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Vayigash: An Impertinence!

I shared a story I read in Tracy Kidder’s “Strength In What Remains,” about Sharon, a woman who dropped out of a Benedictine Convent, who lives by the axiom that her job in life was to discover the abilities she had received from God and to use them “in a deep, giving spirit,” for the glory of God. She cares for homeless and helpless people who drop into St Marks church in Manhattan. She moved in for six months with a retarded woman who didn’t bathe, her apartment crammed with garbage and junk. It took that long for her to clean the apartment and teach the woman how to care for herself. She made it possible for, Deogratis, a homeless African immigrant from Burundi, to attend college and medical school, so that he could go on to establish medical clinics all over his former country. Sharon is above embarrassment. She receives all people with, “all the gentleness of the fear of God.” Her story inspired me and I shared it with an acquaintance.


I was shocked when he responded, “But she’s Christian! How can you admire her story?”

I recalled something Emily Dickinson had written that I read a long time ago: “Where a thought takes one’s breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence.”

Sharon’s story takes my breath away, as does any similar story I read. I experienced my companion’s response as an impertinence. Are we so interested in the rules that govern our speech that we cannot appreciate and honor human greatness of anyone other than a Jew?

A scholar and I were sitting at the death bed of a famous Rabbi. He shared with us how he practically starved when he served in the army during World War II because, although not an observant Jew at the time, he refused to eat non-kosher food. The scholar rebuked the dying man, “That was stupid. A soldier in battle may eat non-kosher food!” The scholar’s lesson on grammar was an impertinence.

Imagine criticizing the Chashmonaim for expending so much effort into looking for pure oil, “That’s stupid! The law doesn’t require only pure oil in these circumstances.” Would that lesson on grammar not have been an impertinence. (Plus, it would have ruined the whole Chanukah story!)

There are times when a lesson on the rules is an impertinence.

A member of my synagogue in Los Angeles wore the Tallit he had worn under his shirt while in Auschwitz. A young, newly observant member of the synagogue criticized him for wearing his now frayed and “not kosher” Tallit. The young man offered a lesson on grammar when he should have let the man’s heroic story take his breath away. The young man insulted my hero, and he lost an opportunity to have his breath taken away.

Joseph’s story, his patience, and heroic ability to wait for the perfect moment to reveal his identity to his brothers, takes my breath away. He didn’t follow the rules! He should have immediately notified his father once he was in a position of power. He didn’t! He should not have allowed his brothers to describe Jacob as, “Your servant.” He didn’t follow the rules. He framed Benjamin for stealing his goblet. He didn’t follow the rules, but he sure takes my breath away! Please don’t ruin the story for me by explaining the rules of the game. It would be an impertinence!

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