I forget how valuable it is to talk to people outside one’s own group. Basically, I mean strangers. There are reasons I don’t talk to people who I know outside my own group. And I don’t think it’s ever jealousy, if I could dare say that. But talking to strangers, especially people who you will most likely never ever see again, is a chance to learn about yourself, as well as okay, perhaps learning about others.
On the train back from NYC back two weeks ago, I was happy to grab the inside seat. Trains are so comfortable that you don’t have to worry about squeezing out into the aisle to go the bathroom, like on a plane. And so I’d rather be next to the window for a bit more potential privacy. But of course, the train was crowded enough for someone to need to sit next to me. A woman of a certain age sat down, arranging without delay for the conductor to help her hoist her bag up onto the rack. She had that genteel refinement of someone who was quite used to getting people to do what she needed without delay. Not me, oh no, sir. On the train down, I was trying desperately not to have to stand on the seat to lift my bag, which would have been the only way I could accomplish it on my own. The man behind me politely said, “Go ahead. I’ll wait.” The man two behind him said, “[Idiot], Why don’t you help her pick it up?” And thankfully, he finally did, so the line could keep moving and I could regain a bit of my composure.
Dignity was definitely out of the question.
But the woman who now sat besides me had much to teach me about dignity.
Our primary conversation referred to our purpose of our trip, referencing the size of our bags and the need to have them hoisted for us. Come to think of it, I’ve already forgotten how I got my bag up on this leg home; I think I was smart and also asked the conductor. We both had spent a few days in New York to see family. I discovered that she had met her sister from Toronto there. Her sister has been nursing her husband who has been stricken with Parkinson’s and was given this opportunity to get away and breathe. That led to a discussion about my mother’s slow decline from Parkinson’s, plus. I realized that that was not the information she was hoping to provide for her sister; the disease was already so difficult to manage for her sister that she could not imagine it taking so long to come to its conclusion. I reassured her that each case was, of course, so very different. I told her about the story of my SIL’s grandmother who forced me to realize how much one can do, even in a coma. (You can read about it here, if you’d like:). )
The train continued and so did our conversation. In fact, there were more stops in the train than in our discussion, which led to her thoughts on the loss of her husband just over a year before. Suddenly, from a blood infection that never healed. From a fall, from fixing something in the house. (Or am I remembering that wrong? I’m getting my own directives to my own husband from the last days and his scrapes and near-misses in the way of remembering. And I was very anxious once she mentioned it, due to my own experience with a similar infection with spiked fever and hospitalization.) And how she found herself suddenly on her own, left to having her son help with all the finances.
“You know you can’t spend whatever you want,” he has told her, apparently repeatedly. “You have to be responsible.”
“No, I have to have good times and I can spend the money as I see fit. It will last.”
I did say she looked dignified; now I knew she had the money to back that up. They are not always mutually exclusive.
Somehow the loss of my sister entered the conversation. And then the loss of her sister, a few years back. But they lived on different coasts and were not particularly close. She thought it must be so hard for me, having lived in the same town. It did not seem like it made as much of an impact on her own life.
I don’t even remember how but I brought religion into the picture. I mentioned for some reason that I am an Orthodox Jew and we were planning on moving to Israel. Maybe that was it. But she could not be more delighted. She had loved seeing all of those Jews living as Jews in New York City (maybe the Hasidim in the Jewelry District?) and admitted that she was frustrated with Jewish acquaintances who did not have familiarity with their Torah.
As it turned out, she could quote scripture better than I could. And she could quote Old Testament scripture better than New, for whatever reason. We talked for the next hour or more about Scripture, living one’s life with the text. We traded insights and favorite passages. I told her about my theory about the Garden of Eden being a model for all kinds of sanctuaries that we create or maintain, such as keeping the Sabbath holy. She was amazed that I could take Torah ideas and rework them, so to speak.
“Do you have authority to do that?”
I assured her that there were many levels of reworking, but yes, we all have the ability to expand how the Bible/Torah speaks to us, not changing the commandments but how we can understand G-d’s message to us. That we are here to expand the message in ways that are bringing the Torah to life. That is our obligation and our objective. I told her about my original reason for going to New York, to attend a dinner for the organization called Nishmat, which is a wonderful school for women in Israel. Before the dinner, Racheli Sprecher Fraenkel was giving a class, which was perhaps the main reason for going at this time. The dinner I didn’t need, being a country fish out of water. But during this class, Racheli spoke about the value of each of us emulating Rabbi Akiva, who was able to expound on the crownlets of the letters of the Torah:
Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe went up to the Heavens [at Mt. Sinai], he found God sitting and fastening crownlets to the letters of the Torah. He asked: Master of the universe, who is delaying you [in this way the giving of the Torah]? God responded: There will be a man who will live many generations from now whose name is Akiva son of Joseph, and he will derive heaps of laws from every jot and tittle. Moshe said: Master of the universe, show him to me! God replied: Turn around. Moshe went and sat behind the eighth row of students [in Akiva’s Beit Midrash]. He did not understand what was being said. Moshe felt faint. But when the discussion reached a certain point, Rabbi Akiva’s students asked: ‘Rabbi, what is the source of the authority of these teachings?’ Rabbi Akiva replied: Halacha L’Moshe miSinai, This is law given to Moshe at Sinai.’ Moshe’s mind settled.
I could only assure my train friend that we all have an obligation to bring as much light into this world as possible.
Racheli has the authority to charge us to do that, you see.
And the dignity.