“I want to convert to Judaism because I want to know the secret,” the earnest man sitting across from me said. “What secret?” I replied with the same sincere intent.
As a young rabbi in New York City, I had the honor of working with about ten individuals a year who came to me seeking to convert to Judaism. I agreed to meet with anybody who called. If they ended up converting or not, I always saw these meetings as opportunities to talk to people about meaning and purpose. I always began with the same type of question: “Tell me about yourself…..how can I help?”
I would get all kinds of answers, usually people telling me about their spiritual journeys and why Judaism compelled them in one manner or another. This man was different. He went right for it. “I want to convert to Judaism because I want to know the secret of your people.”
I sat not quite sure how to respond and also wondered if I had somehow missed the class on “Judaism’s secret” from when I was in rabbinic seminary. “What secret are you referring to? I am not exactly sure what you mean.” I stumbled.
He went on to explain that he was brought up to believe that the Jews had a unique secret, a hidden reason they have survived as long as they have. He said he wanted “in” on the secret, in on the magic sauce of survival.
I was frankly a bit lost and not sure how to respond. I believed him. I didn’t believe that I had a secret to share. But I believed that he wanted to know the “answer,” the “reason,” the “purpose”…perhaps, the secret to living.
When I am not sure of the answer in a pastoral interaction, I find that if I say less, I am better off. Perhaps the answers I seek to provide might indeed come from the person asking. So I listened more, probed this sensitive seeker who found his way into my office.
Just before our hour together was up, he said, “You know what I think your people’s secret is connected to? I think it is because you follow the moon.” I raised my eyes because I felt like we were on to something.
“The moon?” I asked.
“Yes, your People believe that, no matter what, it will become whole each and every month. And you celebrate that sense of wholeness at every one of your Holidays and every month as well.” And then, without missing a beat, he continued, “That is it, your secret is that you believe through hope that it (the moon) will always become whole again…. and I want to believe that I can become whole in that same exact way.”
Staying quiet helped me a lot. The secret he taught me was that my People never give up. We always hope. We always believe in a better tomorrow.
He didn’t convert to Judaism in the end. But we did go on to spend several sessions talking about the “secret” that he sought…the secret, which did indeed stand right in front of me my whole life, but didn’t manifest itself until I had encountered this kind soul.
We spoke a lot about the moon. We both imagined that the appearance of the moon in the beginning of each month seemed beautifully hollow, like there was barely a chance in the world that that sliver of light might indeed renew itself and become whole. But, like the rest of nature, barren trees give life each spring to luscious leaves, cold ground thaws and gives birth to glorious color, and yes, a sliver of light that we know as the moon becomes as full and whole as anything we know.
And the secret this man and I realized: We human beings also have the chance to renew and change and hope and fill our barren spaces. We too are part of the natural cycle of the world. If the moon, trees, ground, flowers can all bloom when all hope seems lost, then we can rejuvenate as well.
Some human renewal happens simply because we are part of the cycle of life. And, of course, the other part comes from our own desire and will and intention and belief that each of us has the possibility to be stronger, healthier and more balanced than the day before.
The human secret is that we can hope and believe and push forward and believe in the possibility of a better tomorrow. The frame of mind itself pushes us forward along with the cosmic energy of the universe that does indeed want us, like the moon, to be whole.
Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.