Let's table the discussion" is a new Adath Israel Shul initiative where a story or thought is presented in order to stimulate exciting and constructive discussion around our Shabbos table or among friends and children. (Dedicated to the Refuah Sheleima of Shalva Adina Bas Sarah Chana & Eliyahu Aharon Ben Yocheved Yetta Ettel).
A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston and walk timidly, without an appointment, into the Harvard University President’s outer office.
The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard and probably didn’t even deserve to be in Cambridge.
“We want to see the president,” the man said softly.
“He’ll be busy all day,” the secretary snapped.
“We’ll wait,” the lady replied.
For hours the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. They didn’t. The secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted.
“Maybe if you see them for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she said to him.
He sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have the time to spend with them, but he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office.
The president, stern faced and with dignity, strutted toward the couple.
The lady told him, “We had a son who attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.”
The president wasn’t touched.... He was shocked. “Madam,” he said, gruffly, “we can’t put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery.”
“Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly. “We don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.”
The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, and then exclaimed, “A building! Do you have any idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical buildings here at Harvard.”
For a moment the lady was silent.
The president was pleased. Maybe he could get rid of them now.
The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a university? Why don’t we just start our own?”
Her husband nodded.
The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment. Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford got up and walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California where they established the University that bears their name, Stanford University, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.
Chazal strongly warn us against judging the contents of the container on the basis of outward appearance alone. Such judgment often leads to error and incorrect assessment of potential and value. In the realm of education as well, the “halo effect” has shown that educators who judge students based upon initial evaluation often fail to accurately measure their students’ progress or standing.
At the same time, there are times that we judge an idea to be positive on its face without fully understanding its intent and effect. Sforno notes that this is the case with two concepts at the beginning of the Parsha. The Torah warns us against planting Asheira trees and not erecting monuments. Sforno explains that although trees seem to make the area around them more beautiful, when the trees are erected for Avoda Zara, the beauty is marred by the spiritually destructive nature of the tree. Similarly, while erecting monuments seems to be a nice way of marking a person’s achievements on the surface, the Torah wants us to understand that such monuments can mark a person’s end to his striving in life. We must continue to grow as humans and strive for better and more fulfilling lives as long as we are alive. The erecting of a monument may symbolize a completion of a job that is not done as yet. The monument and the tree both look good on the surface but when we examine them and just what their function is, not every good surface idea is actually a good thing.
What about us? How often do we think that something sounds good on the surface only to discover that as we think about it, our first impressions are incorrect? How often do we even take the time to reconsider that initial impression?
How can we best look onto the world around us in order to capitalize on the opportunities that it presents?
Let’s “table” the discussion – by discussing it with our children, spouses, families and guests and open an exciting discussion into our homes and communities.