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The Doctor and the Rabbi

Tablet Original Fiction: When a man of science loves a woman of God, what lies between them?

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Eleanor Farmer, “Human Blood, Magnification x400,” 2011. (Courtesy of the artist)

“As if there’s a line!” she said. She released the herd of stuffed animals into the kid toy pile.

“But one prayer could edge out another prayer,” he said.

“I don’t see how,” she said.

“It’s just logic!” he said. He felt the sweat beading up, on his forehead. All those sweaters, all that wool. It was May. They were doing a clothing and toy drive for some holiday. Tu B’Shvat? Or was that January? Wasn’t that about trees? Who needed sweaters now?

“If I’m … praying,” he said, growing a little impatient, “and there are people across the world who pray five times a day, well, I think their prayer should be heard first, before my prayer, because they have, well, ‘earned’ their prayer spot in line, just as I would earn my place in line if I attended a museum opening and arrived at noon with a sack lunch for a three pm opening. There!” he said, sitting back, folding his arms.

The rabbi leaned in. She seemed to have forgotten about the piles for the moment. Her eyes were beams of light. “But there’s no line,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re using an example that doesn’t fit. An example that is of this daily world. You have to think differently.”

“All we know is of this world,” he said.

“True,” she said. “True.”

The doctor sniffed. “Or don’t you think the prayer lines get scrambled, with too many people praying?”

“I don’t think it’s like the phone system,” she said.

“Why not?”  He held himself tight. “Six billion people on the planet, right? Some of them pray every day. Several times a day!  All day!”

“But—” she said.

“I have no interest in cutting in the queue,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a merit system,” she said. “Or a queue.”

“But it would have to be, right?” he said. “There has to be some linear order. A way for whomever is supposedly listening to decide what to listen to first?”

She pushed her hair off her face. “I’m not sure God even has ears like that,” she said.

He laughed. “Well, then it’s even more pointless than I thought!”

She paused. She was looking in the middle distance, gathering. He could see she did not want to flood him. So much flooding, alone, pouring out of her eyes.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“OK,” she said, slowly. A leftover giraffe fell on the floor.

“Here,” he said, picking it up.

She furrowed her forehead, thinking. Took the giraffe, absently stroked its back.

“The best way I can think to describe it,” she said, “is the way, when you’re driving on the freeway at night, how everyone can see the moon in their window. Every car, on the road. Every car feels the moon is following that car. Even in the other direction, right?  Everyone in that entire hemisphere can see the moon and think it is there for them, is following where they go.

“You’ve had that experience?”

“Many times,” he said. “I see the moon right out my window.”

She kept petting the giraffe, as if it were a cat. Petting the little giraffe ears.

“That,” she said, “is a little closer to how I imagine it works. Whether or not you pray has absolutely nothing to do with the person to your left. It’s like saying you shouldn’t get the moon in your window, or else the other cars wouldn’t get the moon in their windows. But everyone gets the moon. It’s not an option, to not have the moon in your window. You just see it. It’s there.”

She paused. The window in the office grew golden with late afternoon.

“Half the world can’t see the moon,” said the doctor.

“It’s not the greatest example,” said the rabbi.

“Plus, the moon is far,” the doctor said, brushing lint off a T-shirt. “That’s why everyone has access.”

“True,” said the rabbi.

“So, is God far?”

“I don’t think those distance terms apply in the same way,” she said.

“Then I don’t understand the example.”

“It’s not—” she said, clasping her hands together around the giraffe. “It’s not so literal.”

“I am literal,” he said. “I think literally. The moon is also unresponsive.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s hard to find the right example. I’m not saying pray to the moon,” she said. “Truly. I’m just trying to think up a way to talk about why there’s no queue, you know?”

“You don’t think God has ears?”

She sat back in her chair. “Not like our ears.”

He laughed, short. “I’m a doctor,” he said, putting all the folded T-shirts into a tidy stack.

She re-settled herself. Her face was warm, flushed.

“And are these prayers to be answered?” he said.

She seemed to be resting now, the urgency quieting, and he could see her shifting modes, back to her regular rabbi self, her teacher self, returning to the statements she said maybe once a week, twice a week, to different audiences. “In Judaism we pray for a variety of reasons,” she said, gently tucking the giraffe next to a few worn teddy bears. She closed her eyes. “Out of gratitude. Out of despair, asking for comfort. Out of confusion. Out of anger, in defiance. To be with. To share oneself. Not for results, tangible material results, especially on Shabbat—isn’t that interesting?  We’re not to ask for anything tangible on Shabbat, which is, I think, one of the nicest times to pray all together.”

He flashed on an image of a hamburger, at a drive-through near his home, in a tinfoil pocket.

“Right now it might be helpful,” she said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

He wiped his hands clear on his pants.  “I still think it’s hokum,” he said.

“OK,” she said. She opened her eyes. Her forehead relaxed. “That’s OK. I’ll stop. I just wanted to talk it through with you. I’m glad you stayed.”

He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. It was hot in her office.

“I apologize for being so stubborn.”

“You weren’t stubborn,” she said, leaning over and unpeeling the tape to open up a new box. “You were actually pretty open. In a way, in my book, we just did it.”

“Did what?”

“Prayed, in a way,” she said. “Wrestled with it.”

“Why do you say that?” He sat up taller. For some reason, the thought made him angry.

“Because you’re leaning in,” she said, unfolding the box flaps. “Because I am tired, in a way that I recognize. Because you seem to be fighting up from under some water. Into what, I don’t know. Into something. Because we were talking about it deeply,” she said. “I could feel it.”

“We were having an argument!” he said. He stood up, but her office was too small to pace so he turned away, and stepped away, and found himself going through the door and going down the hall to use the bathroom. Down the long dark narrow hallway, with its closed office doors, and framed yarn art telling stories of the Old Testament. Once inside the bathroom, the motion sensor light clicked on; it was the end of the day, and no one had been in for over an hour. The space held the loneliness particular to an unused bathroom, the glare of fluorescent lights, the echo of sink and crumpling paper, the tired isolation of one person in an office building, alone, at night, working too late. He used up 10 paper towels on his face and neck until he was sufficiently dry. He washed his hands carefully in the sink. He took the back exit.

***

The rabbi sat in her office for 45 minutes, unpacking the last donation boxes, to see if he would return, but he did not return, and so she shouldered her bag and walked the seven blocks home.

The doctor found his car in the parking lot, one of the last three there, and joined the flow on the street. He drove with his air conditioner fan on full blast, into traffic as the sun set, into dusk, with the full moon rising in his rear view mirror, almost taunting him with her big presence in his car alone and every car around and none of it being how he liked to think or was interested in thinking. And yet. Why did he love the rabbi? He loved her. He got home, and looked through the mail, and he had driven past the drive-through, so instead he sent out for a meatball sandwich, which he ate in pieces, because it was too unwieldy to eat all at once, and even the bread he cut into bite-sized parts. He could feel it, just feel it, the glimmer of something that he did not understand. He would never call it God. He would not call it prayer. But just beyond his sandwich, and the four TV shows he watched back to back, and his tooth brushing, and his face washing, and his nighttime reading of a magazine, and his light switching off, just the faint realization that there were many ways to live a life and that some people were living a life that was very different than his, and the way they lived was beyond him and also didn’t interest him and yet he could sense it. Comfort and fear rose together inside him. Like standing in the middle of a meadow, where no one had his back.

***

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What a beautiful story- it will stay with me.

spiritedcrone says:

Brilliant story -thank you.

Lucinda Casson says:

Magnificent!

Really charming, interesting and not sappy.

Rosalie H. Kaye says:

Ms. Bender writes beautifully- I’ve read her novel, abt the Lemon Cake- I enjoyed that book. I’ve enjoyed this lovely story and I have printed it out to share with a cousin of mine. Thank you for featuring it- and pls continue printing her fiction as well as other talented authors.

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The Doctor and the Rabbi

Tablet Original Fiction: When a man of science loves a woman of God, what lies between them?

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