Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, two of the greatest comedians of all times, performed a famous routine entitled, “Who’s on First?” Abbott was attempting to transmit the names of the members of the baseball team, unfortunately for Costello, the names of the players are not really names, but questions.
“I dunno” is on third base. “What” Is on second. And of course, “Who” Is on first.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” asks Costello. “Who’s on first?”
“Absolutely,” answers Abbott.
“Who?” says Costello
“Yes,” says Abbott.
“Look,” shouts Costello in exasperation, “At the end of the week, when you pay the first baseman, who gets the money?”
“Every dollar of it, and why not? The man’s entitled to it; he earned it,” answers Abbott.
The routine goes on, never done the same way twice. Fascinatingly, Costello cannot understand the “answers” because the “answers” are question words. The humor is that Costello cannot see in front of him what is obvious to the audience.
This comedic routine exemplifies what we know about life. Many times we will wander through life not fully aware of what we are engaged in and looking at. For example, we often hear words not realizing that they can have more than one meaning such as – sanction (permit or impose penalty), left (remaining or departing), seed (to seed a lawn or remove the seeds from fruit) or fast (holding firm or moving quickly). Usually, we believe we can gather from context what we are hearing, but oftentimes even the context leaves us feeling lost as we attempt to complete the narrative between the words in our own heads.
While this lesson rings true in life, it is all the more so evident in our usually feeble attempt to understand our sacred text. We see the words written on the page and while we know what they mean we don’t understand them.
One of the many lessons taught by Rabbi Lawerence Kushner is: “The reason we have such a difficult time speaking to God is not God’s fault; the syntax of our language is the culprit.”. In Hebrew, the term dvar is both “word” and “thing.” For us as Jews to relate to God is to interpret the Words of God in our sacred literature and find ourselves within the text.
In the case of Moses, while God is in the mundane places, Moses stood there staring into the bush for some time to see that it was not consumed. If you stare at a fire, it takes time even to burn kindling and realize it is being consumed. For Moses, it was a test to force him to slow down to see the bush was not actually being consumed. For us, this story teaches us to slow down and breath so we can see what is occurring around us.
There are layers of understanding to the stories in our sacred text. Each layer is both a chronological effort to understand how people at various points of history interpreted such texts like Rashi, Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov; an effort to understand the simple basic meaning of the narrative; an attempt to find another hidden more spiritual meaning and, lastly, how we see these stories function in our lives.
By understanding these texts in the same fashion as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, we can start to unlock the many layers that exist surrounding the text.
As we enter the High Holiday period, I pray that we are open to starting to unlock the various layers of tradition found in the text itself. May this thought help guide us to relate more deeply to the Divine and create a more enriched sacred community.