A few week ago, I mentioned in passing that this last May 14 was the fortieth anniversary of my ordination as rabbi. I wasn’t planning to make a big deal out of it—and I’m still not—but something in the news this last week drew me back to thinking about it, and in an unexpected way that I think I would like to share with all of you after all.I started at JTS in 1974. It was a long time ago. Nixon had just resigned. That Petit fellow had just managed to walk from one of the Twin Towers to the other on a tight wire. All you could hear on the radio was “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. There were no cell phones, no personal computers, no internet providers. People deposited checks by handing them to flesh-and-blood tellers in brick-and-mortar banks. You rented a movie by walking to a video store and picking it out, paying for it, and carrying it home. I was barely 21 years old that fall, naïve and as unsure of myself as I was untried in the ways of the world.
But I did know where I was going, or at least where I wished to go. Something was drawing me to the rabbinate, something profound enough to have brought me to devote all my energy for more than a year to getting into the school at which I wanted to train for my future profession…and which now brought me to the front gate of JTS on the Sunday before the first day of classes eager to bring my twelve boxes of books and one valise of clothing up to my dorm room and then to get my parents back into the car as quickly as possible. But what was it exactly that brought me to that place and to that moment? Did I choose this path forward in life? Or did it choose me? Those are the questions that have been banging around in my head in the course of these last several weeks as I find myself crossing the threshold into my fifth decade of rabbinic life.You’d think I’d know how I got here. And yet, when I try to compile a list of specific experiences that turned me from any of my earlier career ideas—some doable, others at least in retrospect probably not so much—to a life of service in the congregational rabbinate, I find myself uncharacteristically unsure of myself.
I’ve written in several different places about something that happened in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France on Erev Yom Kippur in 1972, not even two full years earlier than that Sunday afternoon that I found myself moving into the Brush Dorm at JTS for the first time, although without revealing what I actually experienced in that greenish-purple meadow at dusk. (I won’t repeat the whole story here, but it’s available to anyone who wants to read about it in the “History is Destiny” chapter of my book, In Search of Wholeness, published by Moonstone Press in London, Ontario, about twenty-five years ago, but now available to all on my website at www.martinscohen.net.) I’ve felt forever that that incident—that life-transforming moment that came upon me wholly unexpectedly (and without any prior warning) and which then vanished forever, leaving me turned from who I was prior to it into who I was a moment later and still am today—I’ve always felt that that incident had merely to be the icing on the cake, the culminative experience that capped all the others that led me up to it. How could it not have been? Isn’t that journeys work: you walk forward one step at a time until you finally step over the line that all the other steps brought you up to? Or do internal journeys that bring people to new places without moving them physically forward at all work differently?It feels like journeys should be cumulative experiences, yet I consistently come up dry when I try to dredge up the others experiences and incidents that led me to that single moment in the Col de Saverne—the specific mountain pass in the Vosges where our bus broke down and I was forced to watch the sun set on Erev Yom Kippur for the one and only time in my life since earliest childhood (or since) that I couldn’t and didn’t attend services in a synagogue on the most sacred night of the year, didn’t go into the fast with a nourishing meal under my belt, and found myself entirely in the company exclusively of people for whom September 17, 1972, was just a warm evening at the tail-end of summer and not the most sacred evening of the year—when I try to come up with those “other” experiences, there appear to be none for me to list. Was I open to what occurred specifically because I was still reeling after hearing about the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics just eleven days earlier? It feels, at least in retrospect, that the two events—the one known to the entire world and the other known solely to me alone—it feels as though they must have been related. But it didn’t feel that way to me at the time. And it still doesn’t feel that way to me, not when I try to be perfectly honest with myself.
I was brought back to this set of thoughts this week when I read the remarkable story of Mamadou Gassama, the Spiderman of Paris. I’m sure you all saw the video clip—click here if you somehow didn’t—featuring this almost unbelievable feat of courage and physical strength. A child, a boy of four, somehow ends up hanging on for dear life as he dangles from the balcony of his parents’ apartment four stories up over a busy Paris street. His mother is out of town. His father has gone shopping and left him alone. He is out of the reach of the neighbors who are trying to encourage him to hold on. If he lets go, he will surely die when he hits the pavement. And in the street is a young man of twenty-two, an undocumented illegal migrant from Mali walking to a football game with his girlfriend. He has every reason to avoid attention, every sound reason to do whatever it takes to keep from being noticed by the authorities. And yet, possessed of almost superhuman agility and strength, he finds himself facing his destiny. If he acts and is successful, the child will live. If he does nothing, the child will almost certainly die. In his hands, therefore, is a decision he can’t have ever imagined having to make. Will he risk everything, including his personal freedom and his future in France, to save a little boy he hasn’t ever met and for whom he obviously has no personal responsibility? Or will he blend into the crowd of horrified onlookers as a mute witness to someone else’s tragedy and leave it at that?What happened next defies explanation. Even after watching the video clip over and over, I still can’t quite believe he was able to do what he did, but he somehow managed to climb up the side of the building, leaping up from each balcony to the next higher one and the hoisting himself up, gaining his footing on the new balcony, then somehow hoisting himself up to the next story. The whole incident took less than thirty seconds. When he reached the railing from which the boy was dangling, he simply flipped himself onto the balcony like a trained acrobat and pulled the child to safety.
Yesh koneh et olamo b’shaah achat, the Talmud says: there are people who alter the entire course of their lives in a single moment. And this was clearly that kind of moment. A day later, Mamadou was sitting in the Elysée Palace with Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who offered him three things: a medal for his bravery, French citizenship, and a job as a Paris firefighter. In a single moment, his life’s path was altered utterly and completely. A day after that, he met with Lassana Bathily, his countryman who saved those customers in the Jewish grocery when a supporter of the Islamic State took other patrons hostage in 2015, and whose life was also utterly altered by a split-second decision he made to risk his life to save innocents not because he had to but because he could. (He also earned French citizenship as a reward for his selfless heroism.) When that happened, I wrote to you all about how my understanding of what it means to be a hero and how my personal definition of heroism seems always to be evolving. (To review that piece, click here.) And now I find myself revising my thinking yet again, this time to accommodate a young man of almost unimaginable athletic ability and agility who saw the chance to do good and took it, even though it could easily have cost him his future and his freedom.What I experienced in the Vosges that Sunday evening in 1972 was nothing like that. It involved neither selflessness nor bravery. There was nothing at all heroic about it either, nor does it feel that way even in retrospect. Aval af ani kaniti et olami b’shaah achat: my life too altered in a moment and never resumed again the course along which it had been set for the years leading up to that moment. In a sense, my story was more like the prophet Amos’s, who was tending his sheep when suddenly he felt called to the charism of prophecy, or like Jeremiah who was quietly cooking his lunch when God first addressed him entirely out of the blue and asked him, of all things, what he saw before his eyes. (He answered, no doubt honestly, that what he saw before him was a pot of boiling soup.) Or perhaps like Ezekiel who was strolling along the Kebar River when the heavens suddenly opened over his head and he saw what he himself called mar’ot elohim, visions sent by God. None of these experiences required bravery or physical strength. None required advance planning or training. But all required intellectual integrity, uncompromising honesty, and the courage not to look away at what, after all, was right before their eyes.
I have made my way forward all these years attempting to be possessed of all three of those things. Like all of us, I’ve occasionally faltered. (Perhaps “occasionally” isn’t quite correct either.) But those were the gifts offered to me for the taking on that warm summer’s evening in the Vosges. It took me a while to take them up. I was not even a half-baked cake in 1972—just a junior in college who was idly thinking, possibly, of a life in our nation’s diplomatic service. That’s what drew me to France in the first place, by the way, the opportunity to perfect my French and improve my German. (And also the possibility of not being sent to Vietnam, which I’ll have to write about on some other occasion.) But sometimes you really can be koneh et olamkha b’shaah achat. The next week, I dropped all my German classes and all but one of my French courses, and enrolled instead in the university’s Institute for Semitic Languages, where I registered for all the Hebrew classes I was qualified to take. It was a confusing year in a million different ways. I was untested, untried, unsure of myself. But when our bus was finally repaired and I eventually got back to my dorm room on the Avenue de la Libération, I was a different person. And that is how I came to be who I turned into, and how I found my way into my life.