As I Was Saying…

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The Prophet in the Supermarket

March 7, 2008

1 Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.

21 Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born.
22 The children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram.

31 These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.

Genesis 10

I stood in the checkout line at the supermarket. The checkout clerk’s name tag said Sarah, a fine Old Testament name. The bagger was a Somali woman with her head covered, in keeping with her Muslim customs.

Not more than six feet away a man sat on a bench located at the front of the store. He was the sort of person with whom we learn early in life to avoid eye contact. A street person, probably homeless. In terrible health and obviously crazy.

His skin was sallow and his clothes were torn and strangely knotted together so that one emaciated arm and shoulder was exposed. In his hand he held a tattered Bible, and he seemed to be gazing into another world, talking constantly.

A schizophrenic, I thought. When I practiced law, I had a schizophrenic “client” named Jim who came to my office unannounced about four times a year, trying always to initiate legal claims against those who wronged him in the world I did not see.

The man on the bench, I thought, is like Jim. Homeless. Off his meds.

With my purchases bagged up, I was ready to leave the store when I heard some of what the man was saying. He lamented the fate of Noah’s son Shem, from whom according to Genesis all Semitic peoples, Jews and Muslims alike, are descended. Who will comfort Shem, asked the man on the bench, when 4,000 years after the Flood his descendants are still slaughtering each other?

Well, I thought, Sarah and the Somali woman seem to be getting along all right.

Today the news is filled with reports of how a radical Palestinian gunman slaughtered at least eight yeshiva students in Jerusalem. Some of the murdered students were found still clutching the books they had been studying.

Suddenly it’s a fair question: who comforts Shem today?

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