By the Skin of our Teeth

By the Skin of our Teeth rather than the Skin of our Flesh
Tazria-Metzora: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

by

Howard Adelman

2. When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
3. And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.

The skin of our flesh refers to the horrors we suffer from natural disasters, like the disease of leprosy, or man-made disasters, such as the war in Syria where the Assad regime (or Russia) yesterday bombed a children’s hospital, Al Quds, supported by Doctors Without Borders in Aleppo. Dozens of children, their visiting relatives and the hospital medical staff, including the only pediatrician left in that tragic city, Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz, were killed. Yesterday evening on “As It Happens” on CBC, we listened to the most moving interview that I have ever heard Carol Off conduct on the program. Dr, Abdul Aziz, a surgeon who had just returned from abroad to help in the recovery program that the cease-fire was supposed to anticipate (he had helped found the hospital) bewailed the death of his close friend as well as other associates and medical staff in addition to the patients and family killed in the inhumane attack. ‘Where is the humanitarian intervention?” he seemed to cry out. “We lost one of the best hearts in this world. He always smiled. We asked him, ‘Please just take a rest.’ He said no. He’s now 36. He’s unmarried. He said, ‘How can I marry? I would be too busy for my family. I would not be able to work for those babies who are crying every day.” In the bombing, that brave and dedicated pediatrician was killed.

Where are we? Where indeed! Where is the Responsibility for Intervention? Donald Trump is not the first in the U.S. or the West to base foreign policy on America or One’s Own Country first. After George Bush made such a mess of the American intervention in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and after too few souls spoke out against the war including both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But whereas Donald Trump did so based on my country first, Obama did so out of realistic caution about the potential consequences of presuming to be the policeman of the world. Justin Trudeau too has retreated from a vigorous interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect.

But, in this partial or, as in Trump’s case, total retreat from our humanitarian responsibilities, in part because the Responsibility to Protect expressed both naïve idealism and a totally unrealistic appreciation of the difficulties of engaging in a humanitarian foreign policy, we allow tyrants to destroy innocent civilians at will.

It is a disgrace! What did Dr. Aziz’s pediatrician colleague do, what did the innocent children in that Aleppo hospital do, to deserve such a horrendous fate?
We have not retreated altogether. Some of us do our bit in helping the casualties, the refugees, who have escaped that horrid war. Last evening, we listened to a replay of an interview by Mary Hynes on CBC’s “Tapestry” with Rabbi Tina Greenberg who was herself a refugee from the USSR thirty years earlier. Her congregation, Darchei Noam in Toronto, led in good part by Naomi Alboim, was inspired by their own commitments and the significance of their rabbi’s own story to ‘pay it back.’ The congregation had just welcomed the Syrian family they had sponsored.

But many, indeed most, are not so lucky. On CBC’s “As It Happens,” we listened to an interview with another Aziz, not the Syrian surgeon, Dr. Abdul Aziz, but another Abdul Aziz, a Sudanese “refugee” who has been held for three years as a virtual prisoner inside a Manus Island detention camp financed (along with bribes to government officials) by the Australian government that has turned its back completely on the plight of refugees and transported Aziz and others like him from Christmas Island to Manus. Other refugee claimants had been sent to the tiny island country of Nauru. However, the Papua Supreme Court had ruled that detention in this case was illegal. Australia refused to take the refugees. The IMO offered to transport them back to the country from which they originally fled. Papua New Guinea will be left with most of them as they apply for refugee status. The detention camp will be closed, not so much because of the ruling of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court, but because Australia declared victory, for the arrival of more irregular arrivals had successfully been deterred by the harsh Australian policy.

But I do not want to write about the afflictions of the flesh produced by man-made disasters, and certainly not those brought about by nature, but rather about the escape from such disasters by the “skin of our teeth” rather than at the cost of our flesh. Job 19:20 reads: “My bone cleaves to my skin, and I escaped by the skin of my teeth.” (my italics) But our teeth do not have skin. What is the real meaning of the expression? It stands in such strong opposition to the horrific depictions of
“the skin of our flesh.”

Thornton Wilder wrote a play that used that expression as its title. Starring such names as Tallulah Bankhead, Montgomery Clift, Frederic March and Florence Eldridge, it won a Pulitzer Prize. Directed by the famous Elia Kazan, it was produced on Broadway in the year America entered WWII, and reproduced on the stage by many an amateur group ever since (the way I first saw it). The play is a satire of human folly and the inability of humans to escape one catastrophe after another. We never seem to learn.

In the drama, Henry Antrobus (originally called Cain) is the son of George. The hilarious musical begins with George (Adam) sending his wife Maggie, whom he refers to as Eve, a singing telegram, “Happy w’dding ann’vers’ry dear Eva.” Maggie (Eve) responds, “The earth’s getting so silly no wonder the sun turns cold.” And when the earth grows cold, when the human heart freezes up, we escape to the silly side of it all. For the tragic repetitive course of the cycle of human agony is just too hard to take. So instead of writing about and thinking about the horrors suffered by the skin of our flesh, we can read and write about the series of escapes we make by “the skin of our teeth.”

An old friend from the Operation Lifeline days in the eighties (he was a leader in the Operation Lifeline efforts in Vancouver dedicated to helping the Indochinese refugees), wrote and just published a hilarious account of the scrapes and narrow escapes he and his wife Sally experienced. They had retreated from the hurly burly of life in Vancouver. In Off the Grid (just nominated for a Stephen Leacock Award for Humour with the full title, Our Life Off the Grid: An Urban Couple Goes Feral), David describes one hilarious (and harrowing) story after another about his and Sally’s efforts to build a homestead from scratch with their own labour on the remote (and largely inhospitable) Read Island. So comedy as well as suffering can also take place on islands, even when the experiences seem to be horrific and the “heroes” of the story escape “by the skin of their teeth.”

I am not a comic writer. Horror, “the skin of our flesh,” tends to mesmerize me. But this trip has not been without its tragic-comic moments. Assuming we encounter no new ones, like Thornton Wilder’s play, our near-catastrophes also had three acts. It began when we left Vancouver Island by ferry. We departed from Nanaimo rather than the ferry from Sydney on the Saanich peninsula just north of Victoria. Our primary reason was that Nanaimo was far more accessible from Cowichan Bay than the long u-shaped trip we would have to make to catch the ferry in Sydney.

There should have been a second reason we realized after we completed the crossing. When you leave from Sydney, you land at the ugly port of Tsawwassen and then have to travel through the even uglier Vancouver suburbs of Delta and Surrey to get to the Trans-Canada Highway. When you leave from Nanaimo, the trip is ten minutes shorter and you arrive in Horseshoe Bay with direct access to the Trans-Canada Highway which ends its mainland continental crossing there. Even more importantly, you travel without a single traffic light through the beautifully exquisite North Vancouver. You thus begin your trip across Canada back home to Toronto inspired and invigorated by the beauty of British Columbia.

But it almost did not start that way. When we drive – or when I rest and sleep while my wife drives – it is much safer that way; I am responsible for navigating and making all the logistic arrangements. We arrived in plenty of time to get on the ferry. I am a very good planner if I say so myself. We parked the car tightly behind the car in front and went up on the elevator to the passenger deck to enjoy the views and the trip across to the mainland. When the announcement came over the loudspeaker to go to our cars to prepare to disembark, I suddenly recalled that I did not take note of the deck on which we had parked as we prepared to leave the passenger deck. And I wondered if there was more than one deck. Suddenly in the aisle, headed towards the stairs down to the car decks, appeared the three boys who boarded (or were they already on?) the elevator when we came up to the passenger deck.

In a panic, I asked them what deck we parked the car on. One replied with a bit of hesitation – I thought because he had been taken by surprise by my interruption, but he may just have been embarrassed by the stupidity of an elder who was so foolish as to not take note of the deck on which he had parked. “Deck Two,” he said in a sure voice. Relieved, we gathered our things and headed down to Deck Two.

What did we find? RVs. trucks. Even a bus. No cars. We ran to the other of the deck, though we were sure we had parked on that side. No luck. We raced up to Deck Three. There were lots of cars as they began to drive off. We clicked our key uselessly. There were no lights flashing that we could see. We asked a worker on the ship whom we finally found and asked where our car could be. I remember striped poles that we parked next to on the deck where we stopped. The deckhand said with bemusement, “Deck Four.” We raced up another deck looking for our car. To our relief, there sat our car – alone, well not quite alone since there was a frustrated driver sitting in a car behind ours. With huge embarrassment as my nightmarish imaginings dissipated about cars boarding the ferry to go the other way trapped us, and with my “tail between my legs,” too ashamed to look the other driver in the eye, we drove off the ferry and escaped “by the skin of our teeth.”

If it had not been the only escape! When we arrived in Osoyoos and, after we had looked at the map outside the Information Centre (it was already past the time when they were open), we opted to drive the 12 or so km up to The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery where they had both accommodation and a very well-reviewed restaurant. When we arrived and finally found the clerk in the restaurant rather than at the desk. She apologized and said that they were all full. This was late April, the off-off season for wineries. And they were full! So we asked if she knew of another spot nearby. She kindly phoned over to another guest house of a winery nearby and, seemingly luckily, they had one room from a no-show. So we went back to the car to drive over.

My wife had been wearing sun glasses. She looked for her regular glasses as sun glasses were no longer appropriate as the sun was going down. I searched the floor of the passenger side. We could not find them. She searched her side of the car, through all her purses. No glasses. They were an expensive pair and her only non-sun long distance glasses. We thought she might have left them when we were looking over the menu. We went back to the restaurant. No glasses. We phoned the other winery to cancel our tentative booking. We hypothesized two possibilities. She had put them on her lap and the glasses had fallen to the ground when she got out to look at the map at the Information Centre. The other time was about 75 km back when we had stopped to fill the car with gas and she had left the car to take advantage of the washroom.

We drove back to Osoyoos. We returned to the Information Centre and drove up to the map. There was scruffy man there with a dog. We looked all around. No glasses. We asked the man. He had not seen anything. Resigned, we decided we would have to drive back the 75 km. But I have an intelligent wife. She asked for my gas receipt. We got the name of the place where we had stopped for gas and she looked up the telephone number on her phone and called the gas station. The clerk was asked to check the washroom under the suspicion that they had been set down and inadvertently forgotten. The clerk kindly agreed to check and even more kindly came back on the phone and, with even greater compassion, expressed her regret that the glasses had not been found.

She was thanked and we hung up in despair. But with N’s usual persistence, she phoned back. Would the clerk mind going out to look around the gas pumps and check if the glasses had fallen to the ground. She was very obliging. She went out to search. She returned after a few minutes and even more regretfully and with even more empathy in her voice expressed her deep sorrow that the glasses had not been found.

In despair, we began to search in the car again. There at my feet, behind my briefcase where I has presumably already looked several times and so thoroughly earlier, there were the glasses. They had slipped down from the centre console. N was too relieved to bother pointing out my repeated practice of often never being able to see something that was right in front of my eyes. My problem is that I spend my life with my eyes peering inward at my thoughts. And I often miss the world as it passes by. But this time we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

The third experience yesterday and the day before was far more harrowing. On this trip we had not made reservations in advance at hotels or motels because we were not sure how much time we would spend on byways and tasting wines and exploring the environment. On Tuesday, we had stayed over at Regina rather than Moose Jaw and were proud we had covered such a distance. Wednesday morning, we headed for Winnipeg with hopes of getting all the way to Kenora. Proud of ourselves, we got two hours past Winnipeg to Kenora. I had a list of hotels prioritized in accordance with our set order of concerns. We arrived at the first, only to be told that the motel was full. We tried a second on the list. At the third attempt, we were told every single space in Kenora was taken. There was not a single room available in the whole city. No one could explain why, at the end of April, all motel rooms would be full. We were advised to drive on to Dryden.

We arrived in Dryden and again went to the first hotel on our preference list. Full! Not only full, but the clerk told us in deep sorrow that she had to turn away drivers with little children. She offered to let us stay in the lounge where there was plenty of coffee and drinks. It was after ten in the evening. The clerk explained that 700 workers were booked into hotels and motels and B&Bs from Kenora to Ignace as the mill was being refitted within a two week shut down. There was no chance of finding a room. We would have to go on to Thunder Bay about 4-5 hours away.

Again, with my tail between my legs, I returned to the car with the terrible news and the explanation for why there were no rooms. N asked if we should fill up the gas tank. It was down one-eighth. I assured her that it would be unnecessary as in that long distance we would be sure to find at least one gas station open. With stoical reserve, my wife set out to drive through to half – more than half the night – to Thunder Bay. By Ignace, we began to really worry. We had not seen a single gas station open. We saw two police cars parked side by side at a gas station. We asked if there was any way could use our credit card to get gas from a closed gas station. They said no, but told us there was a gas station 1.5 kilometers further. It was the only gas station open until we reached Thunder Bay and we did not have enough gas to reach Thunder Bay.

To our enormous relief, the gas station was indeed open as promised. The French-Canadian proprietor even agreed to see if she could phone around and find a room. She was unsuccessful;. We filled up and drove on, following an excellent driver who minimized the trying experience of driving in the dark on a two-lane highway with trucks with very bright lights approaching the other way. She kept her eyes on the rear red lights and followed.

At one point, the driver in front turned into a rare but darkened motel parking lot. There was no flashing sign stating, “No Vacancy.” However, it was obvious that there was no one around and the number of cars parked indicated that that the motel was full. It was about 1:30 in the morning. It turned out that the driver was heading back to southern Ontario as well. He had picked his daughter up in Victoria and was driving her home to Hanover. He too had left Saskatchewan that very morning. We resumed driving and followed him all the way to Thunder Bay right into the lot of a Best Western.

He went through the door and I followed. It was 4:00 a.m. No vacancies. There was likely no vacancy in the whole of Thunder Bay. The miner’s meeting was in town. So was a sports event and a large First Nations meeting. And the Premier of our province was in town. This pessimistic information was reaffirmed at the second motel. At the third where we both stopped, the lady behind the desk said that she had one room left (a no-show), but our lead driver could not have it because he needed a room that would take the ten pound dog of his daughter. The room remaining was a no-pet room. I was offered the remaining room.

I said that he had priority and suggested that he leave the dog in the car. He replied that his daughter would rather sleep in the car than let her pet sleep there alone. He was resigned to just driving all the way to Sault Ste Marie, another seven hours. I asked the desk clerk whether an exception could be made. Kindly, she decided to make an exception. Not only that, but she had found a business room which she could offer to me at the lower rate where we could stay. There was no other choice in any case. At 4:30 in the morning we literally crawled into bed.
Sometimes departures can be tragic. At other times, tragically comic. In a second act, we are sometimes Eyeless in Gaza. At other times we just misplace glasses and cannot see what is in front of our eyes. In the third act, there can be no room in a motel, or, really tragically, no space where we can feel and be secure in the whole world.

By the skin of our teeth! But far better than by the skin of our flesh. We are leaving Sault Ste. Marie and will be home before shabat.

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