Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Choosing Something Holy

By Susan Esther Barnes

This summer I am planning to go on a trip to Israel with some families from my synagogue, lead by one of our rabbis. Last month those of us scheduled to go on the trip received a letter from the rabbi inviting us to a get-together in one participant family’s home later this month. The letter says, in part, “Please have each member of your family bring one item and/or story that they consider holy/treasure. We will think about all of the gifts that we have received and think about how Jerusalem will help us appreciate our blessings on a much deeper level.”

The most holy thing I have is probably my ketubah (Jewish wedding contract), but it was big to begin with, and then we put it into an even bigger frame so we could hang it over our fireplace. Taking that along just doesn’t seem practical.

The next thing I thought of that I treasure is a bust of a tiger my husband drew and gave to me back in the early 80’s. It is amazingly lifelike, and it’s fascinating because it is drawn entirely with tiny dots of ink and no lines. The skill and patience that went into making it are enormous. I can’t bring myself to take it along, though. I brought my ceramic mezuzah to a show-and-tell event like this once, and on my way home I dropped it and it shattered. If anything happened to my tiger because of my negligence I would be very upset with myself.

I then turned to the “story” suggestion in the letter, and printed out Portia Nelson’s poem, “Life in Five Short Chapters,” thinking I would read that to the group. I first saw this poem, about repeatedly falling into a hole and trying to get out, at a time when I was doing exactly that. It meant a lot to me then, and I still appreciate it, even though I am way past that particular hole in my life and I’m not going back. Still, it seems more indicative of my past than my present or my future.

Although I’m still not sure what I will bring with me to this event, if it were happening today, most likely I would use it as an opportunity to show the group my toes. Not that my toes are particularly holy, but they are something I treasure. The second and third toes on each of my feet are connected about half way up. They are not webbed; it just looks like one wide toe at the base that suddenly turns into two “normal” toes about half way toward the tip.

So why do I treasure them? I often say nobody really knows me until they have seen my toes. I attribute three things about my outlook in life to them. First, I have never seen anyone else with toes like mine. Even as a child, I knew my toes were different than everyone else’s. Thus, even my oldest memories contain the knowledge that I am different than everyone else.

Second, it was quite clear to me even as a child that my unique toes are not particularly ugly or particularly attractive. They do not hinder me in any way, nor do they help me in any unique way. They are just different. Thus, I discovered early in my life that differences between people do not necessarily carry any positive or negative value. People can be, and are, very different from each other in ways that do not make them better than, or worse than, anyone else. I have never been tolerant of the idea that physical differences are anything beyond simply physical differences.

Third, because my toes spend most of their time covered with socks and shoes, as I got older I came to realize that people can be different from each other in ways that are not readily apparent to others. We make assumptions that the people around us are like us, and in many ways that is true, but in other ways it is not. We all know things about ourselves that most of the people around us don’t know. We all carry secrets. Thus, I finally realized that not only am I different from anyone else, everyone is different from everyone else. My job is to be open to seeing and appreciating those differences.

Maybe I need to think of something else to bring, though. What if everyone else brings their toes too?

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