The Jewishness of the Mayers, the Schnayers and Bayer
On these High Holidays, we have a lot on our minds. There’s a lot going on in our lives and in the world around us. But I want to stay focused on what our Jewishness means to us. Tonight, in a light kind of way, I want to emphasize one aspect of Jewishness.
The word on my mind is “heritage.” We have inherited a proud Jewish legacy from the past.
So to try out the idea that at least a part of Jewish identity is based on heritage, let me tell you a Jewish story called “The Inheritors.”
Shalom Aleichem is a prayer we say every Friday night, but it’s also the name of the most famous Yiddish writer, whose name was really Shalom Rabinowitz. Most of us know of Shalom Aleichem because he wrote stories about Tevye the Dairyman, the hero of the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof. I recently saw the new, wonderful, emotional, authentic Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof in New York and I was so moved that I read a huge anthology of Shalom Aleichem stories. One of the stories is called Yorshim, Di, “The Inheritors.”
Once upon a time, in the town of Kasrileve, identical twins were born; one was named Mayer and the other was named Schnayer. One was thirty minutes older, but they didn’t know which one, because when they were infants, they were so identical that everyone got mixed up and no one could figure it out. So one was called Mayer-Schnayer and the other was called Schnayer-Mayer, but that was too hard, so one was called the Mayers and the other was called the Schnayers.
When they grew up, however, they were easily distinguishable because one had a black beard and the other one had a red beard, so the one with the black beard was called the Mayers and the one with the red beard was called the Schnayers.
Speaking of beards, their father Reb Shimshen, had such an incredible beard that he was called Reb Shimshen Beard. He barely made a living, but he did have one great possession, the seat next to the rabbi on the eastern wall of the shul. He had inherited it from his father and every Shabbos morning, he sat proudly next to the rabbi.
But one day, suddenly, Reb Shimshen Beard died. And since he had had no idea that he was about to pass away, and he wasn’t wealthy enough to even think about leaving a will, he died without saying which of his sons should inherit the seat. And since no one knew which son was born thirty minutes before the other one, no one knew who was the firstborn son, so no one could figure out who should get the seat. Each son vehemently insisted that the seat was his.
On the Shabbos after their father died, the Mayers got to shul first, so he sat in the seat. The next Shabbos, the Schnayers got there first and he sat in the seat. And each time, the other one was infuriated.
So on the third Shabbos, they both get to the door before the Shammes, the custodian, even gets there to open it, and when he does, they rush and knock the Shammes down, and he winds up on the floor with a bloody face. The Shammes gets so mad that he runs and fills a pail of water. He comes back to find the two brothers fighting over the seat. The Shammes throws cold water on the two of them and they are ashamed.
So they all go to the wise old Rabbi, who listens to the whole situation and offers to give up his seat, because G-d is everywhere, and so he can sit anywhere in the shul, and now both of them can sit next to each other.
The brothers do not accept this solution, and neither will take the rabbi’s seat, because that would defeat the whole purpose for them, for what they both want is to sit in their father’s seat next to the rabbi, and so neither sits in the seat, and the seat stays empty for the rest of their lives.
And Shalom Aleichem’s ending comment is, “What a waste!”
Now of course, I like this story because the rabbi is the wise hero, who shows what Judaism should and shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be about egos and pride and rivalry. The brothers have forgotten what a shul is.
But the title of the story, “the Inheritors,” really bothers me. The brothers inherit a precious legacy from their father, and look what they do with it! What a waste!
We have inherited a precious Jewish legacy. What have we done with it? Is our Judaism just what we’ve inherited? We should be proud, very proud, of the Jewish past. We have given the world monotheism and morality and ethical principles and justice.
And it’s very sweet to be sentimental. I do not mean this condescendingly; I am probably more sentimental with every passing year. So of course our Jewishness is intertwined with the memories of those who made us Jewish.
But what are we doing with our inheritance now? Are we just going through the motions because this is what we always did?
The Mayers and the Schnayers fight over their yichus, their pride, over sitting in a certain seat. And I get the feeling that this is all that their Judaism meant to them. I don’t think it was about davening, or G-d, or connecting to their people or their spiritual selves. I think that all they cared about was that possession.
I got a call a couple of months ago from a rabbinical colleague who was very upset. He is the rabbi at a very large synagogue and it has a very large bima with a lot of very large chairs. All of the officers sit on the bima every Shabbos. And one of them, I’ll call him Bayer, was Second Vice President, and then First Vice President and then President, and so he sat on the bima for six years, the last two right next to the rabbi. He was a very good officer and President. But as of July 1st, he no longer sat on the bima. And he disappeared. After a few weeks, the rabbi emailed him, but did not get an answer. That Friday night, the rabbi was relieved to see him, sitting in the back row. He looked for Bayer after services but didn’t see him. But then as the rabbi started to walk home, here was Bayer, asking if he could walk him home. The rabbi said, “Sure, what’s been going on?”
And Bayer said, “I came tonight to tell you I am resigning from the congregation. I thought you deserved to hear this from me.”
The rabbi was shocked. He couldn’t even speak. Was this the same man who had worked so hard for years, who had done so much for the shul, who criticized others for not being involved? Finally the rabbi said, “I don’t understand.”
Bayer said, “No one talks to me anymore. No one calls or emails me any more. I don’t have a role anymore. I knew how hard it would be to come off the bima. But I never thought it would be this hard.”
No matter what the rabbi said, Bayer wouldn’t budge. The rabbi reminded him how often he had talked about commitment and loyalty. Bayer just said goodbye. He resigned from the synagogue.
The rabbi called me a few days later, still baffled by the whole thing. But I found the story instructive, and familiar.
Let’s think about a synagogue. It is a democratic institution. While it has employees, many of its functions are performed by, and many of its decisions are made, by an ever-changing cast of volunteers. A lot of those volunteers receive a great deal of personal satisfaction from the help they give and the contributions they make. Many are chair-people and Board members, and over time, quite a few are officers. Some, like Bayer, hold several offices and become President. Being a President of a synagogue has been a major honor for Jewish people for centuries.
But Bayer must have been missing something the whole time. It must have just been about him. He loved sitting on the bima, but only because he was sitting on the bima, not because of what a bima is, a place where the Torah is read and the services are led.
Think about a regular Shabbat morning service. Besides whoever is leading the service, you have one or more people to read the Torah. You have a Kohen and a Levi and 5 Israelites, representing all three parts of our people. You have two Gabbais on either side of the Torah to follow in the book and call people up. Then you have a Hagbah to lift the Torah and show everyone what was read, and you have a Gelilah to wrap the Torah. Then you have someone to chant the Haftorah. This is a lot of people. The service is very different from what anthropologists call a few ritual specialists who secretly perform the religious rites.
In the process of all this volunteering and all this participation, people should feel good because they make a difference.
People should be honored by a community for their participation, but they should not just participate in order to be honored. Bayer apparently was working for the honors, not for the community, not for the Jewish people.
I’d like to say something nice about being the rabbi of this shul. Since we don’t have a Cantor during the year, we have congregants davening and reading the Torah and chanting Haftorahs. Every week, I’m emailing or talking to people about participating. And no matter how many times I ask, people will thank me, or say that they’re sorry if they can’t do it. And I don’t get complaints if I haven’t asked someone in a while; they know I didn’t mean any slight, so they just mention that they’re up to do something soon.
Everyone is very flexible, which is a good thing because things come up and we have a lot of last-minute changes.
These people are the opposite of Bayers. They want to be part of things, they want to daven, they know we have a culture of participation and they want to be part of it.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be on the bima. There’s something very right about wanting to be on the bima. It is a way not so much to receive an honor as a way to honor all of us, and G-d.
I’m not saying we have not had our Bayers. And we’ve had a few Schnayers and Mayers. And like Shalom Aleichem said: What a waste! What a waste of a part of their lives, when they could have seen their actions as real achievements for others.
But to most of us, Jewishness is not just the heritage that has been passed down to us; it is about who we are now and what we want to pass down to the next generation. A synagogue is something we can pass on. Even if we don’t have another generation of our family we are passing it to, we are passing it to the next generation of the community.
Jewishness is more than an ego trip. It’s a journey that enriches our lives.