13 December 2010

Hands Wrapped Into Now

from Proverbs Seventeen

Among the early, first-thing-in-the-morning retrieved messages today was one from a young man who called the only local synagogue he knew about to make arrangements to drop off some "unused Judaica items" that he'd no longer be needing.  We specialize in that sometimes:  a family will clean out a closet after the death of a loved one and deliver to us, anonymously and occasionally with a note, Jewish books, ritual objects, small curios from Jewish lives once lived.

"Some guy wants to donate a small Torah to the shul," announced my assistant April.  "He says he doesn't need it anymore."  Precisely when he ought to keep it, I thought to myself, and charged her with the task of investigating.  Apparently on the lam from his identity, within the hour this young man delivered to our door a facsimile Torah, a genuine tallis, as well-creased and silky smooth as the day it was first worn, and a beginner's set of tefilin, never before unwrapped, in a stiff velvety bag that was, if personified, not unlike the Tin Man in its relief to have its hinges juiced into a state of rapturous unstuckedness. 

Here they are, revealed.

To the best of my knowledge, they were given to a young lad after becoming Bar Mitzvah atop Masada, some twenty years ago; and as symmetrical a display as they represent, they seem to have followed their own pattern of carefully choreographed neglect.  A pity.

I looked over at them occasionally, throughout the day, every so often bending my ear to discern a whisper, a message, a prophecy from an unknown past that might enlighten me to these orphans, these amputees of Tradition, severed from a body happy to be rid of them.  To my eye they represented a kind of too neat indignation of unrealized potential.

By late afternoon I had students coming--one whose Bar Mitzvah is this weekend and another whom I've recently started to learn with.  I figured here was an opportunity to actually use the tefilin and tallis, if not for the first time, and so invited them to sit and explore their first lesson in wearing these blessed objects.  ("Whatever blessed means, Orville.*")  Anyway, the kids were open to it.  And I appreciate the opportunity to offer this lesson, especially to young men.  They were game, and as we went through the steps, the choreography, the ritual, I was overcome with a tremendous sadness at how this very set was not used as a bridge between generations of observance, with all its sublime and immeasurably profound connectivity to Jews past; I was overcome with a sadness that these tefilin's owner had never had the experience of a teacher holding by his arm, wrapping him in commandedness, helping him recite the blessing, holding him over the fearsome ravine between the Jewish past and future and guiding him to the other side.  Without these fragile human bridges, the Jewish people are nothing.

In a moment of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of Yigal Yadin's "Masada" off my bookshelf, flipped past the sexy Dutch archaeological dig volunteers and focused, for the boys, on the small scrolls discovered atop the mountain.  "The texts in these boxes have been worn on our arms for three thousand years," I said.  They were very quiet and respectful at this truth revealed.  And then I went the distance.  Reaching deep into my canvas bag of discarded material, I showed them the first set of tefilin that had been given to me, by a Holocaust survivor in Madison who smuggled his prayer material through the camps but whose son, in the pastoral freedom of America, had no interest in the inheritance.  The lad had spurned the birthright of his father's suffering; but in the process, denied his covenant as well.  That I wound up with this precious package of history and memory is something I consider to be one of the great unreconstructed miracles of my brief life; and each year I bring them forth, always with fear and trembling, to an audience which receives them, welcomes them, embraces them with awe.
A Jew wore these tefilin in a concentration camp.  His life was deemed of no value by the Nazis and yet was understood, in his own estimation, to be nothing less than sacred in relationship to his God.  The hand-sown bag; the worn leather boxes; the straps softened by time.  In a lifetime of trying, I could never conjure the expression found in the lines drawn by the picture here depicted:  a portrait of sacrifice and service.  But for one son, such a leather tethering was an unbreakable binding around the neck.  For other sons, a redemption.

Both boys listened with intensity to the story of the tefilin's rejection by the son of the survivor and bequest to a future teacher and as I watched their expressions I could see a bridge being built in time, across generations.  One boy looked up at his mother, who had entered the room.  "It's like how grandma tells me stories that she doesn't tell you," he said.  The grandson of a survivor, aged beyond his 12 years, steadily learning to bear a weight.  We agree to shoulder certain obligations we'd never choose.  A kind of price of being chosen.

"Children's children are the crown of old men," said Mishley.  "And the glory of children are their fathers."

It's sometimes the case that we survive as a nation because our grandparents will it to be so.  And it's sometimes the case that we barely survive because fathers neglect to bequeath to their sons the gift of Torah.  In every generation we stand at the abyss, only to be redeemed by a hand, reaching back from some time, then, and bringing us, wrapped, into now.

*Orville here connotes that one guy who always goes all mystical on you--on one level you admire the poetics; on the other level, you just don't know what the hell he's talking about.  (With gratitude to DM.)


Amanda said...

Thanks for this. As I'm working through my busiest time of year, I felt the need for a break and I went to your blog to see if there was anything to focus on for a moment. This really put things into perspective for me, reminding me what is truly important. I certainly hope the things I try to pass onto my sons will be embraced by them when they become adults.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

Thank you, Andy. This post has reminded me to take up my father-in-law's most humbling gift to me in anticipation of my conversion: his own bar mitzvah tefilin.