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September 30, 2016 / 27 Elul, 5776
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Wisdom from a Venice Beach Vagabond

He told me that according to a Muslim poet, children do not truly belong to their parents. Instead, parents are the vessel through which children flow into the world.

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People often ask me what kind of interesting things and people we encounter at Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach. It’s impossible to encapsulate life on Venice Boardwalk. This week we were treated to a tripping (completely high) biker who would shout at the top of his lungs as he passed the shul. His ramblings included “Moses, Jesus, and Gandhi are the same person” and “Everything your religion tells you is a lie.” Everyone inside hears all this as we cover our eyes to recite the Shema. He does four or five fly-bys throughout the morning. This is not wisdom. This is noise pollution.

One of my favorite Venice Boardwalk vagabonds stopped by the shul at around 9 AM this Shabbos. He doesn’t come into the shul, but he stands outside and quietly and magnificently preaches to me.

The fellow is a retired cab driver who emigrated from Iran. He is not Jewish, he used to be Muslim, and now is just a spiritualist. Last time we met he told the entire story of Mohammed from his perspective. It was interesting.

Rabbi Fink's Shul on the Beach. Photo credit: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.

Rabbi Fink’s Shul on the Beach. Photo credit: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.

This Shabbos he stopped by to teach me some of his favorite passages from the great poetry of Rumi. In particular, he was telling me about one poem where Moses is raised above the Pharaohs. This was a compliment to the Jewish people in his eyes. He recites the poetry in verse as he translates it in his mind from the original Persian. It’s really incredible. Translations of poetry often lose their effect. The ex-cabbie is an artist. He translates on the fly into spectacular English poetry.

He ended by telling me that according to another Muslim poet, I can’t remember his name, mostly because I can’t pronounce it properly, the children do not truly belong to their parents. Instead, parents are the vessel through which children flow into the world. They may help them, but they may not harm them or impede their growth.

One evening this fellow was driving his cab through a wealthy neighborhood in Santa Monica. The cab driver picks them up and sees that they are quarreling. They are arguing about their children. One says the other is too soft and the other says too harsh. My friend is listening to the whole thing without saying a word.

At some point, the wife asks the cab driver what he thinks. He is a bit taken aback so he asks her if she really wants his opinion. She confirms.

He starts to wax philosophical and recites the aforementioned poem about children. He gets to a part where the poet says the parents are a great bow, the child is an arrow, and God provides the power by pulling the bowstring. The cab driver turns his mirror so he can see her face and he sees that she is crying. “Have I said something to upset you?” he cries out. She shakes her head no as she bursts into a great grin.

She asks if he can pull over for a moment. He pulls over. She steps out of the car and asks him to step out of the car as well. She steps towards the cab driver and embraces him in a hug.

My friend tells me he can still feel the hug all these years later.

He drops them off at their restaurant for dinner. They ask if he can pick them up a couple hours later. They entered the cab at the start of the evening full of anger and division. After dinner they were all smiles and united.

The cab driver becomes the couple’s private driver for the next ten years.

This is the sort of person one can meet on the Venice Boardwalk standing in front of the Shul on the Beach. I look forward to our next conversation. He doesn’t have email or a cell phone. I can’t find him if I want to talk. I never know when he will appear but when he does stop by I know I am in for a treat.

Wisdom and kindness can be found in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Even the haggard ex-cabbie, with cigarette smoke wafting off his clothing mixing with the sweet smell of his pipe tobacco, who is missing a couple of teeth has much to offer. We just have to make space for goodness to enter and for wisdom to be imparted.

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Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.

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