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The wisdom of the ages travels well, too

Some of my friends at synagogue are under the misapprehension that I know a lot of Hebrew grammar. I say I know very little, but they have the wrong impression for the same reason that they think I'm a creative storyteller.

I go to lots of places and carry tales. A very old story at the synagogue may sound new at the local mosque or Hindu temple, an old story at the Hindu temple may sound very new at my wife's church, and an old story there may be new to a visitor from overseas. Sometimes, of course, the order is different.

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For many years, my wife and I have been members of Servas International. Servas attempts to build peace by encouraging visits among people of different cultures. As members and hosts, my wife and I occasionally receive travelers from overseas as house guests for a few days, in exchange for interesting conversation. We and our children have learned a lot about the rest of the world this way. And about ourselves and our own traditions, too.

A dozen years ago - soon after the Berlin Wall came down - we were visited by a young man from eastern Germany. He had a very high opinion of the role Lutheran pastors in East Germany had played in keeping some of the ideas of freedom alive there. So much so, he said, that he was considering entering the Lutheran ministry.

This trip was our visitor's chance to learn more about other kinds of churches. So while visiting us in Memphis, Tenn., he wanted to visit a synagogue and an African-American church.

We could easily take him with us to our synagogue, but we had to call around to get ideas for a church. A friend told us that the New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, near us, was a small church with a good choir. So we went there.

We were so warmly welcomed that we have gone back several times with other visitors.

It had a very well-dressed congregation: The lady ushers wore white gloves. The deacons sat to one side of the preacher in a special pew. One pulpit was occupied by the preacher, the Rev. R. Meade Walker. He preached in the classical African Southern Baptist style many of us have heard only in speeches by Martin Luther King Jr.

The congregation interrupted constantly with cries of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" An assistant minister in the second pulpit acted a bit like a choir conductor.

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But during the week, the same preacher is also Prof. Mead Walker at a nearby college in Memphis, and his professorial scholarship sometimes sneaks into his emphatic basso profundo preaching.

The scholarly content did not diminish the congregation's responses, which occasionally drowned out some of the fine points of his preaching, so I may not have his wording exactly right:

"When the Bible speaks of 'work' in this passage ..."

"Jesus be praised!"

"... the Hebrew root is the word 'avodah.' "

"Hallelujah"

"Now Professor Jones of Oxford says that it just means 'work.' "

"Amen, brother"

"But Professor Smith of Cambridge says that here the Hebrew verb is in a differenttense."

"Jesus be praised!"

"And that in that tense, 'avodah' has a very different connotation...."

"Hallelujah!"

I didn't entirely understood the point at the time, but the incongruity of the responses made the sermon memorable.

A dozen years later, in an adult study group in my synagogue, we came across a passage that sounded remarkably similar. I asked the rabbi, "Isn't the root of that word 'avodah'? And what tense is it in?"

"You're right," he said. "That is the root, and it is in the hifiel tense."

Hebrew has about 14 tenses, if I recall correctly, and I probably don't. But no one needed to know that I didn't know that.

"Doesn't the word have quite a different connotation in that tense?" I asked.

"Yes, and that raises an important point," continued the rabbi. "The root is 'to work,' but in this sentence it means 'to make someone else do the work.' "

And the discussion proceeded.

As I say, now some people think I know a lot more Hebrew grammar than I actually do. But I've learned a remarkable number of things in unexpected places. And not many members of my temple have had occasion to attend the New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church.