It’s been one of those months at Theater J, amazing and full and furiously intense; transformative too. The month began appropriately enough — at a synagogue — the rededication of Adas Israel Congregation where Theater J returned with a scene from a production we shared with the folks at Adas some two and a half years ago; we were asked to remount a scene from our 2011 production of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted and originally directed for us by Aaron Posner at Arena Stage.
We reprised the gematriya scene, as our original Reb Saunders, Rick Foucheux, joined original cast member Joshua Morgan playing his son, Danny, while Adi Stein came on board to handle the role of Reuven, and I read the role of Reuven Malter’s older alter ego, the narrator. The occasion for the scene, of course, was this much bigger celebration of Jewish arts on the bimma of the beautifully refurbished Adas Israel. CBS World News Round-Up anchor, Dan Raviv was the brilliant emcee, and the real focus of the evening was the immense amount of love and energy that’s gone into re-imaginging and re-energizing the Adas Israel facility as a gathering place, and a house of study and of worship. Coincidentally, there’s a wonderful article in today’s Washington Post on the re-invention of the space at Adas, and all the new infusion of energy that’s going into rethinking the synagogue space for the new century.
In doing that gematriyah scene, Rick Foucheux channeled Reb Saunders mastery of talmud and numerology in such a spirited and revealing way, he transported the entire audience of 800+ with his command of Jewish learning.
REB SAUNDERS: It is written, “This world is like a vestibule before the world-to-come; prepare thyself in the vestibule, that thou mayest enter the hall”. In gematriya, the words “oylom hazeh,” “this world,” add up to 163, and the words “oylom habo,” “the world-to-come,” come out to 154. The difference between “this world” and “the world-to-come” is 9. 9 is half of 18. 18 is chai, life. In this world, there is only half chai. We are only half alive in this world. Only half alive!
How can we make our lives full so that we are 18, chai, and not half chai? Rabbi Joshua son of Levi teaches us “Whoever does not labor in the Torah is said to be under the divine censure”. He is a nozuf, hated by the Master of the Universe. A righteous man, a tzaddik, studies Torah. In gematriya, nozuf is 143, and tzaddik is 204. What is the difference between nozuf and tzaddik? 61. To whom does a tzaddik dedicate his life?
To God, to La-el! The word, La-el in gematriya is 61. It is a life dedicated to God that makes the difference between nozuf and tzaddik!
In gematriya, the letters of the word traklin, hall, the hall that refers to the world-to-come, is 399, and prozdor, the vestibule that is this world, comes out 513. Take traklin from prozdor and we have 114. Now listen to me. A righteous man, a tzaddik, we said, comes out to 204. A righteous man lives by Torah. Torah is mayim, water; the great and holy rabbis always compare Torah to water. The word mayim in gematriya is 90. Take mayim from tzaddik and we also have 114. From this we learn that the righteous man who removes himself from Torah also removes himself from the world-to-come!
Without Torah there is only half a life. When we study Torah, then the Master of the Universe listens. Then he hears our words. May Torah be a fountain of waters to all who drink from it, and may it bring to us the Messiah speedily and in our day, Amen!
October 2 had been a hard day for many of us at the J, as we weathered new charges from our fierce detractors at Copma. Our answer to Copma, a group who continues to question our love of Israel, our dedication to the larger mission of the J and the Jewish Federation in promoting a soulful, mature engagement with the people of Israel (their history, their present and their future), could be summed up in the scene’s concluding epilogue, as the gematriyah sermon came to a close. It was meaningful for me to be able to reference the deep divisions that develop in The Chosen between the two religious families, one modern orthodox and one much more traditional — how the subject of Israel served for a time to drive a wedge in the community, and how the genius of Chaim Potok’s art imagined and executed a reconciliation between such fiercely divided coreligionists.
REUVEN: Danny indeed became a friend. But it wasn’t an easy thing. We became divided. Over painful issues that should have united us as Jews. It wasn’t just our fathers who were at odds over Zionism. The split divided students and faculty at Hirsch, my yeshiva, and the feelings ran deep on both sides. The Hasidim saw Zionism as a socialist, secularist, sacrilegious movement. The idea of a Jewish state established by non-religious Jews was unimaginable to them. Whereas passionate Zionists, like my father, saw a Jewish homeland in Palestine as the only hope for a devastated and embattled people.
Never again would Jews be bystanders to evil. Never again would Jews be bystanders to such a destruction. Never again would Jews be bystanders while other Jews struggled against oppression.
But my father taught me more than just “Never again!” He taught me “Friendship is not based only on similarities of opinion.”
He taught me “Ayloo ve’ayloo deevray eloheem chaiyeem.” Both these, and these, are the words of the living God. Both these, and these, are the words of the living God.”