Sid and I had the opportunity this week to attend a two day event sponsored by Colby College’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life, an initiative to bring Jews in Maine together. Since the whole state only has just over a million people in total population, you can imagine how small is the number of Jewish people. That having been said, over 200 Jews gathered for a spectacular event including entertainment by Nefesh Mountain – you must check them out on YouTube! And yes, the female lead singer and I immediately became as she stated, soul sisters.
WOW! What an amazing experience! The attendees ranged from farmers to physicians, from secular to Modern Orthodox, coming from the most southern more urban cities to the most northern sections of the Down East. Particularly wonderful were the Talmud studies with Dr. Ruth Calderon, a former member of the Knesset and founder of the first Israeli secular, pluralistic, and egalitarian Beth Midrash for women and men (years ago -in 1989!) She lives in Tel Aviv but spends part of the year at Colby College as a Scholar in Residence as part of the College’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life.
The conference was fairly large yet small enough to feel intimate. And HaShem was definitely at work to place me where He wanted me to be! When we arrived, we joined the buffet line. Random, right? Yet right behind me and the person with whom I chatted was, unbeknownst to me at that time, the Rabbi in charge of the Center, itself, and main planner of the event. We “randomly” sat with two seniors one of whom must have been the only non Jew in the Jewish Studies program. When she told us she was not Jewish, we told her we were Messianic Jewish. That led to our telling both young women, and those listening nearby, our testimonies. At Talmud study the next morning, we were to form discussion groups by turning to the persons near us and my group was, who else, the other Center rabbi and her niece. The divine appointments were capped off by the Nefesh Mountain lead singer beckoning me over to her group later that afternoon on our prayer walk to discuss our new year goals.
As you know, jogging while praying to HaShem is my number one most favorite time with Him. So I excitedly had signed up for the morning prayer jog. It was on the first morning so I had not yet met Dr. Calderon. That morning she was just one of the handful of us brave enough to participate in the event. One of the participants befriended me and I couldn’t help but note the several missing front teeth in her smile. I learned she was a goat farmer and spent much of her day this time of year climbing trees to prune them creating better foliage for her goats for the next growing seasons. She had never jogged before but thought she’d give it a try. As I watched her change into better shoes, i.e., ones that looked way too big for her but with rubber soles, I was curious how she would be able to keep up. After all, I jog regularly, the others were dressed for a run, one even a college athlete. I admired her spunk but clearly my judgment hat was on.
It couldn’t have been a more beautiful fall day – crisply warm, sunny, resplendent foliage- as we jogged and would stop to take in our surroundings to pray and discuss specific Talmud passages chosen by the group’s leader, a member of the college cross country team. As Ruth (Dr. Calderon) made beautiful observations about God and our surroundings, I had no appreciation that these pearls were from the mouth of a Talmudic scholar. After all, she just seemed to be a middle aged woman in great shape for running. Would I have valued the words more had I known the credentials of the speaker?
The athletic student leader jogged comfortably with Ruth and a lean athletic young man. The petite goat farmer was next and then came I, enjoying my jog but clearly the slowest in the group. At first I tried to keep up, at least with the goat farmer, but trying to do so completely removed me from feeling close to HaShem. Unfortunately, my headphones had mysteriously stopped working so there was nothing to distract me from focusing on my trailing behind the goat farmer as I breathlessly tried to keep up. Abba clearly was trying to make His point with me! Ultimately, I just kept my own pace and as the group would stop for readings and prayer together, I would catch up.
It was a long run – over an hour – so as it was winding down and some walking was involved (Thank goodness!) I got to know the goat farmer. I learned of her skills, her education, and yes, her lack of money to care for her teeth or afford properly fitting shoes. I learned of a person who lived so close to nature that she could hear the goats speak to her, who cherished with childlike glee every acorn she picked from the ground to take back to them. I learned of a person who through the created beauties of nature, immersed in them daily, lived very close to God.
The point of one of the Midrashim was that in order to receive HaShem’s bounty we must clear that within ourselves that blocks its flow into our beings. I learned it intellectually from a famous Talmudic scholar. Yet I also learned it even more deeply as I was now able to see the real person of the goat farmer. I could connect to our Abba, be reminded of His teachings showing me my sin of judgment. I could feel the flow of His love through her, and His forgiveness, as I was able to feel her love for His created beings. His love of me increased my love of everything around me.
Big cities, small towns, rural communities. The where is unimportant. Around us abound opportunities to grow ourselves in Him. The choice is ours to partake and become closer to who He has created us to be.