Page 16 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 30

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sophistication, explained his own “splintering.” On the one hand,
he said, he was a scientific rationalist, and on the other hand,
he recognized the authority of, and paid homage to, every punc­
tilio of Commandment. The rationalist was not disposed to accept
authority, and had to work ideas through by every known test
and proof. But the Halakhah-abiding Jew bowed to the revelation
on Sinai. To illustrate the paradox and to demonstrate his sense
of things—that Sinai has authority over scholarship—he began to
tell a midrash:
Rabbi Akiva studied profoundly and was, more than other
mortals, able to penetrate the most abstruse corners of the Law.
Among his feats was his ability to unlock the meaning of the
serifs, in the shape of tiny crowns, which adorn the heads of some
of the letters that appear in the Scroll of the Law. These delect­
able flourishes the Master of the Universe, blessed be He, had
added after giving Moses the Tablets; so Moses, poring discon­
solately over the Scrolls in heaven, was not familiar with them
and could not decipher them. “What do the little crowns mean?”
he asked God. God replied: “Only Akiva has entered into the
heart of this puzzle.” Moses was understandably resentful: he
was the teacher, and his pupil, born centuries after him, had
exceeded him. “Well then,” he said to God, “how did Akiva
get to be so wise?” God took pity on Moses and answered, “Because
he received the Law from Moses on Sinai.”
Here the headmaster stopped; his midrash hung in the air
unfinished. The reason he stopped was this: a man was running
wildly over the grass toward us. He wore a white shirt with the
sleeves pushed up and a white apron. The apron was flapping
around his legs as he ran, and his arms were flying out before
him. When he came near I saw that one of his wrists had a row
of tattooed numbers on it, and I recognized him as the school cook.
He told what had just happened. Two boys on bicycles had
come through the school gates and were riding back and forth
over a newly-seeded lawn, destroying it. The cook asked them
to go away. They said: “You Jew, H itler should have burned
you too.” Then they rode off beyond reach.
The headmaster stood and was silent. He looked at the cook.
The cook looked down at the grass. His fingers were shaking.
1 wondered what the headmaster would say. From a certain point
of view the incident was a very small one. But for the cook, with
his tattooed forearm, the incident was not small, only miniature.
Quite suddenly the headmaster began again to speak. I was sur­
prised: it was all at once plain that he had chosen to make no
comment on what had just happened. Instead he merely resumed
the telling of the midrash as if there had been no interruption
at all:
e w i s h
o o k
n n u a l