Torah from Around the World #40

By: Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Vice
President – Philanthropy,

World Union for Progressive Judaism

Rabbi and the Rosary”

All stories that teach a lesson are “true,”

but some are also factual.

This story is true and factual…

Based on an event that occurred in 1999

Although my role as Program Chair of the
International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) placed
several responsibilities on my shoulders, my wife had one very important
mission for me on my most recent trip to the Vatican. A co-worker and her
husband were about to have a baby, and since they were devout Catholics, my
wife thought it appropriate for me to purchase a rosary for the new child while
I was in Vatican City.  Her instructions were explicit – buy just one

I broke away from my meeting to spend some
time looking through the religious shops that encircle St. Peter’s Square –
many of which have been owned and run by Jews for centuries. I stopped near a
street dealer to examine the many kinds of rosaries, and explained to the
seller that I needed to buy just one for a child about to be born. We haggled
over the price over one I had selected – a beautiful little rosary made of
crystal beads enclosed in a gold and cloisonné box. Finally the seller
announced that he would sell me three for the price of two. I asked him to
throw in a snow-globe which depicted the Vatican on one side and the Coliseum
on the other side to add to my wife’s collection of these collectibles. The
three rosaries and the snow-globe were placed in a blue plastic bag, and off I
went to the audience with Pope John Paul II, whom I first met in 1990 at a
meeting of IJCIC at the Vatican and again, in 1995, when the Pope traveled to
New York City.

At the conclusion of the audience we were
told that the Pope would bless any religious articles that people had with
them. I raised my blue plastic bag, and now possessed three “blessed” rosaries
and one “blessed” snow-globe. They were then placed in my back-pack and off I
went to more meetings.

It was time to return home and I boarded the
plane for the eight plus hour trip home. I took my seat and found myself seated
next to a gentleman about my age. We struck up a conversation and discussed
where in the world we had lived; we discussed our travels; we shared our
interest in snow-skiing and water skiing. He described his work and I spoke of
my former life in theater and music (I try to avoid talking about my life as a
rabbi when on a plane – often describing myself as a teacher or professor or
counselor). Our conversation turned to our children. I talked about my three
children and he spoke of his oldest son. Then I could see his face turn ashen
as his voice, pitched lower and softer, told me about his two year-old son who
had died last on New Year’s Day.

I tried to get him to talk about it and asked
him questions about how he and his wife had dealt with the tragedy, and to whom
did they turn for solace. He described himself as being raised a Catholic – his
wife was a Methodist. He asked me what I did and I told him that I was a rabbi.
I also told him about the Jewish concept of “


” – that things are
foreordained, ‘in the cards.’ We both agreed that perhaps our sitting together
was “


.” We spent a great amount of time speaking of faith and
hope, of doubt and pain.  In some small way, I hope that I was helpful.
After a while our conversion lightened up, we worked a cross-word puzzle
together (although I was in a “brain-freeze” – still reeling from our impromptu
counseling session). We napped and ate as our plane approached JFK.

As our plane was getting closer to New York,
I offered that it was my hope and prayer for him and his family that this New Year
be a better year for them. He agreed, and said that he was hopeful as he had
just learned that his wife was pregnant and that this New Year might find them
with a new child – a daughter.

I asked him if he remembered the word that I
had taught him – “


.” I then told him the story of my assignment
to purchase one rosary and that I came away with three. I asked him if he would
take one of the rosaries as a gift to his new daughter. “Just remember,” I told
him, “this was a rosary given to your daughter by a rabbi and blessed by the
Pope.” Tears welled in our eyes and he thanked me. We shook hands as we deplaned
and I gave him my card. “Please let me know when your daughter is born,” I said
as we parted ways.

Upon my return home, I remembered that the
following evening was Shabbat, and I still had a sermon to deliver. I opened
the Torah to that week’s Torah portion, looking for inspiration. “Vayetze” –
the story of Jacob’s flight from his brother, and decision to sleep for the
night. He then dreams of a ladder that links heaven and earth with angels going
up and down on it. Upon arising he pronounces eight of the most important words
in the whole Torah, “


yesh Adonai b’makom ha’zeh, v’anochi lo

Behold, God is surely in this place, and I really didn’t know it!”

I had traveled from New York to the Vatican
and back, but it was on the plane that I had another opportunity to find God.

A Postscript – I preached this story on
Friday evening at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. The following Monday I was
scheduled to deliver the holiday sermon at St. Luke’s – Roosevelt Medical Center’s
Advent Festival Service. I jettisoned the prepared text that I had written and
told this story. At the end of the service, the one question I heard over and
over was, “So, who will receive the third rosary?” To which my answer was, and
is, “I will wait for God to let me know.”

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