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You Are Who You Eat With

Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, tells his students to repeat the mantra, "I have arrived."

Each Friday night, I celebrate the Jewish Sabbath. Commemorating the end of the work of Creation, the Sabbath is about completion, perfection, like arriving home after a long journey.

I light candles, sing a few songs, recite a few prayers, say a benediction over a glass of wine, a blessing over two loaves of bread and then eat a festive meal. It is a sacred moment, a stepping into abundance, a thanksgiving on many levels, most of all for the miracle that is life, that is consciousness, itself.

Usually, I share the evening with my girlfriend, Veronica. A few weeks ago, Vero was unavailable, and I invited a couple of guys over.

One of them, H., is my age. I've known him for a long time. Though neither of us is good about staying in touch, on those rare occasions when we do get together, we greatly enjoy each other's company, always laughing a lot.

Recently, H. has been reaching out, sending me long, deeply personal emails. He is depressed, a spiritual seeker, who considers, as he enters the final act of the play, that he has been searching in vain. I can relate. More philosophical about my failure, or maybe just more in denial, I believe I animate him, leavening his gloom. I touch him on a certain, yet youthful level.

My other Shabbat companion that evening, F., is himself yet youthful. Three decades my junior, I met him at synagogue recently, during September's extensive holiday season.

My guests arrived. I presented one to the other, and we began, taking our places around my dining-room table. As soon as he sat down, F. asked if we were going to do the "short version" of the service. "Yes, it won't be long," I reassured him. "Good," he ejaculated, emphasizing his impatience. I was, for a moment, taken aback. It was like someone, who on arriving at a musical recital, asks the performer to keep it brief.

There is a script to these Friday evenings, a brief, loose script that invites improvisation, but a script nonetheless. Having performed it so many times, a combination of the traditional and variations on the theme, I have achieved a certain facility if not eloquence. People have told me that I glow.

Mine performance is a fast-paced weaving of spiritual lessons and spiritual humor around the aforementioned prayers and songs; then the wine; then the bread; then the meal. The secret to a good meal is to keep them waiting, at least, a little.

I am both rabbi and chef. I sit at the head of the dining-room table, moving things along, occasionally rising to swoosh across the open floor plan into the kitchen area to quickly add some finishing touches to the dinner.

During one of these kitchen interludes, that evening with H. and F., rather than raise my voice to be heard over the distance, I gave up the reins of the conversation. F. mentioned something about Mexico City. H. responded with a long, entirely too-detailed story of a violent, prolonged mugging, involving his being beaten with a metal rod until finally realizing that he could end it all by giving up his money. Returning from the kitchen midway through this tale, I stood behind my chair at a loss as to how I could end this truly horrifying account, so inappropriate for the Sabbath evening, without being rude.

Finally, I interrupted, making H. laugh with some irony and mildly sarcastic remarks that brought us back to focus. F. challenged my doing so, "I'd like to hear the end of H.'s story." Paternally, I insisted, "When you invite H. over to your house for dinner, then you can direct the conversation where you want it to go."

Some short time later, in the kitchen to ritually wash our hands before breaking bread, F. remarked on a large box of vacuum-packed, Costco smoked-salmon, I have on a top shelf, that I inherited from my ex-wife when she left town:

F. - "Aren't you supposed to keep that refrigerated?"
Me- "No. It's vacuum-packed."
F. - "Still, I think it's supposed to be in the fridge."
Me- "It says on the box, not until it's opened."
F. - "I don't know."
Me- "If I were you, I wouldn't argue with my ex-wife about food."
F. - "Let's eat some now."
Me- "We need a bigger party to eat all that lox. Tonight we have a different menu. Wash your hands."

Well into the meal, everyone's blood sugar at a comfortable level, I offered the following pleasantry, "My house is humble, but, here at the end of the alley, it has something rare in San Miguel, quiet." "Yeah, right," F. lost no time in objecting, "with those dogs barking." "They barked for 15 seconds, once, all evening," I protested.

Still later, during the meal, provoked by F.'s ongoing heckling, partly like a stand-up comic suppressing an unruly audience member, partly with genuine concern, I asked him, "What are you doing? Why do you keep challenging me on every statement I make? Is it some kind of psychological tic?" Called out on it, F. laughed and took it down a few notches for a while.

Every week, every Saturday ("Sabbath by day"), the Jews read another section of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The week H. and F. came to dinner, it was the section concerning Noah's Flood. The section begins, "Noah was a righteous person in his generation." Every word significant, the rabbis ask, why doesn't it just say, "Noah was a righteous person"? Why does the Torah add "in his generation"?

The Talmud is like that old joke: ask two Jews what they think, and you'll get three opinions.

One rabbi answers, that even in such an evil generation, with such bad influences, Noah was righteous. Another rabbi suggests the opposite; that it was only in comparison to the general low level of morality of such an evil time that Noah appeared righteous. That is, "in his generation" he appeared righteous; in a better time he wouldn't have seemed so good. Another rabbi says it's not nice to point out Noah's faults, even if he had them; just say he was righteous without qualifying his righteousness. Yet another rabbi indicates that we see faults in others only because those same faults exist in us. Another sage qualifies that opinion, adding that it may also be that we see those faults because it is our responsibility to help that person with those faults.

The popular saying, here revealed to have Talmudic origins, that each time you point a finger at someone else you are pointing another three fingers at yourself, has always disturbed me.

I hope that F. reads this and overcomes his bad table manners. But I think it more likely that the faults I see in him also exists in me.

F. couldn't get past himself and experience my Sabbath evening. He maintained a cynical, contrary attitude, as if he were with college chums in a bar instead of sitting at a Sabbath table.

I myself am not that sophomoric. My obliviousness is more subtle and sophisticated. Still, I am sure that, like F., I am missing the boat. I can only wonder, mired in attitudes inappropriate for the completeness of the moment, what ease and abundance, what home-coming eludes me?


Dr David and his merry band believe that the new expanded Lokkal will change the world, city by city.

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