Monday, October 31, 2011

One of You is the Messiah

     The following is my own adaptation of a well-known Yiddish folktale.  If you are part of a church or synagogue that has struggled to bring in new members, I think there is a message in the story for you.  As a Christian, the church is my mother; but Judaism is my grandmother, and I love them both.  For all the incredible gimmicks that purport to attract and keep new members – everything from "Invite a Friend to Church Sunday," to bringing in visiting consultants, to expensive media campaigns – we might do better to listen to the wisdom of our grandmother.

     Once upon a time in the old country, there was a synagogue that had fallen on hard times. Only five members were left: except for one young boy, all of them were over sixty years old.

     In the mountains near the synagogue there lived an old retired rabbi. It occurred to the five to ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the synagogue. One of the more able members, a 62-year-old man by the name of Moishe, made the arduous climb up the mountain arriving late in the afternoon.  The old rabbi welcomed him humbly.  Sitting down to tea the old rabbi had prepared, the member of the declining synagogue spoke at length about the discouragement his congregation faced.  He described all of the different ways they had tried to attract new members: invite neighbors, provide programs for younger people, make their worship more upbeat and joyful, even going door to door inviting former members of the synagogue to return.  Nothing worked.  Finally, the member ran out of words as evening came on.  In desperation, he asked, "Rabbi, what should we do?"  After a long silence, the rabbi simply responded by saying, "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is, the Messiah is one of you."  Stunned by this great news, Moishe, returning to the synagogue, and told the four other members what the rabbi had said. 

     In the months that followed, the synagogue members pondered the words of the rabbi. "The Messiah is one of us?" they each asked themselves.

     They began to look around themselves at the other people in the congregation trying to figure out which one of them could be the Messiah.

     "Surely it couldn't be Schwartzman.  He's so old, he was around when God created dirt."  But as they thought about it, they wondered if maybe he could be the Messiah.  He certainly has a lot of wisdom, and he has been around longer than all of us – maybe he could be the Messiah.

     And then they thought, "Certainly it can't be young Jacob.  He's just a boy."  But as they thought about it, they wondered if maybe he could be the Messiah.  He certainly was a bright and good boy.

     And then they thought, "Of course, it can't be Miriam.  She's got a personality as sour as old gefilte fish."  But as he thought about it, they wondered if maybe she could be the Messiah.  Certainly the Messiah would be discouraged by some of the things that go on in our village.  The Torah and the prophets said nothing about the Messiah being a woman, but maybe God was doing a new thing.

     And so it went… as they thought about these possibilities, they all began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that, one among them might be the Messiah ... and on the off-chance that each member himself or herself might be the Messiah, they also began to treat themselves with extraordinary care.

     As time went by, people visiting the synagogue noticed the aura of respect and gentle kindness that surrounded the five members of the small synagogue. Hardly knowing why, more people began to come back to worship at the old synagogue. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought more friends.

     I've been a fan of Yiddish literature since I was in college, and I believe there is an incredible depth of wisdom contained in them.  If you are interested in exploring Yiddish literature further, I would recommend the original book that caused me to fall in love with this genre: A Treasury of Yiddish Stories edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg.  My personal favorite is entitled "If Not Higher" by I.  L. Peretz.

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