I am always delighted when someone reacts to something that I have said with "I never knew that!"
Sometimes my reaction includes a mix of astonishment and dismay. The astonishment comes from having the immediate thought, "Really? I thought everyone knew that", and the dismay from "How could that be? What a loss that you never knew that."
For example, during the Minyan Oneg Shabbat study session on Leil Tikkun Shavuot (yes, it has been a while since my last post), I quoted this passage from the Talmud: "In the world to come, each of us will be called to account for all the things G!d put on earth which we refused to enjoy." This elicited an immediate response: "It says what? That we're supposed to enjoy all that life has to offer. That's Jewish? I never knew that!"
The woman shared with me in private that she thought that Jews are supposed to suffer and to do without. I was both astonished and saddened that something as definingly Jewish had never been communicated to her, and if it had, she had not been able to integrate that truth into her life.
Here's another example. Last week I gave a drash during which I talked about my love for gardening, and specifically talked about composting. I shared this lovely passage from Rabbi Balfour Brickner's (z"l) book Finding G!d in the Garden:
"...there always seemed to be a lot of garbage. What to do with it? For years we did what most people do: we threw it out...(into) a garbage can...electric disposal. Frankly I never gave the matter a second thought. That was what one did with garbage. It was only when I began to garden that my postculinary habits changed radically. Garbage...took on new meaning for me - and new life. In fact, that is exactly what happens to it when it is used in the garden: it takes on new life. Put differently and much more to the point, what seems dead lives - again."
After quoting this passage I punctuated it by saying "Mechayei HaMaytim, the One who restores life to the dead." After services a woman thanked me, saying "I've never been offered a metaphor for the phrase "Mechayei HaMeytim" that worked for me. Thank you."
Mechayei HaMeytim" - the quality of the Divine as the One who restores life. Wait a moment, this woman had fifty years of Hebrew school, synagogue going, study sessions, and book reading and it wasn't until a few sentences about composting that she gained insight into this seminal and theologically difficult phrase? I felt blessed to have been the messenger - and astonished and dismayed. Astonished at the reminder that some of us chant words which we have no understanding or relationship to. And dismayed that we, and I certainly include myself, go through so many daily rituals without introspection or reflection.
That is something that I did know.
It's what to do about it that is the constant challenge.
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and