Saturday, May 30, 2020

September 2019: Some thoughts about the upcoming season of introspection and repentance: a “dialogue” between the author and Mark Twain.

Mr. Twain visited me recently after a hiatus of several months during which time he was busy influencing various other authors. In the interim since we had last spoken, he had given some serious though to several topics of interest to Americans in general and American Jews in particular:

1. Hakarat hatov or recognizing the good that others do to or for us: Mark was much taken with the practice that Jewish people have of formally recognizing good deeds performed by others on their behalf. The best “good-neighbor policy” was what he called it; but he had some questions for me about the scope of the concept. Mark was not a particularly religious man as far as formal practice was concerned, but he knew his Bible. That led him to raise some questions with me concerning the treatment Moses received for what, in Twain’s view, was a minor indiscretion at the Waters of Strife, when Moses struck the stone contrary to God’s instruction to merely speak to it in order to have the waters flow. “A lifetime of dedicated service, a moment’s deviation, and for this he can’t enter the land of milk and honey?? Seems downright unfair,” he insisted. “Surely all the good that Moses performed should have outweighed his misdeed.

This example led Mark to wonder about the scope of hakarat hatov. He asked me whether the concept applied to both institutions as well as individuals. I told him it could apply to both, but in the end the number of cases involving individuals probably far outnumbered those affecting institutions. Mark pointed out that recently many famous people had had long-established stellar reputations tarnished in an instant as evidence of past misdeeds were dredged up from their past. With lightning speed, exemplars had been cast aside: no hakarat hatov for these miscreants. While several had past rewards and honors rescinded, at least they got to keep any golden watches they had received, which was more than Moses got to keep!

2. Twain’s relationship with the Chosen People of the Bible: Throughout his adult life, it is well known that Twain considered himself a friend of the Jews. He was truly admiring of their ability to survive in the face of endless persecutions and active attempts to destroy them. He too admired their love of learning and education, and echoing Maimonides considered them literally a race of “philosophers,” in the Greek sense of “lovers of knowledge” (philo Sophia). That’s not to say he didn’t wonder at their often refractory, rebellious relationship with God; he simply viewed the Jews as advancing civilization through their active curiosity about life and nature, while occasionally overzealously overstepping the bounds of propriety.

3. The foregoing dichotomies (and the fate of Moses above) depressed Mark a bit and I sought to lift his spirits by determining exactly what were the positive lessons to be learned from Jewish history and hakarat hatov. I started with the story of Jonah and the Whale, a parable he knew well. I described how ultimately the Assyrian capital city, Nineveh, is saved from destruction when its people repent for their evil ways at the behest of Jonah. But “What end was served by this repentance?” Twain correctly asked me. “Didn’t the Assyrians go on to be a scourge upon their neighbors, including the Kingdom of Israel? The Ninevites wreaked havoc on the world! Better they should have stayed unrepentant for all the good that came from Jonah’s preaching!” Twain concluded that Assyria and Nineveh’s ultimate fate—utter destruction by the Persian Empire—was merely delayed by their being saved by Jonah. Twain remained depressed following my vain attempt to lift his spirits. In fact he told me he saw direct analogies between Nineveh and New York, clear parallels between our times and those of the ancient city.

According to Twain the Nineveh of old and New York of today share many similar characteristics: busy economic centers where not everyone is “making it,” world-famous cultural centers where man’s greatest achievements and worst perversions exist side by side. Classical music with its three B’s being performed in our philharmonic halls, while the three W’s fill our tabloids with their illicit deeds! Twain further noted that today more and more people are losing their hard-earned reputations, not to mention their jobs, as a result of long-standing crimes and misdemeanors being revealed in the court of public opinion. In his view, this fact is saving society lots of money that would otherwise be needed for actual trials and public proceedings and may also be saving us from a visit by a modern-day Jonah or two or three!

4. Opposing opinions: Twain admits there may be some people unwilling to accept that any close parallel exists between us and the denizens of Nineveh, or that things are really as bad today as they were in those earlier days. I told Mark that I’m not so sure! As a people, as a culture, we may aim higher than those biblical folk, but we surely have enough of an affinity for the muck and mire of unbridled passions to give us much comfort that we’ve learned anything at all from history. At a minimum let’s hope that, if upon repentance we’re forgiven for our misdeeds, our treasured lives, cities and homes don’t end up as so many rest stops on some future guided tour of long-forgotten “ancient” civilizations! I tried, but, ultimately, I failed to lift Mark’s spirits. “Things have gotten pretty bad right now, but there’s always tomorrow,” he opined. “I’ll return when things brighten a bit!”

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to the Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.