If you’ve never seen the delightful 1950 movie in which Jimmy Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd whose friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit eponymously named Harvey, you might enjoy it. I too have an invisible friend, though I don’t know how tall he is because he is, well, invisible! He happens to be a highly intelligent Martian named Montgomery, who is entirely and utterly unfamiliar with everything on earth. I find it ever so useful to be able to solicit his opinion about, or his reaction to, various earthly events. Some people dismiss my friend, and insist that all I am really doing is conducting thought experiments but to each his own.
Let me give you an example. I introduced Montgomery the Martian to two very different families. The first, residing in Beverly Hills, California, presents their children with the keys to a new BMW car on their sixteenth birthdays and engages a small army of housekeepers and gardeners to free each child from any onerous household chores. The children address their parents by their first names and receive lavish allowances with very little supervision and few rules.
The second family lives in a small town near Nashville, Tennessee. Each child carries the responsibility for some aspect of the family’s smooth running. Each child also has a job outside of school and is expected to say, “Yes, Sir” or “No, Ma’am” to his parents. The family attends church each Sunday together and dinner times are also family occasions. The children take turns mowing the lawn and tending to the flower garden.
My questions to Montgomery were this: Which set of parents is more likely to raise children with an enduring respect for parents and siblings? Which set of children are more likely to grow up into young adults who will endlessly complain to expensive therapists about how their parents ruined their lives?
Montgomery weighed it up and concluded that the parents who gave so much to their children, asking nothing in return, were surely the parents who would enjoy enduring gratitude and honor from their children. As his earthly friend, it was my duty to inform the Martian that he was wrong. In families where frugality is a fact of life and children are expected to behave like responsible family members and to carry their weight, family relationships are far stronger.
Montgomery wanted to know how I knew this. In true rabbinic fashion, I answered his question with another question – actually, two questions.
Why should the description of the creation of the entire universe at the start of Genesis require only 34 verses whereas the construction of the Tabernacle takes 176 verses in the book of Exodus? After all, the universe is huge and eternal but the Tabernacle was only the size of a small strip shopping center. What is more, it was used only for 40 years in the desert and 369 years in Shiloh. Surely it is not more important than the universe?
The second question is why the Tabernacle’s construction is situated in the book of Exodus rather than the next book, Leviticus? Exodus is about the emergence of the people of Israel from slavery and their acceptance of their constitution at Sinai. It involves their preparation for entering the Promised Land and becoming an independent nation. Leviticus is all about the rites and rituals conducted by the Levites in the Tabernacle. What could be more natural than starting the book off with the description of how that very Tabernacle was to be built? Yet we find those 176 verses of construction details in Exodus. Why?
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the book of Exodus is liberally punctuated with the Israelites continually complaining and whining. The more God did for them, the more they grumbled. He took them out of Egypt; they asked why they had to leave Egypt. He split the Red Sea; they whined about water. He fed them manna; they demanded meat. And so it went.
When did the complaining stop? When God stopped giving and required the Hebrews to start giving. As soon as they were unified in their commitment to construct this Tabernacle, their incessant complaints ceased. As it is with our Father in Heaven, so is it with our earthly parents. The more they give us, the more dissatisfied we are and the more we grumble. Once we are led to becoming givers and not only takers, we become much better people.
Now we are equipped to understand why the creation of the universe requires only 34 verses but our construction of the Tabernacle takes up 176 verses. We are more impacted by what we do for our Father in Heaven than by what He does for us. We are also more impacted by what we do for our parents and families than we are by what they do for us. Montgomery appears to be a bit baffled by this explanation but I’ve often noticed that Martians seem to see things quite differently. And that, of course, is his main value to me.