Gershon’s Bus Ride
Gershon is sitting on the bus, two baskets brim full of purchases from the open-air market at his feet: one basket crowding his legs, the other half in the aisle, a traditional arrangement on Jerusalem’s buses as they aren’t designed for ample purchases. Jerusalemites like to purchase in bulk. They have large families. Besides, at any time someone or many someone’s may “drop in”. Gershon’s wife, Rachela, who was not blessed with children, likes people to drop in. She is fond of quoting Gershon, who quotes from the Mishna: ‘let your house be open wide’.
As he usually does, Gershon looks out the window. He likes to watch the people, his fellow Jerusalemites, his people – or part of them, the ones dressed in black, or at least modestly. It is the Hebrew month of Elul, the gate to atonement, to forgiveness, for which modesty is especially appropriate.
If this was the extent of Gershon’s interest – looking out the window – we wouldn’t have much of a story. But then his ear picks up the conversation of two men sitting behind him. “Conversation” is not the best word. It wasn’t a conversation about family, or apartments, or business. It was about the Torah. Gershon strains to hear the discussion, the dispute, the pilpul, in adherence to the commandment to occupy oneself with the study of Torah. The discussion includes opinions taken from the whole course of Jewish history: a ‘wide tent-cloth’ indeed, to employ the Hebrew image.
He leans back in his seat to hear better whenever the driver puts on the brakes, or passes a truck, or street noises make it difficult to hear. Each word can be important. Is it not written: ‘One who learns from his friend one chapter, or one paragraph, or even one letter, must give him honor.’ Gershon does not turn his head in order to look at the two men engaged in discussion. First of all, it might give them the feeling that their conversation disturbs him, though nothing could be further from the truth. Secondly, they might pause and lose the thread of their thoughts and all three of them would lose.
The discussion increasingly fascinates Gershon. So much so that he misses his stop and doesn’t realize it until three stops later. It doesn’t matter; Gershon is caught up as any worthy Jew would be. Although he continues to look out the window, Gershon sees nothing; his whole being is focused on the debate, all of him an ear, according to the Hebrew idiom.
The two men get up and pass him, still talking. One makes his points quietly, the other gesticulates for emphasis. Gershon, a closed man, feels sympathy for the quieter of the two. But this is a superficial aspect and, of course, does not affect his sympathies with regard to the positions taken by the parties. This is a debate about Torah, not (as Gershon fully realizes) a popularity contest. Gershon quickly gets to his feet and follows them, completely forgetting his baskets.
He thrusts his foot in the bus door closing behind them so that it reopens, and succeeds in slipping out before it recloses, descending after the two disputants without losing the thread of their discussion. (Fortuitously, they had raised their voices concerning a particularly difficult passage at just that point.) He follows them, keen that they will resolve the dispute, or at least agree to disagree, but only after each has amassed his points. In such discussions the conclusion (if one is reached) is secondary to all that has gone before. He walks silently after them, not only to hear, but also to not be discovered. Although he is cumbersome in build, he is light on his feet, and so does not fall behind. Has not Rashi explained: ‘The Holy One, blessed Be He, makes the righteous wait and only reveals things to them afterwards’?
Why is it so important to Gershon to know why if you find a mother bird sitting with chicks or eggs in a nest, you must send her away before taking the chicks or eggs? What a question! He’s a Jerusalemite. He lives in the Holy City. He – where were we? The matter is far more than a question of being merciful to the mother bird. The discussion has gone long and far beyond that point, branching out and focusing on other points and further conundrums, and as it branched out, Gershon felt he did so with it. Each disputant called upon the rabbis and sages to bolster his position: The Rambam, Abarbanel, Even-Ezra, The Gaon from Vilna. Gershon listens wide-eared at their erudition.
After a time, the two men sit on a bench, apparently not in any everyday hurry, and continue their deliberations. For a second Gershon panics. He can hardly sit next to them; they might remember him from the bus and become suspicious, or they might cease their discussion altogether. Blessed be He, there is a tree nearby. The creation lacks for nothing. As it is written in the Ethics of Our Fathers: ‘How pleasant this tree!’
Gershon is relieved to see there is no nest and bird with chicks or eggs in the tree; first of all, his girth would be an impediment to his climbing the tree and performing the mitzvah and, secondly, he would lose the thread of the discussion. At first Gershon hides behind the tree, but the two men, deep in dispute, are oblivious to his presence. As it is said: ‘Two men that sit and there are not between them words of the Torah are scorners’. Gershon leans against the tree and listens. It is the month of Elul, crisp and tangy as an apple yet at the same time autumnally sad, uplifting yet weighty. A rare peacefulness suffuses Gershon, who feels a oneness with the world.
Minutes pass. More than minutes pass. It is as if the world has ceased to turn for a second time. But the world is only one of many worlds in the Lord’s firmament, while the Torah is the world of worlds. Finally, the discussion comes to an end. All points have been covered. Have the issues been resolved? That is not the point. In the end the Creator resolves. Man tries to understand.
The two disputants shake hands and go their separate ways. Gershon wants to run after one, after both, to shake their hands. To express his gratitude. He doesn’t do so lest they discover he was listening; moreover, they might think him a bit crazy. His wife Rachela sometimes tells him he is crazy, but she does so more in praise than condemnation. There is also the technical problem how to manage to shake both their hands as the distance between the two widens.
Tears in his eyes, uplifted as only a real Jew can be by a brilliant Talmudic discussion, he returns home, “light-footed as a deer”. To his surprise the sky is beginning to darken. So much time has passed? For the first time he remembers that his wife had expected him home much earlier with two full baskets for the Sabbath. Yachin and Boaz, he calls the baskets to Rachela’s delight, in honor of the two wide-girthed pillars which supported the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt speedily in our day, amen. Sometimes the baskets cause Gershon to think of the first fruits brought to Jerusalem on the Feasts of the Pilgrimage. And if in those days someone mislaid the first fruits before reaching the Temple, the way he himself just forgot the baskets on the bus, was there some remedy for this – perhaps a certain sacrifice? No time now to dwell on this quandary; Rachela will have already lit the candles.
When he tells Rachela why he is late, she will understand. It is the month of Elul. What are two baskets on the scales against seeking the eternal truths?
Apparently, Gershon’s ‘disappearance’ is not the first, and for the same reason. He tries to remember if in the past there were also occasions when he forgot the baskets.
Rachela stands, hands on hips. “I see once again you became immersed in a discussion of Torah on the bus? Although she says this as a question, she realizes it is in actuality a fact.
Gershon reddens. “Yes, Rachela, I didn’t mean to, but . . .”
She saves him from groping for an explanation. “It’s okay Gershon,” she smiles at him. “I have a husband who is, in his way, a Torah scholar.”
“Yes, as it is written: “If not now, when?”
Rachela nods. “You come back from your ‘studies’ full of wise sayings.”
“Of which one of the wisest is,” Gershon beamed at her, ‘Find a wife, find a good thing.’”