt, lucrative) practice. Despite the apparent superb quality of his expensive suit, he was very modest, and when showed a video of himself unwrapping a woman’s face he had worked his magic on, the woman was weeping, the nurse was weeping, and he was weeping. No need to ask him what was really important to him in his life’s work as a surgeon.
7. The late Dr. Ben Williamowsky, D.D.S., former international president of Alpha-Omega, the dentists’ Mitzvah project. He set up a program to provide free dental care in the Washington, D.C., area for survivors of the Shoah. The program has now spread to other cities as well.
One final note:
I confess. I would often be curt (or even short-tempered) with people who would talk enthusiastically about random acts of kindness. I would counter that Mitzvahs are all-the-time and not just “one-shot deals” done on a whim. But now I repent. After thinking about the discoveries in the three books I mentioned — some quite by happenstance, hearing so many examples from friends and acquaintances, and exploring the subject on the internet, I am now ready to place random acts of kindness side-by-side with Mitzvahs in my teaching.
This, of course, fits well into my oft-repeated line, “There’s no such thing as a small Mitzvah.”