The consequences of my sin were immediate. The Sin: I watched TV while visiting a friend. The Punishment: A movie about vampires was immediately followed by an Alfred Hitchcock episode about a ventriloquist that ended with the dummy, not the man, being the artist. I was so shocked that I was haunted all night by nightmares.
Vampires didn't scare me, but a ventriloquist did. I wasn't afraid of a monster stealing my blood. I was frightened by the thought that someone could put words in my mouth; something that was a real and present danger to a six-year old boy. Although my father zt"l taught me to use formal prayer as a springboard into personal prayers, my Cheder rebbi made it clear that in his classroom there would be no personal prayers added to the text; we were only permitted to recite the words of the prayerbook. He was sucking the life from my prayer, but I saw him more as a ventriloquist than vampire; he wanted only his words coming from my mouth.
I infuriated this teacher when I challenged one of his inspirational Chassidic stories as stupid rather than respond with a breathless "Wow!" He was the master ventriloquist, stealing our words, and placing his thoughts and words in the mouths of his young charges. He scared me more than did Alfred Hitchcock. He was worse than a vampire who sucks out all our passion, He was worse than those vampires who suck out all our passion, taking pride in students who follow the letter of the law without questioning.
Vampires and ventriloquists take many forms: "When you make your fellow man a loan of any amount, you shall not enter his home to take security for it. You shall stand outside; and the borrower shall bring the security to you outside. If the man is poor, you shall not sleep with his security. You shall return the security to him when the sun sets, and he will sleep in his garment and bless you (Deuteronomy 24:10-13)." If the debtor has only one pillow, which he uses as security for the loan, the creditor must return it each evening in exchange for something else, which, in turn, he will return in the morning.
This dance of constant exchange between the lender and borrower is complex. The borrower, desperate for a loan and to maintain some dignity, offers his only pillow as security. The lender must stand outside each evening waiting to return the pillow in exchange for some other security, and then again the next morning to get the pillow again. The lender is not just lending money, he's making a commitment to wait outside the borrower's home twice each day of the period of the loan. The lender has to practice giving without taking, or, avoiding becoming a vampire who sucks out dignity without becoming a ventriloquist who gives without allowing the receiver to maintain that dignity. The borrower steps outside twice a day, blessing each step of the lender, acknowledging every detail of the lender's commitment.
It's difficult to balance giving and taking. We begin to ask each other for forgiveness as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The ventriloquist asks, expecting to hear, "Yes, I forgive you," without allowing the other an opportunity to speak his mind. The vampire sucks out any real emotions from such potentially ripe interactions, "I've said some really nasty things about you to other people and I don't want to embarrass you by telling you what I said. Do you forgive me?" We can turn this process into a dance of both parties giving and taking, nurturing each other's dignity; "You deserve to be treated better than I have," "I appreciate your acknowledgement."
The ventriloquist recites the special High Holiday prayers without personal connection to the words. The vampire sucks out all the forgiveness, receiving atonement from God without offering anything in return. The ventriloquist goes through the motions. The vampire seeks inspiration without changing.
The Torah teaches us to dance with God, using the steps of the lender and borrower: There is a give and take, with God affording opportunity and dignity while we constantly acknowledge His waiting for us to step towards Him, exchanging our efforts for God's generosity. God is not a vampire sucking out whatever life we have, nor a ventriloquist, desiring only His words in our mouths. He stands outside waiting for our answer to the question, "Are we vampires, ventriloquists, or, are we ready to dance?"
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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