As a Jewish boy living in a warm, talkative household, I grew up around the sounds of intellectual debate. My parents always encouraged spirited inquiry into our Jewish heritage, and I remember many dinner table conversations revolving around Jewish themes and values. As I matured into adulthood, I sought out debate on a variety of religious issues and came to believe that intellectual discussion was often the best way for one to connect with one’s roots. By my mid-twenties, I saw intelligent debate as not only a service to Jewish ideals, but as the primary manifestation of my belief in G-d.
Things began to change for me on September 15, 2001. It seems like a strange date to remember, so close to another that will scar this country forever, but I remember it exactly. It started with me moping around Union Square, shocked and depressed, and commenting to myself, “Well, three days later, and here you are again, looking for an argument.”
I saw a Hasidic teenage boy, handing out fliers containing some thoughtful words on the Ten Commandments. It seemed like a strange thing to be passing around on Union Square when everyone else was screaming about the end of the world, the evils of capitalism, or the dangers of religious fundamentalism. The boy himself seemed out of place as well; surrounded by the angry cacophony of political discussion, he went about his task without comment.
I approached and tried to engage him.
I asked questions about truth and justice, I peppered him with remarks about Islam and Judaism; I ruminated about how this could affect Israel, and what G-d might think of this scene at Union Square. The boy responded with polite brevity, while giving his full attention to the fliers. And during our short talk, as I watched him work, something strange happened-I began to feel my words hit the pavement, like deflated balloons…like childish sounds that only scratched the surface of a much deeper truth.
It took me a couple more years, and a newfound friendship with Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife Esty, to fully understand the seed planted in me that day. Their tireless work to create The Soho Synagogue in lower Manhattan, and the daily generosity they bring to everyone they meet, confirms what G-d said to me that day in Union Square-that the human spirit lives in ACTION, and debate only has value if it catalyzes greater action, greater Tikkun Olam.
I work now as a professional writer, but it seems the more I experience in life, the less faith I place in the power of words. A wise man once remarked to me: “Of all the muscles in the body, the vocal chords are the easiest to exercise.” Certainly, a spiritual discussion or powerful oratory can change someone’s beliefs, and a kind word from a loved one will unlock our emotions. Words can comment beautifully on our experience-but as G-d teaches us every day, in a million ways, they NEVER constitute the experience itself. G-d’s mystery is simply too profound to be bound by cerebral language alone. Even the word “mystery” tells the story; it comes from the Greek mystos-to keep silent.
In the silence of real action, G-d finds communion with us. We know it when we help an old woman across the street. We know it when we give a homemade gift to a loved one. We know it when we dance with complete abandon. And unfortunately, we know it when we speak loudly of projects we haven’t the courage to fulfill.
I still enjoy a good debate now and then, but I feel my eyes are now open to its only valid power-as a tool. Words are a powerful tool; but a hammer without a hand is useless. It sits on the shelf, heavy and shiny and waiting for our will. I believe G-d tolerates our compulsion to name the hammer; to point and define it, to ponder its value and discuss its possibilities. But nothing said will ever please G-d as much as when someone picks up the hammer and gets to work.