Gather around as we tell the ancient story of 2Pac, toss coins into mall water fountains and try to figure out why we keep doing the same pointless stuff over and over again. (And some Bible just for fun.)
Mall Water Fountains
Like many of you, I remember my mother taking me to the mall and letting me toss a penny into the fountain. “Make a wish”, she said, and toss the coin. In a flash I would ask myself if I wanted to try to hit the top of the fountain, and watch my coin disappear as water gushed down the tiered sculpture. That was fun — but it was just as fun to toss it in the bottom of the fountain, hear a big gulping sound as the fountain swallowed my coin, and seeing it waft to the bottom of the fountain to forever rest with the coins of other kids.
Man, that sounds so awesome!
Throwing a coin in a water fountain is fun. But I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s the reckless abandon of destroying money like it’s nothing.
Perhaps it’s a way of being included in the artistic dance of water over stone.
Or maybe tossing a coin into a fountain is part of something bigger.
It’s that “bigger” thing that always interests me.
Turns out that tossing coins into water is a pretty ancient thing. The Norse have Mimir’s Well, where the wishing well came from. The Celtic goddess Coventina was worshiped through coin tossing into water. Hindus tossed coins into water as well.
Somehow over time the reason behind things gets lost, but the tradition lives on.
There’s a great Jewish joke about this:
A woman decides to make her great grandmother’s brisket recipe. She has a very old recipe card and thinks she understands all the steps, except for one where it says “cut the ends of the brisket off”. So the woman calls her mother and asks, “mom, why did great grandmother cut the ends off her brisket before putting it in the oven?” The mother said she didn’t know. That’s just the way she did it, and suggested she call her grandmother. So the woman calls her grandmother and asks the same question. Grandmother replied, “I don’t know. That’s just how she made it when I was a little girl. Try calling her at the nursing home and see what she says.” So the woman calls her great grandmother, who is close to 100 years old, hard of hearing, very sick, and often unable to get out of bed, let alone take a phone call. By some luck, the great grandmother took the call. The young woman said, “hi great grandmother! I am so excited that you took my call. I need help with your brisket recipe. Mom and grandmother don’t know why you would cut the ends off. Why did you do that? Was it to get rid of the gristle parts? Was it to help lock in flavor? Why would you do this?” So the great grandmother in a weak, airy voice gathers her breath and says, “I cut the brisket. I cut it because my oven was too small.”
But that’s the way life works! We have these customs, and we aren’t sure where they come from, and we just keep doing them over and over again. Coventina and Mimir may not be part of the picture, but the actions carry on past their original meaning — like pouring one out for your homies, for example!
(And this is the part where Rabbi Patrick goes a bit off the deep end).
2Pac’s Pour Out A Little Liquor
I’m about to get super academic about Tupac Shakur. You’ll notice my utter lack of urban street cred from how I turn hip hop lyrics into the creative equivalent of a jar of mayo.
Pouring one out for your homies.
2Pac talks about that in his song Pour Out A Little Liquor. At some funerals, there’s a custom of pouring out a small amount of booze, usually malt liquor from a forty, as a way of commemorating the person you have loved and lost. 2Pac uses this song to talk about his boys Mike Coolie, Madman, Dagz, Hood, Silk, Young Queen and others who he remembers from his youth and all the trouble they got into. It’s a song about a life that should have destroyed him, but hadn’t yet.
The song keeps going…pour out a little liquor for your homies. Over and over again, pouring out.
There’s something deeply spiritual about sacrifice. Especially intentional sacrifice. I talked about this in my article about Starbucks. Offering something to something (or someone) else, even if its an abstract idea. Human beings need a ritual of giving something away to something greater. In pouring one out for your homies, you’re sacrificing your drink as a way of communing with the spiritual energy of that person. You’re sharing a drink, albeit ritually, to remember the times that you shared in the physical world.
Only human beings can sacrifice ourselves and our possessions to a sacred memory. And that’s what water fountains and pouring out a forty are all about.
Jacob, it turns out, was thug as all…
And Jacob set up a Pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a Pillar of Stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it (Genesis 35:14).
Jacob does this in a place called Beth El (literally House of El, House of God). This is the site where Jacob uttered the words “God is in this place and I did not know it” (28:16).
Jacob in this really silly act of wasting oil and drink (probably wine) is not sacrificing anything to God. This is the first occurrence in the Bible of what would later be called the “drink offering”. Jacob would have only known about this act of pouring out strong drinks to deities from his encounters with other near eastern cultures. Never the less, he felt it fitting in knowing God was somehow dwelling at Beth El to offer a sacrifice using whatever means he felt were right — in this case, perhaps drawing on a pagan ritual.
Again though, he’s not giving anything to God. He just feels compelled to take a rock, turn it over, and pour out a drink to God. He’s creating a physical ritual around the experience of God’s indwelling. He’s overcome by the experience of knowing God that he needs to act it out — to do a kind of performance art that helps him get out the anxious energy he is feeling.
We have rituals to act out myths. And we have myths to remind us of experiences that are alive to us.
But what happens when we have rituals with no myths to back them up?
Shopping Malls and Losing the Point
2Pac and Jacob are of a similar mind: certain things happen in our lives, and we just need to get them out somehow.
So what about the mall water fountain?
I wouldn’t discount the value of tossing a coin into water. When I did that as a child, it was a way of building sanctity around the experience of being with someone that I loved. Never in my life have I thought, “gee, coin in water fountain, I’m gonna go do that on my commute to the office, or maybe when I pick up a pizza for dinner.”
It’s a special moment that requires a special act, with special people. And that’s what religion is.
We can take the rituals of the past and use it to sanctify the future. Jacob does that at Beth El. 2Pac does it in his song. I did that as a kid at Northpoint Mall with my mom and the water fountain.
Life, and it’s many activities, does not have to make sense, in order to make sense. Because it just does. And that’s all there is to it.
And if we keep the traditions going, and we remember that these traditions are meant to connect us to the sacred rhythm of life, then we never lose the point. Cool, huh?
Written by Rabbi Patrick