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Grime and Grandeur

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Paterson, New Jersey is not an impressive city. In fact, it is a rather depressed and depressing one.

The second most densely populated large city in the United States after New York, its population – largely a tapestry of Hispanic, South American and Middle-Eastern immigrants and their progeny – suffers from high unemployment and low income.

The city’s downtown area has been struck over the years by massive fires, and a visitor to Paterson, even on the sunniest day, is confronted with a gloominess born of decaying and abandoned structures, seemingly aimless people and litter.

Paterson is also the site of one of the most beautiful panoramas on the East Coast, as my wife and I discovered last summer.

We are not big vacationers, both by temperament and economics. Most trips we take, thank G-d, are for family happy occasions and such. But we try to take two or three days off each summer for a car trip – in recent years, in search of waterfalls. We enjoy the sounds and sight of cascading water, are rejuvenated by the grandeur of the Creator’s handiwork and often find that we actually learn something – beyond geology – from the experiences.

We have found some wondrous falls in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. But a waterfall we almost missed, en route to another one more distant, was the “Great Falls,” a part of the Passaic River. They are said to be the second-highest falls on the east coast (second only to Niagara). More striking, though, than the mighty torrent of water the falls send thundering over a rocky ledge is their location: downtown Paterson.

One drives through grimy streets looking for them, almost certain that some mistake has been made, that there must be another Paterson in New Jersey, or that it’s all a joke and the “falls” are only effluent from some industrial sewage pipe. And after managing to find the sign and entering a rocky, rudimentary parking lot, things don’t look much more promising. After a moment’s walk, though, one is transported suddenly into another world, one of astounding power and beauty.

The sudden materialization of pristine splendor amid urban squalor made an immediate and deep impression. Its larger lesson for life took a little longer to congeal, but eventually it did.

We humans, like lesser creatures, are masses of tissues and organs and digesting food. And yet within our physical selves soar souls. And just as “Paterson, New Jersey” now conjures for me not the filth but the falls, so is it important to know, I realized, that not only our physical selves but the physical world itself, harbors holiness.

It is not a terribly original or unobvious thought. The Torah’s commandments, after all, are, overwhelmingly, physical acts, utilizing our physical bodies and physical objects. That was, of course, what Moses, according to the Midrash, told the angels when G-d asked him to respond to their insistence that the Torah remain in the heavenly realm: ethereal creations do not inhabit the material world, a world for which the Torah serves as a blueprint.

Something more, though, was also made sharper by the Paterson falls: How often does it happen that we find certain others people… well, tiresome… grating… unpleasant? For some of us, loving our fellows, despite all the homage we may pay the ideal, can be one of the most challenging commandment we face.

Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People), after all, is easy to love; Reb Yisrael (the individual), oftentimes, less so.

Yet each of our fellows, no matter how superficially unimpressive or even disagreeable, holds a spark of holiness. Well-hidden though it may be, somewhere, in its own place, it glimmers. And, like the beauty that can sometimes lie well-concealed amid city grime, we need to search it out.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami]



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