As a cheder child, I learned to gallop on a horse named Hebrew.
Sitting backwards, mind you – Hebrew ran the wrong way.
I won all the races.
Bah beh buh, buh beh bah beh buh:
The first line of my Hebrew primer.
I remember it to this day.
Ah, the joy of it!
Reaching the finishing post at line’s end
Before the other kids in class,
who never were very good at it,
I was to become a prize-winning jockey
In the Triple Crown
Of Hebrew riders.
I abandoned Saturday morning TV and pickup sports with friends,
To enter the Shabbat shul Sweepstakes.
No more simple bah buh beh.
I was adopted by the best,
Gristled daveners all,
Veteran riders who’d trained since birth
For all I knew.
They looked alike.
They were all old men.
Their first name was Mister.
They jockeyed for position from the time they donned their tallis,
Then ambled round the track through the first 70 pages,
Just to get their bearing,
Before moving to the starting post,
And they were off!
They raced through whole clumps of pages,
Sitting, standing, standing, sitting.
A Shacharis that came and went,
An entire k’riyah faster than a speeding bullet —
They rounded the final turn with a bruising Haftorah,
Then a Musaf Amidah at lightning speed,
Alenu as they crossed the wire,
And some Kaddishes of praise for the winners.
A veritable Belmont Hebrew Stakes,
One and half miles,
The Test of Champions.
The rabbi let me in on a secret:
Hebrew spoke in a language I could learn to comprehend.
I could be more than a daredevil rider;
I could be a horse whisperer,
Bound for a winners’ circle with garlands of roses:
I was still a long shot: 30, 40, even 50 to 1,
But the smart money was already coming my way.
That’s how I went to rabbinic school:
To ride atop Hebrew into racing glory.
God help me,
Belmont is for three-year olds,
Whereas Hebrew, I found out,
Had been running for centuries,
It’s every utterance, it seemed, had been captured and saved
For horse whisperers like me to understand.
I discovered that
My horse had curiously played around
With different sorts
of neighs and snorts
That they called Aramaic.
Of Hillel, it was said
Af hu ra’ah gulgolet achat shetsafah al p’nei hamayim, amar ….
I got that: the familiar Hebrew horse talk, after all:
“When he saw a skull floating on the face of the water, he said…”
Al d’ateift atifukh v’sof mtahy’fayikh y’tufun.
“Because you drowned others, others have now drowned you,
And those who drowned you will someday be drowned by others.”
I had to look it up.
My trusty Hebrew only takes me so far,
But I manage.
And managing is itself an accomplishment.
I’ve given up winning the race.
Winners of races just inherit more races,
Until eventually, they lose.
Let no latter-day Hillel come along one day and say of me,
“Because you beat others in races, others have now beat you,
And those who beat you will someday be beat by others.”
Far off the race course,
I now take deep breaths,
And linger with Hebrew,
Still my horse of choice,
Enjoying the landscape it has seen and heard and felt,
And whispering in its ear,
“You know more than I do.
Tell me where to tarry along the route that you have taken.
Teach me how to see what it all might mean to me,
That I may pass the gift of meaning to others.
Let Hillel say of me,
“Because you are a blessing to others, others will be a blessing to you.
And they who are blessings to you will have others as blessings to them.
No races; no laurels; no winners; no losers.
Like the myth about turtles…
The good life is blessings all the way down.