August 22, 2002
They call themselves the "Lunch Bunch." They're a playful, bright, caring, deliciously mad group of superannuated Jewish elves.
In age, they are generally 70-plus. They meet weekly at various restaurants: some good, some bad, some Chinese -- and none kosher.
Every so often, the presiding elf, Sid Hanelin, a really wonderful elf and an old friend, invites me for a milchik munch with the Lunch Bunch. There's always someone in the relatively small group (between 10 and 20 guys) who picks me up and delivers me back home.
Last week, Jo Samuels provided my transport. Going to lunch was half the fun. Samuels delights in the fact that in his backyard he has squeezed in some 20 fruit trees. He loves fresh fruit in the morning. He has his own "fruit tree of the month" in cooperation with Mother Nature and Father Time.
When Samuels eats fruit, he knows the bracha (the blessing). That doesn't seem to help him avoid competitors for his fruit. His competitors are squirrels. He wouldn't mind if they had good manners, but they take a bite from this one and a bite from that one. They leave the damaged fruit and render it inedible. So what did Samuels do? He got himself a trap and, with nuts as bait, the squirrels enter it. On the morning that he picked me up, he had caught No. 238.
On the way to lunch, he remembered that No. 238 was in the trap. "Rabbi," he said, "do you mind if we go back past my house because there's a squirrel there? You know, tzar baalei chayim [take pity on poor beasts]."
I nodded and he wheeled the car around. We went back to his home, and I waited until Samuels returned with a cage occupied by one very indignant squirrel. Not being used to having squirrel as appetizer for lunch, I forced a smile and asked what he was going to do.
"I'm taking No. 238 to the park on the other side of the freeway and there I will let him out," he said. "I'm not the kind of person who poisons squirrels or hits them over the head with a rock."
I indicated interest.
He then told me that he had been warned that freed squirrels "return to the scene of their crime." So Samuels had gotten some nontoxic red paint and sprayed one of his earlier captives. Sure enough, a red-tailed squirrel returned and was trapped again. Mr. Squirrel remembered the fruit trees and the nuts, but forgot about the trap.
"That's why I don't release the squirrels until I get past the freeway," Samuels said. "I warn them against the hazards of the highways."
Actually, No. 238 was quiet and still in the car when we got to the restaurant. As we arrived at the tree-bordered parking lot, Samuels released this No. 1 rabbi and that No. 238 squirrel.
For years I have studied the Jewish tradition of tzar baalei chayim, and last week I saw it practiced. Baghdad-born Samuels, who went to Israel and Canada before coming to Santa Monica, was better than the textbooks. I really never saw tzar baalei chayim as a mitzvah with squirrels before. I certainly never saw a squirrel as happy as No. 238 looked upon being released.
After lunch, I went home and got out my gematria book. It gives you the value of Torah words for numbers up to 1,500. Two hundred and thirty eight, I found, was the value of va'yevarech "and He blessed." It appeared in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. The fruitful referred to here had to do with babies and not to Samuels' orchard.
I wondered if No. 238 was going to find a mate and fulfill that mitzvah. I wondered if Samuels was an agent of Hashem in that the mate destined for No. 238 was beyond the freeway near where Samuels had released him.
The word for squirrel is s'nah-ee, which in gematria adds up to 121. I checked in my gematria book and found -- to my surprise -- that the words "for food" came up, and was related to fruit trees.
It made my morning very mystic, very kabbalistic and more than a little squirrelly.
Rabbi William M. Kramer is the editor emeritus of Western States Jewish History and rabbi of cyberspace congregation B'nai B'ill, www.bnaibill.com .