April 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Vayikra: 24: 10-23

When the Nachmanides School moved to its new building in 2005, only a few objects were moved to the new structure from the old one across town. All the ancient school desks were chucked for new, state-of-the-art seats. The blackboards were abandoned for smart boards. Even the teachers’ lounge got new furniture. All that came from the old building were a few donor plaques, some beautiful old mezuzot, the aron kodesh from the main synagogue and a large, friendly picture of Rabbi Leibowitz, the founding principal.

And the bench.

Rabbi Rosencrantz loved the bench. It was solid oak, eight feet long and four feet high, and it weighed somewhere around 200 pounds. It was a very impressive piece of furniture. The seat was so high that if you were less than six feet tall your feet dangled off the ground when you sat in it. It rested in front of the principal’s office. And it was, in a word, imposing.

That was the point of the bench: to be imposing. Because if you were sitting on the bench it could mean only one thing. You were in trouble.

The bench was where you sat when you were sent to the principal’s office. No one else would have the temerity to sit on it, because, well, because it was scary. It had been even scarier in front of the old office, with its ancient, beige tile floors and the faded, industrial green paint job, but even in the newly carpeted hallway with its warm, blue earth tones, it had heft.

Most children whom Rabbi Rosencrantz found sitting at the bench when he opened the door to his office had a certain look on their faces. For some it was fear. Having to visit the principal, even one as pleasant and understanding as Rabbi Rosencrantz, was not fun when you had been sent by your teacher for anything from a misdemeanor to a major felony. Fear was definitely the most common look.

For others it was the “Who, me?” look of feigned innocence. That usually didn’t last long when faced with the principal’s withering stare, but it was certainly a common opening gambit for many students.

So what most surprised Rabbi Rosencrantz when he opened the door to his office and found Mendy Teplow sitting on the bench with his feet dangling in the air was not so much that he was not a child the rabbi expected to find there as Mendy’s utter nonchalance regarding his precarious position. Mendy looked like he was waiting for a bus.

“Hello,” Rabbi Rosencrantz said.

“Hi.”

“Are you here to see me?”

“Yup.”

Normally the rabbi would have escorted the miscreant into his office and shut the door, but instead he sat next to Mendy on the bench. Fortunately, the rabbi’s feet reached the ground.

“So what are you here for? Loitering?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“What, then?”

“Apparently, I said a few bad words.”

“Really, like what?”

There is a rule among lawyers in a courtroom. When questioning a witness, never ask an open ended question, because you don’t want a response you weren’t anticipating. The moment Rabbi Rosencrantz asked the question he knew he had made a mistake, but it was too late.

Mendy told him. He told the rabbi everything. Never mind how many letters some of these words had, or what letters the words began with, it was an impressive list. For a sailor it might have been impressive. Rabbi Rosencrantz should have stopped him, but he was fascinated by how Mendy rolled off the list so lackadaisically, like it was no big deal.

“Wow.”

“Yeah, Mrs. Weinblatt didn’t like what I said and sent me to see you.”

“I see. Well, I must admit, Mendy, that’s quite a bad list of words you said.”

“I guess.”

“What surprises me, though, is that you don’t seem too bothered by this whole thing.”

“I just don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. My Dad and I were watching the Yankee game the other night, and the manager of the Red Sox screamed almost all those words at the umpire after a close call at first base. And that was on national television.”

“Really!”

“Yeah. You even got to watch him scream them again in slow mo on the replay.”

“I’m sure that’s true, but that doesn’t make what he said right.”

“I guess. But last month some guy rear-ended my mom’s car at a red light, and when my mom got into an argument with the guy, she used a lot of those words too.”

Rabbi Rosencrantz tried to picture Leia Teplow, a social worker at the Jewish Federation who ran the Meals on Wheels program, going at it at a fender bender and tried not to chuckle.

“I think your mom was probably pretty upset at that moment, but she doesn’t normally talk that way, does she?”

“I guess not.”

Rabbi Rosencrantz folded his legs under him and leaned back on the bench. “You know, Mendy, in the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, among all the laws of the kohanim, the priests, and the korbanot, the sacrifices, the Torah only tells two stories about individual people. Do you know what those stories are?”

Mendy stared at the rabbi, offering no response.

“One is the story of the deaths of Aharon’s sons, and the other is about the mekallel, a man who curses using the name of God and is put to death. That is often translated as a blasphemer.”

“Is that going to be my punishment?”

Mendy remained straight-faced, and Rabbi Rosencrantz began to realize that perhaps young Teplow’s innocent face concealed more than he thought. “No, not today Mendy, but the school year is young.”

Mendy smiled.

“My point is that the story of the mekallel must be pretty important if it is fit into a book that deals almost exclusively with the laws of how we can become closer to God through purity and divine worship. I think it’s because we need to know that purity of speech is important in developing purity and holiness in life. For example, just like the laws of keeping kosher teach us to seek holiness in the way we eat, avoiding cursing helps us to seek holiness in the way we speak. Do you see what I mean?”

“Yes,” Mendy said, “I guess.”

“That’s why God goes on to discuss laws of murder and injury right after the story of the mekallel. Because bad speech, especially during an argument, can lead to worse things, like murder, or if you’re the Red Sox manager, ejection from the game.”

“I get it,” Mendy said

“So you’ll try to avoid any bad words in your future speech?”

“Yes, Rabbi Rosencrantz,” Mendy said, with what the rabbi hoped was no hint of irony.

“That’s good. Because it’s a good way to avoid death and also to avoid ejection, whichever becomes necessary. Now go back to class.”

And without looking back, Mendy jumped off the bench and headed back to Mrs. Weinblatt in 3-B, hopefully not to return to the bench ever again.

Inspired by: Rabbi J. Saks, Covenant and Conversation, Leviticus, The Blasphemer, Maggid Books, pgs 353–358.

By Larry Stiefel

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.

 

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